Saturday, May 7, 2016

Fifth day of workshop

Yesterday was the last day of the five-day retriever workshop Laddie and I were attending this week. Here's what we did:

- A water-blind tune-up drill consisting of five blinds. As in other tune-up drills I've seen the pro set up, each blind had a different start line and a different bumper placement, but all went thru roughly the same area, and all were highly technical, meaning that the dog had to run a narrow corridor with any number of factors such as logs to jump over and key holes to go thru. This was Laddie's third time running this particular setup, so like some of the other advanced dogs, we used start lines that were further back than the standard ones. Laddie's barking on initial casts has gotten worse during the workshop, and I decided not to handle him on his returns, but aside from that, he did good, solid work.

- A big land quad in a step valley with a flyer, which only one dog actually ran as a quad. Laddie, like the other advanced dogs, ran it as a big single with guns out, a retired double with flyer go-bird, and another big single, this one with the gun retired. Laddie didn't need help on any of the marks, but he needed a big hunt on the memory bird of the double. He nailed the flyer and the physically challenging last single and had a small hunt on the first single. It was another good series for him.

- A multiple-blind setup. Like the other big dogs, Laddie ran two long blinds, tight and with similar designs: down a steep hill, across a small pond, up a steep hill over variable terrain including a plowed field, and into a sparsely wooded area continuing on a steep ascent. Like some of the other dogs, Laddie had a pop on the highest, steepest, furthest section of the longer blind, but other than that had another nice series.

After five days of watching all the dogs who were still there (some didn't stay for all five days, so that only six dogs remained till the end), the pro offered some summary thoughts to each of the handlers. The pro saw Laddie at four workshops last year, one interrupted by a pull to Laddie's iliopsoas, and he said this was the best he's seen Laddie. Like some of the other trainers, the pro said Laddie looked like a young dog despite having turned 9yo last month, and he pointed out that Laddie was running difficult series in this session that he would not have been able to do successfully last year. Like others who have watched Laddie work, he again remarked that Laddie's performance was amazing given my unusual training approach. And he gave me a list of things for both Laddie and me to work on, such as Laddie's barking, my casts sometimes before Laddie is ready, and my loss of composure sometimes when things go wrong during a retrieve.

I appreciated the summary, one last element of another wonderful and invaluable workshop. I've been wondering if Laddie is ready to begin running trials again. I guess he is.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Laddie at spring workshop

Laddie and I are attending a five-day workshop with a teaching pro in Tennessee. It's a fairly big group, ten dogs, maybe more. The forecast keeps saying rain, but so far we've had excellent weather for training.

The spectrum of dogs is from field champions to at least one dog who has trained only for Hunt Tests and doesn't have a Master yet. He may not have any titles, I'm not sure. In any case, Laddie is pretty much in the middle.

Despite the variations, the pro has set up work to challenge, but not ruin confidence, on every dog. In some cases he creates setups that only some of the dogs run. In others he modified a base setup by moving guns and/or the start line, retiring vs leaving guns out, running a quad vs a triple and a single, and so forth. His patience, depth of engagement, and upbeat attitude for every dog and every handler on every series are nothing short of astounding. And in my experience, his dog knowledge and dog training knowledge are unsurpassed.

Today was the third day, another grueling ten hours of continuous training. It started with a monster water quad with a flyer go-bird and the three memory birds retired. The pro said it would have made a good final series in a major stake. In other words, it was hard.

When I saw the setup, I thought it was a good candidate for running singles with guns out for a dog at Laddie's level. But Laddie was near the end of the running order for the advanced dogs, and to my surprise, not another trainer chose to run it that way. Nonetheless I more or less stuck to my guns. I ran the two shortest marks as a hip pocket double with the flyer as the go-bird, then ran each of the longer marks as a retired single with me tossing a side throw to give the gunners a chance to retire. Laddie did a great job on my simplified version. I was especially happy with an angle entry into high-cover strewn water on a bridge throw that Laddie nailed, whereas many other dogs had had considerable difficulty with it.

After all the dog's had run some version of the water quad, the pro set up another monster, this time a double water blind. After the advanced dogs ran it, the other dogs ran a water tune-up drill with up to six retrieves. For some dogs and their handlers, they would be running it for the third time in as many days, allowing for steady improvement each time the drill was repeated.

