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.