Contact: LDRidgeway at gmail dot com

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Red zone drill

I developed this drill because occasionally Laddie and I have difficulty at the end of a land blind, the area that Pat Burns calls the red zone. For some reason, just as Laddie and I seem to have the blind wrapped up, Laddie will veer off line, and sometimes even go out of control, before I'm able to recover and help him to finish the blind.

Of course I'm always setting up blinds to practice on. But Laddie doesn't necessarily have red zone problems with them, so I wanted a drill that focuses entirely on practicing that.

For the red zone drill, I use a flat field with short grass and no obstacles, hills, or other factors. At one end of the field, I use a lining pole with ribbon at the top. In front of the pile I place a number of red 2” bumpers. Then, approximately 15y to left and right, on an angle in, I place two piles of two 3” white bumpers, one stacked  on the other so as to be visible from the distance.

Now I run Laddie to the red pile from from 50y and up, so that he needs to run between the two white piles to get to the red pile. The most distance we've used is 250y, but I'm not sure there's any limit on distance, depending on the level of competition you're training for.

This drill seems to have several benefits despite its simplicity. It helps me as a handler work on the timing of my whistles, anticipating the distance that Laddie will tend to overshoot the line I want him to stop in. It helps both of us work on the no-hands Back cue, which seems to be well suited to red zone handling. It gives me a chance to remind Laddie not stop to air or dawdle on his returns. It helps with Laddie's conditioning on the kind of distances we're training.

And most importantly, the drill focuses all of Laddie's attention, and mine, on maintaining control in the blind's red zone.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Building motivation in a retriever

[The material in this post was extracted and edited from a reply I sent during a private email conversation.]

. . . As far as your dog's inconsistent motivation goes, I haven’t had a dog quite like that, so I'll be writing from my own experience, but not with any strategy proven for a dog like yours.

To start, I might mention that my primary focus above all other training objectives when Laddie was a puppy, and to some extent to this day, is building motivation. We play a lot of tug, we play a lot of fetch with various toys inside and outdoors, and I would never, for example, do anything that he might perceive as punishment for picking up a bird, even if I would have liked to discourage something happening at the same time, such as slipping a whistle. As an example, when I decided to try to fix Laddie’s vocalizing on water casts (which he’s done since he was a puppy), I saw almost immediately that if he took a cast while vocalizing and I stopped him in an attempt to discourage the vocalizing, it also discouraged his taking the cast. Needless to say, I dropped that “training” strategy the instant I saw that happening.

Thus you can see that if I were to try to work with a dog who had motivational issues, I’d probably pretty much stop normal field work for awhile and work on finding games that he loved, and I’d play those games with him for weeks or even months. Fetch with objects he particularly likes (including clipwing pigeons if you have them available), chase games where you run away as he’s coming back to you, “find it”, tug, water retrieves — those are the kinds of things I’d try since those are things my dogs love. I’d avoid all physical discomfort at least at first, for example hot days or cold water. In Lumi’s case, I’d avoid stick ponds, because although she’s crazy about swimming, she’s somewhat scared of stick ponds.

One more point. How long you train your dog per session could be a major factor in his motivation. A cardinal rule of positive trainers is always to stop while the dog is at peak motivation and wanting more, so that that’s how he spends his idle time before the next session, wanting more. For a young puppy, this means just a single retrieve per session. I have a friend who trains Schutzhund and she uses what she calls “commercial training”: She puts the young dog alone in a room while she’s watching TV, and when a commercial comes on, she runs in to train the dog for a short time, making sure that she’s back in her chair by the time the commercial ends. She told me that approach builds motivation rapidly.

