Friday, October 2, 2015

Laddie takes Third at the Colonial Q

Last Saturday, Laddie ran in the Qualifying stake at the Colonial field trial in Connecticut and finished with his first field trial placement, a yellow ribbon for Third Place. After six qual JAMs plus two Reserve JAMs previously in his career, the placement was a significant breakthrough. As far as I know, Laddie is the only positive-trained retriever running field trials, so his placement may also be a new milestone for positive training of retrievers.

During the previous week, we'd attended a privately organized workshop with a pro, and I had learned several new techniques. I made an effort to apply those techniques to handling Laddie during the trial, so our first placement coming immediately after the workshop may not have been a coincidence.

In the following narrative, I'll describe each series of the test, give my impressions on how Laddie did, and include notes on how the workshop may have helped.

Note that, as usual in my posts, all distances are estimates.


Temps started in the high 40s, rising to the 70s during the day. The sky was variably cloudy. The wind was swirling, with speed estimated at 25MPH by the flyer gunner in the first series, but variable in speed and direction throughout the day.

Dogs entered: 33
Laddie's position in the running order: #2
No rotation was announced, so Laddie would be one of the first dogs in every series. It turned out that he ran second in the first series, and first in the remaining series.

Series A. Land triple with flyer, plus land blind, plus honor

The first mark was on the right, thrown RTL on a sharp angle back at 130y deep into shrubs, then retired while the second mark was being thrown. I might mention that I have not seen a mark thrown into a mass of shrubs before, nor seen a gun retired while the other birds were being thrown. Anyway, the second mark was on the left, thrown LTR at 190y, again deep into shrubs, this time flat and across a depression. The third mark was in the center, a flyer thrown high into the air RTL at 210y. As another unusual feature of the test, I've never seen a mark thrown so high before. It was several times higher than flyers are usually thrown. I believe the club was using a high-powered mechanical winger for the throw. After the dog picked up the marks, the dog ran the land blind by invitation, then honored the next working dog. The land blind was 150y, on a line 20y to the right of the line to the right mark and on the left of a tree line, which was close to the line to the blind in places.

Laddie ran as the second dog, but the right gunner had a bad throw the first time we came to the line, so the judge called a no-bird and asked us to go back three dogs. I had difficulty preventing Laddie from breaking, but I herded him back toward the holding blind until the judge said I could put him on lead. I then aired him, put him back in his crate, and took off my gear. When it was time to run again, I went thru my normal routine of putting the gear back on, in an attempt to normalize our second attempt at the series as much as possible despite the disruption of the no-bird.

At the line, I ran Laddie on my left and after he had picked out all the guns for himself, I gave him a long look at the left gun, which the test dog and #1 dog had long hunts on. Finally, I showed him the right gun and didn't show him the flyer myself, since I knew from experience that he, like most retrievers, was usually well aware of where the flyer in a setup was as soon as he came to the line.

When I called for the throws, Laddie watched the right and left throws, but never heard the shots or saw the flyer. When the judge called his number, he was still locked in on the left mark, so I sent him there and he picked it up with a small hunt, by far the best mark of the dogs I watched during that series. He also needed a small hunt on the right retired mark, with a few dogs later doing a bit better on that mark, but he didn't do a bad job.

As he was coming back, I said to the closest judge, "Now we have to run two blinds." The judge chuckled and said, "Yep." Laddie ran the flyer mark perfectly, lining to a point just a little left and downwind of the fall, then turning right and taking a step to the bird. The earlier dogs and many of the later dogs would have significant difficulty with the flyer even though it was the go-bird, running past it uphill to a treeline and often hunting far behind the gun, sometimes returning to the old fall of the right gun. So Laddie's work on the flyer, even though he hadn't seen it, was excellent. As I received the bird in the blind, the judge commented to the other judge, "Now the other handlers watching this are re-evaluating how to run it." Of course running the flyer go-bird last would be unconventional; I only did it because Laddie hadn't seen it. But a few other handlers did run it that way.

Laddie lined the blind. He was the only dog I saw do that in this series. You sometimes see later dogs in a test lining a land blind, I guess because of drag scent from earlier dogs, but Laddie didn't have much, if any, of that advantage running as #2. He just took a good initial line and held it the whole way.

Laddie was alert during the honor and watched the throws but showed no risk of breaking.

Workshop notes:

  • First look. As Laddie returned to the line after the first and second retrieves, I positioned myself so that as soon as he sat beside me, his first look was in the direction I was about to send him. I made some minor adjustments before sending him, but I didn't have to pull him off a completely different line. Similarly, when I walked to the line for the blind, I put Laddie in a sit near the line, went to the line myself to position myself, and then called him to me so that again, his first look was in the correct direction.
  • Stepping up. On the flyer, it was important to me that Laddie err to the left rather than the right if he was going to veer offline, because I didn't want him to end up behind the gun. On the blind, it was similarly important to me that he not veer to the left, because I didn't want to have to cast him into the wind if he veered too far off line. In each case, I didn't false-line him, which I don't think is a good idea, and the pro we trained with the previous week also said he doesn't believe in false lining. But I did step up toward Laddie's head before sending him as an influence to stay on the side I was sending him from as he ran the retrieve.
I would continue to use those concepts throughout the test, and plan to continue using them in training and competition in the future as well.


7 dogs were scratched
26 dogs ran the first series
8 dogs were called back, including Laddie

From my experience, calling back only 8 dogs for the second series was an unusually low number.

I thought the land series was pretty hard for a Q. Later, someone told me, "That wasn't a Qualifier set-up. They ran that same set-up last year for the Amateur."

