Friday, April 27, 2012

Reducing workload

As Alice and Jody have pointed out to me, now that Laddie has turned five, and most of his work consists of physically and mentally demanding simulations of Field Trial setups, experience with generations of competition retriever suggests that Laddie no longer benefits from intense daily training.
Accordingly, despite my own preference for being out training at every opportunity, I am trying to significantly scale back our work. For example, after our competition last Saturday, I rested Laddie on Sunday and Monday. We then ran a couple of big singles and a couple of blinds on Tuesday, one big double and a blind on Wednesday, and two big triples plus one blind on Thursday. Today, Friday, will be another rest day.

All of these were land retrieves because of the cold weather, and also because Laddie has not been successful on land in competition yet this year, so I'm comfortable with focusing on land retrieves while we await arrival of warmer weather.

To give a sense of the work, here's a description of our last setup yesterday.

We were working at the huge new construction area someday to be known as Clarksburg Village, an area 20 minutes from home that a few weeks ago I discovered to now be suitable for training.  I had already positioned Jenny and Annette at their gun stations, but I wanted to run Lumi on a short triple before I ran Laddie.

Lumi, who is eight and who no longer competes because of physical issues, usually lives with daughter Brooke these days, but this week she's staying with me.  I don't run her at distance, but she is still an extraordinary marker.

I had run her on an earlier short triple before Laddie's first triple, and Laddie had doubled back during his retrieve of the retired mark to search the area where one of Lumi's marks had been thrown.  So hopefully learning my lesson, I threw the three marks for Lumi on this second setup so that they would be well off the lines Laddie would be running. I has Liza, one of our three new assistants, run Lumi, then take her position in the field for Laddie's triple.

I should mention that for all Laddie's work this week, I've had him rest in his crate in the van while the girls took their positions and while Lumi ran her series. For Laddie, this meant not only more rest than when he was running around, but it also meant that he had only a few second to grasp each setup, as happens in a real event, and it meant that he had to deal with the excitement of gunfire and another dog working while he awaited his turn, again simulating event conditions.

Here's the setup I used for Laddie's second triple:

The first mark was in the center, thrown left to right into cover behind a small ridge at 260y.  Annette, the thrower, would retire into a ditch behind the gun station when Laddie was later sent to the go-bird.

The second mark was on the left, thrown left to right by Genny into a depression at 190y.

The third mark was on the right, thrown right to left by Liza to a fall behind a ridge at 40y.

The line to the the first, retired mark ran close to the last fall.  This meant Laddie would have to pick up the short go-bird, run the second, longish retrieve several degrees to the left, and then run the big, retired memory-bird in the same direction as the first mark, running thru the area of an old fall to get to the last mark more than 200y beyond.  My experience is that dogs sometimes have difficulty remembering two marks that are both in the same direction, or at least resist running the second one because of the sense that the dog is "returning to an old fall", something they are taught all their competitive lives will not succeed, despite their instincts as young dogs that if one bird is at a particular location, perhaps more birds are there as well.

The lines to all three marks included diagonal slopes, diagonal crossings of changes in terrain, and for the two longer marks, obstacles forcing the dog temporarily off line.  We ran from level ground rather than a mound, making it somewhat more difficult for Laddie to see the gunners than it might have been.

In summary, I made this triple as difficult a setup as I could come up with for the particular start line I'd chosen. Perhaps it would have been marginally more difficult if I had also retired the second gun, but I've never seen a Qual with two retired guns, and my goal, after all, is preparing Laddie for Quals.

Historically, I've followed a practice of carefully pointing out all the guns to the dog, in reverse order of the throws, before calling for the first throw, and I still frequently take that approach. But lately, I've been starting our line mechanics by just standing by and letting Laddie pick out gunners himself. If he finds them all, then I just line him up on the first gunner, cue "sit, mark", and begin calling for the throws.

