Saturday, December 13, 2014

Laddie injured, left foot this time

I ran Laddie in the Maryland Gun Dog Championship last Sunday, and had him entered in a Super Singles competition tomorrow, because both events would be opportunities to work on Laddie's steadiness with flyers.

For training this week, I ran Laddie on three singles, all around 300y, on Tuesday, ran him on six blinds of around 180y on Thursday, and also brought him to an excellent training group we're lucky enough to be able to train with, which was meeting this morning.

The first setup today was a tight ABCD drill, plus a 150y+ blind, featuring a hay-bale keyhole and suction to wrap behind a wooded section near the end.

Unfortunately, we never got that far. Laddie raced out on the first single, but began limping badly on his return, and halfway back stopped, sat down, and dropped the bird. I came out and lifted him into my arms, intending to carry him to the van. But halfway there he began struggling, and when I put him down, he did not seem to be limping any more.

I checked his paws for foreign objects at the suggestion of another trainer, and then decided to try him out on another single. Again he raced to the bird, and again he began to limp badly on his return. He limped to an area of shadow behind a hay bale near the second fall and lay down with the bird. I again walked out to him, but rather than picking him up this time, in deference to my recently injured back, I slipped his lead over his head and slowly walked him back to the van.

Luckily, our holistic vet, Carol Lundquist, who lives less than an hour from where we were training, was able to make a few minutes to check Laddie out. First I walked him around outside, expecting to show Carol either that Laddie was not limping, or that he was limping on his chronically injured right foreleg. Instead, he seemed to be limping on his left foreleg, which he's never injured before as far as I can remember.

Carol then examined him in her office, and discovered that two of the toes on his left foot were badly swollen. She told me that it made sense he could run out on his retrieves without seeming to limp but would limp on the way back in. That's because when a dog canters or gallops, if one foot is sore, the dog can lead with the other side and not appear to limp. But trotting back, the dog needs to put weight on both front legs alternately and an injury shows as limping.

Carol gave me guidance such as icing and various pain meds, and no training for at least a week, which will hold us until our scheduled appointment next Saturday for both Lumi and Laddie. Of course Laddie won't be able to run in the event tomorrow either. 

How did the injury occur? Carol mentioned several possibilities, such as a misstep that resulted in a sprain, or banging his foot against a rock or tree root. She said the injury also could have occurred earlier, such as when I aired him, but wasn't painful enough to cause limping till he ran hard on the first, and then the second, send outs.

It's unfortunate we'll have to miss the event tomorrow, but the timing and/or the injury could have been a lot worse.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Laddie receives finalist ribbon in MDWFA 2014 Gun Dog Championship

In this year's MDWFA Gun Dog Championship, held yesterday in Cheltenham, Laddie was one of six dogs (of the 22 entries) to reach the 2014 finals, and received another ribbon for his already overstuffed bulletin board.

I had never seen a Gun Dog competition before, and I expected hunt test-level setups, which I've been planning to avoid since I want to focus on field trial competition for the remainder of Laddie's career now that he has his MH. But when I learned flyers would be used, I decided to enter.

My reason was that, after Laddie broke in his first and so-far only all-age competition last July, I picture in my mind's eye that I saw the instant when he was about to break that day, and possibly could have stopped him by calling "SIT!" at that instant rather than waiting till he had actually launched. He would still have been DQed, but in a much better way from a training point of view than actually getting the bird as he did. But I'm not yet certain my reflexes are fast enough, or that he would have responded, so I thought this competition might be an opportunity to test that theory.

In fact, we had not one but a total of three flyers during the competition (one as the go-bird in the first series double, and two in the third-series double), but Laddie was rock steady on all three, so I didn't get to try that experiment. However, I've entered Laddie in another competition next weekend that also will also use flyers — a Super Singles event — so maybe we'll see then.

In terms of my overarching goal of finding out how far I can take a field receiver using positive training methods, I don't think this ribbon tells us much. On the one hand, some of the dogs in the competition were all-age competitors, including at least one field champion with a Second in an Open this fall, so Laddie prevailed over some good dogs. On the other hand, the scoring system was so quirky — based mostly on number of whistles — that Laddie survived a first series blind he would never have survived in a trial.

On the positive side, besides the ribbon and the steadiness, Laddie marked well throughout the event. In the second series triple, he nailed all three marks and lined the blind. He showed no aversion to the cold water, which figured prominently in the third series, leaping into the water on every entry on the way out. Note: Laddie doesn't leap into the water during returns, with an article in his mouth. He used to when he was a puppy, but I think he must have hurt himself doing that once, and it took a year — a year! — to re-train him even to enter the water carrying an article. Now he does so without hesitation, but he alligators in, rather than using the big-air entries he makes when he's not carrying anything.

As another good sign, all of Laddies returns, both land and water, were satisfactory. He did drop the bird at the line a few times, which is not cool, but not something that seems to matter much in scoring at trials, as long as he then picks it back up for delivery to hand.

Also, Laddie never vocalized on any of his retrieves, including the water blind with a point in the picture in the third series, which is, I think, an important improvement from the summer and hopefully shows that my decision not to compete this fall, and instead concentrate on devocalization, is paying off, and perhaps shows that the approach I used does seem to have the ability to address that difficult, possibly genetic, tendency. However, he did bark twice when I was lining him up to run the blind he ended up lining. Anthropomorphizing, it felt like he was saying, "Let me go, I know where it is, it's frustrating that you won't just send me," but of course I can't really know why he barked, other than, I guess, some kind of stress. To be honest, while I understand that vocalizing is a fault, it remains thrilling to work with such a highly motivated competitor.

In every series yesterday, at least one dog never saw the go-bird thrown. One more positive for us was that Laddie saw every throw.

As for negatives from the competition, I found that despite my best efforts in training to prepare Laddie for running blinds with difficult factors (including two 300+ yard blinds at a training session last week), I still cannot control him if the suction in a competitive blind is too strong. In the case of the third series yesterday, the gunners threw two flyers right-to-left, and then the dog had to pick up a water blind in front of the left downed flyer. It was one thing to pull Laddie off the go-bird flyer on the right. It was something else to deny him both flyers, something we've never seen before at any level of competition. Besides that suction to the right, the point of land and adjacent running-depth water also provided additional major suction to the right, and the stiff wind blowing LTR didn't help, since no dog likes to take a cast into the wind. Anyway, after Laddie picked up the left flyer, eliminating him from any chance of winning the event, the judges permitted me to rerun Laddie on the blind, and this time he three-whistled it. That was better than the dog who won the event, though of course that dog did it with both flyers still on the ground, so it proves nothing other than that Laddie can run a difficult blind well if a flyer isn't lying nearby.

The other negative is that Laddie scraped up his nose in the first series. It looks painful, but it doesn't seem to be bothering him. I'm afraid it will scar, but he already has other scars on his pretty puppy nose, so this is just one more.

In summary, Laddie was steady on all three flyers (as well as a 25-yard dead bird as go-bird in the second series), had good returns, saw every throw, marked well, didn't vocalize running a difficult and frustrating water blind with a point (or running any other blind), lined one of the blinds, had a perfect score in one series, and added a Finalist ribbon to his bulletin board. I guess that's a good day.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Entries, re- entries, and a mound

For the last several sessions, I've brought along an assistant for Laddie's training, and made most of his retrieves marks rather than blinds. We are still working predominantly on technical ponds over and around points of land, but we've raised the reinforcement value of the retrieves by use of gunshots and giving Laddie the opportunity to see the bumper thrown rather than having to depend entirely on handling instructions from me.

Here, for example, are the retrieves that Laddie ran in today's session:

- LWLWL mark with cheating entry on first water. Laddie required handling when we ran this identical mark in our previous session, but did not need handling when we ran it today.

- LWLWL mark with cheating entry on first water. Laddie required handling when we ran this identical mark in our previous session, and retired handling again today.

- LWLWL mark with cheating re-entry (on second water). Laddie has never run this mark before, and did not require handling.

- LWLWL mark with cheating re-entry. Laddie has never run this mark before, and it was too difficult for him. Not only did he attempt to cheat around the second choice, but he barked when I attempted to call him back toward me and then cast him off the point. As soon as he vocalized, I immediately called him in, which was a long swim. When I attempted to run him on the mark again, his performance was identical to the first time, including barking and being called back in. Since I saw no way in that location to make it easier, I just decided to move to a new location for our continued training.

- LWLWL mark with cheating re-entry. Laddie has never run this mark before, but he required no handling.

- LWLWL mark with cheating re-entry. Laddie has never run this mark before, and he chose to run it by taking the point of land wide and then cutting back to the fall. Since I consider that an acceptable way to deal with a mark across the tip of a point, even though it takes Laddie a little offline, again Laddie required no handling on this mark.

- Land blind over a mound at midpoint. I was able to handle him over the mound when he tried to skirt it, and he did not vocalize as he had the last time we ran a blind over a mound, several months ago. I felt that was a good sign, showing that the work we had done with devocalizing on water blinds had also carried over to devocalizing on land blinds.

