Monday, April 14, 2014

Ups and downs, downs and ups

Since I haven't posted much this winter, in this rather long post, I'll try to provide some info on our training the last few months, as well as including details of this last weekend, in which many things happened that I, as least, thought were quite interesting.

I've felt that Laddie has been training well this winter, with good marking and handling. Whenever the weather allowed it, we trained about four times a week, including monthly training days with one of our clubs. Then this last Saturday, Laddie ran in his first Master Hunt Test of the year, and on Sunday we went to New Jersey for a training day with another club.

Perhaps thanks to the Fake Throw drill we've been using periodically, Laddie hasn't had a pop in quite some time, so I'm optimistic that we've made some progress on that this winter. Time will tell.

On the other hand, Laddie's occasional vocalizing on blinds has now spread to land blinds as well as water. I have no more idea to solve it on land than I did on water. It will probably hurt us with some judges, but since those would probably be the same judges as the water vocalizing, I guess it won't hurt us more now than before.

I think I've noticed one data point about Laddie's vocalizing. In general, I think he's more likely to vocalize on early handling than on handling further out. Since I don't understand why he vocalizes in the first place, something he's done since before he was a year old, I'm not sure what it means that he's more likely to do it on early handles, but maybe it means something.

In any case, I was optimistic going into the weekend Master test that Laddie would be successful, but it didn't work out that way. He came to the line as #50, watched the first dead-bird throw, and then watched as the out-of-order 2nd-throw flyer took a looping glide high above the gunners and then downward between the gunners and the start line, making a safe shot impossible and also creating strong temptation for the working and honoring dogs to break. Fortunately the honoring dog remained steady, but when the judges called "no-bird", Laddie broke, raced out, and brought the bird back.

My first impulse had been to run out after Laddie when he broke, but I remembered Lumi being disqualified from a Senior test once when I went out to get her after she broke on a no-bird, so I checked myself and waited for Laddie to come back with the bird.

To my great surprise, and perhaps in part because I'd stayed at the line, the judges did not disqualify Laddie for breaking on the no-bird, but rather said I should bring him back for a re-run after some other dogs ran. I arranged to run him last, about ten dogs later, giving him plenty of time to rest in the van, but it was no good. He still ended up breaking on the re-run. While I was extremely grateful to the judges for giving Laddie a chance to stay in the test, it might have actually hurt Laddie's training, since he has now started the season with not one, but two, successful breaks on flyers in the context of a test. There's no telling yet how difficult it will be to dig out of that training hole. I shudder to think that it's even possible he's now hopelessly test-wise and ruined. But of course I hope not.

I'll get to the Sunday training in a moment, but I thought I'd mention that I was also grateful to the Head Marshall for giving me a chance to work on the next series, a water triple with a water blind. I worked gun station #3 using a duck call, winger, and popper gun, then shot the diversion shot when called for, and finally planted the blinds, so with reloading the winger and gun, I was active almost continuously. Having Laddie get knocked out of the test was painful, and the opportunity to work was a valuable emotional counter-balance. I felt much better because of it.

In any case, once back at the van, I began sending out texts, emails, and voice mails, trying to make arrangements with as many as people as I could think of to find a way for Laddie to train with flyers between then and our next Master test in two weeks. I also considering scratching him from that test (I could get my entry fee back if I did it today), and perhaps that would still be a good decision. But based on yesterday's training day up in New Jersey, I'm feeling more confident that Laddie can handle both working and honoring flyers, despite his breaks on Saturday. For now, I don't plan to scratch him, but I will continue to try to find more opportunities to practice with flyers between now and then.

In addition, I plan to have him wear a tab (a flat collar with a short lead attached) whenever training between now and the next test. I'll grasp the lead whenever I feel there's any risk of a break, and Laddie will wear the tab at all times whether break risk or not so that he doesn't associate the tab with steadiness training. Hopefully, when he's running and honoring at the next test, the steadiness training will continue to apply even though the tab won't be there.

If I had not been able to arrange for flyer work on Sunday, I had planned to return to the test to continue helping, and also to watch the third setup and how the dogs ran it to learn what I could. But I was most fortunate to receive an invitation to train with flyers on Sunday, so Laddie and I got up at 4am and traveled to New Jersey for training instead.

With regard to yesterday's training day: It went very well, thanks primarily to the guy who invited me to participate, who is also the organizer for that club's training days. The participation rate was unusually high for such an activity — more than 70 dogs — yet everything went off without a hitch and I was home by 6pm despite the 3+ hour drive each way.

As often happens in training days, each trainer was allowed to run a version of the set-ups that best met his dog's training needs. Here are the versions that Laddie run:

