Monday, May 28, 2012

Second Addendum to "Trajectory"

Well, although my first addendum to the recent "Trajectory" post was probably OK insofar as it clarified (I hope) that successful all-age dogs are not allowed to run in Quals, I have since learned of another flaw in my thinking on the trajectory topic.

That flaw is the idea that a dog who is at the level of being able to compete successfully in all-age stakes, but is not yet ineligible to run in Quals, would dominate the less skilled dogs in a Qual, and could reasonably be expected to win.

From what I have since learned, I now think it would be more accurate to say that such a dog would be more likely to win than the less skilled dogs, but that the improved probability falls far short of likelihood, much less assurance.  There's even a good chance that that dog would not make it to the last series, for any number of reasons.

I still don't plan on consciously wishing for other dogs to do badly so Laddie can win, and I still think that Laddie is on a generally rising trajectory. But I see that I need to adjust my thinking to understand that whether Laddie places or not in a field trial is only weakly correlated to his general level of competence, and that many other factors will also affect the outcome.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Addendum to "Trajectory"

A friend pointed out a serious problem with yesterday's post entitled "Trajectory".

As she read the post, she thought I was saying that according to my understanding, successful all-age dogs can and typically do run in Qualifying stakes as well.

As my friend pointed out, that's not the case. But actually, it's not what I was trying to say.  Unfortunately, I didn't communicate effectively.

What I was trying to say is that right now Laddie is not skilful enough to compete successfully in all-age stakes, but hopefully someday he will be. That is the goal of our training, as opposed to somehow managing to earn some Qual ribbons.

In referring to an all-age dog who managed to sneak into a Qual, I wasn't trying to suggest that that has ever happened. I guess it could happen if someone wanted to cheat with look-alike dogs, but it could not happen within the rules if the dog had had success at the all-age level, or even had won two Quals  Such dogs are not eligible to run in a Qual.

But here's what is true: If a day comes when Laddie is ready to compete with all-age dogs, as is our goal, but at that time he has not met any of the conditions that would make it illegal for him to run in a Qual, then if I entered him in a Qual at that time, I would expect him to win it. The same of course goes for any dog ready to compete successfully in all-age stakes but still permitted under the rules to run in Quals, unless the Qual happens to have more than one such dog that day.

Accordingly, I was trying to say that I don't want my attitude to be, when a judge for example looks at Laddie's big, looping sit and calls it a slipped whistle, "Bad break, too bad I didn't get a judge who accepts Laddie's big, looping sit."  Instead, I want my attitude to be, "Ah, there's one more thing to work on before Laddie is ready to compete successfully in all-age stakes." Yeah, fixing it might also result in Laddie winning a Qual along the way, but that's almost beside the point.  The purpose of Laddie running Quals is for me to gauge his progress.  When the gauge tells me that he's ready to run in all-age stakes, he will also happen to win the Qual, not squeaking by but because he's clearly ready to compete at the next level.  If he doesn't win the Qual, it's not a failure, it's just a helpful indication of where we are on our journey, our trajectory.

As to the moral quandary I was dealing with: If I wish for Laddie to win a Qual, it's not that I'm wishing for anyone else to lose, it's that I'm wishing to find that we have met our objective of preparing Laddie for the next level of competition. 

This does not mean that my emotions accept our unsuccessful performances comfortably.  Not getting called back to the next series, or running them all but not getting a placement, is not fun.  But that's my emotions talking, not the analytical part of my mind.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Silent water blind

Following up on today's trial, the water blind was 50y land, 40y stick pond, and 100y of clumpy, uneven meadow to the blind.

I didn't need to blow the whistle until Laddie had come out of the water, and it'a possible I didn't need to blow it then. But I thought it best not to let him veer at all, since I've noticed that a wet dog can get out of control unexpectedly in a strong crosswind, which we had. If the wind had pushed Laddie behind a mound that was lurking on the right, he'd have gone out of sight and been dropped as out of control.

Of course, blowing the whistle ended up being our undoing, but I still think it was the right thing to do. Laddie just needs to learn to stop better.