Like our other recent sessions, today's session was challenging yet low in stress and high in reinforcement value. It seems like a good way to take advantage of the little time we have left for training in water this season.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Devocalization, proofing with double blinds

During our last few sessions, Laddie and I have gotten well into the proofing stage for running blinds without vocalizing. For now, we are not working with the distractions of other dogs or trainers.

In addition, I am not requiring absolute silence at this time. Laddie still sometimes vocalizes quietly while swimming, and also occasionally barks once when being cast off a point. I'm torn about how to address these. The risk of allowing them to continue without calling him back is that I'm sending a confusing message, which could increase stress and which also might lead to the behavior gradually deteriorating again. But the risk of calling him back is that that results in a reduced rate of reinforcement (ROR) for the session, which is unpleasant and stressful for both of us. In addition, every time I can him back in order to discourage vocalizing, I'm at risk of also discouraging the correct response, such as taking the cast, that he was also offering at the same time. Maybe I should be more absolute and consistent, but for now I'm treating it as a judgment call.

As an example of one of our proofing sessions, today Laddie ran three double blinds, a total of six retrieves. Each double blind consisted of a short water blind with about 70y of swimming and a long water blind with about 150y of swimming. Every blind had one or more points of land in the picture, and I tried to provide a balanced mix of required behavior.

I didn't need to call Laddie back a single time for any of these: 

Series A, short blind: over a point on the left

Series A, long blind: past a point on the left, then between two points

Series B, short blind: over a point on the right

Series B, long blind: past a point on the right, then over a point on the right

Series C, short blind: over a point on the left, then past a point on the left

Series C, long blind: over a point on the right, then past a point on the right

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Devocalization, proofing phase

For the last few weeks, Laddie and I have had very little opportunity to work on marking. Half my assistants have gone away to college, and another one has moved, but I could probably still get together enough for local land triples, and maybe will do so at some point. The trouble is that at best, that would be preparation for the land triple at a Quad. It wouldn't help us with water, and I doubt it would help us much with all-age preparation. But I haven't been able to train with any all-age trainers in several weeks.

So instead, Laddie and I have been primarily working on blinds.

For land blinds, I usually take us somewhere near home and work on long blinds that have one or more factors as far from the start line as possible. Typical factors include keyholes, entries into cover when an easy cheat is available, diversions such as slightly offline lining pole with ribbon at top and large white bumper at base, diagonal slopes, mounds, and stands of trees to run past without wrapping around them.

I recognize that all-age blinds typically include water, and we aren't practicing long, difficult land/water blinds at this time.  But hopefully Laddie is still benefitting from practicing with the factors that I am incorporating.

Meanwhile, we now run virtually all of our water blinds at the closest training property, which is anywhere from two to four hours of driving roundtrip depending on traffic. Today was fairly typical, a two-hour training session sandwiched between two 2-hour drives.

I am no longer setting up many beginner or intermediate drills for Laddie to work on his vocalizing. Instead, he is running mostly Qual-level water blinds, with one primary rule: if he vocalizes at any time during the blind, I call Here or No, Here, and he has to come back and start over. I've experimented with calling back only partially, but it tends to create confusion and I don't think the lesson is as clear.

Today was typical of these devocalization sessions. When I arrived, I mentally pictured an area where Laddie and I would set up five start lines, and then I placed five 2" orange bumpers at placements that would require a substantial swim and crossing a point in the middle. Some points would be on the right, some on the left. Then I drove us over to the other side of the ponds and channels I was using and one by one, had Laddie run each of the blinds.

I interspersed poorman marks among the blinds, each mark characterized by a line that passed near a point but not over it. The goal of the marks was twofold: to make the session more enjoyable for Laddie, who much prefers marks to blinds, and to reinforce his long-standing tendency to stay off any point he comes near, even swimming around it if necessary in order to avoid climbing onto it. I'm counting on qual and all-age judges not penalizing Laddie too much if he does that on a competition mark.

After Laddie completed those five blinds, I set up another five blinds from a different set of start lines, and drove Laddie around to the other side to run those.

First the bad news: Laddie vocalized at least once on each of the first five blinds, during either the first water entry, or the first cast needed on the way to the point, or the cast off the point into the second cove. Of those, by far the most incidents were on the first cast after Laddie was in the water. I could speculate, but I don't really know why Laddie was so likely to vocalize in that situation today.

Now the good news:  Laddie did not vocalize a single time on the final five blinds, though I tried to make them just as challenging as the first set.

This time I didn't intersperse marks because other trainers had begun working on another pond a bit too nearby and I wanted to move away from them as soon as possible. But after the blinds, we moved to another part of the property and ran several poorman water marks, again featuring swims close to but not onto points of land. I used high throws,  gunshots, and remote sends to try to make this final work of the day as exciting for Laddie as possible.

With respect to the two batches of five water blinds, it makes sense that Laddie would gradually improve during the session, assuming that the approach I'm using does have the intended result of building reinforcement history for running blinds without vocalizing. But the sharp demarcation in performance between the two groups of  blinds doesn't really make sense to me. Why vocalize on every blind in the first group, and none in the second?

In any case, if you've been reading these devocalization posts from the beginning, I hope you're not getting too discouraged that this is taking so long. I admit that I feel discouraged at times myself.

But at the beginning, we didn't even know if it would be possible to get anywhere on this problem without breaking something else, much less how to accomplish it or how long it would take. Now today, Laddie was able to run five reasonably long and difficult water blinds that included on-and-off points in a row without vocalizing a single time, whereas at the beginning of our work on this problem, he had reached the point of almost invariably vocalizing even for a simple cast into a pond from ten yards away.

I still don't know whether Laddie knows that he sometimes vocalizes. But somehow he's been able to sort out to some extent which behaviors enable him to continue toward the prize, and which get him picked up, however it is he understands the difference between those two classes of behavior. He may not understand the difference as a matter of vocalizing. Maybe for him it:s a psychological state, such as feeling more or less tense, which only externally happens to manifest as vocalizing without Laddie realizing it.

At the minimum, I feel we can conclude that reasoning has little if anything to do with the process. Laddie's behavior to me seems often too illogical to fit a reason-based model of his learning process.

We had some good work in today's session. I feel it shows that while we're hardly at the end of our journey, we're a good way down the road.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Technical water work: cold blinds and remote singles

In the sessions since my last post, Laddie and I, training alone, have begun to generalize his new-found ability to run cold blinds involving on-and-off points without vocalizing. To do this, we run mixture of such blinds with poorman sand remote singles, repeating a particular retrieve only if Laddie needs to be called back, for example for barking on a cast or running the bank on a re-entry.

I've been gradually increasing distance and difficulty. As a result, some of today's blinds, and some of the marks, were more difficult than many of the water blinds and marks we've had in Quals, though of course we rarely see singles in Quals.

By the way, by "poorman" marks, I mean that I leave Laddie in a sit at the start line, go out and their the mark or marks, and then return to Laddie's side to send him.

By "remote" marks, I mean that I call out his name to send him, from either the position I threw from or a position as I'm walking back to him. He then delivers to wherever I wait for him.

Now that we are working on generalizing rather than training Laddie's new skill (taking casts without vocalizing), Laddie's success rate, which corresponds to Rate of Reinforcement (ROR), is higher than it usually has been for the last month since we started devocalization training, and I think it subtly shows in Laddie's lighthearted demeanor. These sessions are less frustrating for me as well, and seeing the quality of Laddie's work on some of these challenging setups is highly rewarding.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Devocalization, schooled and cold blinds with on-and-off point

Yesterday Laddie and I trained with a friend and his dog. The dogs ran a difficult delayed water triple that included an almost straight back water bridge, and a moderately difficult blind.

Today's session began with some vocalizing for on-and-off points even though we also used rehearsals as described in previous post.

However, the session ended with seven retrieves in a row all without vocalizing: a 90y on-and-off point schooled blind; the same retrieve but a little wider as an unhandled mark past the point; a 120y on-and-off point cold blind on a course Laddie never ran before; the same retrieve but a little wider as an unhandled mark past the point; two 70y on-and-off point schooled blinds; and the same retrieve but a little wider as an unhandled mark past the point.

Those retrieves represented a new high water mark in our devocalization training.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Devocalization, whistle sit, no lining pole, rehearsals

I've missed posting some sessions, but including today's session, I've developed some principles:

- Rehearse the on-and-off version with one or more half-versions. That is, put the dog in a sit at the point, walk to the start line, and cast from there. I also blow a whistle sit before casting, but I don't know if that matters.

- Randomly vary which side the point is on.

- For every two or so retrieves on-and-off the point, run a mark on a line near the point and expect the dog to swim past the point without handling. If you have an assistant, have the assistant throw the mark with a gunshot. Otherwise, improvise as best you can.

- Zero tolerance for barking or loud whining. I'm not sure what the correct rule is for quiet vocalizing.