Overall, my idea for a dog like yours would be to build a huge, unalloyed positive reinforcement history for active games, and I’d be looking for a gradual ending of his tendency to go into “I don’t want to.” If a few weeks passed and he was still exhibiting avoidance behaviors for activities I thought he loved, I guess I’d probably think about retiring him from competition. But if I found that, by playing only games that he loved, and by becoming skillful at stopping before he started to lose motivation, he gradually stopped bringing out his “I don’t want to” behavior, then I would feel some hope and my next step would be to begin shaping the games we were playing so that, while they remained highly motivating, they also began to introduce the skills I wanted him to learn for competition. All of my training with such a dog would be based on maintaining and building motivation. But again, I think that’s largely true of how I trained Lumi and even more so (because I was more experienced), Laddie.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Anti-popping: The Fake Throw Drill

For the last year or two, I've been trying to repair Laddie's tendency to pop, that is, turn to look at me from mid-field after the send on a mark or blind, even though I haven't blown a whistle.

Popping is not necessarily a disqualification in retriever Hunt Tests and Field Trials, but it's at least a minor fault, and it certainly doesn't improve the dog's score. In the case of field trials, it could cost you a position in the final placements. In either venue, especially if combined with other issues, it could knock the dog out of an event.

However, training a dog not to pop is difficult, even for experienced field trainers using traditional methods, much less someone like me, both relatively inexperienced and using positive training methods for which no book or video exists.

I think part of the problem is that we're not really sure why a particular dog pops, and it might vary from dog to dog and from incident to incident. But the other problem is that even if we correctly guess the reason for a particular dog and particular scenario, it may not be easy to see how to counter-condition it. I've heard of people trying many methods without success, and the same applies to me.

Yesterday, a fellow trainer with an all-age field dog whose popping had become so frequent that he had decided to retire her, told me that he'd recently learned of an approach that he was having great success with: Hide from the dog after sending her. That way, if she looks back for help, no one is there to help her, and she receives no reinforcement for popping. Ideally, after a few tries, the unreinforced behavior extinguishes. But my friend is not sure yet how well her new anti-popping training will stand up in competition.

Meanwhile, over the last few months, I've begun trying to consistently use another approach: At the instant Laddie pops, I call out "sit". Then I walk out to him, slip on his lead, gently walk him back to the start line, and send him again. I've never seen him pop a second time when I do that, whether the bird is re-thrown or not. Still, I'm not sure whether this method will ever get rid of the first pop of the session. It hasn't yet, though fortunately many sessions have no pops in them these days, thank goodness.

At yesterday's session, I noticed something else, however. On the one mark where Laddie popped, the most difficult of the day, the throw was invisible during most of its flight, and only appeared for a split second just before it landed. It was also a 250+ yard mark with lots of hills and bales of hay in the picture, so while I knew exactly where to look and still didn't see it for most of its arc, Laddie might not have seen the flight of the bumper at all. (We were throwing a bumper to a bird, because the thrown bird was even more invisible.)

This has led me to wonder whether a common thread in Laddie's popping is confusion, and a common thread in confusion is not seeing the throw. I'm not saying that that explains all popping, but it might explain some of it, and optimistically, a side effect of fixing it might even be to cause other popping to become less likely as well, on the theory that confidence begets more confidence.

Following from that analysis, it seems that a fairly straight-forward drill can be used to help the dog learn to deal with that particular kind of confusion and thus, hopefully, popping in that situation. Assuming the dog has a good memory and is otherwise a good marker with good hunting skills, simply have the thrower fake the throw to a pre-positioned article. Everything else is normal: the duck call (if you're training for Hunt Tests), the gunshot, the throwing motion, the thrower taking a seat after the "throw". Then you as the handler line your dog up and send him as if nothing unusual were involved. When the dog gets out there, hunting if necessary, and finds that lo and behold an article is out there right where the thrower seemed to have been aiming his fake throw, you've just added reinforcement history to the dog's behavior of running to a fall even though he never saw the throw, and you've added to the dog's confidence that he can handle such a situation without popping, that is, without asking for help.

