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.

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