In any case, here are two nice positives, besides of course Laddie's great initial line (I think every other dog needed to be handled in the water): Laddie did not pop (I believe that means he has only popped in competition once in his career, a trial earlier this year), and he did not vocalize at any time running today, including the water.  I'm not suggesting he's cured of vocalizing on water blinds -- Laddie did not have to deal with a point today, and I had the luxury of just letting him roll -- but it was good to see, nonetheless.



First, the news. Laddie was called back from the land triple and the land blind, which were bundled together, in today's trial. He waa them not called back from the water blind. So of course we did not get to run the water marks.

With a 360 mile drive home in front of me, I decided not to hang around for the rest of the trial, but rather get on the road.

The judges were kind enough to brief me on why they didn't call Laddie back from the water blind. They said he refused three whistles. They added that he had also refused a whistle on the land blind earlier, and they just didn't feel he was doing the level of work required.

That was helpful information to me, because: (a) I only saw Laddie slip one whistle on the water blind, though he did have big, looping sits two other times; and (b) I considered the whistle on land that the judges called a refusal to be a safety whistle, since Laddie immediately took a couple of strides to the bird after that whistle.

The judges were kind enough to pay Laddie a compliment, saying he had a fabulous initial line, giving us something to build on.

Before closing, I want to say that on my long drive up here last night, I gave a lot of thought to what I was finding to be a moral issue: I wanted to wish for Laddie to win today, but I was blocked because that meant wishing that other people would lose. This dilemma occupied my mind for many hours.

I finally came to a resolution. Laddie, and all the other dogs, are on a trajectory. They are more skillful now than when they first started field work, and in some cases they are continuing to improve. Laddie, for example, had trouble in his first Junior Hunt Test years ago, but months later, that level of work was easy for him, and he passed four tests in nine days. Similarly later on, he wasn't quite skillful enough to pass his first few Senior tests, but continued to improve, until a time came when he passed two Senior tests in one weekend.

As painful as each failure was -- as painful as today's daily was -- it is a mistake, I think, to see these as isolated events.  They were neither good nor bad. We were neither lucky nor unlucky.  Instead, these were all points on a trajectory, a trend line.  At this time, that trend line has not yet carried Laddie high enough that he is ready to run with, much less prevail over, all-age dogs.  If he were, the breaks of a particular Qual wouldn't matter. He would be dominating pretty much any Qual, just as, I assume, any field champion who happened to sneak into today's Qual would have dominated.

So nothing is wrong with wishing that Laddie were at that level.  If he had been, and the other dogs had not, he would have won going away. The fact that he didn't dominate simply says that he is not skillful enough yet to compete with all-age dogs, while dominating Qual dogs. The details are significant only in that they point the way toward some things to work on.

One question that remains is, are we throwing money away to continue to compete? In other words, how likely is it that a dog that can't get to the last series one weekend will dominate the following weekend?  Of course, that is not to be expected.

But unfortunately, I see no way to make the jump any other way than incrementally, either.  I remember how Lumi first couldn't pass the land series as a Senior dog, and then started getting to water but couldn't pass that, and then would finish the test but the judges would "have to talk about it", and then not call her number during the ribbon ceremony.  Finally a time came when she began passing Senior tests, and soon thereafter she had her four passes and her title. She had simply incrementally improved along that trajectory.

And so, perhaps, it will be for Laddie.  Of course every team has a maximum level of achievement, and it's always possible that Laddie and I have already reached ours. Frankly, I'm not sure how to recognize that level. But Lumi had a quite a few fails in her Senior career before she finally started passing. She was getting better with every test, and eventually she was good enough to pass.

So maybe I'm just throwing money away.  But I think it's also possible that Laddie has it in him to be a competitive all-age dog. If I'm correct, then we are on that trajectory, and when Laddie ascends high enough, he will begin dominating Quals just like any other good all-age dog would. Until then, we'll keep going home empty handed and, philosophical analysis notwithstanding, with heavy heart.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Challenging the line = crossing the line

Yesterday, I managed to get Laddie dropped from a trial on a handler error once again.

One of the judges, realizing that I was inexperienced in field trials, and first checking on whether I was interested in hearing his thoughts, was kind enough to explain a concept to me while Laddie was returning with the water blind, even drawing a diagram in the sand with a stick.

