Last week, while preparing Laddie for competition last Saturday, I developed a drill intended to help him become more comfortable taking a cast onto a point of land. In that situation, his strong preference for many years has been to swim around the point.
That tendency worked fine for Senior hunt tests, which rarely require the dog to go over a point and often require the dog to stay off nearby land while swimming past. Unfortunately, because of my inexperience, I let Laddie become unbalanced in that training, and to this day he avoids land whenever possible.
It can still be useful on some retrieves, for example making possible the inside-out handling maneuver I learned about in a recent workshop. But some Master tests, and the majority of quals, seem to include a point of land in the water blind that the dog has to go over to stay on line.
It's those points of land that trigger Laddie's vocalizing. With his overbalanced preference for avoiding land, it apparently makes him nervous when he thinks I might cast him onto a point, which unfortunately, at his level of competition, I often have to do.
So last week's drill was intended to perhaps enable Laddie to be more comfortable with that maneuver in competition. Judging by Saturday's qual it was partially successful. Laddie took his initial line right over the point on the far side of a channel, even going over a half-submerged log that he could easily have diverted around. I didn't need to blow the whistle till he had reached the difficult water re-entry at the far side of the point.
On the other hand, he whimpered as he was crossing the channel approaching the point, even though I hadn't blown the whistle. So the skill was there but apparently not the comfort level.
So yesterday we drove to the same location as we had last week, and ran the same sort of drill, this time without the experimentation that led up to the final version. And in this session, Laddie only vocalized a few times, much less frequently than previously. Since his vocalizing seemed to be diminishing based on familiarity with the drill, rather than attempting to avoid me calling him back, I didn't call him back the few times he vocalized, which I felt reduced the stress, at least for me.
The design of the drill is simple: I drop a 2" orange bumper on the ground beside us, line Laddie up so that he is clearly on line to the last few feet of a point of land, and send him. He takes a good initial line, then veers off course toward the end of the point. If I were not to handle, he would swim around the point, as he usually does when running water marks.
When he reaches the position where a 90° turn will take him onto the point, "high and dry", I blow the whistle, wait for him to come around, and cast him. In some cases, he takes a good cast. In others, I need to whistle and cast again. Soon, he is on the point.
Then I blow another whistle and he stops, turns to look at me, and sits. I don't try to adjust his position if he doesn't turn completely toward me. As soon as he sits, I pick up the bumper and throw it, aiming for a spot a few yards off the end of the point, and call his name to release him. He leaps after it and swims back to me with it.
Of course I can't always throw as far or as accurately as I'd like, so it doesn't always land where I'd like it to. But ideally, Laddie is becoming comfortable launching off the end of a point of land rather than over the back, where there's too much risk he (like any other dog running one of these blinds) might veer off course while out of sight and next appear in a position that the judges will consider unacceptable. By casting him off the end of the point, even though it's off the line of the blind, he remains visible, and judges seem to find that an acceptable, or perhaps even preferred, way to run such a blind.
In yesterday's drill, we ran retrieves like that for about an hour, moving from one start line to another all the way around the pond, using each of the points, sometimes from one angle and sometimes from another, and also alternating whether the point was toward the left or the right so that Laddie's training would not become unbalanced in either direction.
To end the session, I threw several poorman marks with lines that ran past, but close to, points on either side, and Laddie ran those as he has for years, swimming past the point without veering to land. I just wanted to be sure I hadn't broken that tendency, and it appears that I hadn't.
We didn't leave yet, since after our drill, I worked with Sasha learning to swim, and Laddie joined us for some of that. It was a fun day for all of us.