Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Faking the throw and other games

Yesterday, Laddie and I again went out, with three neighborhood kids as throwers, to work on marking accuracy. Because our focus was on marking accuracy, all of the marks were in the 100-170y range, and all guns stayed out.

With temps below freezing, and patches of snow still on the ground from flurries the previous day, of course we're not working on water. However, I tried to set up at least one challenge for each mark in the two land triples we ran. For example, I had the gunners throw into the stiff crosswind, requiring Laddie to shoulder into the wind to avoid getting on the wrong side of the gunner. And in one mark, the gunner sat in an arcing swale but threw onto high ground. The line to the fall required Laddie to enter that swale but then cut diagonally up the embankment. Other marks required Laddie to traverse a deep depression rather than take an obvious detour around it, to run over a mound rather than around it, and to run past the gunner and cross a dirt road rather than hunting short on the near side.

I also planted one of the bumpers where the gunner would have thrown it, and when I called for the throw with Laddie at the line, I had the gunner just fake a throw. The idea is that I believe that sometimes a dog, including Laddie, does not actually see the bird (or bumper) when it's thrown, and has to guess its likely fall from the position of the gunner, the arm motion, and experience in where the bird is likely to have landed. Having the gunner fake a throw simulates that situation, hopefully preparing the dog for occasions in events where he/she doesn't actually see the throw.

How Laddie does on these setups provides two different kinds of data: Laddie's skill as a retriever, and my skill in creating setups that Laddie can learn from. It's always nice to see Laddie nail every mark, and it's probably good for his confidence. But we also want him to push past his current skill level and become comfortable with greater and greater challenges. The question is, do I have enough skill to set up the kinds challenges that judges will present in an actual event? In a sense, Laddie having difficulty with particular marks validates that Laddie is indeed gaining an opportunity for increasing his skill, and that I am successfully creating challenges that enable him to do so.

Another question is what to do when Laddie is unable to nail a mark. Of course in some cases he's only off by a small bit and no opportunity exists to assist him. By the time you realize that he's a bit off course and react, he's already corrected himself. Then in some cases he's badly off course. At one time I was trying to create a lot of those to work on Laddie's Plan B strategy -- "If I don't remember where the bird is, look for the gunner" -- but these days it rarely occurs. When it does, I immediately call for help from the thrower, since looking to the gunner is the behavior I want Laddie to learn. And finally, cases occur where Laddie seems to have a clear picture of where he's going, but seems to make a conscious decision to take an easier or faster route around an obstacle rather than thru it. In that case, my approach is to blow a sit whistle, and then either handle him thru the obstacle, or call him in and run the mark, or the whole series, again. I think sometimes one of those strategies is preferable, sometimes the other. I'm not sure what the rules are for which.

One setup I do NOT have Laddie practice is obstacles he can't get thru, such as a large shrub on the line to the bird. Judges do sometimes set those kinds of situations up in events, and it might seem to therefore be a good idea to practice it. But detouring around obstacles is the one strategy I don't want Laddie to practice, so I try to avoid setting those kinds of situations up.

By the way, in case I haven't mentioned this before: One of my theories about Laddie's popping is that he doesn't have a clear enough demarcation in his mind between a marked retrieve, where he's on his own, and a blind retrieve, where he's running under control of the handler. In an effort to reduce the probability of his spontaneously looking to me for help, especially when running a mark, I've reduced his practices with blinds to only one or two blind-retrieve sessions per week, sometimes only one blind per week, and never on the same day as when we run marks. The exceptions are occasional group training days and, of course, events. That's why I rarely mention Laddie running blinds any more when I report on training sessions with our assistants.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Pin-point marking

For the last few months, I've been training Laddie the way I imagine all-age dogs are trained: a steady diet of big, difficult triples and quads with most or all guns retired.

Of course being able to run such a series nicely will come in handy if and when Laddie ever runs in all-age stakes, and the setups also hopefully provided over-training for Qs. But actually, my primary objective was to build Laddie's confidence on long marks and lower the probability of a pop.

What I did not realize was that, once again, I was getting Laddie out of balance. This time, the issue was marking accuracy. Because it's  relatively unlikely that a dog can run 300+ yards on a laser and arrive at the exact location of the bird, not visible from the distance once down, I guess dogs need to develop a strategy for such marks of running to the area of the fall, then hunting the bird up.

