Thursday, April 9, 2015

Training seminar: land marks, land blind, water blind

Today was Day 1 of the retriever training seminar Laddie and I are taking, not counting our private session yesterday with one of the pros conducting the seminar. In the posts about the seminar, I'll refer to him as the first pro and the other guy as the second pro, though they were sharing the leadership role. Both had run dogs in several nationals, and the second pro had won one. I'm not sure whether the first pro has as well; he may have.

The day was cool and overcast with occasional showers and a bit of wind that changed strength and direction during the day.

I've never been to a retriever training seminar before, so I didn't know what the format would be like. It turns out that this seminar, at least, was conducted much like a training day, and thus much like a competition, except that the pros wore microphones that broadcast thru a loudspeaker so that we could hear them make short announcements about each dog, and then hear them converse with each other, with the handler as a dog was working, and with other trainers as questions were asked. That continuous stream of information and ideas resulted in a hugely valuable training experience, compared to the much more minimal feedback I normally get when running Laddie. True, some of the info would not work for Laddie and me given the way I train, but even if I might not address a particular problem in the same way, seeing and hearing the problems discussed with such insight was still of great value, and of course a discussion such as which way to run a dog past a hay bale that was right in the middle of the line to the blind applied just as much to me as to anyone else.

I suppose it goes without saying that both pros were open to questions and forthcoming with friendly, thoughtful, expert answers, which was great. Yet that attitude is actually not automatic. I've often trained with experienced trainers, pros or advanced amateurs, who were more likely to be annoyed by questions than to welcome them, and whose answers were correspondingly far less helpful, whatever help they might have been able to give if they'd actually wanted to. Granted those weren't seminar situations, and maybe that's the reason their behavior was different. Or maybe that's why they're not giving seminars.

My experience on today's work was an emotional roller coaster. Here's a description of the setups, Laddie's performance, and my thoughts about them.

Series A. One land single, one land double, and one more land single

The first land single was on the left, thrown RTL at 160y behind a strip of cover. The first throw of the double was on the right, thrown RTL at 180y, with that gunner retiring after the dog turned to watch the second throw. The second throw of the double was in the middle, thrown LTR at 150y behind a different strip of cover. The final single was also in the middle, on a line under the arc of the double's go-bird, thrown LTR at 290y.

These were the only marks of the day, and I'd have expected Laddie to perform well on them, since he has been a strong marking dog all his life. It should not have mattered that the majority of the dogs were QAA and running all-age, in some case with some placements. Nor should it have mattered that most of the dogs were trained by pros or with a lot of help from pros. This should have been Laddie's wheelhouse.

Instead, Laddie's performance was one of three or four worst of the day. For starters, he ran far outside on the first single, avoiding the strip of cover like many of the other dogs but taking a wider line than was necessary to do so, and relying I think on his nose, rather than his memory of the fall, to swing back to the bird. He also paraded somewhat on his return, something he has been generally better about in recent years than he was when he was younger.

Before I go on, I'd like to highlight one comment from the first pro that was a revelation to me and that I hope I'll remember: He said that a trainer should be extremely cautious about correcting a dog for running around cover, and if you are going to do so, you should go take a close look at it and make sure that you're seeing what the dog is seeing, not just what the cover looks like from the distance. He said that in the case of the two marks thrown behind cover in this series, a dog wouldn't benefit from being corrected for running around either of them. He added that he's seen dogs whose training suffered from being corrected for running around cover, since the dog in some situations can't understand why the correction is occurring and therefore can't avoid the correction.

Some of the dogs did run around one or both of the strips of cover, and some didn't. It didn't seem to correlate with the experience level or ability of the dog by other measures. No one attempted to handle or correct if the dog ran around. That said, on that first mark, ran too far to the outside even if running around the strip of cover was not a problem, and since I've worked with him on taking cover when it's on line to a mark many times, I'd have liked to see him do it.

On the go-bird of the double, Laddie again ran around the cover, this time between the gunner and the end of the cover (but without hooking the gunner), then picked the bird up with a minimal hunt, about the same as most of the dogs. However, he then pretty much broke down entirely on his return. At the time I didn't know why, but it became apparent a little later.

When he finally returned, I sent him to the retired memory bird, and once again he took a line too far to the left, which, by the way, meant he was fading with the wind. He got a bit past halfway toward the old fall of the go-bird, and I would have called for help if he had (unlike most of the other trainers, most of whom handled if the dog needed help), but he turned back on his own and soon hunted up the bird. Then he broke down twice to go to the bathroom on his return, even though I had aired him twice in the morning (once at the hotel and once when we arrived at the seminar), and he was running Series A as #1, so he had not needed to wait in his crate too long before running.

