Sunday, November 17, 2013

Distance work at Cheltenham

With temps in the high fifties and even some moments of sunshine, I picked up two assistants this morning and we drove to Cheltenham to train for a couple of hours.

First I set up a water double with both marks offering long swims and difficult cheats, and we ran it as singles. Laddie ran the first one without cheating, but needed handling on the second. Then he ran a big water blind across the point of an island on a line between the two marks. Laddie handled well on both the mark and the blind, but his vocalizing has gotten worse. He vocalized on almost every cast and also vocalized while swimming sometimes even when not being handled.

Although all of the retrieves in the first series were long, we then moved to a new location and set up another water double plus blind where the retrieves were even longer. The double was also a more difficult configuration, a hip pocket double with a cheaty water re-entry on the left and a long swim between two points on the right. And the blind was a channel crossing, a difficult angle water re-entry, and a long swim the length a stick pond channel with a key hole at mid point. All of this work was too difficult for Laddie. He needed to be handled on both marks and needed to try the blind three times, since I called him all the way back when he climbed up onto the point going thru the key hole the first two times. Interestingly, although he vocalized a great deal when handled in this series, he stopped vocalizing once thru the key hole even though he still needed additional handling. I wish I knew why he stopped vocalizing. I've always thought I noticed a pattern of Laddie vocalizing more when he's near me than at greater distances. Today was consistent with that pattern.

To end the day we ran a big reverse hip pocket land double followed by a big land blind that featured crossing the slope of a mound. Laddie ran reasonable marks but hooked the gun on the long memory bird. That was not ideal but, since it indicates he had some confusion, the good news is that he didn't pop but rather worked it out without help. On the blind, he took his initial line across the slope of the mound well and two-whistled the  blind.

Yes, Laddie needed more help than I would have planned for, but we trained on long and difficult retrieves, and he did the work with that characteristic all-out, never flagging enthusiasm I always find so inspiring. For me, it was a challenging but enjoyable session, and I hope for Laddie, too.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Winter starts

It's not really winter yet, but we've had some freezing temps, and I've pretty much decided to push Laddie's competition until next spring.

At that time, I plan to again limit our events to Master tests, hoping to earn three more passes and thereby a Master Hunter title for Laddie.

When we've met that goal, I plan to resume running Laddie in field trial stakes: definitely Quals, and possibly Ams as well. Those are the levels of competition I would expect to run Laddie in for the remainder of his career.

The last few months, all of our training has been geared for Master events, but beginning this morning, I decided to switch gears with our future plans in mind. So for most of this off-season, we'll train for field trials. Then as spring approaches, we'll switch back to Master-style training to prepare for the first events we'll be running.

Today, then, Laddie ran two big land doubles, each including a land blind on a line between the two marks. The retrieves were in the range 170-370y, the throwers wore white coats, and we used no duck calls.

Laddie did well. I can't explain why, but Laddie seemed more comfortable with today's big marks and blinds than he has been running Master set-ups, and I was also more comfortable.

As we begin the off-season, I'll miss competing, but hopefully the training will continue to be fun as it always has been.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Laddie and water

Some thoughts on Laddie and water:

- Laddie likes to cool off in water when he's hot. This has nothing to do with retrieving and is in fact a training challenge. I designed a drill a couple of years that seems to have put that issue behind us most of the time, though occasionally it still crops up.

- Laddie is so crazy about going out to a thrown article that he'd probably run thru a brick wall and look like he was enjoying it. It is a waste of time to judge Laddie's attitudes about water based on his send outs on marks, especially the go-bird.

- Although it's pleasant to think that Laddie's vocalizing is actually exuberance based on a love of water, it's hard to see the huge problem he used to have with LWL returns, and his new problem with going OOC at the line, in that light. Those clearly were and are avoidance behaviors. Not necessarily of water, but of something, and water looks like an excellent candidate.

- Eventually Laddie became able to perform LWL returns, and as I continue to strengthen his response to "heel", I may be able to eliminate going OOC at the line as a concern in competition. But should I ignore the underlying reason for the behavior in the first place, wherever it may be, perhaps water aversion?

- If I could somehow develop in Laddie a powerful affection for going to an unseen target, comparable to his attraction to a thrown target, it could conceivably solve both the OOC issue and the vocalizing. This is not to say I know how, but it seems to cover the data points on where Laddie is with water. He might still not like water per se, but it wouldn't matter.

More on that last point in future posts, hopefully.

Another near miss

For the second Master test two weekends in a row, Laddie has made it to the third (last) series, and most of the dogs who made it to that series passed the test, but Laddie didn't.

Frankly I don't enjoy writing posts when Laddie (or Lumi) is unsuccessful, and would rather discuss the matter in private correspondence. But in this case, I guess I should include some info in our training journal for the record.

First of all, the judges did not allow Laddie to complete the last retrieve of the test, the water blind, because he was vocalizing. As Laddie was swimming back, one of the judges offered some suggestions on how to fix the problem. Vocalizing in water is a problem Laddie has had since he was a puppy, though I never noticed it in the early years and then later saw that it was in his videos all along. I guess the judge felt his suggestions might enable me to solve the problem.

This incident reminds me of two things that one of my mentors told me. One was that some judges won't tolerate vocalizing, and Laddie's just not going to pass those tests. This is the first time it's happened, so hopefully we'll have more opportunities to pass with other judges, as we have in the past at every level we've competed. I guess I should make a note not to run Laddie under this judge again, perhaps either of these judges.

The other was that, in my mentor's experience, there are two kinds of trainers: those who have had a dog that vocalizes and tried everything, sometimes over a period of years, to fix it but never could; and those who have never had a dog that vocalizes, and are sure they know how to fix it.

