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.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Club training day and a number of side topics

[Note: This is an unusually long post, since I've taken the opportunity to discuss a number of issues I wanted to include in this journal. My apologies to readers for the amount of material if you were hoping for a quick read.]

Training day at the club

One of the retriever clubs I belong to trains once a month all year. The club president divides those who sign up into two groups; the group leader for each group designs the series; his group runs that series; and then the groups switch locations and run the other series. Each group has dogs at a wide range of levels. The full setup is designed for training Master level dogs, but the group leaders also offer suggestions for less advanced dogs, even novice dogs, to benefit from training on the same setups, and everyone is welcome to modify the series as desired.

I'm usually one of the group leaders when I'm there, a job I enjoy tremendously, so our group, Group B, ran my setup first. Then we ran the series that had been designed by the Group A group leader.

Despite all the variations in how everyone used the setups, I'll focus in this post on the versions I used for Laddie.

Laddie's first series

Although the blind is most commonly run after the marks in a series that contains both, activities going on in the field made it expedient for me to start by running Laddie on one of the water blinds I had set up (the other was intended for dogs newer to handling). To add to the difficulty of Laddie's blind, I asked the gunner at the closest station, about 20y to our right, to fire a shot with the popper gun and throw a duck into the water in parallel with the line Laddie would be running to the blind, and then I ran Laddie on the blind before sending him to pick up that bird.

Because the bird was so close, this was probably the most difficult "poison bird" blind Laddie has ever run, and as far as I know, no one else used a poison bird in today's training. Laddie remained in control and ran the challenging Master-level blind reasonably well. It included a tight diagonal keyhole between two trees and then a stand of reeds to the right of the hillside at the far end of the swim that the dogs tended to run behind unless the handler anticipated that and stopped the dog with a whistle before the dog had a chance to break behind the reeds while running up the hill. However, although Laddie was responsive to all the casts, he vocalized repeatedly while being handled away from the poison bird and onto the correct line, and probably vocalized more at times during the rest of the blind. I can't remember the details of his vocalizing exactly, but more on that topic below.

After Laddie ran the blind and then got to pick up the poison bird, I then ran him on the water triple. Two of the three marks had sharp angle entries, but Laddie took good lines into the water on both, then maintained those lines (more on Laddie's water honesty below, too). That took Laddie to the bird on the open-water go-bird on the left, thrown from the same station as had thrown the poison bird during the blind, but in the opposite direction and with a winger. Next, for the rightmost mark, his line took him across the water and to the top of a hill, which was the lip of a pond on a higher elevation and out of sight from the start line. I had had the gunner throw that bird up the hill and into the out-of-sight pond for the more advanced dogs. Laddie hunted for a few moments at the top of the hill, then somewhat comically noticed the bird in the pond and pounced on it.

When I sent Laddie for the center mark, it was clear that he'd either forgotten it or had never seen it. I called for help and the gunner used calls of "hey, hey" and a couple of fake throws to draw Laddie to the bird.

Helping the dog learn a "Plan B" by having the gunner help rather than the handler

As I may have mentioned before on this blog, for situations where the dog is lost (as opposed to situations where the dog is cheating), I prefer for the dog to get help from the gunner rather than the handler. That way, if the dog gets lost in a test, the dog has been trained with a Plan B: look for the gunner, and the bird will be nearby. By contrast, if you handle in that situation when training, the risk is that if the dog gets lost in a test, at best the dog won't have learned to look for the gunner and so may hunt hundreds of yards away instead of staying in proximity to the gun station, or even less desirably, the dog will look to the handler for the same kind of help the dog had been getting when lost in training. That's called "popping" and lowers the dog's score.

Preparing to run Laddie's second series

Later on, we switched locations and our group ran the Group A series, which was a water triple and a water blind. Since everyone else had run the marks in this series as singles (more on that below, too), or a double and a single, and because I had some special plans in mind, I requested that the gunners plan on throwing a triple, but wait for me to call for the throws rather than looking to the guy who had taken over at the line.

Notes on line mechanics

Here I'd like to describe a few elements of my line mechanics that have changed recently thanks to valuable input from a friend.