At last he was back at the line for the final single, and now the first pro said, Hey, Laddie has several long pieces of straw coming out of his behind. It looks like he's been eating straw and now it's coming out. I didn't know what to do, and the pros didn't seem to be indicating to me what I should do, so I just decided to go ahead and call for the long single. Laddie yet one more time took a line a bit too far to the left, that is, fading with the wind, then hooked the gun and ran straight to the bird. His return was once again a mess, but by now it was obvious that he was under distress because of not being able to clear out his behind.

In retrospect, I think that might have affected his marking throughout all or part of the entire series, but I'd like to mention one other point. As I mentioned earlier, the wind shifted both speed and direction throughout the day. Yes, Laddie went out too far left on every mark, and even hooked the gun on the long mark. And true, most of the dogs that went after him did not have those problems. Yet two, or possibly three, more dogs did exactly the same things as Laddie had done on the memory bird of the triple and the long single, and in fact none of them had recovered as well as Laddie had from taking a line too far to the left. The interesting thing is that those two -- or three -- dogs were the last ones to run. In each case, the dog took a line too far to the left on the memory bird of the double, and then hooked the gun on the long single. So I think a reasonable hypothesis is that the wind was stronger, and/or in a different direction, when Laddie and those last dogs ran than it was for the dogs between them. I am not suggesting that this excuses Laddie's relatively poor marking. But it may explain to some extent why he did so much worse than many of the other dogs. That plus the problem he was having with eliminating.

Series B. Double land blind

The first blind was toward the left at 160y, with a fairly narrow corridor constrained by hay bales at different distances along the way on either side of the corridor. The second blind was at 310y, with a hay bale at 25y right in the middle of the line to the blind and other hay bales again constraining the corridor to the blind.

The pros identified this setup as more difficult than a Qual. I've never seen a double land blind in a Qual in any case, but I'd say that each of the blinds was a tougher combination of length and narrowness than most if not all Qual blinds that I've seen, which admittedly is only a tiny fraction of the number the pros and most of the other trainers have seen.

Thanks to a rotating running order, Laddie was one of the last dogs to run this, and again, he was one of the worst. I had come to the line a bit intimidated by how narrow the corridors were, and my confidence had been shaken by his weak performance on Series A. I was right to be concerned, as Laddie showed two serious problems: First, his whistle sits were far too loose, with Laddie taking several steps before looping around, thus putting him far from the position intended by the whistle, and generally in a worse position. And second, he vocalized on several of the casts. I was a bit surprised by that, since he normally vocalizes on casts in water, not on land, as I had discussed with the first pro the day before. The second pro had not taken part in that conversation, and the first time Laddie vocalized, the second pro exclaimed, "Whoa, what was that?" and then I think suggested to the first pro that this dog might have been corrected too harshly in the past. But the first pro said no, Laddie has never had a collar on in his life, and when I could take my eyes off Laddie after he had the bumper and was returning, I confirmed no collar, no heeling stick, no force fetch, no physical corrections at all. That led to a fairly prolonged discussion between the pros, and with some of the handlers also commenting I believe, trying to make sense out of what was causing the vocalizing. I'm sorry, I don't remember much of the discussion.

As for the second blind, Laddie ran it about the same way. His whistle sits were too slow, he vocalized on one or more of the casts, and though he didn't go out of control or anything and completed the blind, he was too wide and too slow on his sits to compare well with most of the other dogs. Perhaps that is to be expected, given that they are further along in their competitive careers than Laddie despite generally being younger than him. Yet I also know that I run Laddie on zillions of land blinds year round, unless the weather makes it totally impossible, and I know he is capable of running either of those blinds significantly better than he did.

I also got one take-away, which I've heard many times in the past and which I sure wish would sink in so that people don't have to keep telling me this: slow down. I think I had a legitimate reason for quick casts when he was younger, since they were his +R for sitting, and I needed more reinforcement for Laddie sitting than most dogs need since I don't use a collar. But I don't think that applies any longer, and I think Laddie's handling unquestionably improves when I take that advice. It's just that I tend to forget it over time and have therefore received it many times.

Series B.1 Solo work on whistle sits

After Laddie had run Series B, I did some thinking and realized something important: It's not uncommon for Laddie's whistle sits to deteriorate at time, and it's actually fairly easy to repair, but it takes some time away from the other handlers in the group, making me reluctant to do it in a group situation. The solution is simply to call out "Sit", then walk all the way out to him while he has to sit there bored and in full knowledge that he will not get to complete that retrieve. Then I call him to heel and we walk all the way back, and then we run it again. I've been doing this with Laddie for years, and his sits invariably improve immediately, though it then wears off over time. Sometimes it doesn't improve as much as I want it to. In that case, all I need to do is to walk out again, and the next time his sit is even tighter. I can tighten it to a satisfactory level of performance if I just take the time for those walk-outs.

