Saturday, April 11, 2015

Training seminar: double water blind, four land singles, video review

[Note: Although I feel these seminar posts are a responsibility of my renewed commitment to record Laddie's training, it is time-consuming to write them in the evenings after a long day of training, and I am unable to invest the additional time it would take to edit them as well. As a result, and with my apologies, they contain many typos, confusing syntax, and incidents of unnecessary verbosity. To paraphrase a famous writer, "Sorry for the long post. If I'd had more time, I'd have made it shorter."]

[Another note: As I believe I've mentioned from time to time in these posts over the years, I do not own a range finder and instead rely on estimates of distances. But I feel it would be unnecessarily verbose to constantly qualify every distance specification with "about" or "approximately" or "estimated". So I just state the distances as facts, with those qualifications implied. I believe I'm fairly accurate in my estimates because I have walked off many setups over the years in order to tune my visual estimating ability, and I also adjust them according to input from other trainers, such as the pros at this seminar, whenever I can. As a rule, my estimates tend to be conservative. That is, I try to err on the low side of the distances I estimate, and try to avoid making estimates that describe the retrieves as longer than they actually were.]

For Day 3 of the retriever training seminar Laddie and I are attending, we had perfect weather, with sunshine, temps in the 60s and low 70s, and enough wind to improve the learning experience.

The schedule for the day was a pair of water blinds, lunch, a group of four land singles (AKA the A-B-C-D drill), and an evening of pizza and watching videos of some of our work from Day 1 of the seminar.

Here's a description of the two series, Laddie's performance, some additional work I did with Laddie on my own, and the video review session:

Series A. Double water blind

The first blind was 330y. It started with a 120y land entry where the line to the blind first brushed past a shrub on the right, then went past three trees on the left, forming an narrow corridor. The line then went diagonally across 20y of water and back onto land for another 70y, then back into water for a 100y swim, where the dog needed to come up on the left side of a mound. Finally, the dog had to continue past the line rather than wrapping around it, and on a short distance on land to the blind.

I saw this as essentially a land blind to the last tree on the left, followed by a water blind the rest of the way, and considered moving up so that we'd just run the water blind part. But since no other dog had been run that way, and most of them had had little trouble with the land portion, I decided to run the whole blind. I don't remember much about how it actually went, but I'm sure Laddie had some slow sits, some vocalizations on casts, and some refusals on casts near the far shore, that is, at 300y+.

The second blind was 350y and its line crossed the line of the first blind. It started with a 90y land entry that dropped off on the right side. The line was then a channel swim for 40y, including swimming past a point of land on the right at 30y. The line then crossed a point of land 30y in width, with a 45° entry onto the point and another 45° re-entry into the water, which, combined with other factors, created suction to the right that would take the dog out of sight if the dog did not stay on line or to the left. Next came a 160y swim, between two small islands at 140y, and once the dog reached the far shore, a short run on land to the blind.

Laddie had several difficulties with this blind. First, he took a wrong initial blind to the right, so severely offline that I called him back. The second pro asked me why I had not "no'ed" Laddie off the diversion in that direction, and I told him that I had not noticed Laddie glance in that direction, so that was a useful lesson to watch better. But when I sent Laddie again, he again took a wrong initial line  :0(  , this time to left. This was not a good sign for things to come, because Laddie typically takes an excellent line, and had done so in previous work in this seminar.

I then used a technique I've been experimenting with recently to get Laddie back on line, which became a topic of conversation during the evening get-together. Instead of using an angle back toward the blind, I used a straight over with a light tweet-tweet-tweet on my whistle, the intent being to cast Laddie to the right but not with the drive that he usually launches into, from which I can't stop him fast enough on the kind of short cast I intended. With his slower dash to the right, I then stopped him directly on line to the blind and cast him straight back with an emphatic verbal "Back".

From there on, Laddie struggled most of the way, not getting too badly off line in the early going, though not on as tight as a line as some of the other dogs, but eventually handling especially poorly at 300y and beyond. The key problems were: (a) I would tend to cast too quickly after my whistle, in some cases even before Laddie had turned around in the water. (b) Laddie vocalizing on casts both on land and on water, with body language that suggested a high level of agitation. (c) Laddie's slow sits or sit refusals, constantly putting him out of position for the next cast.

Series B. Four land singles

Series B was a group of four land singles, AKA an "A-B-C-D drill". The first mark was on the left, a pheasant thrown RTL at 250y, with the gun retired while the dog watched from the line after the throw, before the dog's number was called. The thrower for the second mark was on a line slightly to the right of the line to the first mark, but this mark was a 3" orange bumper thrown LTR at 90y. The third throw was on the right, a duck thrown RTL at 150y. The thrower for the fourth mark was on a line thru the fall of the second throw and a little to the left of the fall for the third throw, and the mark was a duck thrown LTR at 320y into a swampy depression.

Laddie's performance on Series B was bizarre. On the first mark, he took a good line but then had a strange pop, seeming to peek back toward the line from around a tree. Receiving no handling from me, he then ran past the bird on the upwind side, and not scenting it, continued thru an opening in the tree line onto a dirt road on the other side of the line of trees enclosing our field. From there he quickly looped back, still on the front side of the retired gunner, and required a hunt before finding the bird.

On the second mark, he nailed the send-out, but once he had the bumper, he did something he hasn't done since he was a puppy. He began running around the field carrying the orange bumper, paying almost no attention to me calling me from the line. It's possible he was looking for a bird that he could trade up to from his bumper. It was a strange breakdown for a dog at his level, and it took a lot of calling, and me walking a good way out, to get him back.

I don't remember how he ran the third mark. I'd guess he either nailed it or needed a small hunt.