Method 1. I don't usually point the guns out to Laddie as I used to, instead standing back and giving him ample time to find them, and study the factors, himself. Only if he doesn't find one of the guns in a reasonable amount of time do I point it out to him.

Method 2. After the bird has been thrown, I let Laddie lock in on that mark for a fairly long time, again allowing him to study the factors. He won't get that much time to study a mark during an event, but I'd like him to get in the habit of locking in and using as much time as possible to memorize the picture, turning only when he sees me turn or he hears the next gun.

Method 3. If instead of locking in, Laddie swings his head during the throw or as soon as the bird lands, I use physical and verbal cues to line him up on the bird that just landed and send him to that bird, even though it might only be the first or second bird down. When he returns, I run the rest of the series.

By the way, I know that traditional trainers often deprive the dog of running the mark the dog had head-swung to. My reading about dog training from a behaviorist viewpoint makes me believe that it would be impossible for the dog to associate being taken away from the line without running a mark from a head swinging incident that had occurred even seconds earlier, much less minutes, so depriving the dog of the second mark after sending the dog to the first mark in no way discourages head swinging in the future. Thus in my view, you deprive the dog of something the dog loves to do to no purpose, and you rob yourself of a training opportunity on that second mark.

In any case, methods 2 and 3 can't be used in an event, and method 1 might be frowned upon by some judges in a Hunt Test, though it would be normal in a Field Trial. But I think that all of them add value to training, discouraging head swinging and helping to develop habits that give the dog the best chance of having a solid picture of each mark as thrown.

Laddie's second series: the first mark

In this second series of the day, using those methods, Laddie did indeed swing his head after watching the first throw. I didn't expect it, since Laddie rarely swings his head, but I was watching for it and prepared mentally in case it happened. So instead of continuing the triple, I ran that mark as a single, lining him up and releasing him with his name. I wasn't sure how well he'd watched the throw — for some reason, he had been extremely interested in one of the other throwers from the time he came to the line, and that's where he'd swung his head to after the first throw. At first, I thought he must have had a good look at the first throw after all, because he took an excellent line into and across the water, foregoing a number of the cheating strategies other dogs had used on that mark. However, as soon as he reached the far shore, he began to hunt laterally despite having not yet reached the area of the fall about twenty yards inland, and his hunt took him far away from the area of the fall in both directions. I would have preferred to call for help from the gunner (see discussion above), but the judge was holding the radio and I couldn't figure out quickly enough how to arrange for the help I wanted from the inexperienced gunner, so I decided to handle Laddie instead. He was surprisingly resistant to the handling, so I guess it was good that events went that way, giving us an opportunity to get into sync for the uncommon situation where a mark has to turn, in effect, into a blind, and the dog has to switch from hunting mode, appropriate to running marks, to control mode, in which the dog needs to stop hunting and start taking direction from the handler.

Three kinds of retrieves

I do a number of things to try to help Laddie know at the beginning of a retrieve which of those two modes to be in. I say "dead bird" when starting to line him up for blinds. I send him on his name for marks but with "Back" for blinds. When he's locked into the correct line, I say "good" and hold my hand over his head still visible when I send him on blinds, but I pull my hand back and out of sight when I send him on marks. Of course, the fact that he hasn't seen a throw on blinds is of prime importance in making the distinction.

But besides marks and blinds, we also have this third kind of retrieve, which starts out as a mark but then turns into a blind while the retrieve is still in progress. I practice these as rarely as possible because I don't want Laddie to confuse the two modes, which I think increases the likelihood of him popping. But you can't request help from the gunners during an event without getting disqualified, so sometimes you do need to switch to this third kind of retrieve, and I guess it's good if the dog has had a little experience with such a switch in training.

In training, when the handler should help the dog on a mark rather than the gunner

Though not relevant to this session, I'll mention that in the case of the dog cheating during a training mark, I'd blow the whistle and handle the dog to the bird rather than calling for help from the gunner. That's a case of the dog apparently knowing where the bird is and making an incorrect choice in the face of a particular cheating opportunity, rather than a case of the dog clearly not knowing where the bird is. Since dogs would prefer to stay in hunt mode, switching them to handling mode when they make the wrong choice for a particular picture increases the probability that they'll make the correct choice the next time they're in that picture in order to avoid having to hear the whistle and switch to handling mode.

