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.

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