Thursday, August 30, 2012

Popping on land retrieves, multiple retired guns

Clarksburg Village

Sunny, temps in low 80s, wind calm.  Near drought conditions resulting in hard, dusty ground and much of the cover dried up.

For the last several weeks, I've been limited to training Laddie on land, since he's not allowed to swim until the broken bone in his tail has healed.  Although Laddie is marking well as he always has, I am concerned that he pops (looks at the handler) on marks too frequently.  Some training days we get no pops, but sometimes we get one or even more pops during the session.

Despite a good number of data points, I am not at all certain what factors lead to Laddie popping.  I believe that it generally happens when some combination of the following are involved:

  • Relatively long marks
  • Retired gunners
  • Reaching the top of a rise
  • Later in the day (that is, possibly thirsty or a bit tired)
  • Broken tail
I mention that last because I think, though I'm not certain, that the popping may be worse now than it was before Laddie broke his tail.

As an example of why I'm not certain of this observation, I was under the impression in recent months that Laddie's vocalizing in water is something that developed after years of training.  However, I recently happened to watch a video of Laddie as, I'd estimate, a one-year-old, and he vocalizes in water in that video.  For some reason, I just didn't notice it for a long time.

While I think those are probably the factors that in some combination result in popping, I can't necessarily trigger a pop by setting up those factors.

As for solving the problem, I've tried a number of approaches.  For example, for several days, I stayed away from any long marks, and introduced retired guns only to the later series of a day's work.  The results seemed gratifying at first, since we had no pops for a few sessions, but then Laddie did pop on a mark that seemed no harder or otherwise different from the kind of marks we'd been running prior.

Yesterday, I considered that possibly I was going about this the wrong way.  I was trying to minimize the possibility that Laddie would experience whatever frustration or other emotional state was leading to the popping.  But yesterday, it occurred to me that eventually, a day will come when Laddie is going to have that feeling, and if he hasn't learned a new response to it, on that day he'll pop.  If it's in competition, it will cost us dearly.  If it's a response that happens, it turns out, in every all-age stake, then it would mean Laddie would never be able to compete at that level.

Accordingly, I decided that I'd try a different approach, and actually run Laddie on more demanding series.  Then, if he popped, I'd instantly call out, "No, DOWN", getting him to lie down, and then call to all the gunners, "Pick it up," words that Laddie knows mean that he won't be able to complete that work.  We'd then move on to another set up, or, if we were out of time, head for home.

Obviously the theory of this approach is that Laddie would want to avoid that happening and so would become less inclined to pop every time he tried popping and encountered that outcome.

It is not necessarily a safe approach.  All sorts of unintended side effects can be imagined, including causing the popping to increase rather than decrease, or possibly some new undesirable behavior such as no-gos.  However, Laddie has probably gone as far as he can in field trial competition unless his popping issue can be solved, so converting it to a different career-ending issue may not put us in any worse position.

Accordingly, today, using three of my birdkids (Annette, Liza, and William), I ran Laddie on two land triples.  Series A was a triple in xmas-tree configuration with two retired guns.  Series B was a triple in around-the-horn configuration, again with two retired guns.  It occurred to me later that these may be the first triples Laddie has ever run with human throwers in which two of the gunners retired.

In each case, the long gun was over 200y, and most of the retrieves involved hilly terrain with angled depressions and rises likely to throw off Laddie's direction if he squared any of them.

However, the go-birds in each series were short and relatively easy, since I was also using today's setups to work on an issue of line mechanics, described in a new article I've added to my "reference" blog:
Line Mechanics: Blocking the Magnet Gun Station
Today's results were mixed.  The good news is that Laddie nailed all the marks but one, and on that one (the long, center, memory bird in Series A), he had a short hunt.  More good news is that he didn't pop, even though he easily could have looked up from the ridge he was hunting on during that one mark while pointed in my direction.  But then again, the fact that he didn't pop might be considered bad news, since it means I didn't get an opportunity to show him the undesirable outcome that would have resulted if he had popped.

It's possible that I could have triggered a pop by running one more series, since he was beginning to pant  even after getting water in his crate, suggesting that he was tired, a bit dehydrated, or both.  While that might have been "good" from the isolated viewpoint of working on Laddie's popping, it didn't feel like good dog-training overall, and I decided it was time to call it a day.