The judge told me that although Laddie had taken every cast and had stayed within a reasonable corridor, I had not "challenged the line."  Specifically, I had not handled Laddie onto the left side of the line, where all the trouble was, until the last few yards of the blind.

That was true.  Quite intentionally, I had run Laddie along the right side of the line the entire blind, which I'd estimate at 210y.  I intended to keep him on the right even at the end.  I just misjudged the distance on a cast that was supposed to put him onto the little landing area.

But since Laddie remained in a tight corridor the whole way, I thought he'd run a good blind.  I'd heard the term "challenging the line" before, but I never understood what it meant.  As the judge explained to me, I think that in this case it means, simply, crossing the line.

Later I watched a couple of pros running the last few dogs.  They ran almost the identical blind that Laddie ran, except that at around 70y, they cast the dog toward the point on the left, crossed the imaginary line from the handler to the blind, and then, before the dog reached land, cast the dog back over onto the right side again.  Even dogs who had more trouble at the end than Laddie had, repeatedly refusing casts, were called back.

Actually, Laddie might have been called back, too, if fewer dogs had come into the series.  But with 14 dogs running the blind, the judges narrowed the field to nine, and Laddie was dropped.

Could I have challenged (crossed) the line with Laddie and then gotten him back over on the right to finish?  I think so.  In any case, I wish I'd realized I needed to try.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

No vocalizing

Today I discovered that Laddie does not vocalize running a water version of a simple T-drill. I wonder if I could build on that to get him out of vocalizing on water blinds.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Lighter schedule

On advice from Alice and Jody, I've backed off on Laddie's training schedule. For example, instead of training every day as we always have, this week we trained on Tuesday, Thursday, and today (Saturday), and next week I plan to train only on Tuesday and Thursday before our trial next Saturday.

The weather is now warm enough that we could be training on water, and ideally we'd be running both land and water retrieves. However, circumstances are pushing us to focus on land at this time.  If Laddie gets thru the land and gets dropped for poor water work in our trial, I'll change our focus for subsequent training.  We are doing some water even so, but mostly land.

Today was an example. I only had two bird-girls today, so to run triples, the last throw was just me throwing a bumper to the side as the go-bird. It was no challenge itself, but it gave the gunners a chance to retire when I had asked them to.

In that way, we ran two land triples. The first had the bird girls throwing a double at 260-110y, with the long gun retired. The second had them throwing a double at 310-130y, with the short gun retired.

For both setups, I used the hilly terrain, cover changes, obstructions to push the dog off line, repetitive visual patterns to challenge the dog's memory on retired guns, and what little wind we had, to try to maximize difficulty.

Results: Laddie nailed both of the short marks.  He "stepped on" the first long mark but didn't see it and continued running, then saw Annette behind the umbrella she was using to retire and then ran straight to the bumper, which I thought was a pretty good way to run what I thought was a pretty difficult mark.

For the last long mark, construction materials pushed Laddie to the left, and the terrain continued to push him that direction. He veered back enough to the right to run toward the gunner, ran just past her on the wrong side, but before she could stand up (per my instructions when Laddie gets behind her), he hooked straight to the bumper. Not the perfect mark, but pretty good I thought.

Finally, I ran Laddie on a 320y land blind off to the left of all the marks he'd run. The first challenge was that the initial line was diagonally across a slope and was cluttered with clumps of high cover and a few bits of construction debris. Next came a 100y stretch of dirt road in an S-shape, leading the dog offline alternately to left and right.  Next was a large slope that the line to the blind just cleared on the left. I believe that a dog can be tempted to wrap around such an obstacle, and in this case, that's also where the road led to, adding more suction to taking the dog out of sight behind the slope.

Next the line went over a small crest, such that the dog would be out of sight for 50y. I assume such a setup would never happen in a real trial, but the earlier part of the blind seemed interesting, and I wanted the extra distance, so I went with it. Assuming the dog carried straight back 50y after the crest, the dog would then become visible and then needed to carry another 50y in a depression, and finally up a steep embankment and onto a plateau, where the blind was planted in an area of sparse but high cover.

