Monday, November 5, 2012

Improved marking

RRRC Training Day, Remington, VA

Morning: Gloomy, temps in low 40s. Afternoon: Blue skies, temps in high 40s.

After an eight hour training day, plus four hours of round-trip driving, I'm feeling increasingly comfortable with the return of Laddie's marking skills. 

To recap, during most of Laddie's life, he's often been one of the most skillful marking dogs on the field, in both training sessions and competitions. By skillful marking, I mean the dog's ability to remember where the birds fell and to take a direct route to that location. Other trainers, perhaps while dissatisfied with some other aspects of Laddie's performance such as his poor returns, have often balanced their comments with a complement to Laddie's outstanding marking (and Lumi's, too, when she was still involved with field work).

However, occasionally Laddie's marking seemed to deteriorate for a few weeks or months at a time. He's never been terrible, but he's come back to earth. I'm not certain what those intervals have correlated with -- perhaps long periods of no opportunity to train with human throwers -- but the most recent was after he broke his tail returning from his latest Reserve JAM and couldn't train at all for several weeks, and then not on water marks for several more.

Since I have been unable to solve the problem of not having a field trial training group willing to let Laddie and me train with them, several months ago I began hiring neighborhood high school kids to come out and throw for me. We had a break of several weeks after Laddie's injury, but once we could begin training again, we resumed work with three to four sessions a week. When possible, we go somewhere with water, since I think Laddie's most important weakness is water honesty (the natural tendency of field retrievers to "cheat", or run around, a body of water that's on-line to the fall), but most of the time we're limited by time to training on land. 

I think all this training with the kids, including training on water marks whenever possible, has paid off in Laddie's marking skills rising to his highest level ever.

On a typical training setup, I'll retire all the guns unless I feel keeping a gun visible provides some training benefit, such as acting as a diversion from some other mark, or making it less likely that Laddie will take the best path if seeing the gun risks acting as suction to some detour. At least one of the marks will be over 300y, and sometimes more than one. And of course I try to use factors such as slopes, terrain changes, and obstacles -- including difficult water entries -- to influence Laddie off line, "stacking" the factors if possible so that they all influence in the same direction rather than neutralizing each other.

When we train alone, it's not unusual for Laddie to nail every mark of every triple or quad we run, generally two setups per session. I sometimes come away pleased but wondering whether I just don't have the skill to design triples that sufficiently challenge a retriever at Laddie's level.

However, I do have some additional confirmation. At Laddie's last trial, he was one of only 2-3 dogs who nailed every mark on the land triple. And at yesterday's training day, he was the only dog to nail every mark on both the land-water triple that came first, and the water triple that came second.

In fact, I think he may have been the only dog to run that water triple as a triple, most of the other trainers running it as a double to the outer marks followed by a single to the long mark in the center, whereas my intended design (I was "running" the advanced group) was a xmas-tree configuration. The club's leader had asked me to give the setups a high degree of difficulty, suitable only for dogs training for Master tests, and I'd done my best to oblige, including incorporation of his suggestions for the first setup.