Laddie was one of about three dogs that the pro offered a choice. We could either run one or both of the monster blinds, or we could run the tune-up drill. I felt either would be an excellent choice for Laddie, but I decided to have him run the blinds.

Yes, they were both two or three times longer and harder than any Q water blind we've seen, and no, Laddie was not as good as the FCs, for example. But he ran both of them, making some of the same mistakes more advanced dogs made but also having some excellent moments, and ultimately pulling thru on both of them.

You learn so much at a workshop like this that it would be difficult to catalog all of it, but I learned two dramatically new things on the water blinds that I thought I'd mention.

First, as I stood in the holding blind about to start, the pro asked me, "What do you think?" I said I was incredibly intimidated. And he gave me this wonderful solution: don't go to the line thinking about running the whole blind. Instead, just get Laddie to that first decoy. Once he's there, get him up onto that next point. Then cross him over the the next point. The get him to the trees just past the big water. Finally get him to the blind up the embankment. Every segment was a challenge but within Laddie's capability. The trick was to take them on mentally one at a time, not as a single overwhelming task. This may seem simple and obvious, but it was a huge revelation for me and made all the difference in my emotional state.

The second revelation occurred because of a confluence of circumstances. The first was that my physical condition made it impossible for me to execute a walkout, which is my preferred correction because it has always been so effective with both Lumi, when she was in training, and Laddie. The second was that the pro has seen Laddie and me often enough in previous workshops that he has formulated in his mind a correction I could use with Laddie that would function similar to an ecollar correction but without physical aversives. He didn't tell me in advance what he had come up with, but as Laddie and I worked, he gave me detailed instructions as he had with the other handlers, one of the great benefits of the workshop. At the moments when Laddie made the same mistakes previous dogs had made, instead of calling for a collar correction, he said, "Lindsay, tell him No, Here!" Then, when Laddie had come in a ways, he said, "Now sit him and take a breath." And then he would guide me thru a repetition of the maneuver that Laddie had executed incorrectly the first time.

What I found remarkable was not only that Laddie learned from those corrections and could execute the difficult maneuver the second time, but how similar his response was to the dog's who had received collar corrections in the same situation.

For example, when the dog was cast off one point, or just carried it with momentum, the dog was out of sight for several seconds and was at risk of breaking sharply to the side, hugging the shore out of sight, and coming up on land way off line. For this the dog's received what the pro called at one point a million-dollar correction, because the correction not only enabled the dog to execute that maneuver correctly on the retry but also carried forward into several similar challenges that lay ahead, making corrections unnecessary for those. And the same thing happened with Laddie. When faced with similar maneuvers later in the blind, he executed them correctly, thus avoiding another "No, Here!" correction. The power of that simple correction with Laddie was startling.

It's not that I've never used No/Here before. Like any other trainer I've used it many times. But I had never realized that for Laddie, it functioned not merely as momentary instructions, but as a clear message that his previous response had resulted in a terrible fate -- the loss of an opportunity to continue the retrieve -- and the only way he could avoid suffering that fate again was to take the cast I was giving this next time rather than the one that had successfully tempted him before.

With today's work and lessons under my belt, Laddie and I still have two more days of the workshop. Of course I can hardly wait, and I'm sure Laddie feels the same way.

Note: This blog has recorded the training and competition history of Lumi and Laddie. I continue to train Laddie for field competition just as I have for years, but I rarely have time to write posts on this blog describing our work together.

One of the reasons for that is that in November 2015, I got a new retriever puppy to train. His name is Lightning, he's 7mo, and he's a black Lab. In addition to the additional time for training him on top of training Laddie, I've also been maintaining a detailed blog of the training program I've created for Lightning. The new blog is called Lightning's Journal and here's a link:

As with this blog, there's a "Follow" link you can use to get emails whenever I post to the blog. Lightning's Journal also includes some fixed pages such as a "Table of contents" and a "Getting started" page.

Laddie's and Lightning's training will often be combined in time and location, so you may wish to check out Lightning's Journal as a supplement if you're interested in continuing to follow Laddie's development.

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