I guess it goes without saying that the Fake Throw drill can be run with incremental levels of difficulty. At the easy end of the scale, for initial training, the mark would be fairly short and simple, the gunner would stay out rather than retiring, and the the mark would be thrown as a single. At the difficult end of the scale, you'd use a fake throw on a long mark that would be difficult anyway because of obstacles, wind, and diversions, you'd have the gunner retire, and you'd include the mark as part of an otherwise difficult triple. In fact, you could even fake two or three of the throws in such a triple, not just one. When the dog has worked up to the point where he can consistently run such a triple without popping, even though some hunting might be required, you may have eliminated a significant share of the dog's potential for popping.

What about if the dog does pop in this drill? Well, in some of my other experiments, I've actually wanted Laddie to pop occasionally so that he could learn that it doesn't do him any good. For the Fake Throw drill, I don't see any advantage in that. Rather, I would say that if the dog pops, it means you've increased the difficulty too quickly and should scale back your subsequent setups accordingly, working back to that level of difficulty again eventually, but more gradually.

I've found that when Laddie hopes he's going the right direction, for example after a cast on a blind, but isn't yet certain, and then he suddenly finds the bird or bumper, it seems to add even more to his already over-the-top motivation. Perhaps the Fake Drill works the same way, and is actually a fun drill for the dog, in much the same way as people -- at least some people -- enjoy surprises. Fixing a problem (we hope), while making the game even more fun for the dog, is a great combination.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Stay for the Entire Event

When you enter your dog in an event and she's not called back after one of the series, the compulsion to leave the event and head for home can be overwhelming. Please don't tell me your reasons why you do this, believe me, I know.

However, with one exception, I'd like to suggest that you overcome those reasons, compelling though they are, and stay for the entire event.

The exception would be if you regularly train with highly experienced trainers of competition retrievers. If that's the case, you're probably already getting the kind of information you would get by staying.

But if that's not the case, then staying for the entire event can provide you with invaluable information.

For example, let's say you're dropped after the land blind and won't get to run the water blind. It would be great to run your dog on the water blind, and it hurts at a visceral level that you won't be able to. Besides, it's a long drive home and you're beat. I get it.

But if you stay to watch the water blind, and just as importantly listen for the callbacks afterwards, you might notice that some of the dogs you thought would be dropped weren't, while others you thought would be carried weren't. Now you have a chance to go around and ask some of the friends you've been making what was going on. "Oh, it looks like the judges weren't carrying any dogs who got out of the water at the end," you might learn. Maybe you didn't know that a judge might consider that important enough to base the callback decisions on. Now you do.

But if you hadn't stayed, you still wouldn't know that. And it might take you getting knocked out of another event sometime in the future for you to learn it.

What's more, the effect can compound. You might need to get dropped from several events before you learn all the things you could have learned from staying till the end of that one event. That in turns means that your dog might need a lot more events to accomplish what she could accomplish sooner if you were learning all you could from the events you're dropped from. It might even limit how far your dog will eventually go in her career, because she only has so much time while you are going thru your learning curve as a handler.

When you think about it, what better way can you learn how judges judge than by watching actual judges judging? And after all, if you had been called back, you wouldn't think of leaving.

So when you sign up for an event, I suggest you plan on staying until the ribbons are handed out (in effect, that's the last callback), no matter how your dog does, even if it means staying overnight after you've been dropped. I know, I know, it's hard. But think what it could mean to your dog's career.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Training the Delivery

[From a post to PositiveGunDogs]

On May 13, 2013, at 4:10 PM, a list member wrote:

Alice wrote: Tolerate no slowness or reluctance to come to you with the "big prize" and no reluctance to deliver.

Can someone go over step by step how they get the speed in delivering with only a positive method? This is an area I have struggled with young dogs that want to "keep" the prize. I have used e collar methods in the past to overcome it, which worked great but would love a solidly trained positive approach to teaching this for my next retriever.