Series B. Water blind

The water blind was 140y. The start line was on a steep slope. The initial line was on a diagonal down the slope thru a keyhole formed by two trees, so that one of the trees was significantly downhill from the other. Then came the water entry on a sharp angle into a stick-pond channel containing significant amounts of wood debris and lily pads. The line to the blind did not go over any points of land, but it did go just past a point of land on the left, with a sandbar off that point that the line to the blind crossed. Since dogs tend to follow land when their feet touch land while running a water blind, and since many dogs including Laddie are often cast onto a point if they swim past one that they were required to get onto, the risk existed that dogs including Laddie would get onto the sandbar and then automatically dart left up onto the point of land anticipating such a cast. The channel swim continued past the sandbar, with the blind planted in front of a lining pole a yard inland on the far shore.

Laddie, running as the first dog because #1 had been dropped after Series A, ran this blind as I hoped he would. He took a good initial line on the diagonal downslope thru the keyhole and into the channel. As he swam, he began to veer slightly left toward the point, which is where I would have cast him if he hadn't done it himself. I knew from Laddie having once been disqualified on a similar water blind that he didn't just need to complete the blind without getting onto the land on either side, we as a team needed to challenge the most difficult aspects of the blind. One of those was the keyhole, and another was that point of land on the left. I could not just handle him well to the right of it in open water; he had to approach the point closely so that we could demonstrate the control needed to prevent him from getting onto it. That's what the line he had taken was doing for us. Once he got within 15y of the point, I cast him on an angle back right, putting him back on line as he reached the sandbar. Since I anticipated that he might dart to the point of land just to his left, I blew the whistle, then cast him off the sandbar with a straight back right arm and an Over verbal. He took the cast back into the water, veering slightly right, but staying close to the line to the blind. As he approached the far shore, he corrected his own line and veered back toward the left. He slightly overshot the point directly in front of the blind, so I blew a whistle to stop him. He immediately scented and/or spotted the bird and picked it up, then brought it back to me.

You never know if something has gone wrong that you didn't realize, but I felt almost certain that when the marshal announced callbacks, the first number called would be "2", and it was. Since several of the handlers had mentioned that they thought the judges would probably call back all the dogs, I was surprised by how few other numbers were also called.

Workshop notes, in addition to those I mentioned for Series A, both of which again also applied:
  • Practice start lines on steep slopes. During the workshop, we practiced blinds and marks, both land and water, from start lines on steep slopes. It takes getting used to for both the dog and the handler. I'm glad we had the practice, since the water blind in this test also started on a steep slope.
  • "Back off a point, back to the truck." This is an aphorism the pro mentioned in the workshop, which means that if you use a verbal "Back" cast off a point on a water blind, the odds are high that the dog will take the cast to an undesirable location and will not end up being called back to the next series.
  • Handle to the bird. During the workshop, the pro spoke of the Red Zone, that is, the last few yards of a blind, and the tendency of handlers to hope that once in that zone, the dog will find the bird without help. All too often, the dog doesn't find the bird and instead goes into a hunt far from the bird, sometimes ruining an otherwise high quality blind. The pro urged us not to make that mistake, but to bear down in the Red Zone and handle the dog all the way to the bird.

8 dogs ran the second series
4 dogs were called back, including Laddie. I might mention that Laddie was the only Golden in the finals (the others were black Labs), and I believe I was by far the least experienced handler of the four. 

Series C. Water triple

The first mark was on the right, thrown LTR at 110y into open water off an island. The second mark was in the center, thrown LTR on a sharp angle back into shadow up a hill into shrubs at 90y. The third mark was on the left, thrown LTR flat at 40y and along the shoreline with no splash, into thick cover at the shoreline. The water was a stick pond, dense with lily pads and wood debris.

Every consideration suggested to me that I run Laddie on my right, so that was an easy decision. Although I had only seen the test dog run the series, I felt certain that the center bird would be the most difficult, so after Laddie had picked out all the guns himself, I gave him a long look at the center gun before having him watch the right gun and calling for the throws. I felt he got a good look at every throw. He nailed the left mark. I had planned to run the center bird next but didn't feel strongly about it, and when he clearly indicated that he wanted the right bird, that's where I sent him. Laddie took a nice line to the bird as it floated in the open water, but like all the dogs in the last series including the test dog, except for #9 (the eventual winner), Laddie decided to touch the island to the left of the bird before completing the swim to the bird. However, of all the dogs who touched the island, Laddie was there the shortest time. He stayed in front of the gunner, and seemed to know where the bird was all along. Because of the difficult swim, he may have used the island as a momentary rest stop, rather than being temporarily lost as the other dogs who went there seemed to be.

I had no difficulty lining Laddie up on the final, center mark, and he took a good initial line. But for some reason, he gradually veered right. Once it was clear that he had virtually no chance of spotting the center gunner because he'd swum too far, and rather than risk waiting to see if he would break the wrong way when he reached the island and possibly disqualify with a return to the old fall, I blew the whistle just before he reached the island. Laddie handled cleanly to the bird with two casts.

Laddie had again run as the first dog. The next dog also required a handle on one mark. The next two did not handle, perhaps partially thanks to trails through the debris in the stick pond that had been blazed by the first two dogs and were clearly visible. In any case, as we awaited the results, barring some disqualification for reasons I had not seen, I was fairly sure Laddie could place either Third or Fourth, not First or Second because of the handle. When the ribbons were given out, Laddie was Third. The fact that Laddie placed Third rather than Fourth between the two dogs with a handle was, I think, a tribute to the high quality of his work throughout the trial. Beyond that, it was also an exciting result for a positive retriever trainer.

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