So while the pros were setting up Series C, which would be a water blind, I drove Laddie to an adjacent field, out of sight and sound of the seminar, and ran him on three blinds, all between 150 and 200 yards, and all with some significant factor that I knew would pull him off line and require a whistle. On the first one, he veered off within 30y, I blew the whistle, he didn't sit fast enough, and I stopped him and walked out to pick him up. The same thing happened at increasingly longer distances before he finally had satisfactory sits all the way to completing the blind, which took about five send-outs.

For the second blind, he again needed a couple of walk-outs, but then completed the blind.

For the third blind, he needed two or three whistles and they were all tight. He completed the blind and was ready, I felt, to return to work with the group.

By the way, Laddie didn't vocalize at all on any of this solo work. To me, that says that the presence of other handlers, other dogs, and the pros has a pretty good chance of playing a role in why he was vocalizing on Series B. But it's not so clear what that role is. For example, I mentioned that I was not feeling confident when we ran Series B, whereas B.1 was a typical drill for us out of the lime light, and Laddie could have been responding to the difference in my emotional state rather than the actual difference in the situations.

Series C. Water blind

This blind was to orange bumpers at 180y. The line was on flat ground, then down a bank to water's edge. The handler (and spectators) had to move up after the dog cleared the ridge to see as the dog ran to the water. The line into the water was thru cattails and other foliage, and the pros pointed out a cluster of high cattails that they would expect an all-age dog to stay to the left of on the water entry, which would keep the dog crossing the pond quite tight to the bank on the left. More cattails and other water plants occurred in the water and along the bank on the far side of the pond. The line up the far bank went thru additional high cover, then a section of low cover, and finally the blind itself on the side of a mound at the top of the far section of land.

The pros identified this as a typical "National water blind". I can't remember if they said National Open or National Amateur. I'm not sure they said either one. They weren't saying that this was necessarily more difficult than a weekend match's all-age water blind, but just that it was the kind of blind National judges might set up to get some answers without needing a great deal of time, possibly early in the stake, possibly later on. My interpretation is that they felt it would be challenging for all the dogs at the seminar, but that we'd be able to get all the dogs thru it fairly quickly, a consideration since it was getting fairly late in the day.

When I was able to talk to the first pro in private for a moment, I mentioned that I had gone off to tighten up Laddie's whistle sits, and he seemed pleased that I had. I also told him that Laddie had not vocalized during that work, which also seemed of interest to him (I like this guy!). I said that for this series, I would like to plan on walking out if Laddie showed a slow sit, or if he vocalized, but that I would understand completely if he didn't feel the group had enough time for letting me continue to run Laddie again after a walk-out, possibly several times.

The pro was completely on-board, and made a great suggestion: Would I like to go last, so that the others could go home if they wanted, and then I could take as much time as I needed? He assured me he's stay and work with me if I wanted to do that. Of course, that sounded great, not only because of the training and educational opportunity, but because it eliminated any pressure I'd feel to keep working when I should really be walking out.

So all the dogs except two others ran the series, and I had the opportunity to watch almost all of them, sharing in the learning experiences and really getting to know the setup. Then two less experienced dogs, not ready to run this blind, were given some marking work in the pond. Finally I checked with the pros and they agreed I should go get Laddie.

So first of all, unlike every other dog, Laddie took a perfect line over the edge of the bank and down to the water, not getting off line until nearly to water's edge, and then not by much. I blew the whistle and put him in just where the all-age dogs would have been expected to enter, though several of the other dogs, even advanced ones, had not been able to be positioned to that entry point. However, he vocalized as he leapt into the water, and then again when he started to veer too far right and I handled him back onto an excellent line. But I said loud enough for the pros to hear me, "I just don't think I should stop him in this situation. Those casts were too good." Behind me, the first pro said that he totally agreed. You can't correct a dog who's doing that well.

Laddie needed a little more handling on the far hillside, and I think he even slipped one whistle over there, but I guess it wasn't too bad. As Laddie was coming back, the pros both told me that Laddie had done a great job, one of the best all day, including the best initial line of the day (meaning all the way to the water). I mentioned another dog who had also taken a great line and the first pro reminded me with a laugh that that dog had, however, stopped to urinate on the way (that was something you rarely see from a good dog on the way out on a blind, and this dog was QAA twice). So, yeah, I guess Laddie had done a nice job.

In fact, the pros were also happy with his whistle sits except for that one slip, and remained in agreement that Laddie's two incidents of vocalizing were not in the kind of situation where you'd want to correct a dog. They also had no suggestions they wanted to make about our line mechanics or my handling, and I'm pretty sure that's because they were OK rather than because they were so awful that the pros didn't know where to start.  :0)  At least I hope that's the case.

So that's how the day ended. After the emotional downs of the first two series, a really nice performance on the water blind.

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