Laddie ran this blind nicely.  He took a great initial line, not attempting to square the slope in either direction, and continued straight to the road.  From there he drifted left, and took good sit-whistles and casts to the edge of the crest where he was about to go out of sight.  He stayed a bit to the left of the line during the middle section of the blind, and never came close to heading behind the slope.  I stopped him at the crest, cast him straight back, and that took him the last 110y to the blind.

All of this was on a 72-degree sunny afternoon, so I think it was a bit tiring as well as having some challenging pictures.  To me it seemed like a useful training session.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Training day, May 2012

Remington, Virginia

Note: Cloudy weather, temps warmer than ideal.  The water series was cancelled before the last few dogs ran because thunder and lightning began to appear in the distance.

Yesterday was Rappahannock River Retriever Club's monthly training day, and I was happy to once again be chosen to "run" the advanced group.  At this club, that generally means designing the land and the water series, but when I get the assignment, I also act as "marshall" and "judge" when the dogs are running, except of course when I run my own dog or dogs.  In yesterday's case, I let Lumi stay with my daughter Cookie at home, so I only had Laddie with me.  I ran Laddie next to last on land series because I wanted to run him in front of someone who would be running the full triple with a flyer, and the guy whom I arranged to go in front of wanted to run last so that his dog would be less likely to shop on the long blind.  I was planning to run Laddie last on water so that I could finish "judging" the series for the other dogs first and try to keep things moving quickly, but as mentioned above, that resulted in Laddie not getting to run at all on water because of the risk of lightning.  With the four hour drive, that meant a ten-hour training day ended with Laddie running a total of five retrieves.

Anyway, here are descriptions of the two series I set up, and also a report on how Laddie did on the land series.

SERIES A. Land triple with available flyer, plus three available land blinds

For Series A, the first mark was on the right, thrown right to left from a holding blind into cover at 90 yards.  The early throws (some with winger, some hand thrown) were either too long or too short, resulting in comparatively easy lines to the fall, but finally the throws were the intended distance and the line was thru some high cover if the dog didn't skirt around it.  (Laddie was the only dog who actually ended up taking that line, unless the last dog, whom I didn't watch because Laddie was honoring, might have.)

The second mark was in the center, thrown right to left with a winger from a holding blind into cover at 35 yards.

The third mark was on the right, originally thrown left to right at 70 yards.  That was the flyer station, and the intended throw was from the side of a road into an open field, with care given to safety.  However, despite our trying to plan for the light crosswind, the duck doubled back on the gunner the first two times we tried that setup, so we reversed the gun station and the direction of the throw, so that as actually used, the third mark, like the other two marks, was right to left.  We didn't have any more no-birds, but most of the flyers ended up being "cripples" (wounded rather than being killed in the air), so I guess something about the conditions -- maybe the equipment? -- was producing poor shooting conditions, despite having an experienced gunner and assistant at that station.

As with any triple on training day, lots of opportunities for modifications were available, and several variations were used by the handlers for particular dogs.  Some ran the series as singles, in one order or another, or as a double plus a single (various choices for which guns were used for the double).  People training for Hunt Tests used a handler's gun, an empty shotgun available on a gun stand at the start line.  A couple of people wanted to practice Walk Ups, so for those teams, I walked them forward from the holding blind and after some distance called for the middle mark rather than the right mark first, with no duck call.  For Laddie, I requested no duck calls and that the gunner shoot before throwing rather than while the bird was in the air.  It didn't quite happen that way, but at least I made the request.

If a handler wanted to honor, the honoring position was to the right of the start line, so that the working dog would not cross in front of the honoring dog when sent to the flyer go-bird.  That made the honor less difficult than if it had been on the left, but it seemed a more prudent position.  I've seen tests and trials where the judge chose a position analogous to either of those choices.

In addition to the triple, I set up three blinds, and people could choose any combination:

* We had a "Senior" blind on a line well to the right of the rightmost gun station, a "pile" of bumpers pre-planted ad marked with a vertical lining pole at 60 yards.  The second half of the line was thru medium cover, with a diagonal crossing of a change in the terrain, a strip where cover had been flattened by previous vehicle traffic.  A diagonal crosswind added to the challenge, and no dog who attempted that blind was able to line it.