That's how it went on this series. Laddie immediately picked out the long gun, then looked around on either side and found the other two. When it was clear that he knew where all three stations were, I lined up on the first one and raised my arm to signal the thrower.

When all three throws had been made, I sent Laddie to the short mark. Not surprisingly since it was so short, he nailed it, even though he couldn't see it until he had gotten over the small ridge.

I then sent him to the second mark on the left side. He nailed that one, too.

When I sent Laddie to the final mark, the gunner now retired, he veered offline a little to the right, in effect running "under the arc" of the first mark rather than thru the old fall. Once he was past the old fall, he arced back onto the correct line. From the distance, I thought Laddie had a small hunt when he got to the area if the fall in that last mark, but Annette, who could see Laddie from her hiding place once he was in the area, said that he ran straight to the bumper and picked it up immediately, then ran around for a little while carrying the bumper, for reasons known only to Laddie, before turning around and heading back for home.

In summary, on the hardest triple I knew how to set up in that location, Laddie nailed all three marks. 
Laddie doesn't perform that well in every setup we practice, but if he performs that way at one of our trials, I think he'll get a good score.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Finding assistants and grounds

A few days ago, I distributed flyers in my neighborhood advertising for dog training assistants, and within a few hours, got a phone call from a young woman named Genny, a high school student planning on animal studies when she goes to college.

A few days later, another young woman named Annette called, with a friend, Liza, also interested in participating.

Just like that, Laddie and I no longer needed to train alone every day.  All three girls are juniors in high school and live within half a block of me. I don't know how I'd have found them without the flyers.

Some days only one or two are available, sometimes we have all three and can actually run Field Trial-scale triples with real human throwers. I believe this will be an improvement in our training arrangements.

On top of that, about the same time, I also located new training grounds, 15-20 mins from home. Like many of the best local places I've found for training, this location is a construction site, where someday hundreds of houses will be built. Not long ago, it was private farm land and woods, not available or useful for field training.  Now it's cleared, cross-crossed with dirt roads and drainage ditches, and covered with a variety of surfaces including bare ground, grass, strips of high cover, and rocks filling some of the ditches. The grounds are naturally somewhat hilly, and the bulldozers have helped us out even further, creating mounds, ridges, and depressions with steep embankments. The place is so big that we have many potential lines for marks and blinds. No one is around when we train in late afternoon, county leash laws do not apply because we're on private property, and the gun stations I set up are far enough from nearby housing that, at least so far, our pistol fire has drawn minimal attention and no complaints.

Training with inexperienced assistants on a construction site with no water doesn't put us on an even footing with many of the teams we compete against, who routinely train with field trial groups on actual field trial properties. I say this not so much to complain, but to help any reader learning the sport understand how important it is to train with a group whenever possible. That said, I think having human throwers is still a big step up from training alone, and I'm grateful to have found new training grounds so close to home. 

Now we'll have to see whether it all starts to translate into more success in competition.


Five tomorrow

Today, Laddie competed for the last time as a four year old, with his birthday tomorrow. This was his third trial of the year, and as with the others, he was dropped after one series.  In fact, we honored on lead.

However, I don't feel as bad as I might. Running as #8, and the fifth working dog, Laddie nailed the go-bird flyer at 220y on the right, and had a reasonable hunt on his second retrieve, the retired bird at 130y on the left.  He also took a nice initial line to the middle bird at 160y, but cheating around a wide strip of cover, he ended up behind the gun with no wind to help him. He seemed to be on a reasonable hunt for awhile, but eventually got out across a distant road, and one of the judges became worried he might get hurt in the power company's cables that had been left lying out there.  By that time he was too far out to hear my whistle or even the bird-boy's hey-hey, so the judge offered for the marshal to take me out in a four-wheeler to pick him up.  Seeing me, Laddie ended up picking the bird up and we trotted back in together. My knee and back are still hurting these days, but I wasn't feeling any pain at the time.  Being out in the field with my dog feels good.