Hi. First of all, I hope I'm not disagreeing with Alice here, but I don't think young dogs should be trained to deliver to hand prior to teething (around six months). I believe that doing so discourages the dog from coming when called (the recall), which I think is the most difficult field training skill to train with positive methods. Before training the dog to deliver to hand, she should have months of just retrieving bumpers, dead birds, and flyers to the general area of the handler, then dropping the bird whenever she is ready to on her own. Typically, she drops the bird because she is being brought to the line to watch another throw and be sent for another retrieve, and the previously retrieved bird is no longer valuable to her.

Second, the intolerance Alice is speaking of, once it becomes appropriate to the dog's level of training, is based on what Alice calls the Trained Retrieve (TR), which is a more generic name for what traditional trainers call the Force Fetch (FF). That is, the FF is one kind of TR, but positive methods can train the same skills, which are Hold-Out-Fetch. I've seen a number of descriptions on training a positive TR, all based on back chaining. I like this video as one example:

In other words, first you train the behavior Alice is describing, and then you proof it under the many conditions the dog will need to learn to deal with, such as when outside, when around strangers, when wet, etc. Intolerance is just another name for training and proofing.

Finally, since this is such a difficult behavior for a positive trained dog to learn, I'd expect it take a lot of time and a lot of effort. Here's an article I wrote that describes one aspect of the problem -- that chasing is more fun for a dog than fetching -- and a solution based on that analysis -- the Fetch Game, which I found to be a powerful follow-up to the TR:



Here's another video that might prove useful:

Monday, May 13, 2013

Romping with Your Dog

Watching the big dogs run in a Field Trial, the handlers barely move a muscle. It seems from watching them that retrievers must prefer an austere, minimalist interaction with their partners.

I don't know, maybe they do. Or maybe the handlers feel it would be unprofessional to show the kind of enthusiasm their dogs' work could easily justify.

However, working with a young dog — that is, any dog who hasn't had a lot of training — you can accelerate the process by exhibiting enthusiasm, although it might feel uncool if you're not used to it. For many dogs, romping with people is one of the greatest reinforcers available.

Every dog has her own hot buttons. Part of working with a new dog is discovering what that dog's hot buttons are.

For example, Laddie and I were recently on a hike at a nearby meadow when we met a couple and their adult retriever along the way. They said the dog liked to chase thrown tennis balls but didn't like to bring them back.

I love a challenge.

I put Laddie in a "sit", and tossed the ball behind the dog. Sure enough, the dog ran to the ball, nosed it a bit, but then started to amble back in my direction without the ball.

I ran past the dog, called "come on, come on, pick it up, boy," and kicked the ball a few feet away. As the dog ran to the ball, I ran past him again, continuing to call to him. After a little of that, he picked the ball up, though he was ready to drop it again immediately. I placed my hands on either side of his mouth so that I could grasp the ball before he had a chance to drop it. He didn't clamp down, so I slipped the ball out and tossed it away for him to chase again. In that moment, you could see the light bulb starting to come on.

This might not have worked with some dogs. They might not have liked the physical contact, or might have been fearful of the high activity level. If I'd seen that, of course I'd have backed down. But it worked on this dog. His behavior unmistakably communicated, "What do I need to do to get this guy to do that again?"

I continued playing with the dog for a few more minutes. Sometimes I would pick the ball up and toss it a few feet, then as soon as he got near the ball, I would run away, calling out "Yipes!" and pretending to be prey. Other times I would run up to the dog the moment he had the ball in his mouth so I could take it before he had a chance to drop it, then toss it for him to chase so that he'd see the advantage of getting the ball into my hands. Some of this was about communicating the game to the dog. Some of it was about helping him get over his confusion of dealing with this weird stranger. And perhaps some of it was about building motivation in the dog, although I would discount that. I think the motivation was there, it just needed to be channeled.

Soon the dog was picking up the ball and chasing me while carrying it. I could then spin around and he'd bring it right up to me so I could place my hands around his face to take the ball and throw it again. He was a real retriever after all!