The rest of the second series

After Laddie finally picked up the first mark, we ran the other two as a double, and Laddie nailed both of them. Once again, he took good lines into the water despite cheating opportunities on both of them that had pulled other dogs off line. I then ran him on a the water blind the other group leader had set up, though I ran it from a mound about 30y further back from the mound we'd been using. Although it included a final water entry a short distance from the end, with a lining pole in clear view tempting the dog to run the bank to get to the obvious destination as quickly as possible, Laddie took just a couple of casts to get to that entry point and then entered the water on his own, finally turning back to me with a whistle sit I'd actually called for before he entered the water. While the sit was unfortunately late, that did give me the opportunity to see that Laddie was again exhibiting nice water honesty.

Water training has apparently been working

So here's one of the topics I said I'd talk more about. The last two weeks, we've gone to the training property closer to home for a session of water work on both Tuesdays, and we've also trained with a friend some distance from home on Sundays on a good number of water marks. When Laddie was younger, he had developed high quality, non-cheating water entries from a lot of training, but this spring, I noticed that our winter layoff from water training had resulted in his natural tendency to cheat starting to gain the upper hand. Saturday's club training included five marks with significant cheating opportunities, plus that final long blind, and Laddie showed no inclination to waver off line in order to shorten or eliminate a swim on any of them. That was good to see.

Should you require a novice dog to retrieve to hand?

Another topic that came up in Saturday's training was not mentioned above, but I guess I'll mention it here. One of the trainers was running an inexperienced dog who had not been Force Fetched or in any other way trained for delivery to hand. Between the two sessions, I asked if she would be interested in my thoughts, and when she said yes, I suggested to her, among other things, that she not take the bird away from the dog when he finally got close to her in response to her recall cues. I said that in a few weeks or months, after the dog had had plenty of time to build motivation for overcoming terrain issues and learning to love the chase to the bird, and discovering that by returning to the handler another bird might well be thrown for the dog, then, after plenty of time for those discoveries, would be time to train delivery to hand. And in some dogs, that behavior might even be natural, or at least it wouldn't discourage the dog to give the bird up immediately. But I said that my observation was that this particular dog really loved having a bird, and since he had not yet been trained a step-by-step retrieve, I'd rather see her let the dog keep the bird until he lost interest and dropped it himself. Otherwise, I expected that she'd continue to see the kind of avoidance behaviors against returning to her that were occurring in today's session.

Well, during our conversation, a friend of mine with vastly more experience in our sport than me, and one quite knowledgeable about the traditional training methods that he and most other field trainers used, happened by and listened in. As a courtesy to the woman I'd been talking to, he pointed out that although I'd been successful training my dogs, my view on the topic we were just discussing was very much a minority view, and that for my friend, as for most traditional trainers, "that bird belongs to me." Thus for my friend, training isn't only about behaviorist principles, in which a dog's behavior is shaped by mechanisms such as classical and operant conditioning. Instead, he also considers it his job as a trainer to instill in the dog a belief system that the bird (and bumper, and tennis ball, and any other article) belongs to the handler, not the dog. Out of respect for my friend, I think it's worth mentioning this viewpoint, though it's not how I think about training a desired behavior.

Singles versus triples

I have two more topics I said I'd say a bit more about. First, I'd like to mention that our sport seems to have two somewhat contradictory views on the subject of how to train with a triple-mark setup, such as the triples both group leaders set up in Saturday's training. One side seems to believe in running the setup at the level that the dog is ready for — singles for a novice dog, a double and a single for a more experienced dog, and generally a full triple for an advanced dog. The other side seems to believe that once the dog has experience with triples, and "knows how to count to three," the dog's training will most benefit from running singles in a great many instances. Of course both sides sometimes run singles and sometimes run triples; the difference is in the frequency of one versus the other.

I believe the singles cadre believes that the dog has little to learn from running triples once the dog knows what a triple is, and learns the skills that will be needed for top notch marking in competition by running mostly singles, though with the guns out, since with the guns out is how the dog will be seeing and running marks in competition.