So we honored on lead, like all the dogs who had run before us. And we got a nice compliment about the first mark from the judge, who commented that it was nice to see Laddie's work after half the earlier dogs had needed the thrower's help on that mark.

I hung around on the off chance that they'd end up scrapping the test, but after a while, the temps were up 20 degrees (perhaps enlarging scent cones), the wind picked up enough to start helping the dogs who were downwind of their birds, the falls had more scent, and the lines to the falls had more drag scent. First some of the dogs started picking up all the birds with a handle, and then with no handle. The first two times a dog ran the series with no handle, the gallery broke into applause, but after that, it became clear that the test had changed and people just watched and chatted.

I don't feel Laddie or I embarrassed ourselves, if you set aside the fact that Laddie should be winning every trial he runs.  For Laddie's part, his first mark was excellent, his mark on the retired gun was reasonable considering that that mark, too, had finished a couple of the earlier dogs, and his returns were satisfactory. For my part, I showed Laddie the birds in the order as intended, I lined him up on the correct first mark before calling for the birds (unlike one of the pros), and I had learned my lesson from the previous trial so that, when Laddie lined up on the retired gun after returning with the flyer, although I had planned to run him on the middle mark that had been thrown second, I immediately accepted his selection, realigned myself, and sent him to the earlier memory-bird, retired though it was.

Despite Laddie not seeing a land blind in competition yet this year, I don't think we're outclassed at this level, and I'm not ready to throw in the towel.

I will, however, look for opportunities to have my new bird-girls help when Laddie's marking is a little weak.  I would have liked for him to look for the gunner on that last mark when he started to get lost, and to me, that's something that we've lost by having no field trial group to train with.  On the other hand, running so many poorman marks may have given him more confidence on retired marks than some dogs at his level.

Now it's time for the trip back home, for a total of seven hours driving this morning. At least Laddie can catch some z's while we're on the road.  After a 3:30am wake-up, I wish I could.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Follow up on "Simulating flyers"

I tried something like what I described in my previous post with Laddie and two assistants later that day. It didn't work well at all, and I'm glad it didn't. I see now that it was a bad idea.

The set up we tried was a 240y mark over variable and hilly terrain on a field we've never used before, and a second gun station off to the side at 60y. I directed the bird-girl at the side station to wave a bumper and blow a duck call while Laddie was supposed to be watching the throw of the long mark -- not easy even without the distraction because his field of vision also contained other white objects, this being a construction site. I then had the bird-girl on the side continue waving and blowing the duck call as I sent Laddie to retrieve the long mark.

It took some effort, but I was able to get Laddie to watch the long mark. However, he was unable to make a good outrun to pick it up. He repeatedly stopped to look at the other thrower, and kept veering toward her. A couple of times I called him back to the start line and resent him. The last time I just kept calling "back" each time he'd turn toward her. I must have had to say "back" ten times.

After seeing the issues and thinking them thru, I see that this was an epically awful idea, for at least two reasons:

(1) It is not unprecedented for me to forget the order of the throws at a practice day or competition, and line up the dog (Lumi or Laddie) on the wrong first gun before calling for the throws. Both my dogs have always rescued me from that mistake by turning to the correct gun when the duck call or gunshot sounded. On her WC land double some years ago, I didn't line Lumi up incorrectly, but she turned on the sound of the flyer pheasant's WINGS when the time came, giving her a great look at the mark instead of just watching the bird fall after being shot. It is now obvious to me that I would not want to lose my dogs' ability to turn instantly to sounds indicating that a bird is being thrown, since normally they would mean that a bird really is being thrown.

(2) The idea of expecting Laddie to ignore a thrower waving and blowing a duck call while Laddie was running to another mark was, if I may say so, idiotic beyond words. In general, that behavior on the part of a thrower is called "helping", because sometimes the dog is running the wrong way and the handler calls for a gunner to help by doing such things as standing, waving, calling hey-hey, and blowing a duck call. If I were crazy enough to continue down this road and succeeded in training Laddie to ignore such "distractions", it would then become impossible for me to call for help in the future.