- Increase difficulty gradually. In terms of minimizing probability of Laddie vocalizing: A verbal "sit" is easier than a whistle sit. A silent cast is easier than one with a verbal "over" or "back". A cast to a lining pole is easier than without one. A cast to a visible target (bumper or bird) is easier than if the target is hidden. A quiet environment is easier than one with distractions. A familiar line is easier than one that the dog has not run before, or has not run often. 

Putting those principles to work, today's last handling retrieve was with no lining pole, to a bumper not visible till Laddie was up on the far shore, using whistle sits, with a silent over-cast onto the point, and a verbal back-cast off it. That combination represented the farthest milestone we've so far reached on our devocalization journey.

It was followed by a thrown mark that Laddie swam near the point, staying off the point without the need for handling, some exuberant play, some toweling off,  and the long drive home to dinner.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Devocalization, sight blinds on-and-off point

Today we trained with a field trial group, during which Laddie ran two triples, modified to improve their value for training. When the other trainers were done, I stayed to use one of the ponds for continues work on Laddie's devocalization training.

The course I decided on was 70y of swimming, with a point at about halfway across. I had Laddie swim it seven times in one direction, with the point on the right, then six times in the other, with the point on the left.

In each case, most of the swims were run as sight blinds to a lining pole with a ribbon at the top and a pile of white and orange 2" bumpers at the base. The others were run without handling, and sent with Laddie's name as on a mark, from a wider angle so that the line was next to the point instead of across it. For those, Laddie never vocalized and never attempted to get into the point. That shows, I think, Laddie's strong preference for staying in the water while swimming in the proximity of a point and is related in some way, I believe, to his vocalizing, though I'm not sure of the exact explanation.

My reasons for mixing swims in with the sight blinds, in which I handle Laddie onto and then off of the point, is first, to keep up Laddie's enjoyment of the training, and second to reinforce his inclination to stay of a nearby point, which I consider beneficial for running marks.

I used verbal cues rather than my whistle for both "sit" and come in, and almost all silent casts. I immediately called Laddie back to the start line for any incident of barking or loud, plaintive whining, but did not interrupt occasional quiet whines.

On the first couple of sight blinds, I came around the shore so that I could handle Laddie onto the point with an over and then off the point with an angle back. After that, I started at the start line for all handling.

Laddie did not vocalize today on any verbal "sit" cues nor any silent "over" cues onto the point, which was a new milestone. He did bark on the silent back or angle-back cue used to send him from the point into the second cove often, and each time I called him back, usually all the way to the start line. I tried calling him toward me back onto the point and resending him, but he found that too confusing so I stopped doing that.

On the thirteenth retrieve of this drill, the sixth with the point on the left, Laddie finally ran the sight blind without a sound, and after a long day, I decided to end the session, except for happy bumpers on both land and water, games of tug, and towel drying, the usual relaxation elements of all our water sessions.

I felt that the last sight blind was a significant milestone in our work, since it didn't require a call-back for vocalizing. Instead, Laddie ran it noiselessly on his first try. Except for the verbal "sit" cues, fairly short distance, minimal factors and excitement, and visible lining pole, it was our closest approximation yet to a true competition water blind over a point.

Whether it can be repeated consistently, or will always be mixed with other attempts that include vocalizing, is one question yet to be answered. The others are whether we can switch to a whistle "sit", add distance, add diversion factors and the inevitable  elevated excitement level of an event, and remove the lining pole, converting this to a schooled blind (where the dog has run the same line before) and eventually a normal cold blind on new lines each time. Perhaps any of those requirements will be impossible to accomplish reliably without vocalization.

Yet it feels as though at least  we have already come a long way in these last three weeks, considering that Laddie had reached the point where he couldn't consistently noiselessly take a simple, silent "over" cast while sitting directly in front of me by the time we began this effort at devocalization.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Devocalization, on-and-off point to pile, moving handler

For the last couple of afternoons, I've made the 2-hour drive in rush hour to our closest training property, Wednesday alone and Thursday with an assistant.

We used four courses: 30y with point on right, 70y with point on left, 90y with point on left, and 90y with point on right. For the first course, I threw each bumper across a channel before running Laddie to it. For the others, I placed a lining pole with white and orange 2" bumpers at its base.

In all cases, I ran Laddie from the start line. Although I experimented with using a whistle sit, he was least likely to vocalize if I used a verbal sit cue. Similarly, I used silent casts in most cases, both to cast Laddie over and onto the point, and to cast him on an angle back off the point and to the lining pole and bumper.

For every one or two sight blinds run in this way, a total of about five on each course, I ran the same course as a mark, that is, without handling. For the first two courses on Wednesday, that meant moving our start line so the point was clearly off line and then sending Laddie with his name instead of saying "dead bird, back". On Thursday, I also moved the start line, and then had my assistant throw a 3" white bumper to the lining pole with a gunshot. 

Laddie seemed very comfortable with the marks, never vocalizing, never hesitating, never attempting to cheat the water entry, never even glancing at the point as he swam past it on his way straight to the bumper.

On the blinds, at first I did not stop Laddie if he made a whining sound as he swam across the first cove of each course, attempting to swim wide of the point. But during the forth series, I began to gently call him back at the instant he whined. I had to do this six times in a row the first time I tried it, and wondered if he'd start to no-go. But he never did, and on the seventh try, he continued across the cove without vocalizing.

Oddly, he made another change at the same time: He took a line closer to the point than he had been doing, resulting in a shorter "over" onto the point. I have no idea why, but of course that was a nice bonus. From now on I'll always call him back if he starts to whine.

The most important innovation for all of these courses was that s Laddie swam across the first cove, I walked around on the bank toward the point, and handled him from there rather than from the start line. This had no effect on his performance, because he always took the casts. But for some reason using me closer to him seemed to relieve some stress, and he was much less likely to vocalize on the casts. As I have been for weeks, I always called Laddie back if he vocalized, either restarting the blind from the start line or picking up in the middle from where he had vocalized. But with me positioned along the shore of the first cove, vocalizing on the "over" or the "back" casts (both silent) were much less likely.

This success was rewarding, because it's easy to imagine that with time, I can gradually reduce how much I need to move off the start line and along the shore, until eventually Laddie will take the casts noiselessly when I cast from the start line itself. How long it will take us to get to that point, however, is anyone's guess.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Devocalization, on-and-off a point to a known but hidden bumper

Since Saturday Laddie and I have had a couple of rest days and a couple of sessions practicing quiet handling at the local pond. Work that was hard a week ago was easier. Today we went to a training property with a technical pond to try for another increment of training.

First we practiced a similar setup to Saturday's. When I realized that continuously handling Laddie to a point meant I was at risk of untraining his ability to swim past a point on a mark, I also threw some open water marks and let him swim to them without handling him to a point as he swam past.  For points on either side, he took a confident, straight line without veering to land, which was good to see.

We then moved to a pond with a W-shaped shoreline. First I had Laddie watch a throw into open water from the center point, and then leaving him in a sit, I went to an end point and cast him to the bumper. After three of those, I let him watch as before, but then brought him with me to the end point and handled him on and off the point to the bumper. That was the same process we had accomplished on Saturday and at the previous location today.

Next I threw the bumper against the shoreline, which was a small step further along in difficultly. And finally I threw the bumper up into the cover on the end point, which was a major step further, since Laddie has always been most likely to vocalize if he could not see his target when being cast. Since I alternated between having him wait on the middle point versus having him come to the end point with me to be sent, and since we reversed directions several times, I guess Laddie ran more than a dozen retrieves in this process.

At last he was able to let me handle him onto the point with a silent "over", and from there to take a silent "back" into the far cove, all without vocalizing.

Again we ended with a couple of open water marks past a point without handling, to hopefully restore balance against all the times I had handled him onto the point.

Two weeks ago I didn't know whether Laddie would ever be able to take casts like today's without vocalizing. He is making real progress.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Club training day and devocalization, real points

I've missed posting about a couple of sessions, including a valuable afternoon session planned with a friend and his all-age dog. But any devocalization progress was minimal.

Today we attended a club training day, and stayed afterwards to take advantage of one of the the technical  ponds to attempt the next step in our progression, a sight blind that required stopping Laddie when he reached a point and then casting him off the point.

As for the training itself, it included a technical water triple, a moderately difficult Master water blind, a land triple with one easy water crossing, and two  land blinds intended for the Master dogs in the group. Taking the later land work first, Laddie picked up the marks with little or no hunting, needed one or two whistles on one of the blinds, which he handled on without vocalizing,  and lined the other land blind.

For the earlier water marks, two of them went as follows: he started to cheat around the difficult water entries, I called him back and just sent him again without any extra alignment, and he ran them correctly and without difficulty the second time. By that time the bird for the long mark had drifted far from its original fall and the mark had essentially turned into a blind. For both that blind and the immediately following water blind, Laddie's performance was pretty discouraging. First, he was noisier than ever, vocalizing both as he swam on his original send out and when handled, bringing into question whether any amount of training could ever repair that kind of stress and/or excitement-induced vocalizing. And secondly, he was less responsive on his whistle sits than normal, as though our daily training has actually caused some deterioration in his handling performance when transferred to a competition-like setting. Hopefully this does not foreshadow an eventual conclusion that his vocalization in events cannot be solved, but it was temporarily, at least, discouraging. Someone asked me later why I seemed unhappy while working the line on the land setup, and I just said I was dealing with depression, but really all that noise in the earlier water work was weighing on my mind.

