Saturday, August 13, 2016

The recall loophole

In the first series of Laddie's trial today, a retired triple with an out of order flyer, Laddie put himself in a chance for first place nailing the first two marks, then weakened his position considerably with a poor initial line and big hunt on the retired bird in the center shadows, and ended his chances by illustrating once again what I've often said is the single most difficult skill for a positive-trained retriever: the field recall.

Laddie is a Master Hunter and has brought home many Qualifying JAMs, RJs, and even a Third. It goes without saying that he has a highly trained recall. But in nine years of daily training, he's never once experienced punishment for a failed recall; he comes the vast majority of the time because of the massive reinforcement history he has with doing so.

But today's conditions proved the exception. On a day that the heat index will eventually reach 110° or higher and with the heat index already at 95°, Laddie picked up the last bird in high cover at 130y and, pointedly ignoring my come-in whistle, made a beeline for the pond on the left. There he cooled off in his lovely red Golden coat until at last I asked the judge, "Can I go get him?"

Laddie can do a lot of things right. His line manners and line mechanics were excellent, he saw all the birds, he was steady as a rock, he didn't cheat the water entry on the go-bird, and he wasn't fooled by the big scent cone or put off by the wall of high cover around the flyer's fall.

But a dog always has a choice. And nothing in his reinforcement history had convinced him that bringing the last bird to me had higher value under the circumstances than a nice, cool swim.


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.

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.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Poorman land triples, land blinds

Although I haven't had time to write up every training session, Laddie and I have continued to train together continuously, sometimes on consecutive days, sometimes with a rest day or two. We've trained in the group I mentioned recently whenever possible, we've trained with as many as three of my own assistants, we've trained at a variety of locations, and we've trained on a wide variety of skills, from retired converging water triples, to re-entry challenges, to land and water blinds with many kinds of factors.

Meanwhile, Laddie is dealing with a number of areas of discomfort. DW Renée has a new puppy, a beautiful British Cream Golden named Ryley, now nine weeks old, and I'm adamant about keeping them apart, which means Laddie doesn't have the access to Renée and the household he's had his whole life. He seems to have an infection in one ear, mild I believe, but causing some discharge and regular head-shaking. From one or  more of the locations where we trained or completed the last few weeks, he has insect bites all over his body, including his ear flaps and paws. And he has at least four hotspots, including one quite large on his cheek.

With temps climbing into the 80s and 90s most days, and school hours limiting scheduling options with my assistants, plus time pressure from both my full-time job and my consulting work, it would be easy for me to forego so much training. But I've entered Laddie in a qual for next Friday, and I'll do what I can to help him prepare.

Today was a typical challenge. The weatherman is calling for 90°+ by noon, but none of my assistants were available for an early session, and I haven't been able to make contact with my new training group. So my choices were to run Laddie in high temps at midday, or take him out early by myself. I opted for the latter, and we headed for the nearby abandoned golf course a little after sunrise.

There we ran three poorman land triples and there land blinds, keeping Laddie out of the stagnant water in the various ponds and ditches. To run a poorman triple, I would put Laddie in a sit at the start line, then walk out and throw each of marks, then come back to him and run him on the now-retired marks. Though probably not as beneficial as running a triple with real gunners, I included a tight converging double in all of the triples and two of them in the last one, so I believe they were still useful pictures for Laddie to practice, and exercised both his memory and his tolerance for frustration with difficult configurations.

As for the blinds, all featured rolling terrain and patches of thick cover. In addition, two featured potential wraps, two featured keyholes at distance, and one featured both. Laddie had no slow sits and no refused casts, making all of the blinds look easy though I don't think they were.

I'll rest Laddie the remainder of the day, and see what training I can arrange for the rest of the week.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A water blind, three water singles, and two more water blinds

Today a friend invited me to train with a small group on a fabulous technical pond, once used I believe for a National.

My friend said that if I arrived earlier than others, I could run Laddie on a blind, so that's what I did. Then, with the group, he ran three water singles with guns out as if for doubles. Finally he ran two more water blinds.

The grounds and sky were beautiful, but temps reached the high 80s. We trained both experienced dogs and inexperienced ones on various setups, so it was a long and physically demanding day for the trainers as well as the dogs.