That strategy, however, is not necessary on a relatively short mark. Instead, a good-marking dog can often simply take a straight line to the bird. The challenge becomes a memory test, combined with training the dog not to go around obstacles such as mounds, high cover, and of course water. The dog also needs to learn not to be diverted by off-line influences such as wind, scent and points of land. Of course those factors are important when training on big setups as well, but I think you can focus on them, and communicate more effectively with the dog, when big distances aren't also involved.

In Laddie's last trial, big distances weren't involved on the land and water triples. Laddie made it to the end and earned a green ribbon, but what separated him from the dogs that placed was his marking accuracy, or relative lack thereof. Actually, two of his six marks were perfect, and two more required only an small jag at the end. His two weakest marks were the two flyers, and the first of those was still a good mark: he took an excellent line, broke to the outside presumably distracted by dispersed scent a few yards early, then immediately turned back straight to the bird. He only had one long hunt -- the out of order flyer in the water triple -- but in this field, that was one too many.

In any case, now that our competition is over till next April, one of our areas of concentration will be trying to restore Laddie's knack for pin-point marking. I think this means not so many long, retired marks, and more short marks with well-defined obstacles and the white jackets remaining visible.

Today was a case in point. I had three assistants, and we trained at the huge construction site we've been using a lot this year. We ran two triples with no retired guns and distances in the range 90-170y.

With temps in the low 30s and a strong wind, the first triple's challenges were for Laddie to ignore the cross-wind, diagonal dirt road crossings, and terrain factors. He ran directly to each fall, but I wasn't totally thrilled with the arcing lines he ran.

The second triple was more difficult on it's #1 and #2 throws. The challenge on the second mark was a mound -- more of a mesa actually -- with the bumper not visible after landing 30y behind it. After nailing the go-bird despite a powerful and icy cross-wind, Laddie took an excellent line over the mound and nailed the second mark as well.

The #1 throw was the longest and most difficult of the day. It was thrown from a depression, into stiff wind, over a dirt road, and up into a large patch of high cover on top of the high ground on the other side of the road. Although I didn't retire the gun, this was the last mark Laddie picked up, so memory was still involved.

Laddie took a great line the first 150y, traversing rough terrain but not too difficult. Then came the moment of truth. Would Laddie hold his line, mount a crest of land, and plunge into the cover, or would he arc slightly inside toward the gunner, follow the road for 20y, and then dart into the cover to pick up the bumper, a much easier trip? An instant later, I had my answer: Laddie held his line and for the third time, nailed his mark.

Had Laddie improved between the two series, or was the second series somehow easier for him? I guess I'll never know.

In any case, that was just the kind of marking I was looking for. We'll follow up with another few similar sessions. Then, as our winter training continues, I guess I'll start mixing up shorter series with longer ones, and hopefully not get Laddie out of balance in that particular way again.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Notes and more notes

Hi, Alice and Jody. I think I told you guys that the main reason Laddie was dropped after the third series in our previous trial was because the judges had noted that Laddie aired on several of his returns. By airing, they were referring to male-dog territorial marking, which is indeed one of Laddie's favorite hobbies.

Accordingly, in the weeks since then, I've immediately and unconditionally called Laddie any time he dawdles on any of his returns in practice, and I also came up with a sort of drill. Here it is:

I often throw hey-hey bumpers for Laddie to retrieve for fun, with or without steadiness, and in addition, I often toss a softball for him with the verbal cue "go potty" when I air him. Historically, he has aired when retrieving in any of those scenarios.

But starting after the last trial, I began to make a clear delineation. If I don't say "go potty" or "go play" (more or less synonymous), Laddie is not to dawdle on his returns. But if I do use those cues, he's free to eliminate, roll, sniff, explore, or any other kind of doggie activity he likes.

And here's the clincher: When I let him out of the van, or out of the house -- that is, times when he's especially like to have an urge to eliminate -- the first thing I do is throw a hey-hey bumper for him without a verbal "go potty" cue. In other words, even though he's likely to be feeling a pretty strong urge, he's required to bring the bumper back without delay. Of course, I cheer and immediately throw his softball, calling out "go potty". Thus I'm making a point of having him see the difference between the two scenarios -- cue or no cue -- even in the presence of a strong desire to air, and of course rewarding/reinforcing his correct response.