Of course it's way to soon to give up. This may take months, and we've only been working on the problem a couple of weeks, during which we've made steady progress. Today just showed us that we still have one important step that we may or may not be able to accomplish -- transferring that progress working alone to a training day or competition setting. It's too soon for that in any case.

So returning to solo training after we had the pond to ourselves, I attempted a setup that required Laddie to stop on a point where the white puppy bumper was visible on the far shoreline. Laddie took a perfect line to the point and clearly wanted to simply run across the point and continue on to the bumper without handling. He took the whistle sit on the point without difficulty, but vocalized when I gave a gentle, silent "back" cast with a raised arm.

I called him back and tried it again several times, and he could never do it without vocalizing.  After a few tried, he also stopped taking good initial lines, requiring additional handling before he got to the point, with occasional vocalizing at that stage and so immediate calling back. I tried moving our start line much closer to the point, but that many that I was sending Laddie in the wrong direction for the visible bumpers, and after repeated tries saw that I could not obtain that version of the drill, either, without vocalizing.

Laddie had now attempted this simple water blind over a dozen times without success, hardly the 70-80% success rate I normally try to use in training to maintain a high rate of reinforcement. For this session so far, Laddie's rate of reinforcement was zero. Thank goodness I have a dog who maintains his drive and enthusiasm even under such circumstances. But clearly i needed a different setup or it was time to quit for the day. Quitting was a tempting prospect. I had already had a long, trying day given a bit of turmoil in the club training that has nothing to do with Laddie s well as given his noisy performance in the water series.

But Laddie was still fresh. So I mentally stepped back and asked myself how to breakdown this next incremental step so that Laddie could be successful, without going back to a version of the work we had already been successful.

And once I looked at it that way, I quickly came up with a new approach, as follows.

First I moved us to a peninsula and sat Laddie at the end point. Saying "leave it", I tossed a bumper into the water over Laddie's shoulder. I then left him there, walked to the entry of the peninsula and over to the side, and silently cast him straight back to the bumper. He spun around, leapt into water, and can to the bumper without a sound. Yay!

I repeated the identical drill five times, and Laddie never made a sound.

Then I set up the sixth time exactly the same way, except that as I walked back toward the shore, I invited Laddie out of his sit to join me. Calling him to heel, I informally lined him up toward the point and sent him with a quiet "back". Then I stopped him on the point and, moment of truth, cast him with a silent back cast to the bumper. This was the identical cast he had just taken five times without a sound, and this time, though preceded by a swim, he was again able to take it without any hint of vocalizIng.

Relieved that we had found a way to train a true on-and-off the point without vocalizing, and frankly exhausted, I headed for the van for the long drive home, pleased we had ended our session on a positive note after all.

I'm now uncertain whether we have any way to make further progress without technical ponds where we can practice similar drills. That means a lot of driving for us over the next few sessions at least.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Devocalization, more casting of a point

Today I again took Laddie to the local oval-shaped pond for a short devocalization session.

We used only one start line, but we used it about 15 times. At the beginning, I put Laddie in a sit at the start line and walked along the curved shoreline about 60y, and as he watched, I threw two bumpers. One rolled into the water and was then hidden from Laddie behind a plant. The other remained visible, though small, on the bank.

I then walked back to Laddie, and on the way tossed another bumper into the water near shore, in front of some plants and about 20y from the start line.

I then established the only pattern we would use today: I sent Laddie to the short bumper, stopped him with a whistle sit just before he got to the bumper, cast him toward the center of the pond with a silent "over" cast, and watched. If he carried straight, as he did a couple of times, I stopped him again after a few yards and cast him with a silent "back" toward the long bumper. If he bent around toward the long bumper on his own, I didn't stop him.

If Laddie barked or howled on any of the casts, I immediately said, "no, here," then lined him up and ran him again. I did not, however, call him back for quiet vocalizing while swimming. I'm still not sure whether judges would mind that.

After a successful retrieve, when Laddie got back to me with the long bumper, I sent him to the short bumper, which he excitedly retrieved.

After either of his deliveries, I sometimes also threw the bumper far out toward the center of the pond, among a large flock of geese that were swimming there. They dissipated as Laddie swan out to the bumper.

Here's how the session went: Although Laddie had run two similar series at the end of yesterday's session without vocalizing, apparently it was not yet easy for him, and he vocalized the first several times I tried the silent "over" cast in today's setup. But his enthusiasm never flagged, and eventually he took that cast without vocalizing. He also took the silent "back" cast without a sound, and so finally completed the retrieve of the long bumper, plus of course the short one, and maybe a happy throw into the middle of the pond.

I then put him in a sit and went out to again throw the long and short bumpers to the same approximate locations, then returned to run him again. We ran the setup three more times, and he never vocalized again.

Finally, I re-threw the short bumper, without needing to throw a long bumper because the one that had rolled into the water was still there. And then I ran him again. He seemed a bit confused when I sent him away from the short bumper, but he took the cast without a sound, and then bent around as if I had cast him "back", even though he might not have remembered the throw from a half hour earlier, and may have just been following our earlier pattern. And eventually he spotted the bumper in the water near the far shore, swan to it, picked it up, and ran back to me with it.

I guess today's work would be called a "schooled" blind. I felt it strengthened yesterday's learning and brought us one more step on our devocalization program.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Devocalization, on-and-off points with an oval pond

The next increment in Laddie's devocalization training seems to be casting off a point to a bumper further back, initially a visible bumper.

Since our local pond is an oval and has no peninsulas or islands, I've been thinking that we'd have to make the five-hour foray to a training property in rush hour to take the next step.

But this afternoon it occurred to me that the oval pond could be used for this increment after all.

First I ran Laddie on some simple L-shaped drills, casting him into the water from shore. Yesterday morning he would not have been able to do that without vocalizing, but he came a long way yesterday and this afternoon he could easily take those casts silently.

Next I threw two bumpers into the pond as well as one on the path in front of us. Then I would cast Laddie to the one on the path, stop him before he reached it, cast him over to the shorter floating bumper, stop him before he reached that one, and finally cast him to the longer floating bumper, another "over". After a vocalization or two, always immediately followed by "no, here", he was able to do the three-bumper drill without noise.

The final version of that involved throwing the long bumper up on land so that it was no longer visible, but Laddie had seen it thrown and at some level of his doggie mind, knew it was there. It took a few tried to get that cast without a bark, but eventually he was able to do it. I ran it again in mirror image so that he wouldn't be overbalanced on one side.

By the way, after Laddie picked up the long bumper, I sent him to pick up the other two without handling, to prevent him from starting to anticipate a whistle as he reached his target. I've seen dogs that always look at the handler when they reach a bird, even on marks when no whistle is blown, because the trainer overtrained requiring the dog sit on a whistle next to the bird. In an event, looking at the handler without a whistle counts against the dog as a pop, and on a mark, blowing the whistle counts as a handle, so that is an undesirable anticipation for a dog to have. Apparently it's a difficult habit to untrain.

In any case, once Laddie could do the three-bumper drill in silence with the long bumper hidden, we were ready to try a simulated on-and-off the point, as follows. I'd put Laddie in a sit at the start line. Then I'd walk a little way around the curvature of the pond, about 60y, and toss a bumper where Laddie could see it. Then I'd walk back toward him, and at about the halfway point, I'd toss a second bumper next to some water plant a few feet from shore, again so Laddie could see it. Then I'd return to Laddie, line him up on the shorter bumper, and send him.

Just before he reached the shorter bumper, I'd stop him, use an "over" cast to get him into the open and away from the shorter bumper, and then a "back" cast to send him to the longer bumper. These are the identical casts I'd use for an on-and-off the point, so the oval pond was a good stand-in for a technical pond in this case.

I might mention that for all of today's work, I used the whistle for sits and silent casts except for the send from my side.

By the way, a storm was coming, which meant a stiff wind was blowing. Some of the over casts, depending on which side of the pond we working on, were into a headwind. So these were difficult casts, and the first several tries produced vocalizing and an immediate recall. Yet Laddie maintained his motivation and eventually was able to take all the casts without a sound. When he returned with the longer bumper, I'd immediately send him for the shorter one, making this an exciting game for a dog like Laddie.

After a few of those setups on various parts of the shoreline, the rains came and chased us back to the van. I think it was a good time to stop anyway.

We still need have a couple more increments with these simulated on-and-off the points -- having Laddie watch the long bumper thrown but not visible when he's taking casts, and finally,  being able to take a cast to a bumper he has not seen placed, that is, a cold blind, taking the cast on faith.

That will be a major milestone. When Laddie can do that in silence, I think the next step will be proofing his new skills for distance, distractions, and changes of location. I believe Laddie will then have the foundation for taking just about any cast in silence. From then on we'll work on building fluency with lots of practice.