I won't take your time to describe the setups in to much detail unless someone asks me to. I'll just mention that the marks and the last two blinds were designed by the highly experienced and successful trainer who led our group, and he made challenging use of the many points of land that crisscross the pond, in three cases also making use of the full length of the pond.

Laddie's work: He did a good job on my blind. He nailed the first single. He tried to cheat the fourth re-entry of the second single the first time he ran it, so I called him back and had him run it again, and this time he nailed it. Then he nailed the last and longest single, going over a point and then making a long channel swim between points in both sides.

When he then ran the blinds, he took great initial lines on both of them. The first featured a difficult re-entry which he ran perfectly without a whistle, lining the blind. The second was another long channel swim, then over two points. He one-whistled that, needing the whistle because he intended to swim around the point after getting thru the channel on his initial line. At the lead trainer's suggestion, I handled Laddie toward the point crossing as soon as it was clear that he was planning to stay in the water, so that he wouldn't have a chance to feel reinforced for that decision, a good lesson for me. The trainer also suggested that if Laddie had good momentum, which he did, that I should not handle him over the points, which I otherwise might have done, and that also worked out well.

I felt this was an excellent training day for Laddie and me. For Laddie, he was able to be successful without help on several retrieves, yet learned a better way to run a couple of them. For me, it was a friendly, supportive group with advice that was high quality yet compatible with my training approach. Like, wow.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Laddie's eighth JAM

Laddie got a JAM in his first qual when he was three, just after he completed his SH and two years before his first Master pass. A few weeks later, in his third qual, one of the judges told me he would have had a placement, possibly a high placement, if he hadn't broken in the honor after running the last of the six series, the entire time without handling on a mark.

In those days, based on what little I knew of other dogs' careers, it seemed that Laddie would be QAA soon, and would spend the rest of his career running all-age, possibly running Master in later years.

But here it is nearly five years later, and Laddie has still never placed in a qual, much less won one. Yesterday, for example, he was in great shape coming into the last series, but a mediocre fourth series led to yet another JAM, his eighth (including two Reserved JAMs in previous trials).

I don't want to make excuses, because it's always something, and in the end, it's my responsibility. I just have to be careful not to have him standing near the judging area for long periods before his turn, listening to guns go off for one dog after another and getting more and more excited, and in this case, also badly overheated. This is the third time in his career I've let a marshal put him in that situation, this time with temps in the high 70s and 80s, and somehow I need not to let it happen again.

I also don't want to make projections. Despite our seeming plateau, Laddie actually is continuing to develop. He often runs great blinds, with better sits than ever and often his outstanding initial lines. He's better behaved at the line than he used to be, now that I've learned some people care about that and I've worked with him on it. We've worked a ton on difficult entries and re-entries, and maybe we'll be ready next time we encounter one in a trial. And he's more comfortable being handled over points, though he still occasionally vocalizes.

By the way, I saw two Labs vocalizing when cast on land blinds yesterday. I hadn't noticed that in other dogs much in the past. Maybe it was happening and I just didn't notice it. Laddie vocalized all his life on water handling and I never noticed it until fairly recently. Then I saw in old videos that he had always done it.

Anyway, Lumi and Laddie both ran a number of Junior tests before their first pass, and after their JHs, the same thing happened with Senior tests. Laddie also needed several tries before he passed his WCX, and failed several Master tests before he began passing them on the way to his MH. I don't think this says anything about my dogs or my training methods. I think it goes instead to my inexperience, both in understanding what skills need to be trained and in being able to gauge whether a dog is ready to compete at a certain level.

And I'm hoping something similar is happening here, though over a more prolonged time line and now with the pressure of Laddie's age becoming a factor. It has never been unusual for Laddie to run at least one series in a trial that is clearly the best of the day;  in yesterday's trial, that happened in the second series, a land blind. And I believe he also had one of the top performances in the first and third series. If he'd had one of his signature makes-it-look-easy triples in the fourth series, I think he would have won the trial. And I think one of these days, that's exactly what's going to happen.

So I'm disappointed, even a bit depressed. But I'm not throwing in the towel yet.

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