Sunday, August 24, 2014

Technical water work: cold blinds and remote singles

In the sessions since my last post, Laddie and I, training alone, have begun to generalize his new-found ability to run cold blinds involving on-and-off points without vocalizing. To do this, we run mixture of such blinds with poorman sand remote singles, repeating a particular retrieve only if Laddie needs to be called back, for example for barking on a cast or running the bank on a re-entry.

I've been gradually increasing distance and difficulty. As a result, some of today's blinds, and some of the marks, were more difficult than many of the water blinds and marks we've had in Quals, though of course we rarely see singles in Quals.

By the way, by "poorman" marks, I mean that I leave Laddie in a sit at the start line, go out and their the mark or marks, and then return to Laddie's side to send him.

By "remote" marks, I mean that I call out his name to send him, from either the position I threw from or a position as I'm walking back to him. He then delivers to wherever I wait for him.

Now that we are working on generalizing rather than training Laddie's new skill (taking casts without vocalizing), Laddie's success rate, which corresponds to Rate of Reinforcement (ROR), is higher than it usually has been for the last month since we started devocalization training, and I think it subtly shows in Laddie's lighthearted demeanor. These sessions are less frustrating for me as well, and seeing the quality of Laddie's work on some of these challenging setups is highly rewarding.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Devocalization, schooled and cold blinds with on-and-off point

Yesterday Laddie and I trained with a friend and his dog. The dogs ran a difficult delayed water triple that included an almost straight back water bridge, and a moderately difficult blind.

Today's session began with some vocalizing for on-and-off points even though we also used rehearsals as described in previous post.

However, the session ended with seven retrieves in a row all without vocalizing: a 90y on-and-off point schooled blind; the same retrieve but a little wider as an unhandled mark past the point; a 120y on-and-off point cold blind on a course Laddie never ran before; the same retrieve but a little wider as an unhandled mark past the point; two 70y on-and-off point schooled blinds; and the same retrieve but a little wider as an unhandled mark past the point.

Those retrieves represented a new high water mark in our devocalization training.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Devocalization, whistle sit, no lining pole, rehearsals

I've missed posting some sessions, but including today's session, I've developed some principles:

- Rehearse the on-and-off version with one or more half-versions. That is, put the dog in a sit at the point, walk to the start line, and cast from there. I also blow a whistle sit before casting, but I don't know if that matters.

- Randomly vary which side the point is on.

- For every two or so retrieves on-and-off the point, run a mark on a line near the point and expect the dog to swim past the point without handling. If you have an assistant, have the assistant throw the mark with a gunshot. Otherwise, improvise as best you can.

- Zero tolerance for barking or loud whining. I'm not sure what the correct rule is for quiet vocalizing.

- Increase difficulty gradually. In terms of minimizing probability of Laddie vocalizing: A verbal "sit" is easier than a whistle sit. A silent cast is easier than one with a verbal "over" or "back". A cast to a lining pole is easier than without one. A cast to a visible target (bumper or bird) is easier than if the target is hidden. A quiet environment is easier than one with distractions. A familiar line is easier than one that the dog has not run before, or has not run often. 

Putting those principles to work, today's last handling retrieve was with no lining pole, to a bumper not visible till Laddie was up on the far shore, using whistle sits, with a silent over-cast onto the point, and a verbal back-cast off it. That combination represented the farthest milestone we've so far reached on our devocalization journey.

It was followed by a thrown mark that Laddie swam near the point, staying off the point without the need for handling, some exuberant play, some toweling off,  and the long drive home to dinner.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Devocalization, sight blinds on-and-off point

Today we trained with a field trial group, during which Laddie ran two triples, modified to improve their value for training. When the other trainers were done, I stayed to use one of the ponds for continues work on Laddie's devocalization training.

The course I decided on was 70y of swimming, with a point at about halfway across. I had Laddie swim it seven times in one direction, with the point on the right, then six times in the other, with the point on the left.

In each case, most of the swims were run as sight blinds to a lining pole with a ribbon at the top and a pile of white and orange 2" bumpers at the base. The others were run without handling, and sent with Laddie's name as on a mark, from a wider angle so that the line was next to the point instead of across it. For those, Laddie never vocalized and never attempted to get into the point. That shows, I think, Laddie's strong preference for staying in the water while swimming in the proximity of a point and is related in some way, I believe, to his vocalizing, though I'm not sure of the exact explanation.

My reasons for mixing swims in with the sight blinds, in which I handle Laddie onto and then off of the point, is first, to keep up Laddie's enjoyment of the training, and second to reinforce his inclination to stay of a nearby point, which I consider beneficial for running marks.

I used verbal cues rather than my whistle for both "sit" and come in, and almost all silent casts. I immediately called Laddie back to the start line for any incident of barking or loud, plaintive whining, but did not interrupt occasional quiet whines.

On the first couple of sight blinds, I came around the shore so that I could handle Laddie onto the point with an over and then off the point with an angle back. After that, I started at the start line for all handling.