I shouldn't get ahead of myself. Over the next few days, Laddie and I must simply continue to progress thru the incremental steps. But the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to come into sight.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Devocalization, LWL "over" to known but unseen bumpers

Today was a busy day. At daybreak, Laddie and I worked on shoreside devocalization, which I'll abbreviate SSDV in this and future posts in this journal. Then we trained with a field trial group, running two series, each consisting of two technical water marks. Then Laddie and I  stayed afterwards to work alone again for another SSDV session. Finally we drove a couple of hours to a different training ground for a third SSDV session, finishing up with a drive home to complete a fifteen hour training day.

Each of the SSDV sessions was actually several sessions, as Laddie and I moved around to different locations on the property and ran a few retrieves at each location.

Training with today's group was again invaluable, immersing Laddie and me in a world of intensively controlled field work that I have only seen intermittently in other settings. But in this post, I will focus on our SSDV work.

First, I'll mention some changes I made to the way we worked, and second I'll describe our progress.

The first change was that I stopped using a lining pole. Once we reached a sufficiently difficult version of the T-drill, I realized that Laddie really does not understand the point of running to a lining pole. It can be taught as a behavior, but I guess it's just not natural for a retriever; there's nothing to retrieve.

So instead, I would throw the bumper that we were really working on, the objective, and then throw another bumper, the target, at a 90° angle. Next I would send Laddie to the target. Approximately half the time, but randomly, I would let Laddie pick up the target and run back with it, then throw it back to the same place. The other half the time, I would have Laddie sit just before he reached the target bumper, either with a tweet or a verbal cue, and then silently cast him to the objective. If he took the cast silently, I'd of course let him complete the retrieve. If he vocalized, I'd immediately call him back and start the sequence over.

This approach was much better than sending him to a lining pole, and completely eliminated the no-gos we'd been getting previously.

The other change I made was that when Laddie would whine while I was preparing to send him, I was talk gently to him, things like, "That's OK, don't worry," and stroke his face over his eyes to calm him. This proved not only  effective in calming him for the moment, but also seemed to dissipate tension in a cumulative way as the session progressed. For a high roller like Laddie, it seems that the problem is not how to motivate him, but how to avoid letting his over-the-top motivation become a source of anxiety and stress.

Now to describe Laddie's progress across our various SSDV sessions. At the beginning of the day, Laddie could not take any cast into water without vocalizing. Thru many intermediate steps, later came the greater challenge, taking a cast into water when the objective was not visible, though he had seen it thrown to its location in the grass across the channel only a moment earlier.

That final goal was not only today's challenge. Since before Laddie was a year old, he has tended to vocalize on water casts if he could not see the article he was being handled to, whether he knew where it was because he had seen it placed or not.

This then was not only another incremental step in the progression of devocalization. This was the fulcrum, the pivotal step. If we could achieve a silent cast into water toward an unseen objective, we were counter-conditioning a lifelong response. This could conceivably be the basis for ending other vocalization associated with handling on water blinds and, when needed, water marks. 

Of course, maybe not. Perhaps some later hurdle in our devocalization training will prove too high. But for today, it felt important. So when we finally worked, step by step, to a version of our T-drill where I could throw a bumper across a channel so that it was no longer visible, and then throw a second bumper at 90°, and send Laddie to the second bumper and then sit him just before he reached it, and then -- gently, silently, and first telegraphing via body language -- cast him into the channel and to the hidden bumper without him making a sound, and do that with a cast LTR or RTL, we had reached what I felt was a fine way to end the day's SSDV training. 

Two converging land doubles, three water singles, and some devocalization work

The title of this post pretty much describes the work at today's group using session.

Because my primary concern was not overfacing Laddie on handling challenges, for the land series, we ran the four marks as two converging doubles, and I had the guns stay out, rather than combining the marks into a triple or quad and rather than retiring any of the guns.

Laddie nailed both of the marks in the first double and the go-bird of the second, but he did need to be handled after all for the final, longest mark, which I thought he had seen but which he attempted to run far off line. He might have forgotten it, or the converging configuration might have worked its disruptive spell. In any case, I was pleased that he seemed to have no inclination to vocalize on any of the half dozen or so casts, since I would have called him all the way back in if he had and the series took our group a lot of time as it was. Since Laddie would almost certainly have vocalized on one or more of those casts a week ago, this week's devocalizing efforts seem to have been effective. 

Like almost all the other dogs, Laddie ran the water series as three singles. He nailed the easy first and comparatively difficult third water marks, avoiding the long hunts that some of the dogs had on the third one. On the second one, he took a good line, but ten yards from the corner of the pond where the bird was being thrown, he veered toward shore to square the bank. I blew the whistle to stop him and he didn't vocaliz, just turned to look at me. But I knew the required cast would be more stressful than we have trained for in our devocalization work, and as expected,, when I have a direct cast away from shore, Laddie took the vat but barked once. I immediately called out "no, here" and brought him in.

This mark had two water entries. I moved our start line down to the first one, hoping I could instill some confidence by being closer when the cast was likely to be needed again and called for the mark again. But the second try was a carbon copy of the first.

I announced on the radio that we couldn't do that mark without vocalizing and asked the third gunner to get ready. But the second gunner thoughtfully asked if I'd like a mark thrown to the center of the far shoreline instead of the corner and I took his offer. That made it a straight channel swim that Laddie ran easily.

The inability of Laddie to run either the land or the water marks correctly, together with some personal animosity I felt from one of the trainers and the discomfort of the hot, muggy day, had me more tense than I realized, and I should have speed training at that point like the others. But with a three hour return trip ahead of us, and our first chance to train on water in s week, I got out a lining pole and s couple of puppy bumpers to run our T-drill next to one of the channels.

Ideally we would have tin it on both directions so that Laddie could practice the water car on both sides, but we only got halfway before they had to lock up. Also, because of my emotional state, I increased the difficulty level too fast, dropping Laddie's rate of reinforcement (by getting to complete the retrieve) too low.

By the way, one of the dogs being trained in this group has been a female in heat the last couple of weeks, and like the other trainers, I have asked that we run after that dog to give Laddie an opportunity to practice dealing with that difficult distraction instead of waiting for him to have it for the first time in a trial, where I know it does sometimes occur even though it's against the rules. This may partially explain some of his unexpected performance lapses during recent sessions.

On any case, we did reach the point in our T-drill the bumper on the water side being thrown to land on the other side of the channel and Laddie being able to run that setup without vocalizing.

We got home at 8:30pm, had done food, got some sleep, and were up again at 3:30am for another long drive and another day of training with the group.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Devocalization, added verbal "over" cue

Yesterday, Laddie's only training was a short T-drill session in our side yard, using a target lining pole, verbal "sit" cues, and silent casts to white 2" bumpers not visible till the dog was close.

During the first few retrieves, Laddie showed no inclination to vocalize, so for last few, I introduced a verbal "over" cue to accompany the casts. My intent in the future is to rely primarily on silent casts, but have the verbal available if difficult factors such as a headwind or high cover suggest that more emphasis is needed. Today's work to us one more step toward rebuilding Laddie's handling skills without vocalization.

By the way, I don't know whether I've mentioned before that all of our devocalization work this last week has been done with white 2" bumpers, which I call puppy bumpers. These are the bumpers I use when just playing fetch with Laddie, and I think they may have a somewhat more lighthearted association than the full-sized 3" bumpers we normally use for training.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Devocalization, fairly big land plus some water work

With temps in the high 70s, and me unable to spend four hours of driving for a trip to the closest training property in rush hour, I took Laddie to a large but featureless field near home instead.

I planned to continue this morning's plan of gradually increasing distance on a T formation, so I planted a target lining pole and placed three bumpers 15y away on each side. I then ran Laddie from 15y, 30y, 50y, and 70y, sending him each time to the lining pole, sitting him with a voice "sit" (I had left my whistle in the van), and then sending him either left or right (selected randomly) with a silent cast.

To my surprise, Laddie never made a sound the entire time. What was going on here? And how could we make progress if the setup was too easy?

So I walked back to the van and got my whistle, and then I went out and planted two bumpers, one on the left side of the field and one on the right. I paced off the distance back to our start line as 210y.

I then ran Laddie on each of the blinds, not as a T-drill, but using normal choices of angle backs, straight backs, and overs. I used the whistle for sit as I had been doing the whole session, and I used silent casts exclusively, again as I had the whole session.

Laddie was unable to line these blinds because the field's mow lines pulled him off line toward the center of the field and the trees lining the outside of the field pulled him toward the edge. As a result we had an opportunity to use several casts for each of the blinds to keep Laddie within a narrow corridor. And once again, he never vocalized.

I was a bit confused. I could not tell whether we'd made progress in this session or we were simply reaping the benefits from earlier work. Since we'd used little time, I decided to take Laddie to the only local pond we have available for a little water work.

This pond is an oval, and since it has no points, it has little use for most of the training we're doing these days. But it's big enough to set up several water blinds of over 100y as well as some shorter ones, and I was interested to try Laddie on a few of them.