* We had a "Master" blind at 100 yards on a line under the arc of the flyer station, with the dog being rewarded for getting thru the scent of the flyers by picking up a duck on that blind.  The dog was upwind of the duck so hopefully the scent of the blind itself was no advantage.  Of course that blind had to be planted for each dog, whereas the other two blinds were "hot" (a "pile" of bumpers pre-planted before we started).  The marker for the "Master" blind was an unusually long pole with artificial flowers attached at the top, a design which for some reason threw off several people's depth perception, with their dogs ending up behind the blind and having to be brought back in.  On the other hand, two dogs lined that blind.

* We had a "Qualifying" blind at 180 yards on a line midway between the second and third marks, with the terrain and wind pushing all the dogs who ran it to the left.  I couldn't find a longer line to use for that setup, but one challenge was that the blind was planted 20 yards in front of an arc of thistle cover, so that similarly to when a blind is planted on the face of an embankment, this blind did not lend itself to having the dog overrun it and then come back in to pick up the bumper.  The marker was an orange lining pole inserted on a 45 degree angle, to facilitate the handlers seeing it against the vertical background and at the same time not salient to dogs.

SERIES B.  Water triple plus two available water blinds

For Series B as I had planned Laddie to run it, the first mark was on the left, thrown left to right at 90 yards.  From the planned start line, the line to the mark featured a 40 yard land entry with an extremely sharp angle, tempting the dog to run the bank on an easy cheat around the water and behind the gun station.  Easier starting lines, chosen by several of the trainers, made the cheat less likely, though we still had a couple of dogs not get wet running that mark.

The second mark was in the center, thrown left to right at 100 yards.  The entry was fairly square, but if the throw was as I had designed the mark, the line to the fall was off one point on the left and then off another point on the right.  Unfortunately, the first few dogs got throws on that mark that were too short, so that the line was over the island on the left, a different picture entirely, though I suppose one still worth practicing.

The third mark was on the right, thrown right to left along the length of a narrow peninsula at 50 yards from the planned start line.  The water and land entries were steep and protected by high cover, but this mark's primary purpose was to occupy a corner of the dog's memory when running the water blind afterwards.  The long blind would take the dog past the point of that peninsula, while the short blind would take the dog on a line not too far to the right ("behind") that gun station.

All the marks were hand thrown from holding blinds.

Two water blinds were available, but dogs either ran no blind, or they ran the long blind.  No one ran the short blind, but I'll still describe it.

The long blind was on the far shore at 100 yards, on a line midway between the second and third marks.  The picture was strikingly similar to the middle mark, which was a few degrees to the left.  For the blind, after a 30 yard land entry, the line was past the point of a peninsula on the right as mentioned above, then over the endpoint of an island on the left, then point the point of another peninsula on the right.  Handlers were asked to have their dogs take a straight enough line that they would cross over the point on the left but stay off the points on the right.  A little open water existed off the point on the left into which the handler could cast the dog with an "over" to the right, avoiding a "back" cast that risked losing the dog behind the island, but once the dog was in the water, the dog had to be turned back toward the blind quickly or would end up on the next point on the right.

The short blind was on the far shore of an inlet at 50 yards, 15 yards behind the rightmost gun station.  If a dog had run it, the dog would have had a 30 yard land entry, a 45 degree water entry, and a short diagonal crossing of the inlet, with a tempting cheat around the water on the right.

As mentioned, Laddie did not get to run the water series, but I'll describe his rather uneventful work on the land series.

Laddie was steady from the line watching the birds thrown.  As with most of the flyers in this series, he got a "cripple" (I dislike that terminology, but that's what field trainers say), and I was pleased to see that, after nailing the mark and spending a little while finding a good grip, Laddie ran the bird back to me without killing it.  Of course it didn't save the bird, whom as is normal at these things I turned over to another handler to finish off, but I'd prefer Laddie not kill the birds himself, since I don't think judges like to see that, and in training, we can sometimes re-throw a bird if the dog hasn't killed it, reducing the number of birds we need to kill that day though I guess making it worse for the birds we do use.  :0(

Laddie overran the short middle bird by five yards, then spun around and grabbed it in a clump of cover.