Laddie did not vocalize today on any verbal "sit" cues nor any silent "over" cues onto the point, which was a new milestone. He did bark on the silent back or angle-back cue used to send him from the point into the second cove often, and each time I called him back, usually all the way to the start line. I tried calling him toward me back onto the point and resending him, but he found that too confusing so I stopped doing that.

On the thirteenth retrieve of this drill, the sixth with the point on the left, Laddie finally ran the sight blind without a sound, and after a long day, I decided to end the session, except for happy bumpers on both land and water, games of tug, and towel drying, the usual relaxation elements of all our water sessions.

I felt that the last sight blind was a significant milestone in our work, since it didn't require a call-back for vocalizing. Instead, Laddie ran it noiselessly on his first try. Except for the verbal "sit" cues, fairly short distance, minimal factors and excitement, and visible lining pole, it was our closest approximation yet to a true competition water blind over a point.

Whether it can be repeated consistently, or will always be mixed with other attempts that include vocalizing, is one question yet to be answered. The others are whether we can switch to a whistle "sit", add distance, add diversion factors and the inevitable  elevated excitement level of an event, and remove the lining pole, converting this to a schooled blind (where the dog has run the same line before) and eventually a normal cold blind on new lines each time. Perhaps any of those requirements will be impossible to accomplish reliably without vocalization.

Yet it feels as though at least  we have already come a long way in these last three weeks, considering that Laddie had reached the point where he couldn't consistently noiselessly take a simple, silent "over" cast while sitting directly in front of me by the time we began this effort at devocalization.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Devocalization, on-and-off point to pile, moving handler

For the last couple of afternoons, I've made the 2-hour drive in rush hour to our closest training property, Wednesday alone and Thursday with an assistant.

We used four courses: 30y with point on right, 70y with point on left, 90y with point on left, and 90y with point on right. For the first course, I threw each bumper across a channel before running Laddie to it. For the others, I placed a lining pole with white and orange 2" bumpers at its base.

In all cases, I ran Laddie from the start line. Although I experimented with using a whistle sit, he was least likely to vocalize if I used a verbal sit cue. Similarly, I used silent casts in most cases, both to cast Laddie over and onto the point, and to cast him on an angle back off the point and to the lining pole and bumper.

For every one or two sight blinds run in this way, a total of about five on each course, I ran the same course as a mark, that is, without handling. For the first two courses on Wednesday, that meant moving our start line so the point was clearly off line and then sending Laddie with his name instead of saying "dead bird, back". On Thursday, I also moved the start line, and then had my assistant throw a 3" white bumper to the lining pole with a gunshot. 

Laddie seemed very comfortable with the marks, never vocalizing, never hesitating, never attempting to cheat the water entry, never even glancing at the point as he swam past it on his way straight to the bumper.

On the blinds, at first I did not stop Laddie if he made a whining sound as he swam across the first cove of each course, attempting to swim wide of the point. But during the forth series, I began to gently call him back at the instant he whined. I had to do this six times in a row the first time I tried it, and wondered if he'd start to no-go. But he never did, and on the seventh try, he continued across the cove without vocalizing.

Oddly, he made another change at the same time: He took a line closer to the point than he had been doing, resulting in a shorter "over" onto the point. I have no idea why, but of course that was a nice bonus. From now on I'll always call him back if he starts to whine.

The most important innovation for all of these courses was that s Laddie swam across the first cove, I walked around on the bank toward the point, and handled him from there rather than from the start line. This had no effect on his performance, because he always took the casts. But for some reason using me closer to him seemed to relieve some stress, and he was much less likely to vocalize on the casts. As I have been for weeks, I always called Laddie back if he vocalized, either restarting the blind from the start line or picking up in the middle from where he had vocalized. But with me positioned along the shore of the first cove, vocalizing on the "over" or the "back" casts (both silent) were much less likely.

This success was rewarding, because it's easy to imagine that with time, I can gradually reduce how much I need to move off the start line and along the shore, until eventually Laddie will take the casts noiselessly when I cast from the start line itself. How long it will take us to get to that point, however, is anyone's guess.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Devocalization, on-and-off a point to a known but hidden bumper

Since Saturday Laddie and I have had a couple of rest days and a couple of sessions practicing quiet handling at the local pond. Work that was hard a week ago was easier. Today we went to a training property with a technical pond to try for another increment of training.

First we practiced a similar setup to Saturday's. When I realized that continuously handling Laddie to a point meant I was at risk of untraining his ability to swim past a point on a mark, I also threw some open water marks and let him swim to them without handling him to a point as he swam past.  For points on either side, he took a confident, straight line without veering to land, which was good to see.

We then moved to a pond with a W-shaped shoreline. First I had Laddie watch a throw into open water from the center point, and then leaving him in a sit, I went to an end point and cast him to the bumper. After three of those, I let him watch as before, but then brought him with me to the end point and handled him on and off the point to the bumper. That was the same process we had accomplished on Saturday and at the previous location today.