Needless to say, I don't intend to try that "training plan" again.

Before closing, I thought I'd mention that while it's true that twice this year Laddie has run poorly on long marks in competition, I have set up longer, more difficult marks in practice repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, including today, just to work on long singles, or doubles featuring a long single. For at least a week, including today, Laddie has run extremely well on them, in most cases taking and holding a great line (rather than, for example, running at the gun), then nailing them without any need for a hunt. To me this says that his vision seems to be fine, seeing the throw itself as well as the thrower, to say nothing of Laddie's desire and marking talent.

Based on those observations, I don't yet have an explanation for his difficulty at the trials, other than two possibilities: the fact that those were Field Trial triples (which Laddie has seen very few of the last year) and general Event Discount Factor, Alice Woodyard's term for the loss of performance that results from the excitement and distractions unique to the competition experience. If those are the problems, I think I know the solution that most trainers use: regular group training with a Field Trial group, where triples are often thrown and event conditions are somewhat simulated. But that solution is not available to Laddie and me, no matter how aggressively I've pursued it, of course risking further alienating people just by repeatedly trying to arrange to train with them.

I belong to four retriever clubs, which gives me access to occasional training days, but most of those are Hunt Test setups, and I'm not sure how much they really add to Laddie's Field Trial preparation. Of the two that run FT setups, one of them has only one training day per year, and the other seems to suspend training during competition season.

The closest I've come to an alternative solution lately was to distribute flyers advertising for "dog training assistants" in my neighborhood. So far I've lined up three high school girls, though we haven't succeeded in finding a time when all three could come out at once yet. This is an expensive solution, and at the same time it's a long way from simulating the full context of an event, nor does it have all the advantages of training with experienced field trainers on a competition-quality property. In addition, I don't know how long I can go on spending hundreds of dollars a week this way. But hopefully for now it will give Laddie better preparation than what we've had in a long time.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Simulating flyers

Flyers are a retriever's favorite thing in the world, so on behalf of the dog, it's always great to see a flyer station as part of a series.

But flyers present challenges. Both Lumi and Laddie would sometimes fail to bring a flyer back on their early days.  And both dogs also needed a lot of work in their steadiness with flyers as the working dog and especially honoring.

This post isn't about those challenges. Rather, this post is about the challenge a flyer presents for line mechanics, and an idea for a drill that can be run without actual flyers to work on those issues.

First to describe the issues. It's not unusual in my experience to see the judge place a flyer station as the go-bird well to one side of the field and fairy short, maximizing its suction away from the other marks. If the dog swings her head to the flyer station prematurely, she doesn't get a good look at the early throws, or may miss the second mark of a triple entirely.

On the other hand, if the dog holds her gaze on the first bird until the next gunshot, and then misjudges the direction of the sound and out of wishful thinking turns to look toward the flyer rather than the second gunner, again she may not see the second throw or may only glimpse it.

If the judges meanwhile decide to retire the second gun, as well as stacking other factors against the dog on that mark, you have a pretty good challenge.

But if you don't have many opportunities to train with flyers, how do you prepare a dog to exercise good line mechanics in the face of such suction?

Here's one idea: Setup the same sort of triple, complete with retired second mark if desired, and have the gunner at the "flyer" station, whether throwing a bird or a bumper, swing the article and perhaps even yell hey-hey or blow a duck call WHILE the other marks are being thrown.

If the dog can learn to perform well with that sort of distraction, she may be somewhat better prepared to handle a flyer distraction at her next event.

Possible risks I have thought of:

* The training is ineffective, because the dog doesn't generalize the lesson to flyers

* The dog gets so good at ignoring the "flyer" during the early marks that she ignores it, or loses intensity, when it's actually time to watch the flyer.