Results, Part A: Laddie did not air or otherwise dawdle a single time in this weekend's trial. Besides the above training, I also watched him closely on returns and blew a call-in whistle if I saw any hint that a delay was about to transpire.

Results, Part B: I had a nice conversation with the judges after ribbons, mentioning to them among other things that the reason I had used multiple call-in whistles on Laddie's returns was because of the previous judges' complaint about Laddie airing on returns. They seemed genuinely stunned. One of them commented, "I close the book as soon as the dog picks up the bird." They also barely remembered Laddie's vocalizing on the water blind, and said it played no part in their scoring. When I mentioned that the previous judges had also had a problem with Laddie's vocalizing, they suggested I make a note of who those judges were and avoid them in the future.  :0)

By the way, Laddie also didn't pop in the trial, and had quite a long hunt on the flyer in the water triple, so a pop would not have been surprising. I think the approach I've used, which turned out to be a good bit of training on 300y+ marks, with as many as three retired guns per series, might have paid off with respect to popping.

On the other hand, I think all those long, and retired, and long+retired guns might have hurt Laddie's marking a bit, so I think I'll go back to leaving some guns out more this winter, and running more Q-scale series than we have been.

One last note for now: I mentioned Laddie's hunts (one short, one long) on the flyers in this last trial to Milly in a phone call last night, and she said, "Well of course." She pointed out that the scent on the ground is more dispersed with flyers, and also that the dog is more excited (as Alice noted). When I described Laddie's long, deep hunt on the water series flyer, Milly said he might have been picking up scent back there, possibly from a previous stake on the same grounds, that the other dogs -- all Labs -- weren't as distracted by. She said that sometimes the Golden's superior nose is actually a disadvantage, and this might have been one of those cases.

Oh, well, one more note. As I mentioned to Jody when I spoke to her -- Saturday night, was it? -- I had forgotten that it's possible for a Q to go more than one day. So when one of my assistants asked to go to the trial on Friday, I didn't mention that possibility to him. Well, when we learned Saturday afternoon that the stake was being stopped for the day and I told my assistant we'd have to spend the night, he said flatly, "I can't."  He's a 16yo who's never been more than a few miles from home, and I didn't feel I could safely or fairly put him on a bus. So instead, I drove him the 370 miles back home, then slept a few hours and drove back to the grounds in the wee hours. For the weekend, Laddie and I drove 1500 miles and were in the van for 28 hours, including 700 miles and 14 hours of driving between the second and third series.

Ahem, well, this, too: You know all that work we've putting in on Laddie's water honesty on marks especially the last few months? Well, forget it. Sunday's triple was a marking test, not a cheating test, though it had the added feature of the flyer thrown first, something Laddie and I have never, ever seen before in a triple. Laddie's water honesty never came into play. On the other hand, that out-of-order flyer blew my mind. First I was afraid Laddie wouldn't turn to the #2 and #3 birds, though he had no problem turning with me and got a good look at every throw. And second, I was afraid he'd lie to me when I sent him to the go-bird and swerve over to the flyer, though again it was no problem and he nailed the go-bird. In our conversation later, the judges commented that I need to relax more at the line and learn to trust my dog.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Laddie's sixth JAM

Just a note to record Laddie's sixth Qual JAM, his fifth this year, in his last event of the year, this one the Cape Fear Retriever Club Field Trial Qualifying stake in Rocky Point, North Carolina.

Raw stats: 26 dogs entered, one scratch so 25 ran, 20 were called back after the land triple, 13 were called back after the land blind, work ended for the day and we came back to finish the next day (today), 7 dogs were called back after the water blind, and all of those received ribbons after the water triple. Both marking series featured a flyer, and the stake did not include an honor.

Laddie was one of only two Goldens in the stake, and the only one with callbacks. Five Chessies were also entered, none finished. By the last series, we were running running almost exclusively against Labs who had been trained by and were being run by pros. Of course Laddie was also the only positive-trained dog, and perhaps the only dog in the last series who was the owner/trainer/handler's first field trial retriever using any kind of training. The winner's sire was an NFC. So yeah, we were up against some difficult competition by the end.

Obviously I'm disappointed we didn't get a placement, but I'm glad that after Laddie's injury to his tail a few weeks ago, we were able to get to the end of another trial, and receive another field trial ribbon, before season's end.

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