Saturday, April 18, 2015

Don't send the dog if he's not lined up correctly

[For completeness of this journal, I'll mention that yesterday Laddie ran six tune-up blinds, and this morning one more, all featuring keyholes late in the blind, with Walk Outs a couple of times for whistle sits that were a bit too slow. However, it turns out we didn't run any blinds in today's trial.]

One reason it is so hard for a beginner to put titles on his dog is that, no matter how good the dog is, the handler has so much to learn. The learning process begins when trying to earn a JH, and then a whole new cycle is needed for the SH and then the MH, and now, as my history shows, yet again on the path to QAA, which so far still eludes Laddie and me.

Today, in a qualifying stake about four hours from here, I learned yet one more in what seems like an endless array of lessons for handlers. This one's pretty simple, and I wrote it in the title of this post. But how could I make such an elementary error? Here's the story:

In the seminar Laddie and I took several days ago, one of the last bits of advice I received was to avoid delaying sending Laddie when he was locked in correctly. Apparently I had done that several times during the seminar, and the pros felt our results would improve if I sent Laddie as soon as he was locked in on the correct line rather than delaying and making doubly and triply certain.

So in the days since, training both alone and in a group, that's something I've worked on, and we've had good results. Sure enough, if Laddie is already locked in on the correct line, I don't need to delay, I can send him immediately and get a good performance.

Well, today's qual started with an interesting triple: #1 was a 170y duck thrown LTR on the right; #2 was a 110y duck thrown RTL on the left, the gunner to retire during the dog's first return; and #3 was a 140y flyer duck thrown RTL in the center. The wind was almost a headwind, but blew at a bit of angle over the left (retired) mark toward the field to our right.

One challenge the setup presented was on the first retrieve: Do you send the dog to the go-bird in the center and risk the dog veering over to the closer bird on the left, possibly becoming confused and needing to hunt one or both marks? Or do you send the dog to the bird on the left, even though it's not the go-bird, since it's a lot shorter, and also because the gunner is still visible at that time but will be retired after whatever first bird is picked up?

Since we were #16 in the running order, I had the opportunity to watch both of those possibilities as well as others play out, and also to watch the results handlers had of having the dog watch the throws from the handler's left vs the handler's right.

So when it was our turn, I determined to run Laddie on my left, so that I could push him visually past the flyer to the bird on the left, if necessary, after the first bird was down. And I also decided that I would run him to the flyer as his first retrieve unless he showed a strong preference for one of the other birds as soon as all the birds were down. Of course, I also started our time at the line by giving him plenty of time to study the positions of all the gunners, cueing him to take extra time to study the field on the left, since that was where the gunner would retire.

I then locked Laddie in on the gunner on the right, cued Sit, and called for the throws. I watched Laddie continuously during the throws except for glancing up to see where the flyer fell, and I saw by Laddie's reactions that he had seen all the marks. I was also pleased to see that he was on high alert yet steady. I saw no hint of a break stirring. All good signs.

When the judge called "16", Laddie was locked in on the flyer, eliminating any question of where to send him first, so I sent him immediately rather than double- and triple-checking his line. I was rewarded by that implementation of the advice I'd gotten from the seminar by the best retrieve of the day on that difficult flyer, a dead-eye direct line. Laddie also picked the bird up, brought it back, and delivered it nicely, without marking the various hay bales and clumps of grass, or other dawdling.

Now it was time to send Laddie to the short retired bird on the left, and here's where I went so wrong. When I lined Laddie up on that bird, he tried to lock in too far to the right. He and I have a variety of ways of getting him lined up, and I worked with him on it, but he continued to look to the right of the fall. You would think that my behavior in that situation would be so obvious that it would be impossible to get wrong: Don't send him yet.

But I'd been practicing send-outs for days that were quicker than any we've practiced over the years, and something inside me was pushing me to send him without unnecessary delay. Of course the operative word there is "unnecessary", but that's where my wires got crossed. After several attempts to get him lined up correctly, I finally shut down those efforts and sent him, feeling an inappropriate confidence. Sure he's a great marker, and that was the basis for my confidence. But I had released him while he was locked in too far to the right! For the behaviorist, it was a classic example of operant conditioning (strong and recent reinforcement for eliminating delay) taking precedence over logic.

The results were predictable and disastrous. With Laddie's great speed, he ran right thru whatever scent from the left bird might have been coming across the line he was on and, since he was on the wrong line, he never arrived at the bird and just kept running straight. That took him further and further right, and when he finally began to circle back toward the start line, he found himself at the flyer station. It would have been pointless to handle him -- we had no chance of being called back -- and I didn't want to reinforce his returning to the old fall by then picking up the bird on the left.

I might mention that I then had a great deal of difficulty getting him back to me without a bird, and I guess I would rather he just came when called. But coming back without the bird is not a skill that will help a dog win a trial, so I guess I'm not that worried about it.

I'll finish this post with one last point of interest, at least to me. When I first packed up and headed for home, my state of mind was, You win some, you lose some. Even a great marking dog sometimes takes a wrong line, no? It was just bad luck that had wasted his fabulous mark on the flyer. Oh, well.

Didn't I realize immediately that I had caused that wrong line myself? No. In fact, as I described above, I had actually experienced a sense of confidence when I sent him, as though it didn't matter what direction he was headed, since he was such a skillful marker and we'd had such good luck with reduced-delay sends for days.

No, it took hours of driving, and also talking on the phone about the day and other things with a friend, that I suddenly remembered what I'd done. The realization fell on me like a ton of bricks, and now I'm not feeling so good after all.

Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes. How many more do I have to make before Laddie gets a chance to move up to the next stage of competition? We don't have forever.

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