Laddie did vocalize during the water work, and I chose to respond in different ways depending on the type of vocalizing. If he vocalized at the moment I cued a sit, or at the moment I cast him, I called "no" immediately and called him all the way in, then started the blind again.

But for the vocalizing that Laddie sometimes does as he's swimming, I elected to ignore it at least for this session. I want more feedback from experienced field trialers to find out whether judges would have a problem with that noise before I put Laddie thru the process of trying to suppress it.

For the water work, I found that Laddie was once again noticeably more comfortable (that is, would not vocalize) if I used a verbal "sit" rather than the whistle, and in addition, I continued to use silent casts exclusively. In that way, Laddie was able to run two 130y water blinds, one with the shore on his left and one on his right, each blind requiring several casts and each without him vocalizing on a single handle.

It seems Laddie has made a leap of progress on devocalizing today. I hadn't expected we'd come so far this soon.

Devocalization, adding distance and clarifying the course

Yesterday, I took Laddie and an assistant out at 6:30am. We trained at a nearby field, but by 7am, it was too hot to continue there. We then moved to another field that had a shady area large enough for our course, and trained there another half hour.

In total, we did approximately six setups, each consisting of three retrieves to left and three to right. For each retrieve, I would send Laddie straight ahead, stop him with either "sit" or a tweet, and then cast him left or right, chosen randomly as much as possible. I telegraphed every cast with a lean, and used no verbal cue when casting. I immediately said "no" if he vocalized, which acted as an interruption of the retrieve and a recall.

In the early going, we had one sequence where Laddie vocalized and had to be called back repeatedly. Finally, instead of sending him to the center position, I walked with him at heel to that position, then put him in a sit facing me, and cast him, which he could do silently. I did that twice, once in each direction, and then moved a little way back, sent him from my side, stopped him with the whistle, and cast him, again with no noise. From this, I could see that distance of the original send increased risk of vocalizing, and increased distance only gradually from then on.

I also experimented with various uses of lining poles: one in front as a target for the original send, one at each pile of bumpers, both, neither. I'm not sure of their effects, since Laddie was also changing his responses as we progressed, but I think the poles at the bumpers were helpful till Laddie had memorized the course, and  were unnecessary but not harmful after that. I think the pole in the center was always helpful in clarifying where I was sending him, especially at longer distances.

Laddie had no vocalizing during the last several setups yesterday, running at least twenty retrieves in succession, and probably more, without vocalizing.

We had planned to train on water with a friend yesterday afternoon, but with temps in the 90s, we canceled.

This morning was much cooler, mid-60s, so I took Laddie out early again, this time with no assistant. Today's session was to a large extent a carbon copy of yesterday's, except that we increased distances and I used only whistle sits, no verbal "sit" cues. Like yesterday, we had one setup where Laddie vocalized every time we tried it, and I solved it the same way as yesterday.

Without describing all six  setups, six bumpers each, that we used this morning, I'll just describe the last one.

I placed a lining pole in the center position, so that I could send Laddie to it and then stop him a couple of yards before he reached it. Fifteen yards to line's left was a pile of three bumpers (not touching one another) that I believe Laddie could see from the start line and from the center position.  Fifteen yards to line's right was a pile of the bumpers over a small bank, so they were invisible till Laddie reached them.

The first send was a distance of 20y to the center position in front of the lining pole. During each retrieve, I moved back about six yards, and after each retrieve, all noiseless, we played a little tug and then I lined him up again. By continuously moving back, the last send was 50y to the center position.

Again Laddie ended the session with a long string of quiet retrieves, at least twenty. By the end, he was running setups similar to a Senior Hunt Test, except that in my experience a Senior judge would not expect the dog to be sent to a lining pole and then cast 15y away from the pole to the bird. If a pole were used, the bird would be at the pole.

Although it would be nice if Laddie could run every session without ever vocalizing, the fact that we can work past it, with him learning that he can't complete the retrieve if he vocalizes, seems to be working. It may even be preferable, in Laddie's case, that he develop a clear delimitation in his experience between what happens if he vocalizes, versus what happens if he doesn't. I would not have thought that beneficial, since it involves frustration and  it still involves him vocalizing, but hopefully it will turn out for the best.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Devocalization, cold blinds but rehearsed

I had no opportunity to work with Laddie this morning, and temps were too hot for much work this afternoon.  But when I had Laddie out in the yard, I saw an opportunity to work a little more on our devocalization training, though without an assistant and without a whistle. Also, I used the verbal cue "back" to send him from my side, but used silent casts for all our "over" casts.

First we did a repetition of our last session: no lining pole, bumpers thrown with Laddie watching to the pole's left and right, gradual increasing distances and changes of orientation within the bounds of our yard, and based on my discovery from yesterday, telegraphing each cast with a slight lean a second or two before each cast. We did a dozen or so of those and Laddie never vocalized.

Then I put Laddie in a sit in the garage, and went out to plant a bumper in each of the two places he had just picked one up, one on the right, one on the left, neither visible from any distance because of grass and rolling terrain.

I brought Laddie out and lined him up to run straight, to a point between the two hidden bumpers. Once he was lined up and locked in, I said "back". He leapt forward and barked, his first vocalization of the session. 

I instantly called him back and gently lined him up, and then said again, softly but firmly, "back". He quietly ran straight ahead, until I called "sit", when he turned and sat, looking eager but not stressed. I leaned left, paused a moment, and cast him with my arm. He dashed to line's left, finally spotted the bumper, grabbed it and raced back with it. We repeated the sequence to pick up the bumper on the right, but this time Laddie took the first "back" cue without a sound.

I ended the session there. Laddie had only vocalized once during the session, and he had somehow made the one change on the retry needed to complete his retrieve, namely, not vocalizing. That seems important.

In addition, we had added a new element to the work: retrieving an article that he had not seen planted and could not see at the time of the casts. But this was in the context of a rehearsed path, so I would say it wasn't a true cold blind.

Still, progress.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Devocalization, the lean

This morning a brought Laddie and an assistant out early for our second devocalization session.

Though we worked without nearby water, otherwise we repeated similar steps to our previous session.

But we had a number if changes:

- Laddie had learned to run from beside me to the lining pole when I cued "back", so that didn't need to be retaught.

- We were able to increase the size of the setup.

- I was able to remove the lining pole about halfway thru the session. That made the setup more consistent with a real handling situation, and more important for our present purposes, it removed some pressure since Laddie did not have to run to a precise location when I sent him, just the general area where the lining pole had been.

- I asked my assistant to run Laddie on the exercise a few times. That added a bit of confusion for both if them, which short-term was disadvantageous for our goal. But I felt that long-term, it might help Laddie to clarify his understanding of the cue by removing extraneous factors such as facial expressions or clothing that the girl and I do not have in common, so that Laddie could learn that such extraneous factors are irrelevant. Because of the girl's inexperience, we didn't do much of this today.

- I experimented with using just the whistle for "sit", and like yesterday, it elicited a bark, so I returned to a verbal cue. But later in the session, I tried a whistle immediately followed by the verbal cue, and Laddie was apparently comfortable with that because he didn't vocalized. I think we can eventually fade the verbal without, hopefully, noticing or being bothered by it.

- Sometimes Laddie distinctly and loudly vocalized, and like yesterday I called him back so he could not complete the retrieve. He did no-go a couple of times, but with persistence, he began taking send cue again. Sometimes he only faintly vocalized, and I elected not to stop him, but when he brought me his bumper, I just took it and tossed it in the ground, saying "leave it", and started the next rep. However, usually he was complete silent as he worked, and when he brought me his bumper for those, I excitedly threw his bumper and/or played tug with him before resuming our work.

- Finally, this was the most important change. I discovered that if I leaned slightly in the direction that I was about to cast, and then after a second or two gave the cast, Laddie seemed more comfortable then for a sudden, explosive arm motion, and never vocalized when I did that. I believe this was a major discovery that I will attempt to leverage as we continue our devocalization work.

Laddie has had a lot of physically demanding work the last few days. I'll rest him today and most of tomorrow, and in the late afternoon, we'll drive with our assistant to a training property and continue our work, once again with water in the picture.

Land/water multiples and two big water blinds

I sent a post for yesterday's training, but forgot to send a post describing the previous day's training with the same group but on a different property.

So on Saturday, Laddie and I had the opportunity to train on three simulated all-age setups: a quad, a triple, and two blinds. Except for the first two marks of the quad, which Laddie ran as a double with the long gun retired like almost all the other dogs, these were all land/water retrieves starting and ending with land segments and crossing water, in the form of technical pond or canals, as many as four times. 

