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.


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