Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Practicing pick-ups and returns

Laddie is entered in another Master in two weeks. Since his performance last weekend was strong on marks and strong on handling, but weak on pick-ups and returns, I've decided to devote these next two weeks primarily to strengthening those skills.

This is not the first time we've done this, and you can probably find posts on the same subject in this blog if you go back a few years. But for the record, this is how I'm approaching it this time.

For Laddie at this time in his development, it seems that the optimum set-up is a short single mark with a gunner using an enthusiastic duck-call (for excitement), a high throw (for excitement), a gunshot (for excitement), and a fresh duck (for excitement). The handler then sends the dog, and as soon as the dog is on the bird, the handler whistles come-in, pauses a moment to see if the dog picks the bird-up, and if not, uses some cue with a known high assurance of getting the dog to pick the bird up. In Laddie's case, that's "pick it up." If the dog makes a quick pick-up, either after the come-in whistle or after the verbal cue, the handler then goes into a game of chase with the dog when the dog gets back to the line, finally takes the bird and instantly throws it again. Here again, as soon add the dog gets to the bird, it's tweet-tweet-tweet, slight pause, "pick it up," chase game, and another throw. After 2-3 of those happy throws, the handler sets up for another throw from the field.

If the dog does not respond with a quick pick-up even after the verbal cue, then the handler says "no, sit," walks out to the dog, slips on the dog's lead, walks back to the start line, and sends the dog again. If that still doesn't work, I wouldn't continue this drill, because at that point the dog should be highly motivated, and if the dog still isn't picking up the bird, the dog doesn't understand the game and needs a more basic level of training than I'm discussing here.

Some notes on the design of this drill:

- The mark is short so that the positive reinforcement for picking up the bird, namely the game of chase and the happy throws after delivery, occurs almost instantly after the pick-up. The longer time between a behavior and its intended +R, the less effective the +R trends to be.

- All of the excitement has two purposes. One is to make the training session as enjoyable as possible fir the dog. The other is to simulate as much as possible the emotional state of the dog in competition, which is high excitement, so that competition retrieves, to the greatest extent possible, are "like" these practice retrieves in the dog's perception.

- The mechanism of using a come-in whistle immediately followed (if necessary) by a cue that's known to work followed by a high value positive reinforcer is a general approach to transferring a known (or strong) cue to an unknown (or weak) one. What happens the first few times is that the dig hears the unknown cue, doesn't know how to respond, hears the known cue, responds correctly, and is quickly rewarded. After a few reps, the dog, wanting the reward as soon as possible, realizes that the first cue predicts the second one, and so begins to respond to the first one without even waiting for the second one. This is called anticipatory response, and is the same reason a tennis player looks away from the ball before the ball has made contact with the racquet. Anticipatory response is often a disadvantage in sports, but using it to transfer a dog's understanding of one cue to another is one situation where anticipatory response is a helpful mechanism.

- The reason to walk out and get the dog if the dog did not respond correctly to either the come-in whistle or the verbal cue is that that deprives the dog of something valuable, in this case, both the opportunity to carry the bird and the opportunity to play a game of chase. These are extremely valuable to the dog, and losing them is something the dog hopefully greatly wants to avoid the next time the dog is in that situation.

- The reason for running the dog again immediately after a failure is so that dog can immediately compare the outcome of an incorrect response versus a correct one.

A note about today's session: I am under the weather and did not feel up to doing all the running around that my training plan called for on the part of the handler. So I went out in the field and did the throwing, and let my assistant, Annette, do the handling. I think it's good for Laddie to have several handlers anyway because I think it strengthens his understanding of the skills by abstracting them from the handler/dog relationship. So having Annette handle hopefully strengthened Laddie's understanding of his pick-up and return skills, and at the same time let me be a bit less active. 

I think this is the kind of drill you won't read about in a traditional field-training program because the ecollar is such a powerful tool that traditional trainers don't need a drill like this one. It may also be that training these skills with an ecollar makes a more powerful impression, eliminating the need for remedial training later on in the dog's career. I  guess positive methods tend to be more work.

Anyway, now for a nap.


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