Since I'm most influenced by Alice Woodyard or at least what I understand of her thoughts, to me, a dog is best prepared for advanced competition by running predominantly triples when triples are available. My arguments are these: First, as for head swinging, you can always send the dog for head swinging without waiting or another throw, as I did in our second series today. Secondly, if you give the dog plenty of time to memorize the picture, I think it's reasonable to expect that the dog will gain as much from dealing with factors that influence the mark, such as cheating opportunities, when running it as one mark in a triple as the dog would gain from running it a single. I agree that if the dog doesn't remember where the bird is, which is more likely with a memory bird, then you lose the value of training for those factors, and that doesn't happen if you run the mark as a single. But that's assuming the dog doesn't remember, and I think that often the dog does remember, or at least, I think that Laddie has a good memory. Third, I disagree that the only benefit of running multiples if to exercise the dog's memory. I don't even think that's the main benefit, or possibly any benefit at all, since I'm not sure a dog's memory is particularly susceptible to training. To me, the primary benefit is helping the dog to see as many pictures of how throws interact as possible, so that when the dog sees one of those pictures in competition, the dog has experienced as many times as possible in training and has learned how to deal with it successfully. Examples of combinations I'd like the dog to gain experience with, and which the dog does not learn the difficulty of by running singles, are hip pockets, reverse hip pockets, converging throws (pinches), inline triples (where the guns are in a line across the field, either on a diagonal or straight across, and especially difficult if closely spaced), flower pots (aka momma-poppas), and indent triples. Add all the variations of retiring one or more of the guns in such configurations and that's a lot of pictures I'd like the dog to experience in training as many times as possible, experience the dog won't gain if I concentrate only on marking singles.

Let me conclude the discussion of whether to run mostly singles, or mostly triples, by saying that in a way it doesn't really matter how either cadre explains its approach. What actually matters is which approach better prepares the dog for competition. I'm afraid I don't have the data on that. I know people from both cadres who have been quite successful, though Alice is the most successful trainer by far of the people I know personally. In any case, I enjoy running Laddie on triples because he seems to thrive on them, and I strive to use them in the way I described above, though we run plenty of singles when that seems called for as well.

Vocalizing on blinds, especially water blinds

I'd like to end this post with my latest thoughts on Laddie's vocalizing. The question I'm addressing here is, why does Laddie vocalize on blinds, especially on water blinds? I have been seeing this his whole life, and have focused on it especially for the last couple of years, trying to understand what I'm seeing and what may be causing it.

First, he virtually never vocalizes it if he can see the bird (or bumper), even if he didn't see it thrown. Secondly, while it's most prominent when he's being handled, he also sometimes vocalizes as he's being launched from the start line, or as he begins to swim even before I've blown any whistles, or both. And thirdly, he is far more likely to vocalize in the first 50y or so of a blind than at longer distances, though he does sometimes vocalize further out as well.

People have asked me why he vocalizes. Is it a protest? Is it a complaint? Is it excitement? Is it fear of making a mistake and getting nicked? (This of course is asked by people who are unaware that Laddie has never experienced any physical correction, via ecollar or any other device.) But for me, the data doesn't point to any of those explanations, except that vocalizing occasionally as he's being launched does kind of seem to be an expression of excitement. But for vocalizing during handling, what for example would a dog's "protest" or "complaint" mean if the dog is taking a good cast? Or to put it another way, what advantage would it be for the dog to make such a protest or complaint? Dog behavior is shaped by outcomes. If the dog gets no advantage from protesting or complaining, why keep doing it? As for excitement, if it's excitement, why not vocalize on a mark, especially with a flyer? As for fear, if it's fear, why don't I see any avoidance behaviors, such as "bugging" (the dog won't lock in on the line) or no-gos? And why, for any of the explanations, have I only seen or heard of Goldens that have this trait? I believe I've seen or heard of at least five Goldens that vocalize under the same conditions that Laddie does, but no other breed. Other breeds vocalize in the holding blind or at the line, of course, which is not much of a problem with Laddie (he just whines a little sometimes, and that almost certainly is excited impatience that Laddie is finding almost unbearable). But I've only seen or heard about Goldens doing this vocalizing while running blinds, especially water blinds.