Next I threw the bumper against the shoreline, which was a small step further along in difficultly. And finally I threw the bumper up into the cover on the end point, which was a major step further, since Laddie has always been most likely to vocalize if he could not see his target when being cast. Since I alternated between having him wait on the middle point versus having him come to the end point with me to be sent, and since we reversed directions several times, I guess Laddie ran more than a dozen retrieves in this process.

At last he was able to let me handle him onto the point with a silent "over", and from there to take a silent "back" into the far cove, all without vocalizing.

Again we ended with a couple of open water marks past a point without handling, to hopefully restore balance against all the times I had handled him onto the point.

Two weeks ago I didn't know whether Laddie would ever be able to take casts like today's without vocalizing. He is making real progress.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Club training day and devocalization, real points

I've missed posting about a couple of sessions, including a valuable afternoon session planned with a friend and his all-age dog. But any devocalization progress was minimal.

Today we attended a club training day, and stayed afterwards to take advantage of one of the the technical  ponds to attempt the next step in our progression, a sight blind that required stopping Laddie when he reached a point and then casting him off the point.

As for the training itself, it included a technical water triple, a moderately difficult Master water blind, a land triple with one easy water crossing, and two  land blinds intended for the Master dogs in the group. Taking the later land work first, Laddie picked up the marks with little or no hunting, needed one or two whistles on one of the blinds, which he handled on without vocalizing,  and lined the other land blind.

For the earlier water marks, two of them went as follows: he started to cheat around the difficult water entries, I called him back and just sent him again without any extra alignment, and he ran them correctly and without difficulty the second time. By that time the bird for the long mark had drifted far from its original fall and the mark had essentially turned into a blind. For both that blind and the immediately following water blind, Laddie's performance was pretty discouraging. First, he was noisier than ever, vocalizing both as he swam on his original send out and when handled, bringing into question whether any amount of training could ever repair that kind of stress and/or excitement-induced vocalizing. And secondly, he was less responsive on his whistle sits than normal, as though our daily training has actually caused some deterioration in his handling performance when transferred to a competition-like setting. Hopefully this does not foreshadow an eventual conclusion that his vocalization in events cannot be solved, but it was temporarily, at least, discouraging. Someone asked me later why I seemed unhappy while working the line on the land setup, and I just said I was dealing with depression, but really all that noise in the earlier water work was weighing on my mind.

Of course it's way to soon to give up. This may take months, and we've only been working on the problem a couple of weeks, during which we've made steady progress. Today just showed us that we still have one important step that we may or may not be able to accomplish -- transferring that progress working alone to a training day or competition setting. It's too soon for that in any case.

So returning to solo training after we had the pond to ourselves, I attempted a setup that required Laddie to stop on a point where the white puppy bumper was visible on the far shoreline. Laddie took a perfect line to the point and clearly wanted to simply run across the point and continue on to the bumper without handling. He took the whistle sit on the point without difficulty, but vocalized when I gave a gentle, silent "back" cast with a raised arm.

I called him back and tried it again several times, and he could never do it without vocalizing.  After a few tried, he also stopped taking good initial lines, requiring additional handling before he got to the point, with occasional vocalizing at that stage and so immediate calling back. I tried moving our start line much closer to the point, but that many that I was sending Laddie in the wrong direction for the visible bumpers, and after repeated tries saw that I could not obtain that version of the drill, either, without vocalizing.

Laddie had now attempted this simple water blind over a dozen times without success, hardly the 70-80% success rate I normally try to use in training to maintain a high rate of reinforcement. For this session so far, Laddie's rate of reinforcement was zero. Thank goodness I have a dog who maintains his drive and enthusiasm even under such circumstances. But clearly i needed a different setup or it was time to quit for the day. Quitting was a tempting prospect. I had already had a long, trying day given a bit of turmoil in the club training that has nothing to do with Laddie s well as given his noisy performance in the water series.

But Laddie was still fresh. So I mentally stepped back and asked myself how to breakdown this next incremental step so that Laddie could be successful, without going back to a version of the work we had already been successful.

And once I looked at it that way, I quickly came up with a new approach, as follows.

First I moved us to a peninsula and sat Laddie at the end point. Saying "leave it", I tossed a bumper into the water over Laddie's shoulder. I then left him there, walked to the entry of the peninsula and over to the side, and silently cast him straight back to the bumper. He spun around, leapt into water, and can to the bumper without a sound. Yay!

I repeated the identical drill five times, and Laddie never made a sound.

Then I set up the sixth time exactly the same way, except that as I walked back toward the shore, I invited Laddie out of his sit to join me. Calling him to heel, I informally lined him up toward the point and sent him with a quiet "back". Then I stopped him on the point and, moment of truth, cast him with a silent back cast to the bumper. This was the identical cast he had just taken five times without a sound, and this time, though preceded by a swim, he was again able to take it without any hint of vocalizIng.

Relieved that we had found a way to train a true on-and-off the point without vocalizing, and frankly exhausted, I headed for the van for the long drive home, pleased we had ended our session on a positive note after all.

I'm now uncertain whether we have any way to make further progress without technical ponds where we can practice similar drills. That means a lot of driving for us over the next few sessions at least.

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