Laddie's send-out on the fourth mark elicited compliments on his marking, but his return was abysmal. After he seemed to have picked up the bird, he disappeared amongst the swampy shrubs and didn't reappear for long seconds. Over the radio, the gunner told us that he'd been lying in the water, apparently cooling his belly again, as he had done the previous time I ran him thru a swampy area during this seminar. Not only was his return an embarrassment, but I'd also say that his marking on that long mark, though good, was not exceptional, in that most of the other dogs did just as well, with however much better returns.

Look, I don't know what to say about Series B. We work on land marks year round, and I've been told countless times what a good marker Laddie is. Laddie's performance in Series B was strange and unsatisfactory, but it's not representative of his work on land series in general. Perhaps he's tired from a string of long days both before and during the seminar, broken up by only one rest day last Tuesday. He's older than the other dogs at the seminar, and maybe that's a factor, despite my efforts to keep him in shape at all times. At least as likely in my mind: All the trainers, dogs, and their vehicles, plus the two pros and their loudspeaker, plus the unknown location and, for Laddie and me, unusual kind of terrain, produced a level of excitement, and perhaps anxiety, that I think may have caused Laddie's fragile return skills in particular, but all of his skills more generally, to deteriorate.

Series B.1 Two water blinds

After Series B, the seminar broke up, with plans to meet in a hotel conference room more than an hour later. The second pro had suggested that Laddie might benefit from running one of the water blinds again, though when I asked him whether during the lunch break was a good time for it, he suggested that it would be better to do it with a fresher dog. Since Laddie was now four singles more tired than when the pro gave that advice, I'm sure he wasn't thrilled that I decided to go ahead and run Laddie on one of the Series A blinds that afternoon after all. But I doubted I'd have another opportunity any time soon, and Laddie appeared to me to be strong and eager for more work, so that's what I did.

Twice during the day, I had also taken short breaks to set up relatively short land blinds, run Laddie on them, blow whistles, and walk out if he didn't stop immediately. As a result, his whistle stops on Series B.1 looked good to me, and I didn't feel the need to call Laddie back for stopping too slowly.

However, since we were alone and not at risk of taking up too much of other people's time, I consistently walked out and picked Laddie up for vocalizing on the land entry, and called him in from water for vocalizing as well. I was extremely pleased to see that this worked as I would hope: when I'd resend him, then handle him again, he wouldn't vocalize on that cast. Yes, somewhat further along the blind, he would vocalize, but then I'd just bring him back again.

The reason that was a nice surprise was that, in the past, up till last fall, calling Laddie back for vocalizing had no effect of reducing his vocalizing during the next send-out. That is, in the past, he apparently did not know why he had been called back and how to avoid it happening again. But now, after our months of devocalization training dating back to last July, but suspended for the last several months because of the cold weather, it appears that Laddie has retained the understanding he finally developed during those months of training, that when he gets called back for vocalizing, he needs to avoid vocalizing on the retry or he'll get called back again.

By the way, while I think that analysis is accurate, I don't think Laddie consciously thinks or reasons about any of this. Rather, I think I'm just seeing complex behavioral conditioning play out, with Laddie unaware of the process except for the emotions he feels as he participates in it.

In any case, at last he completed that huge water blind with a satisfactory performance from the point of view of both his whistle stops and devocalization. His line was too wide in places to get called back in a competition, at least against many of the other dogs in the seminar, but he ran the whole blind without barking once.

Afterwards, I ran him on another blind that also had a point of land for him to swim past, and another point of land for him to go over, though this blind was only 80y. He never vocalized and made good whistle stops the first time we ran it, so I never needed to call him back on this blind.

Video review

The first pro had taken videos of line mechanics while the dogs ran some of the Day 1 land marks, and again while the dogs were running the double land blind. During this evenings session, over pizza provided by the seminar's organizers, the pro projected the videos onto a screen in a hotel conference room while all the seminar participants joined both pros in a thorough discussion of each team's work as well as a wide-ranging discussion of other field topics.

A great deal of fascinating discussion occurred during this session, which by the way has been true of all the time we've spent running our dogs as well. I have only relayed the tip of the iceberg of topics and details we've heard explained to us, with my focus on the points that applied to Laddie and me, and even then an incomplete report. I don't have the time or memory to be more thorough in this training journal, though I hope I've assimilated much of the information and it will come to me when I needed. Not all of the info, mind you. I'm sure some of the info either didn't sink in, or did at the time but will be lost to me in the future, having not been repeated enough times for me to make it my own.

I will, however, mention that the pros explained to me during the review session that the approach I had invented, and used on our blinds during the seminar, for getting Laddie back on line stood a good chance of resulting in disqualification for many field trial judges, who would interpret the three tweets as a come-in whistle, or, even if they didn't, would observe that the dog was being sent in a horizontal direction rather than advancing toward the blind. Since continuously advancing toward the blind is a requirement for dogs at Laddie's level, we need to go back to using angle back casts rather than overs.

The pros suggested, however, that if I can tighten up Laddie's whistle sit, I might find using angle back casts more workable, since I probably invented the straight-over, slowed-down technique to compensate for not being able to stop him fast enough when he's crossing the line on his way back from one side or the other. All of that makes sense to me, and I think the pros' key advice that I tighten Laddie's whistle sit may be the most important benefit I get from this seminar, despite the vast amount of other valuable material.

While giving that advice, the second pro kind of shook his head and said quietly, "But I don't know how you're going to do it." He believes, I guess, that it can't be done without an ecollar. However, I believe that walk outs do in fact tighten Laddie's whistle sit. I just need to be more consistent in using them, and more systematic in arranging training situations that all me to use them.

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