Of course you don't need a stranger to come and play with your dog. You can show him that same unrestrained joy and excitement yourself. I understand that it might be a bit uncomfortable. Well, after your dog is all trained, you can go back to being cool and austere if you like.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Preparing for Junior Hunt Tests

[From a post in PositiveGunDogs]

On May 11, 2013, at 4:25 PM, a list member wrote:

> My next question is about the actual retrieving process. I am very confused because my dogs have some retriever "training" so I am not really starting at step one. I thought I could just go back to step one and "retrain" using the clicker, but its not quite working that way. All three readily take a bumper, dumbell, toy from me and hold. All three readily pick up an object from the ground and bring it to me. So, for now, I am using the clicker to reinforce these behaviors.

Hi. I assume you mean you're using click-and-treat for reinforcement. For any readers not aware of it, clicker practice (based on science) means that you always follow up the click (which is a secondary reinforcer, or bridge) with a primary reinforcer.

> Is this the correct way to deal with this? Or should I introduce some really funky item and start the retriever process with that ( like a metal key fob or something?)

For working in the living room, yeah, it's cool to have the dog retrieve boots, hammers, ladles, keys, etc. You could also work on really difficult stuff like retrieving hot dogs.

However, if you're goal is to have a competition dog, here's what the dog will be retrieving in Junior competition and training groups preparing for Junior competition: a thrown bird. Sometimes it's a bird that was recently frozen and is now mostly thawed, sometimes ti's a bird that was alive in the last few hours but is now dead (those are quite difficult words for me to write, by the way), sometimes it's a bird that was alive 30 seconds ago but has just been shot, and sometimes a bird that is wounded and can't get away from your dog but is still alive (those are called "cripples", unfortunately). For all those cases, sometimes the bird is dry, and sometimes the bird is wet. Those are the "objects" that your dog needs to be proofed for, all of them.

And by the way, of all of them, I believe that the most thrilling experience for a retriever is retrieving a bird that she just watched being shot. I think that experience actually rewires the dog. After that, all retrieves are re-living and re-savoring that experience. The more often she has the experience, the more motivated a retriever you will have.

Meanwhile, please don't use birds that have been retrieved a lot and are now soggy, torn, smelly, etc. and would be unpleasant for the dog to pick up. That won't happen in competition, and I think reverses the kind of association you want the dog to have for retrieving.

Oh, when I say "bird", I mostly mean ducks. For some land series, your dog will also need to retrieve pheasants (again, all the variations of deadness). For water, I believe it will always be ducks. You may also need to train with other species such as pigeons if the group doesn't have anything else available.

For all of the above, the bird should be thrown by a human being, who first blows a duck call, and then fires a gun either just before the throw or when the bird is on the rise from the throw. In a hunt test the gunner will be hidden, but in practice the dog often sees the thrower, which promotes learning to mark well. In any case, a thrown bird is the retrieve your dog needs to learn to make, and as it happens, is the most fun a retriever can have.

Part of the proofing is for objects, and part of it is for location. You want to begin a series of venue types that Alice Woodyard calls the Seven Cities (I think it's a sci-fi reference). Let me see if I can get them right (Alice, please correct if this is incorrect):

City 1. Living room (or elsewhere indoors)
City 2. Outdoors around the house
City 3. A fenced area away from home, such as a school yard, minus the kids of course
City 4. A meadow or similar open field
City 5. A retriever training property, with the sounds and ambience of training in progress, but with you and your dog away from the group (other trainers are typically happy to throw for you when they're not running their own dogs)
CIty 6. Training with the group, attempting to simulate competition as closely as possible (waiting in a series of holding blinds while earlier dogs are running, holding blinds for the gunners, duck calls, popper shotguns rather than blank pistols when possible, the judge calling out "guns up!" and "do you have any questions" and "dog to the line" and then calling for the birds with a duck call then calling the dog's "number" to let you know you can send the dog, a gallery, etc.)
City 7. Competition

The dog also needs to retrieve thru obstacles: across water with the object in the water, across water with the object on land on the far side, thru high cover, into high cover, with the bird in a depression (such birds are often difficult for dogs to find), over a ridge so that the dog can't see you during part of her return, with the bird at the midpoint of a rise, or at the top of a rise, or at the bottom of a rise, etc.