  • Series A. We moved our start line to about 35 yards from the flyer station, which also changed all the angles. Laddie then ran a round-the-horn triple with the flyer as the go-bird, followed a blind under the arc of the second throw. I requested a hand-throw for the second throw, since the winger would have thrown the bird straight behind the gun. Laddie was perfectly steady and didn't even get out of his sit when the flyer was thrown. He didn't handle as well as I would have liked on the blind, and I soon saw why — he needed to eliminate. But his marking was excellent, his returns and delivers were fine, and I felt his blind was OK though below his normal standards.
  • Though we didn't have an opportunity to honor a triple with a flyer, I did have Laddie honor a number of additional throws, including two flyers, for various dogs that followed. More on that below.
  • Series B. Laddie watched a round-the-horn triple, but when I looked down at him to send him for the go-bird, he was locked in on the middle bird. Someone in the gallery called out that Laddie hadn't seen the go-bird. I sent him to pick up the middle bird and then the first throw, which he didn't nail perhaps because he was drawn by a duck that was running around on the other side of the gun station having been missed when shot at earlier in the day. But Laddie quickly gave up on the loose duck, and ran back to pick up the mark and bring it in. At that point, the guy working the line and I discussed throwing the last mark again as a single, but I looked down and Laddie had lined up on it on his own. So I came to the conclusion that he had seen the throw after all, but had turned his eyes away from it by the time I looked down at him. I sent him and he nailed it. I then ran him on both of the blinds. I think he lined the first one. He blinked the bumper when I handled him to it on the second blind, running past it, but then he picked it up and brought it. Given all the distractions — the loose duck, the fact that Laddie was running behind a female in heat (see below), and the fact that I had kept Laddie out of the van for a long time before our turn came (also discussed below)  — I thought he did well.
  • Series C. My friend at the training day was aware that I wanted Laddie to get as much work with flyers as possible, and told me that the set-up with the flyer station had some extra birds. So we ran another series there. Once again we moved our start line close to the flyer station, and this time I requested that the second station use the winger, resulting in a throw that for us was angled almost straight back. But this time, I asked that the flyer be thrown out of order, that is, as the second throw, and then the middle gun, which was 180s in the opposite direction from the flyer station, be thrown as the go-bird. Thus Laddie would need to watch a long mark be thrown left to right, then turn all the way around to watch a flyer be thrown right to left, then turn all the way around again to watch the go-bird be thrown left to right. Our position made the first and third marks into a reverse hip-pocket. We'd run the blind again also, but it would be in front of the second gun, not under the arc. While my primary concern was with whether Laddie would take up the slack on the tab while attempting to break on the flyer, this was also a challenging set-up even without the possibility of a break, especially considering all the effort I'd gone to in order to elevate Laddie's excitement level. As it played out, the flyer was only wounded, and the "cripple" began moving toward cover after it landed. Yet Laddie did not try to break, and when the third station fired his gun and released the winger, Laddie turned to look at it over his shoulder. When I sent him, he raced to the go-bird first. He then ran back to me with that bird, keeping his eye on the still active flyer the whole time, and as soon as I took the bird and called his name, he darted out to pick up the flyer. To finish up the triple, I lined him up for the long memory bird, on a line just behind the go-bird's holding blind, and though I remembered the fall as being wider than it actually was, Laddie remembered it correctly and nailed it. He then finished by running the blind again. We were running from a somewhat different location than Series A, it had been several hours, and a lot had happened in between, but it may not mean much that he ran the blind well this time. I'm glad he did, though.
  • Again, Laddie honored several dogs after he ran Series C, including two flyers, though no one was running the same set-up Laddie ran.
As part of yesterday's training, I did something that I haven't done much before. Instead of having Laddie wait in his crate in the van as much as possible as I normally do with him both on training days and at tests, I came to a realization: Laddie becomes increasingly excited if he's out with me near the sounds, and possibly sights, of a test for a long time before he gets to run, and that excitement can hurt his performance when his turn finally comes. Reducing that excitement level in order to improve his performance at a test makes sense. But I realized that the opposite is true at training day. I now think that letting Laddie practice under increased excitement levels at training days would help him to prepare for the inevitable excitement of a test. With that realization, I brought Laddie out to wait with me while the earlier dogs were running in the last couple of series. I'll try to remember to do the same at future training days.

Because a couple of the people at the training day were aware that Laddie had broken in a test the previous day, they offered a couple of types of advice. One was the usual advice that I make it uncomfortable for Laddie if he tries to break, such as by having him wear a pinch collar or by using his normal slip lead and giving it a hard jerk. I declined as politely and respectfully as I could, saying that we've had had success using the tab in previous years, that Laddie has been steady in many tests over the years, that even dogs trained as they were describing sometimes break, and that I didn't intend to use physical aversives in Laddie's training now any more than I have in the past, whatever the consequences.

But the other advice, which I've also heard often before, was that I should cold-honor Laddie with a lot of other dogs, rather than just the single hot honor after running his own series. The theory is for the dog to learn that he's not to go unless sent. I decided not to raise the arguments that (a) it isn't going to help, because you're not really training for the situation where the dog actually breaks, (b) you can't train a dog not to do something by putting it on cue and hoping he'll only do it when you give the cue, and (c) I think there's some risk that if the dog learns too often that the birds he's watching are not for him, he'll lose some focus at the line when the birds are for him but he's previously been taught that he probably won't be sent after watching birds being thrown. However, yesterday I reflected that Laddie has always had great concentration on marks, and I felt fairly certain that it could stand up to one day of some cold honoring six years into his career. So as mentioned for Series A and C, I had Laddie honor several dogs running flyers after he's run his series, and in Series B, as I mentioned earlier, I kept Laddie with me in the gallery before it was his turn, so that he got to watch a number of dogs running their series while we were waiting.

And despite my earlier reservations, I came to feel that those cold honors were worthwhile. I don't know how to prove it scientifically, but it certainly didn't seem to reduce Laddie's concentration on his own birds when he was working, and the fact is that he was steady as a rock both working and honoring all day, despite every effort on my part to increase the likelihood of a break. On one honor, he actually lay down while we were waiting for the guns to get organized, and when they began throwing, he just watched from the ground without bothering to get back on his feet. He wasn't distracted; he did watch the throws with some interest. But he showed no inclination to stand up, much less to make a break.

One last point. I learned during the first series that the last dog to run was a female in heat. In fact, that's why the trainer had run the dog last. But when we moved to the second series, I requested that Laddie have the opportunity to run immediately after that dog, so that Laddie ended up running last. This again was to give Laddie an opportunity to practice under the increased difficulty of conditions, rather than having no experience with it in practice and then having to face that situation sometimes in tests.

In conclusion, the weekend started on a painful note, but ended up well, and once again, I'm looking forward to more training and competing as the spring unfolds.

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