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.

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