Laddie then nailed the longest mark on the right, running a laser line that took him thru, rather than around, an easily avoidable patch of high cover, and requiring no hunt to home in directly on the bird.

By the way, Laddie's pickups and returns of all three birds birds were top notch, as opposed to his not uncommon mediocre work once he's gotten to the fall, with dawdling pickups and/or meandering returns.  Except for the flyer which he was more careful with picking up, but not unreasonably so, he grabbed each bird on the fly and raced back with it.  I usually take the bird as Laddie approaches, then bring him to heel, as opposed to the way virtually all other handlers run their dogs, bringing the dog to heel first and then taking the bird.  But no judge has ever complained, and as far as I know it doesn't hurt our score, so I find my approach removes some of the risk of a dropped bird and also removes the disincentive to a high quality return that I believe would come from Laddie having to execute the heel and sit maneuver while holding the bird.  Of course, some dogs would prefer to go on holding the bird forever, so I guess coming to heel without giving it up would actually be preferred by those dogs, but in Laddie's case, he wants to give up the bird as quickly as possible, so I think the delivery is most pleasant for him if I take the bird as Laddie approaches.

Another point I'll mention is that a black Lab was in the holding blind behind us while Laddie was running his series, and I saw on every return that Laddie seemed to alert to that direction -- perhaps he was scenting the dog? -- as I took the bird.  Seeing that and concerned about the possibilities, I was quick to demand Laddie's attention and bring him to heel for the next retrieve, and finally for the honor, rather than losing my concentration and risking that he rush behind the holding blind to visit, or possibly even attack, the dog waiting there.  Laddie was attacked by a black Lab while he and I were in a holding blind at a trial last spring, and it seems to have affected his behavior in certain situations ever since.  I'm not yet clear what exact pattern triggers it, but I think black dogs are part of the pattern.

Laddie ran both the "Master" and the "Qualifying" blinds nicely.  Going to school on the difficulties the other trainers had had on the long blind, I didn't let Laddie continue to drift further and further left as I had seen happen with other dogs, but rather stopped him as soon as he veered, I think a total of three times.  I believe he was the only dog who ended up finally arriving at that blind from the right, so that the last cast was actually with the wind.  That may have had the disadvantage that Laddie was upwind and couldn't scent the bumpers as he got close, but that hadn't seemed to be as much of an advantage for the earlier dogs as the disadvantage of having to take their last cast(s) into a headwind, perhaps because of a confusing scent dispersion on that particular blind.

I had arranged to have Laddie honor one of the few other dogs who would be running the series the same way he had, hoping for maximum excitement as opposed, for example, to honoring a dog that would start off by running a single or a double, or for whom the handler had not chosen to purchase a flyer.  When the time came to honor, I felt I had two reasonable choices.  First, I could honor him off lead, the same as if we were in competition, and also the same as my friend Dave has asked me to do when we train on honoring flyers with Dave on weekends occasionally.  Alternatively, I could place a lead lightly around Laddie's chest, a setup that hopefully would mean little to Laddie but would allow me to stop him if he broke.  The disadvantage of this latter approach is that it doesn't really give me the assurance that Laddie would not have broken without sensing the lead.  But the advantage is that Laddie cannot gain the reinforcement of an adrenaline or endorphin burst by breaking, possibly strengthened further if he manages to get to the flyer.  Foregoing the extra information in favor of a better training setup if Laddie did happen to break, I took my honoring position facing away from the field off Laddie's right flank with his lead resting lightly around his chest but gripped tightly in my hand, and Laddie was on high alert but rock steady for the honor.  I hope that was the right decision in terms of maximum training benefit, I'm not certain.

I'll end this post with an apology.  I try to make these posts as interesting as I can, though my primary purpose is to provide a useful record of our training journey.  In this case, I'm afraid the latter objective completely overwhelmed the former, with details that won't be of interest to anyone but a future me studying my steps and missteps over the years.  Hopefully the boredom factor was not too extreme.


[Note that entries are displayed from newest to oldest.]