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.