I'll give this drill a try for a few days and see what happens. Hopefully, at the minimum, no irreversible harm.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Remote singles plus land and water blinds

Cheltenham, MD

Yesterday, in Laddie's first field trial (Qual stake) of the year, Laddie's marking, once his strong suit, was so poor on a 210y memory-bird that, even though Laddie did not need to be handled, he was one of the only dogs not to be called back to the land blind.

I see this as, once again, the curse of not having a field trial group to train with.  The fact is that, as simple and routine a triple as was featured in that first series, as much like the triples most field trial dogs see several times a week in their training, Laddie has only seen two or three such triples in the last YEAR.

I'm renewing my efforts to address that deficit.  But today did not achieve that goal. I got up early this dreary, damp, chilly Sunday morning and brought Laddie to the superb training property in Cheltenham, hoping that perhaps I'd find a training group that would let us join them. But the gate was locked on arrival, and even though we stayed two hours, no other trainer ever showed up. So as usual, we were on our own.

I began by running Laddie on three land blinds, taking advantage of the mounds, strips of cover, tree groupings, and slopes to give him some challenges we don't have available on our local fields.  He handled nicely.

Next I decided to try what I'll call a remote single.  As simple as it was, it's not something we've ever run before. But I tried Laddie on a short one and he understood immediately, so we did several more at 180-220y distances.

To run a remote single: Place a lining pole in a visible location you've selected as the start line. Walk with the dog, perhaps throwing fun bumpers or playing tug, out to the area where you want to throw the mark. Show the dog your starter pistol, bring the dog to heel facing the lining pole, use some new cue such as "remote mark" rather than "dead bird", and send the dog with "back". If necessary handle the dog to the lining pole, but this was rarely necessary with Laddie in the eight or ten remote singles we ran today.

When the dog arrives at the lining pole, blow sit whistle. When the dog sits and faces you, call out "sit, mark," just as you would if you were standing beside him about to run him on a mark.  Fire the pistol and throw the mark. Face the dog, so that your posture provides no directional information, and call the dog's name using the same inflection as a send from the line.  If things go right, the dog launches and runs the mark, picks up the bumper or bird, and brings it to you as the thrower.  In theory you can help, like any thrower, if the dog needs it, though that never happened today.

I'm not necessarily recommending remote singles to other trainers. All sorts of things could go wrong. But for Laddie, I think remote singles may be superior to using a Bumper Boy and stickman for several reasons, and they're certainly a lot faster to set up.

For today's remote singles, I didn't have any birds with me, but I used a black bumper because I wanted Laddie to deal with limited visibility on the throw and an invisible target on the outrun, a better simulation of some of the marks we get in competition than using white bumpers.  All my throwing bumpers do have streamers on them, however.

Today's results with this new kind of marking practice were promising. On the first mark, Laddie understood the game but needed more of a hunt than I wanted, perhaps the result of too much of the kind of approximate marking that's reasonable with a "retired" mark, like those he sees so often when we run poorman multiples.  But with a gunner standing there, I feel that he should generally be able to take a perfect line, needing a small hunt only if the fall is in an unusual position, such as at the bottom of a slope on an angle-in from the gunner.

And by the end if the day, Laddie's marking had bounced back and he was running those great lines I've always expected of him. The last remote single today was at 210y, and the line required the dog to climb uphill thru some rough terrain when an easy, unobstructed, and obvious path a little to the right would have brought Laddie to the wrong side of the thrower (me).  Laddie took a laser-straight line to the fall, wrapping up a nice session.

By the way, midway thru the training, despite the near-freezing temps we've been having at night recently, and the fact that our morning temp had only reached 42, Laddie decided to go swimming at one point, apparently to cool off.

Accordingly, I ran a couple of the remote singles so that they featured short swims, and I also ran Laddie on a Qual-like on-and-off-the-point water blind.  He vocalized on the blind, but if you set aside the yelping, he handled great.  I'm afraid that's who this dog is.

I'm thinking of entering Laddie in another trial in a couple of weeks. If we go, I hope he marks the way he was starting to today.


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