For training with obstacles, it is essential that the dog not have a noticeable detour around the obstacle. That's because the dog is likely to take that detour, rather that the straight line that looks so obvious to humans. You eventually may want to train the dog to go thru/across the obstacle when a detour around is available, but that requires a handling dog, and IMO it's premature for you to be working on handling. If you train a non-handling dog on retrieves where she can "cheat" around obstacles, and she does so and is reinforced for that behavior by a successful retrieve, it will be far more difficult to train her not to do that later.

Those kinds of retrieves are not typically set up by Junior judges, so you don't need to train your dog to deal with them at this time. However, training groups with more advanced dogs often do set up such retrieves. It's important that you not let your dog run those retrieves, even though the other dogs are. If you can move your start line so that the dog no longer sees the detour as an option, you might be OK. But I've found dogs to be pretty resourceful at avoiding water, cover, mounds, etc. I think it's fun for the dog to evade you and your training partners as you try to block her and force her not to cheat. Definitely not what you want to reinforce.

And as long as we're talking about proofing, here's another skill that must be trained, that is, that is not natural for a dog: picking up a bumper from an area scented with birds, or from a location where a bag of birds is nearby. Sometimes for one reason or another you might ask the throwers in a group to throw bumpers for your dog while the other dogs are getting birds, and I think it's likely that you dog will have some difficulty retrieving that bumper if you don't train for it.

I've listed a lot of things above. I didn't mean that you should pick and choose among them. Your dog needs to be competent with all of them. I think they're more important for her development as an event dog than retrieving keys.

> My other question is - my goal is not a dog that is used for hunting- my goal is a dog that can get a JH, nothing more- so does the concept of not training marked retrieves until after training blinds, apply?

I'm sorry, if I understood what you wrote, I think you have it backwards. To pass a Junior test (four passes gets you a JH), your dog will not run any blinds, and will not be expected (except perhaps by the occasional rogue judge) to be capable of responding to handling cues, or to have the skills that would require handling to train (such as not cheating around water).

Rather, for Junior, what you need is a dog that will pick up all the kinds of birds described above, in all the kinds of situations described above, and bring the bird back to you so that you can take it from her mouth. That is, she needs to be able to retrieve to hand.

The delivery doesn't have to be fancy, with the dog coming to heel, sitting, and then holding until you verbally cue "out". That's a nice skill, but it doesn't have to be that involved. You can just take the bird as the dog comes running up to you. FYI, that's what I do with Laddie in competition for most retrieves, because I think it reinforces the return, which used to be Laddie's greatest weakness. Occasionally I do have Laddie heel, sit, and hold before I take the bird, just to show that he can do it, in case anyone cares.

Let me mention that a likely scenario in an event is that the dog gets the bird near you and then drops it. You'll be disqualified if you pick it up off the ground. You've got to get her to immediately pick it back up so that you can grab it before she drops it again. The judges won't give you forever to get her to "fetch it up", so she needs to pick the bird up quickly, and she needs that skill before you compete. Picking up a bird that the dog has dropped nearby is much less natural, and much harder for the dog to learn, then picking up a bird that was thrown.

I'll leave you with a link to one of my favorite drills for strengthening "fetch", a drill I call the Fetch Game: As a positive trainer, I have found the Fetch Game to be one of the most valuable games I've invented (along with the Walking Recall) (also the Walk Out, which you don't need right now).

And by the way, you're not a "pest"! :0) Your questions are a great opportunity to talk about dog training, my favorite subject!