Sunday, May 11, 2014

Laddie passes fourth Master

Yesterday afternoon, Laddie completed the last series of the DelBay Master test, nailing every mark of an inline land/water triple and receiving a round of applause from the gallery, to wrap up his fourth Master Hunt Test qualification. One more will earn him a Master Hunter title.

Preparation the last week included some marks and some blinds, but most of my focus was on trying to minimize the chances that Laddie would break on a flyer. I also continued work from last week on practicing good deliveries.

I'll digress here to say that except for one bird Laddie dropped before completing delivery and needed to pick up again, Laddie's deliveries were perhaps the best they've ever been in a competition - come to heel, hold reliably, sometimes sit sometimes not, but no diving or otherwise rushing needed.

As for steadiness, this test was hardly a severe breaking test, thank goodness, but still had some challenges:

- an out-of-order flyer on a walk-up land triple in the first series

- an honor for the water double in the second series

- a go-bird flyer on the land/water triple in the third series

Laddie was steady as a rock for all three. Here are the initiatives I took this last week attempting to accomplish that result:

- After Laddie broke on a flyer last Saturday, we trained with flyers on Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Altogether, Laddie saw approximately 25 flyers last week, including nine honors.

- Except for the last few marks on Thursday, Laddie wore a collar with a tab (very short lead) attached, and I held it slack as he watched each bird, moving with him if he stood. I only let it become taut, so that he would feel it hold him back, if he tried to break, and he only did that twice all week.

- On those two occasions, I yelled at him. I would have preferred not to do that, but some of the people I train with have always preferred that Laddie suffer some consequence for trying to break, and I decided to do it this week. I don't know if it mattered, but I acknowledge that it might have been a useful part of the training.

- In general, the way we trained was as follows: Laddie would run a triple with a very close flyer as either the second or third bird thrown/shot, then honor the same setup with Laddie and me positioned as close as possible to the shooter. I used long delays before sending him, and I encouraged the working handler to do the same on Laddie's honors. We used those kinds of setups nine times during the week, and never used the same setup twice.

- We were shooting the birds for the first two sessions, but we used clipwings in Thursday. For the triples that day, the flyer was thrown with the shot of a shotgun popper. Using poppers instead of live ammo may not have been as good preparation for a test, but we ended up with several live birds after we had run all the triples and my friend, who had been running his dog for Laddie to honor, had to leave.

- So at the end of the Thursday session, I had my assistant repeatedly throw a clippie, using duck call and primer blank pistol, just a few yards in front of Laddie's field of vision, then I sent Laddie to retrieve the bird. We did this half a dozen times or more, always moving to a different positron. Laddie became so steady during this process that I decided to take his collar off. My feeling was that that would be bad if Laddie then broke, but it would be good if it helped him experience steadiness with no collar, since he can't wear a collar in competition. He was rock steady; I saw no evidence that the collar made any difference to him. I believe this last bit of training, with one bird after another thrown at close range, may have been one of the most important parts of the week's preparation, if not the most.

- In the test that Laddie passed earlier this year, I ran Laddie on long blinds both the day before the test and the morning of the test, and then took him for a couple of long walks while waiting our turn. My goal was to possibly take some of the edge off Laddie's energy and therefore possibly reduce the chances of a break. I didn't do that for the two tests where Laddie broke. So for yesterday's test, I did that again, with additional exercise between setups, arranging to time the exercise even though Laddie was #1 in the running order. Laddie was by no means exhausted at the line and honoring, but he may have been slightly less springy than normal, and perhaps that helped.

- Finally, during those walks and also while walking to the final holding blind as we approached the line for our turn, I repeatedly cued Laddie to sit, working to strengthen the cue as much as possible for when he's be watching the birds. I don't believe that drilling was sufficient to prevent a break, but I do believe it may have helped.

Laddie is entered in several more Master tests this spring, including one next weekend. I will make every effort to repeat last week's initiatives during the coming week, though we may only train with flyers once (on Thursday perhaps) and we may use clippies again. If by some misfortune Laddie breaks next Saturday, then I'll know we have to repeat training with shot flyers and live ammo after all in preparation for subsequent tests.