Tomorrow I'll rest Laddie, and then we'll try some more land work on Saturday, Sunday, or both.  Next Friday he gets another X-ray for his tail, and the following week, Carol (our holistic vet) will give me some guidance on when Laddie might be able to begin swimming again.  Soon, I hope.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Broken tail, land training

On the eight hour drive home from our last field trial, I made a grievous error and let Laddie get his tail caught in the van's sliding door about 3am.  X-rays a few days later showed that a bone in his tail, about halfway down, snapped in half like a pencil.  Luckily, the skin was not broken, which could have led to even more serious problems.  But the ends of the bone at the break are beside each other rather than end-to-end, so the tail will never be like new.  Orthopedic surgery to insert a pin and realign the bone, I'm told, would be risky to Laddie's health, might not be successful, and would probably make no difference in Laddie's quality of life or performance in trials, so I'm just going to wait while the ends of the bone hopefully grow together side by side and heal.

Laddie's on an herbal medication called "Pain Relieve", and he won't be able to swim for weeks.  That's because a retriever unavoidable uses his/her tail both for propulsion and steering in the water, which would interfere with the healing process.  In addition, it could result in pain and the dog developing an unpleasant association with water entries, big water, or other aspects of water retrieves.

However, three weeks after the injury, Laddie's holistic vet (Carol) said that I could try Laddie out on some land retrieves, to keep up both his training and conditioning, assuming I didn't see any problems.  Since then, we've been out about five times, sometimes alone for blinds or poorman multiples, sometimes with one or more of our neighborhood assistants.

I saw no problem on the blinds, but in fact Laddie's popping was worse than it had been previously for the first couple of sessions we tried retrieving.  He didn't pop every retrieve, but he popped too often, and I'm still not certain what was causing it.  Was it being caused by pain in his tail, or by other factors such as confusion, uncertainty, a drop in conditioning, or other kinds of discomfort?

I've tentatively concluded that the combination most likely to produce a pop at this stage in Laddie's development are long distance (over 300y), a retired gun, and heat (over 80 degrees), especially if Laddie has already been working and is now a bit tired or thirsty.  I can't tell whether his broken tail is a factor or not.  One possibility is that it was at first, but he's learned how to avoid carrying it or moving it while working so as to minimize any pain.  As I understand from Carol, that's possible on land retrieves, whereas it's not possible when swimming is involved.

Today's session is an example of where we are now.  With two assistants (Genny and William), we started early, so that we were able to work in temps below 70 degrees.  We ran three series: a land double with both throwers staying out, and two land "triples", with me throwing a short go-bird from the line on the triples to allow one of the throwers to retire.

Series A was a relatively short double, 110-160y, over difficult terrain featuring large, irregularly-shaped depressions, diagonal hillsides, broad areas of high cover, and hidden falls. Laddie absolutely nailed both marks.

Series B was a triple featuring an unusually difficult 340y long mark, a 180y middle mark with the gunner retired, and me throwing a bumper to the side while the shorter gunner retired.  Same sort of challenging terrain as in Series A.  Laddie bounced over to pick up the short throw, then nailed the retired mark, though he spent some time finding and circling Genny, who had thrown the mark, before returning.  After that, Laddie was unable to handle the long mark.  He took a good line for 250y thru difficult terrain, but then veered offline for some reason.  At 300y, he popped.  I froze and he quickly turned back to his outrun, but continued to veer in the wrong direction, so I called for William to help.  That was all he needed to complete the retrieve.  I didn't mind Laddie needing help — in fact I welcome it, because it gives him a chance to practice Plan B (if you can't remember the fall, find the gunner) — but the pop was a major concern.  It has probably already affected his score in some Quals, and will certainly get him dropped from an all-age stake, if we ever get that far.

I had planned to run the last triple with the long gun retired, but in hopes of avoiding another pop, I made this a shorter set-up.  The long gun was 180y, while the middle gun was 150y.  The terrain for the long mark featured a diagonal ditch crossing, and both marks included confusing crests and depressions, and patches of high cover.  Laddie grabbed the side throw I used to allow the long gun to retire, then nailed both of the other marks, including crossing the ditch early rather than allowing it to lead him offline.  As with Series A and the retired mark on Series B, Laddie's performance on Series C was, to my eyes, top-notch Qual-level work.

Laddie's tail will be getting another x-ray on September 7.  Carol has assured me that it will not be healed by then, but the x-ray will tell us how the healing is coming, and may help predict how much longer it will be before Laddie can resume water training.

Meanwhile, Laddie just crushed five of the six marks he ran today, every one over difficult terrain that didn't fool him for a second.  As I mentioned, his pop on the one long mark remains a major concern, but aside from that, I felt it was a good session.
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