I requested that the two water marks of the quad be thrown as a double, but Laddie tried to run the bank on the first mark, so by the time he got back, I wasn't confident he had a clear memory of the second one. Since that one also tested water honesty, I wanted to be sure he had a clear picture of the line to the bird so I had it thrown again. When he ran it, he drifted too far left for the first water entry and I blew a sit whistle, not realizing he was just about to leap in the water. As soon as he landed he veered away from the shore and back toward the correct line. That put me in a dilemma: Do I stop him because he slipped the whistle and take the chance he interprets it as a correction to his current correct performance, or do I let it go? I decided to let it go and in retrospect am reasonably happy with that decision. He was then the only dog running from the unmodified start line, I believe, who correctly swam past a point in mid-pond rather than climbing onto it, and was also one of the only dogs to run straight to the bird after reaching the shore, requiring no hunt.

The big triple consisted of two marks across the same pond, one toward the left of the pond and one toward the right, and thrown as converging marks, plus a separate mark off to the side requiring several water and knoll crossings, ending with a swim between two points.

The most advanced dogs were running the setup as a double (the converging marks) and a single with the gun retired, using a gunshot and a short throw into a nearby pond by a fourth gunner, mostly to give the long gun a chance to retire, but also as a breaking test.

That's how I also planned to run Laddie, but he looked away from the long mark too soon so I sent him immediately without calling for the second mark. He nailed that first mark, one of the only dogs, maybe the only dog, to do so. He needed a hunt when we ran the other of the two converging marks as a single, but it was still one of the better performances on that mark. Finally, he ran the retired mark with the little pond setup throw without help taking a perfect line to the final land segment and found the bird with a small hunt. I believe that was the best performance on that mark of the day.

I then tried to run Laddie on the longer of the two water blinds, but I could not get him across a cove without him cheating and did not want to let him finish and could not move up to him across the intervening channels, so I just called him in and ran him on the shorter blind, a mirror image of the longer one and only a few degrees to the left, but with a shorter final land segment and somewhat easier factors. Laddie completed that but not with the level of accuracy or control that would get called back in a trial.

So all in all, the day was an excellent opportunity to take stock of some of Laddie's strengths and weaknesses as we continue to prepare for all-age competition someday in the future.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Devocalizing, first steps

As you may have noticed, dog training is important to me. And sometimes when I have a setback, it can feel like the end of the world to me. Today I may have had such a setback — I don't know yet for sure — but fearing the worst, my heart an mind are drowning in grief.

And yet I am more or less functional. After all, I am writing this post, and it will not be about the incident referenced above, but about the topic in the title. Just know that if something seems amiss, that's because something is.

So let me first say that I have decided to devote the immediate and foreseeable future to a vital goal: re-training Laddie in handling so that he can run blinds without vocalizing. It is not the only aspect of his preparation for running all-age field trials we will work on, since I feel that would be a mistake. But we will run no more blinds, and I will try to run marks in such a way as to minimize the risk of needing to handle, until our de-vocalizing effort reaches the point where Laddie can handle in silence.

This also means we will continue to train but will not compete during this period. 

And so I began a process, not of trying to uncover why Laddie vocalizes, which I may never understand, but of trying find some minimal version of a cast in which Laddie would not vocalize and upon which we could build, however slowly.

And yes, this afternoon I found such a minimal version, and yes, we even began to build on it a little. I may have even been able to communicate to Laddie for the first time that I want him to take the cast, but only if he does it without vocalizing, a separation I have not been able to achieve in previous efforts. In the past, if I called off the cast when he vocalized, after a few times, he would stop taking casts, a disastrous result. Far better, I felt, that I live with the vocalizing. But now I have come under the impression that we won't be able to get by that way in all-age competition.

Before I describe our work on de-vocalizing, let me first mention that it came after a group training session consisting of a land/water triple, a land blind, and I guess a water triple, though the long mark was mostly land. Without going into more detail, I'll just say that Laddie showed excellent water honesty on most of his entries and re-entries, including some water that several other dogs including advanced ones did not take on their own, but Laddie gave into shoreline suction in two instances, once in each of the triples. I'll also mention that his marking was as good as usual, meaning good.

So there we were at an nice training property on public land, all the other trainers had left, I was feeling crushed by a dreadful foreboding, and yet, I was ready to embark upon this new training adventure.
And so I planted a lining pole in the grass, tossed a bumper to the left and the right, set up with Laddie a few yards in front, and sent him to it, then whistled sit. He barked! The whistle, I realized. I couldn't use the whistle.

So I tried it again and just called out in an encouraging tone, "sit". Great, that produced a quiet, if supremely alert, sit.

And then I tried a physical cast with my outstretched arm, together with the verbal cue "over". No, that didn't work, he leapt toward the bumper with a yelp of enthusiasm. I called him back before he got to the bumper, put him back in a sit in front of the lining pole, and cued a physical but silent cast. He took it without a sound and was back in a flash with the bumper. The same thing worked with the remaining bumper.

OK, I had learned, no send to the pole, but rather just put him in a sit in front of the pole. No whistle, no voice, just a physical cast. Not much distance.

That, then, was our minimal version, our baseline. Laddie could do a cast under those conditions without vocalizing.

Next I tried it with the bumpers thrown into water, and he could do that, too. So we could incorporate water handling into our work.

And then with the bumpers thrown across the water onto land. And then with the bumpers thrown over the points on each side so that Laddie could not see them when I cast him. 

That was crucial. That was a no-see-um. A cold blind is a no-see-um. 

Yes, all that without vocalizing.

Next I built just a small send with a quiet verbal "back" cue from my side to the lining pole, and with a verbal "sit" cue, again with an encouraging tone. And now the silent cast, first to one side selected randomly, then the other. So for the first time in our session, he was running a complete "water blind" from my side without vocalizing, though granted he had seen the bumper thrown.

And finally, instead of "over", which seemed to trigger vocalizing, I added a quiet, encouraging different verbal cue: "go on," I said. Now we even had silent casting with verbal as well as physical cues.

And that was it, a good day's work and an encouraging start to our new endeavor.

Just one last point, which I also mentioned above: On a few occasions when I tried some of the things I mentioned above, Laddie vocalized as he took the cast. "No," I called gently, "come back." So he would come back to try again, and this time, he would somehow manage to take the cast in silence and succeed in his retrieve.

I'm still not convinced Laddie knows he's vocalizing, or that it's a choice he's making. To me, his vocalizing feels like pure emotion. What emotion, I don't know: Stress? Excitement? Protest? But the fact is that he was able to alter his behavior to achieve his goal.

Let me say, however, that that does not prove that Laddie knew he was vocalizing or chose whether to do so.  It just meant that he was able to come up with a way to get me to let him complete the retrieve. From his perspective it is entirely possible, and I think likely, that the successful version just felt different, without any understanding in Laddie's mind what the difference was, just that with that vaguely different feeling, he got to complete the retrieve, his heart's desire.

And that vaguely different feeling, which we humans would call a silent cast, is what I must nurture and grow into a full blown all-age blind. I think it will be a long adventure, and it may not be possible to achieve that goal.

But we have begun.

Big field and angled beach

After a club training day last Sunday, and anticipating group training this weekend, and also taking scheduling constraints into account, I rested Laddie Monday and Thursday, ran big converging double on a hay field on Tuesday morning, and took Laddie and one assistant to a training property on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons.

In those afternoon sessions, we worked on the challenge of an angled beach, that is, not veering off while swimming in order to square an approaching shoreline even though starting on line means staying in the water longer.

Like most if not all training, this work involved using setups that the dog could easily execute correctly except for one particular facet, so that the trainer can clearly communicate the one change in the dog's behavior that would allow the dog to obtain reinforcement by achieving the dog's goal of getting to the bird, or in this case, a bumper thrown with a gunshot by our assistant.

Given Laddie's particular skill level, the high afternoon temperatures, and my desire to get in as much practice as possible while Laddie remained fresh, this meant a short land segment, a short swim to an angled shoreline, and a proportionately long final land segment to a lining pole with a ribbon tied to the top, to such the bumper had been thrown, so that the desired line was always clearly visible.

Over three such sessions, using as many locations on the property as I could find to produce such setups, Laddie made continuous progress on understanding the desired concept, resulting in more and more successes without the need to stop him and either call him back or use a cast to correct his line.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Club training day

One of the retriever clubs I belong to has occasional training days in which the offer separate hunt test and field trial groups. I brought Laddie to Sunday's training day and had the opportunity to run him on an all-age land triple and an all-age water blind.

As usual, each trainer/handler was free to use the triple-mark setup however they felt would best benefit their dog's training.

The triple consisted of a 260y mark on the right thrown RTL, a 160y mark on the center thrown LTR, and a 70y flyer on the left thrown LTR. The line to both memory birds was across a pond with an island.

I felt the most challenging way to run that would be with the center gun retired and the long gun out while the center mark was run, then retiring the long gun when the dog was coming back from the center mark. Based on regular training on land setups with my assistants, I felt Laddie had a good chance of being successful with such a setup and planned to run it that way.

However, I compared my thoughts with a friend who said he would run it a different way with his more experienced all-age dog, so I thought I should follow his suggestion. Accordingly, I left all the guns out until Laddie entered the pond on each of the memory birds and then retired that gun.