Anyway, I think I have come up with a model that seems to cover all the bases except why the behavior only seems to occur in Goldens: namely, that vocalizing is a way the dog discovers for relieving stress. Any dog may accidentally happen to vocalize on a cast at some point in the dog's career, and I guess for most dogs, the dog doesn't feel any different afterwards. But for some dogs, I suspect that when the dog happens to vocalize, the dog notices a change in the dog's internal sensations, an increase in comfort over how the dog felt before vocalizing. That acts as reinforcement, making it more likely that the dog will respond to the discomfort of stress with vocalizing again in the future. And when the dog discovers over time that the benefit continues to occur, the vocalizing becomes more and more common, as is unfortunately what's happening with Laddie.

Of course, vocalizing of many varieties when stressed is common in human behavior, and if it produces an outcome the individual prefers, whether in internal feelings or external responses, it's likely to continue and even increase. I guess dogs have a smaller repertoire of audible expressions, but perhaps the fact that some dogs vocalize when stressed is less surprising than the fact that most dogs don't. Or perhaps the dogs that don't are not feeling stress in those situations for one reason or another, or do not notice any relief from incidental occurrences of vocalizing.

In conclusion, I hardly feel I've answered all the questions about Laddie's vocalizing, and I don't feel the explanation I've come up with gets me any closer to a solution. But I do feel closer, at least, to understanding why he does it. It's not a protest or complaint or excitement or fear. It's to relieve stress, and it works.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Triple land blind redux

Today I ran Laddie on the same three blinds as Monday. I anticipated when i needed to blow the whistle better, Laddie cast better, and temp was more comfortable at 74 degrees.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Center flowerpot quad

With high temps and thunderstorms coming, Laddie and I again did land work early this morning, as we had the week before.

Using three assistants, I set up two series in succession in a large rectangular meadow, running in opposite directions and mirror images of each other.

In each series, the center station at 120y threw a "flowerpot" (aka "momma-poppa"), that is, one throw to the left and one throw to the right. On one side, another station at 270y threw to the inside. On the other side, a station at 170y also threw to the inside. The throwing sequence was the longest mark thrown first, the center station throwing the same direction second, this other side station throwing third, and the center station throwing the same direction as the third station fourth.

This setup offered a number of challenging features: it was a quad, it was an indent (that is, the center station was the closest station), it was a flowerpot, and it contained not one but two pinch configurations (marks thrown toward one another but at different distances).

Adding to the potential difficulty, most of the throws were black bumpers, which are difficult to see against the background of trees and houses at this location. And because of the terrain and cover, once the gunners sat down, in some cases they were difficult to see from the distance at dogs-eye level, a device I've seen in field trial setups even when the gunners weren't fully retired.

Despite my effort to introduce difficult concepts into these setups, Laddie had no problem with any of the marks in the first series nor the first two marks of the second series. However, he got lost and needed help from the gunner on his third retrieve in that series, and popped at 180y running the final mark, though he was on a good line.

As challenging as the concepts may have been, I don't actually think that were the primary problem for either of the marks Laddie had trouble with. More important, I think, were the terrain (which was plateaus, dips, and ditches grown over with high cover interspersed with many trees and shrubs), the barely visible black bumpers, and the difficult-to-see gunners.

Yet even with all of those factors, I think it's possible Laddie could still have picked up the last two bumpers without help add he had all the others if not for one last circumstance: Laddie had been out in the heat working, and playing between setups, for a long time without water. I was short on time because I had to get to a meeting afterward, so my options were limited. But in retrospect, despite the expense of the hired assistants, I now think a better decision might have been to quit after one series.

Sigh. So much to learn.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tuesday water work

Like last Tuesday, today I went with Laddie and one assistant to a property an hour from home that has numerous technical ponds. There I set up one single mark after another for the assistant to throw and Laddie to run, a total of eleven in all.

Though they were in different locations and varied in length, they all featured at least one, and sometimes two, "cheating" water entries, requiring Laddie to enter or re-enter the water to stay on line to the fall when a slight detour on land was available and visible.

In the case of marks that included a point, Laddie was allowed to go over the point, as long as he continued straight into the water on the far side, or swim around the point.

In the few cases where Laddie attempted to run the bank, I simply called him back and sent him again, and that gave him enough information to run it correctly the next time.

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