Yesterday, Laddie was dropped from a Master test. I had the opportunity to ask one of the judges why, and he assured me that it wasn't Laddie's work. Rather, it was "trainability", specifically line manners. The judge commented, "For example, on the first series, you said 'here' to your dog 12 times before you got to the start line."
Well, as far as I know, we've never been dropped for line manners before, but it was certainly a legitimate criticism. Laddie had locked his eyes onto the honor dog while he was still on lead in the holding blind, and my wrist fear wasn't that he'd have trouble with the retrieving, but that he'd decide to visit, or even charge, the other dog. Obviously a dog fight would be far worse than getting dropped from the test, so as I always do these days, I focused with all my energy on keeping Laddie under control when another dog is nearby and taking my chances that the judges would allow it, and this time I lost.
It may never come up again, but it is something new to work on, so I put some thought into how I might address it, and in correspondence, Jody made several excellent suggestions, including making use of a dog park.
Laddie has been j going to dig parks a few times a year all his life, and has never been in a fight at one. However, he tends to spend most of the time running around sniffing other dogs, especially females. Whatever learning is going on seems to have little to do with coming to the line in a competition with other dogs nearby.
However, I thought I might be able to set up a scenario more similar to competition. So I brought Laddie to a dog park with lots of dogs, including Labs, and brought him in in his lead with his favorite puppy bumper in my other hand. I did not try too char any dogs away, and told owners who asked that I didn't mind their dogs being near us, but I didn't let Laddie engage with any of them. If I thought he or another dog was getting tense, I hugged him close to me and held him immobile by the scruff, saying quietly, "It's ok, it's ok." Soon the other dogs lost interest and Laddie and I had a corner to ourselves.
I slipped off his lead, cued "sit", tossed the bumper, and sent him. He faced to pick it up and brought it back, we played a little tug, and then repeat.
We played that way for about half an hour. Many variations occurred. For example, another dog might approach Laddie's toy or Laddie himself. If I saw any possible danger, I rushed to Laddie and got him under control as described above. Sometimes we didn't play tug, I just threw the bumper again. Sometimes: didn't keep him steady and let him run as soon as he saw I was throwing, which is more exciting for Laddie than having to watch the throw while sitting. We also moved to several different locations. And another variation was that sometimes Laddie would get distracted and not complete the retrieve. Again, I would rush to him, cue "pick it up" if he had dropped the toy, and get him involved in the game again.
As luck would have it, : found an excellent reinforcer for staying in the game. Temps today are in the high 80s, and someone had brought a child's wading pool and placed it near the faucet and host. It was ready teaching Laddie to step over the rim of the pool, and once in the pool, he lay down to cool his belly and lapped the water. Great way to cool off!
So after that, when Laddie would bring back the bumper, in a single motion, I'd grasp the rope, swing it away from Laddie as he released it, and toss it into the wading pool. He'd get in the pool, lie down, and sip a little water. In a few seconds, he was ready to bring the bumper back for another retrieve. This scenario was especially useful for immunizing Laddie to other dogs who might try to engage him or steal the bumper. He'd simply step out of the way, tiff his head away from them, and continue his jog back to me so I could throw the toy back into the pool.
I hope to have quite a few more such sessions with Laddie, with different locations and of course different mixes of dogs. One goal is to improve Laddie's behavior in these situations. But another goal is for me to learn to read the situations, so that I can trust him to perform well without my intervention whenever possible. Between those two processes, I think I may have a realistic shot at being able to bring him to the line in competitions with far less risk and tension than at present. That's the hope, anyway.