Here's hoping that won't be necessary and Laddie will complete his MH next weekend.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Dodging a Bullet for Laddie's Third Master Pass

Laddie earned his third Master ribbon last weekend. I had thought it was a pretty straight-forward pass, but I learned later that I'd come close to getting him disqualified.

First, a quick summary:
  • 59 dogs entered
  • 51 dogs ran
  • Laddie ran as #56
  • Series A was a land triple with honor plus a single land blind, no flyer, no walk-up.
  • In Series A marks, Laddie nailed #3. When I sent him to #1 next, he veered around and picked up #2. He then nailed #1.
  • Laddie nearly lined the Series A blind. I stopped him with a safety whistle as he raced past the blind on the upwind side, then cued angle-in to the bird.
  • 41 dogs called back from Series A
  • Series B was a water double with flyer go-bird, walk-up, diversion shot, and double water blind which you could pick up in either order after picking up the marks.
  • Laddie nailed both Series B marks, but had mediocre returns, dropping the bird in front of me to shake off instead of delivering to hand, then taking time picking bird back up. (We've worked in that in two water sessions this week.) For some reason, returns and deliveries on the two blinds were fine.
  • Laddie ran the second water blind on a different line than any of the other dogs (see below)
  • 40 dogs called back from Series B
  • Series C was a water triple.
  • Laddie nailed #3.
  • I had planned to run Laddie on #1 next (out-out-in), but he locked in on #2, so I sent him there, and he ran it well, taking difficult angle entries to maintain a fairly straight line rather than squaring the bank on the two channel swims.
  • I then ran him on #1, making that last retrieve of the test. I needed to handle Laddie, but I thought little of it till I happened to chat with the judges later and asked them if they had any thoughts on Laddie's performance. That's when I discovered that we'd nearly gotten knocked out of the test on that mark (see below).
  • 40 dogs qualified
Now a little more detail on a couple of items:
  • The line for the second water blind was across a point, with a tempting cheat on the left rather than reentering the water. One of the judges had specifically said during the instructions, "This is a water blind," which I interpreted to mean not wanting to see the dogs run the bank after arriving at that point. I believe about half the dogs did run that bank, but I guess the judges decided not to knock them out for that. Some handlers did not handle the dog when the dog reached the point, or cued "back" from the point, both of which risked the dog squaring the bank of the second water section and then running the bank some part of the way to complete the blind. Other handlers (including me) cued "over" from the point, with the intent of casting the dog into open water off line but well clear of the bank, and then handling the dog to the bird from there. In most cases, that still resulted in the dog beaching early and running the bank to the bird. But Laddie's line was unique. Once he had taken the cast off the point, he began swimming parallel to the bank, like a channel swim. I waited until he was even with the bird, then cast him with a straight over to complete the blind. I liked the fact that he didn't get close to the bank at all until he was swimming directly to the bird, and I felt he'd successfully "challenged the line" with his no-whistle initial line from the start line to the point.
  • The reason that Laddie's performance on the last water retrieve was much riskier than I had realized is that, when Laddie crossed the two channels and arrived on a strip of land a few feet from the left-most bird, he didn't realize it was still in front of him. Instead, he chose to turn right and run toward the center of the field on that strip of land. I waited a few seconds to see whether he would turn back, and when I realized he wasn't going to, I blew the whistle and handled him to the bird, which had rolled just over the bank, behind a ledge that made it difficult for several of the dogs to find the bird even when they were close. As mentioned, it seemed like a fairly routine way to end a test, handling on the last mark since we hadn't need a handle on any of the other marks in the test. However, what I hadn't noticed was that when Laddie made that right turn, he was headed straight for the old fall of #2. My delay in blowing the whistle in retrospect had no advantage. I could just as easily have blown it as soon as Laddie turned away from the line, and I should have. Instead, I waited until, without my noticing it, Laddie had come perilously close to what is called "returning to an old fall", which is a DQ. How perilous? The judges told me later that if Laddie had put down his nose, they would have had no choice but to knock him out of the test.
I can only hope that I learned my lesson, and will be more aware of the possibility of returning to the old fall, even when my thoughts about what's going on are elsewhere. Meanwhile I count my blessings that I didn't have to learn this lesson at the cost of a ribbon, the price I've paid for so many other handling errors in the past.
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