Here's a rundown of the marking challenges from yesterday's work:
  • We were training with a hunt test group, so no one besides myself and one other handler wore white jackets, and all the guns were retired on every mark. I had the gunners stand out to throw when the logistics of the popper gun and winger permitted, but the gunners wore dark clothes and then retired behind their holding blinds after throwing.
  • Because the group wanted to train on longer distances thanks to recent AKC Master rule changes, both of the setups had marks mostly longer than typical Master tests I've seen.
  • The go-bird of the first series was a land mark consisting of a flyer shot over patches of cover at 150y. Virtually every dog, whether they took a good line till they reached the first patch of cover or not, was knocked off line by the cover and needed to hunt, in some cases requiring help from the thrower or handler. Laddie took a direct line thru each patch of cover, ignoring the diagonal entries, and nailed the mark.
  • Shorter (and more difficult) memory bird of the first series was thrown on an angle-in on the far side of a gap in a row of trees. The route to the mark required traversing several patches of cover, then going thru the gap diagonally, and then a short distance to the fall. Virtually every other dog skirted the cover to the left, then followed a path of low cover beside the gap, keeping the dog on the near side of the trees, and even after catching the bird's scent, several of the dogs had difficulty going thru the gap. Laddie took a direct line thru the cover, drove thru the gap on a great line, and again nailed the mark.
  • The longer memory bird of the first series had a 90y land segment, a 45 degree entry into the water, a diagonal 40y swim across the pond, water temp presumably in the high 30s, suction to square the bank for a shorter swim by veering left, an angled landing, and a 20y land segment to the fall in front of a mound. Virtually every dog who ran the mark reasonably well either squared the water entry or veered left during the swim. Laddie took a great entry and continued on a great line the entire swim, though he then hooked the gun station rather than taking a direct line to the bird.
  • The go-bird of the second series was 60y throw into cattails, half land, half water. Most dogs veered left either while on land or once in the water in order to square the bank and shorten the swim. Laddie was one of only 2-3 dogs to take a straight line the entire way, nailing the mark.
  • The relatively easy memory-bird of the second series was 110y, but had only 20y of swimming, across a triangular wedge of water a third of the way out. Virtually every other dog veered right to shorten the swim. Laddie took a direct line to the bird with his trademark big-air water entry, maintained a great line as he swam across the wedge without any attempt to square the far bank, then climbed onto the far shore and ran straight to the bird.
  • The most difficult mark of the day was the long memory-bird of the second series. I believe Laddie was the only dog to see that mark as the first throw of a triple. Because of the difficulty of the mark, and also because the water was so cold, some trainers opted not to run that mark. Of the other dogs, all but Laddie ran the mark as a single. It consisted of a 20y land segment, a 40y water segment, a diagonal crossing of the end of a peninsula with high slopes and high cover, a 60y swim out of sight from the handler, and a throw that had been made from the edge of a stand of flooded timber to water's edge at the far shore (some of the early dogs had that throw fall a yard or two inland rather than into water). The height of the peninsula made it difficult or impossible for the dog to see the last few feet of the throw's trajectory, producing an optical illusion that resulted in several dogs hunting the point halfway to the bird, even though the holding blind was 60y further on the far shore. Most dogs who ran the mark with any success at all veered right after entering the first water segment to square the bank of the peninsula, then hunted the point of the peninsula, typically getting back into the water on the near side, disappeared on the far side of the peninsula, and with or without help from the thrower eventually got the bird. Laddie, the only dog running the mark as the memory-bird from a triple, vocalized as he took a big-air entry into the first water segment, was the only dog to actually lengthen his swim by veering right and around the end of the point, then (according to the thrower reporting on the radio, since the far side of the peninsula was not visible from the start line) took an almost direct line to the bird. When Laddie reached the far shore, he was a bit wide but turned the correct direction and lunged a few feet along the shore line to the bird.
So to summarize, I don't think it's just that Laddie marks well when we train alone with my assistants. Competing against other Q dogs in our last trial, and training with the most advanced dogs at yesterday's training day, Laddie has also showed a degree of marking skill.

By the way, since this is a rare opportunity for me to make the time to write a post, some other points:
  • When we ran the first series, the guy who acted as my "judge" forgot to release Laddie after the triple had been thrown. Laddie and I kept waiting, as the cripple flyer fluttered around in the field. After a few seconds, Laddie broke, and ignored me when I called "Here". That's Laddie's first break in a long time, but we don't get to see many flyers. I can only hope the incident has predisposed Laddie to breaking, either from the line or from honor, at some future trial.
  • These days, because of one of my theories about why Laddie might have become more likely to pop lately, I rarely run Laddie on any blinds, and virtually never in the same session when we're running marks. However, yesterday's first series had two blinds, both with a small water segment, and the second series had a difficult water blind involving three angled water entries, the last two with easy available cheats around wedges of water. Laddie had little difficulty with the first blind. He couldn't run the second blind as I had intended it be run, but neither could any of the other dogs, and Laddie was one of only two dogs even to get into the water. Laddie was also one of the only dogs to run the final water blind, and the only one not to cheat at least one of the water segments. I think the results say more about my lack of skill in accurately appraising blind difficulty in setting up the second and third blinds, which were both too difficult for these dogs, than really reflecting much about the dogs themselves. I hope the blinds on balance were good training for Laddie, but I can't be sure it's beneficial to run him on such difficult work, especially when the water is so cold. The three difficult water segments were quite short, but the easy cheats were still far more attractive.
  • Laddie well understands that he is not constrained to take a direct route back after picking up a mark, and uniquely among the dogs at our trials as well as training days like yesterday's, invariably sought a route, sometimes quite lengthy, that minimized or eliminating swimming on his returns. As far as I know, this has never hurt Laddie's scoring at a test or trial, and I hope that continues to be the case, because I think it's a helpful counterbalance to the comparative difficulty I've had training Laddie's returns without the use of an ecollar.
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