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.