Laddie was steady watching the throws, did not swing his head, and had no trouble with the flyer. On both of the memory marks, Laddie took a good line until he entered the pond, but then veered right to square the bank of an island in the pond. Carrying that new line brought him up too far right on the far shore. For the middle mark, he then turned sharply left and ran straight to the bird, even though by then the gunner for that mark was retired while the long gun was still out. However, when coming out of the pond for the long gun, he continued on the wrong line for some distance, reached a dirt road, turned left onto the road to head in the correct direction, but began to hunt short. I called for the gunner to make himself visible and call "hey hey," and that was enough help for Laddie to complete his run to pick up the bird.

Although I could have handled Laddie in the pond as training not to veer off line and to help him be more successful on the marks, I felt it might do more harm then good, making popping more likely on future marks of similar difficulty. But I made a mental note that we needed to work on not changing course to square a bank.

Later on in the day, we ran the 180y water blind. It required a tight corridor and included four water entries plus a short, difficult page to the far bank only a yard or two from a side bank, and ended amidst a number of trees, a mound, and a final channel crossing all of which acted as suction to the right. Although Laddie handled satisfactorily on some of the challenges, the blind was over his head in overall difficulty.

We have done little training on water blinds since winter because of limited
time and access to technical water, and this blind confirmed that Laddie is not yet ready to be successful on all-age water blinds, or at least was not on this one.

It was a grueling, 12-hour day that included four hours of driving and working as the middle gunner for one shift in the hot sun. But it was just as valuable as I had hoped it would be as an opportunity to train on a great property, with other advanced dogs, on setups designed by an experienced all-age judge.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Hillside blinds, poison birds

Today Laddie and I worked with a single assistant at a location that contains a 45 degree slope between one field and another. The slope is approximately 150y end to end and about ten yards wide (that is, from the high edge to the low edge), ideal for the drill I wanted to work with Laddie on today.

Laddie ran about a dozen blinds, in each case from a starting point midway down the slope to a black bumper about 80y away, also midway down the slope. We ran in both directions for variety, sometimes using a lining pole to mark the black bumper and sometimes not. The advantage of the lining pole, from a training perspective, was that Laddie ran the entire distance staying at the midpoint of the slope when the pole was visible, whereas he tended to drift uphill when it wasn't there. The disadvantage was that it apparently made the challenge of ignoring the diversion easier.

What diversion? Oh, I haven't mentioned that yet. Except for the first time or two that Laddie ran the blinds, I had our bird-girl throw a white bumper. The early throws were from the bottom of the hill, about a third of the way from the start line to the black bumper, and thrown away from the slope. To increase difficulty, she moved away from the start line and closer to the black bumper to make the throw. Another way to increase difficulty was for her to move toward the middle of the field and throw toward the slope. Most difficult was for her to stand at either the top of the slope or the bottom and throw over the line Laddie would be running, a blind's relationship to a mark called "under the arc".

The setup I'm describing is similar to an invaluable drill Alice Woodyard sent me to use with Lumi and Laddie when they were first training to run blinds, but that was on flat ground, the lining pole was always present, the bumpers at the pole were white, and the diversion bird (a real bird in those days) was thrown and retrieved before the dog was sent to pick up a bumper. This  prepared the dogs for every relationship between a thrower's position and the line to a blind run in that gun station's proximity.

Today's drill would not have been suitable for Lumi and Laddie in those days, because in today's drill, I sent Laddie to pick up the black bumper on the hillside first, while the white bumper the bird-girl had just thrown  lay there on the ground as a powerful diversion. After Laddie returned with the black bumper, I released him to pick up the white bumper next, which he was always excited to do.

A mark that's thrown but left alone while the dog then runs a blind is called a "poison bird". I haven't seen many of them in competition, but I've heard that they are sometimes used in master hunt tests and all-age field trial stakes. The most difficult would be an under-the-arc poison bird using a flyer, and I've heard that even that variation sometimes occurs.

We weren't working with birds today, much less flyers, but Laddie did get practice running a good number of poison bird placements, including today's most difficult variation to end the day - the poison bird thrown far from the start line from the bottom of the slope to the top, the blind run under the arc, and no lining pole at the black bumper.

At the same time, Laddie also got a good bit of practice running along a slope at midpoint between top and bottom, a valuable skill in its own right and, I thought, a helpful complement to the poison bird setups.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Double land blind with high diversion counts

Yesterday I took Laddie and two assistants out to work on tight angles between retrieves - in this case, a hip-pocket double, plus a land blind under the arc of the short mark and therefore on a line in the middle of the already tight angle between the two marks. I hadn't designed the second series yet, but I typically use a mirror image of the same concepts on another part of the field.

Unfortunately, however, we were working in the midst of a thunderstorm watch and a lightning flash appeared in the sky as Laddie running the blind. Naturally we all headed for the van that was the end of that session.

Since Laddie had not had much work, I felt it wouldn't be too soon to run him on a couple of long blinds this morning before work, with lower temps and no storm.

Therefore I took him to another new field I found in addition to the field I mentioned in a recent post. This one is a future construction site, and is big enough that I was able to run Laddie on a 330y blind in one direction and a 550y blind in another.

Laddie ran both blinds in a fairly tight corridor, but I placed lining poles, with ribbons at the top, on one side of the line to each blind every hundred yards, creating a lot of diversions, and that meant using a lot of whistles. As I've mentioned previously, I can't wait for Laddie to break off line when i know a diversion is about to become visible, because if I do, by the time I react, he's already gone too far. The greater the distance, the more necessary it is for me to stop him in anticipation of a break, because it takes a noticeable amount of time for the sound of the whistle to reach a dog at longer distances.

In retrospect, I now question whether adding a continuous stream of diversions was a good idea. On the one hand, it gave us lots of practice at control in a short amount of time, and perhaps will make Laddie more resistant to diversions in the future. But on the other hand, it meant that Laddie never got up much momentum. While Laddie has been doing this too long for me to worry about damaging his motivation in one fairly innocuous session, I could imagine him beginning to believe that a steady stream of short carries interrupted with whistles is a normal rhythm for a long blind. I would much prefer him to have the expectation of long carries and minimal whistles, which I'm certain is his preference as well.

Hmm, one more training puzzle to solve. I guess the answer, as usual, is balance. In this case, that would translate to occasional sessions like today's, mixed with sessions on other days not containing many diversions and therefore making possible long carries and few whistles.

At least I hope that's the answer.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Converging marks, popping averted

On Sunday, I brought Laddie and two assistants to a new hay field I got permission to train on. The field is large but has limited lines of sight because of it's somewhat dome shaped with rolling hillocks. The hay was recently cut so the cover is uniformly low at this time. The field is not as versatile as a retriever training property by any means, but it's near home and I think it's going to be useful for working on concepts with Laddie.

On Sunday, for example, I had Laddie run two similar series, but mirror images of one another and on different parts of the field. Each series was a land double with converging throws and with the gun for the long memory bird retired. The marks were 350y and 150y and on a tight angle, so that the line to the longer mark was only slightly off line from the line to the shorter mark.

The purpose of this training was to give Laddie an opportunity to have experience with the difficult job of re-running nearly the same line as he had just run but pushing further, in this case another 200y. Beyond the confusion inherent for an experienced retriever in being sent the same direction twice in one series, additional factors for this setup were the relatively long distance, the fact that the thrower of the memory bird was retired while the thrower of the go-bird was still out, and the fact that the marks had been thrown in opposite directions.

Laddie ran the first of the two doubles, and the go-bird of the second double, without difficulty. But the memory bird of the second double presented a new problem: the thrower had apparently not been visible, or only partly visible, when the mark was thrown, and at 350y, the black bumper she was throwing was not visible against the background of the trees except its a white steamer. Laddie had heard the pistol shot, and may have caught some visual info, but basically he was depending on lining and guesswork when I sent him.

I could tell he was feeling confusion because as soon as he launched, he zigzagged a little and turned his head to the side as though about to look over his shoulder at me. In the past, that body language would have been the precursor to a pop after a few more second, as Laddie's uncertainty got the better of him.

But we've been working on popping this past winter, and the work bore fruit on this mark. Laddie did not pop. Instead he pushed a little wide, as experienced retrievers often do to give wide berth to a previous mark, and then held his line up and down the knolls until he caught sight of the gunner in her white t-shirt hiding behind her umbrella. Instantly he darted past her and straight to the bumper.

Popping can be difficult to correct because, depending on how the dog feels after the incident, it can be self-reinforcing. For example, if the handler gives a cast when the dog pops, that may relieve some anxiety for the dog, which would increase the likelihood of the dog popping again if the dog felt similar anxiety on some future mark. In fact, it's difficult to find a response to the dog popping that doesn't somewhat relieve the dog's anxiety. This is material I've discussed elsewhere and won't repeat here.

However, in this session, it occurred to me that the dog having success on a confusing mark without popping, but instead with self-reliance, may also be self-reinforcing, so that each time Laddie handles a difficult mark without popping may further decrease the probability of popping in the future.

That would be nice.

[Note that entries are displayed from newest to oldest.]