I was actually both of those simultaneously at one time: I couldn't fix Laddie's vocalizing in water, but I was sure I knew how to fix vocalizing at the line if I ever were to have a dog with that issue. :0)

I've written in the past about my efforts to fix the problem and won't discuss it further in this post, other than to reiterate that I'm not working on it any more.

I do have an unrelated insight from today's test, however, that may not be unrelated at all. In several of our Master tests, especially this fall, Laddie has gone OOC at the line, nosing around in cover near the start line and strongly resisting my calls of "here" and "heel" for some time, just before running a second water mark or a water blind. You'd think I'd have seen that this was a pattern, but sadly, it wasn't till today that I realized it is. You'd also think I'd have noticed it in training, but for the last several months, virtually the only water retrieves Laddie has done were in Master tests. I simply don't have the time and money to bring him to water with several assistants I pay on an hourly rate on any regular basis. I don't actually know whether Laddie would go OOC near the line in training or not. Obviously it's not something I've noticed, and that may be because it's recent or because it only happens when we get to water in a Master test, which hasn't happened that many times. Of course I'll begin to watch for it in training, and hopefully get it fixed. Now that I see the pattern, it seems to me that it's some sort of avoidance behavior, whatever that implies as a possible point of departure for a solution.

Following thru on that idea brings to mind a new thought: What if Laddie actually finds water aversive, and maybe both the lifelong vocalizing, and the more recent line control issues, are actually manifestations of that same emotion? This thought is so alien and so unpleasant to me - a retriever with Laddie's superb pedigree uncomfortable with water? - that I can barely stand to consider it. Besides, what about his bold, crashing big air water entries? What about his many competitive successes? What about his lifelong attraction to water at times that I didn't want it, such as going swimming in a pond instead of completing a land retrieve, a training issue I had to contend with when Laddie was younger? Yet I must consider the possibility that something about water, if not everything about water, is a problem for Laddie and that some of his behaviors, maybe even others besides vocalizing and going OOC at the line, derive from that emotion.

For now, I plan to work on the control issue as a training problem and accept the vocalizing as a flaw that will block us from success in some situations. A more general understanding may come with time.

With respect to competition, I think we will end our season today, despite it being on an unsuccessful note. Any remaining tests would be a very long drive and would probably involve retrieving in very cold water, which doesn't seem like the wisest strategy at this time.

Then again, Laddie's pick-ups and returns have improved hugely the last couple of tests, he hasn't broken in a long time, and he's gotten thru all his honors his entire career without any apparent issues with the nearby presence of another dog despite all my worrying. In addition, we did make it to the third series in both our last two tests, and we did get two Master passes this year. Those are real positives to reflect upon as we enter the winter months. We can resume our pursuit of an MH title in the spring.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Socializing milestone

With as many as a dozen dogs at the dog park today, mostly the same size as Laddie and some of them pitch black, his ability to run around comfortably with them was of course a welcome reminder of the socialization progress he's made the last few weeks.

And having other dogs trying to steal his puppy bumper as he trotted back to me with it, one dog actually succeeding after a prolonged game of tug in getting the toy away from Laddie, all without any hint of aggression, was a great reprise of behavior I've been starting to see.

But today was a new milestone, when a big Goldendoodle put a paw on Laddie's back, and then attempted a full-blown tackle, complete with the snarling uproar of a all-out dog fight. Except that only one dog was interested in fighting. Laddie simply maneuvered out of harm's way while maintaining a casual interest in the engagement. "As soon as you get that out of your system," he seemed to be saying to the Goldendoodle, "we can get back to playing."

If this trend continues, I think a time could come where I could work with Laddie at an event, at the line or on honor, and not have to worry about some potential incident with another dog. Of course I'm not ready to let my guard down yet, but I really think we might be getting there.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Master ramp

Thanks to everyone for all your good wishes to Laddie on me on Friday's Master test. We made it to the third and last series on Saturday.  Laddie picked up all the birds without a handle (he had needed a handle in the first series triple), but he didn't get the pass. Final result was 76 dogs entered, 34 dogs qualified.

As we experienced in other levels of field events, we're on a ramp, and we've reached the stage where we're getting called back deeper into the test and even passing sometimes (Laddie has two Master legs), but we're not yet at the stage where we can pass every test.

We'll try to keep learning the countless nuances of handling. For example, in this test I learned (or re-learned), don't let the marshal tell you to "get your dog" to run out of turn and then stand around, while your dog gets more and more pumped up by the nearby gunfire, as more and more other handlers insist on running ahead of you. Let your dog relax in his/her crate until the marshal really has established a place for you in the line-up. The excitement of an event significantly deteriorates a dog 's performance under the best of circumstances. Don't let that excitement level be raised even higher by the marshal having you bring your dog out just to stand around waiting unnecessarily.

And we'll continue to strengthen Laddie's training -- for example, Laddie's ability to be controlled at the line under sometimes extremely compelling distractions (in this case a scent or perhaps the sound of movement in the cover in front of the line, especially while the dog is in a highly excited state). This is a proofing challenge -- I need to find ways to expose Laddie to an ever-widening range of really difficult distractions. Perhaps our continued visits to dog parks will help with this.

Being on a ramp like this is frustrating and discouraging, because of course you don't know what lies ahead. Will I continue to improve as a handler, and continue to strengthen Laddie's skills,  and as a result have better and better results in competition outcomes? Or are tests and trials so different from one another that the idea of a trend line is meaningless?

Only the future will tell. I see only two choices: Quit, or keep trying. At least for now, we'll keep trying.


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