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.


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