Saturday, December 26, 2009

December field training update

I want to take time to post about our field training this month. Yes, it’s December, and it’s been really, really cold. But training doesn’t stop in the winter; it just changes (and hopefully gets shorter in duration)!

In early December, five of us took our dogs to Gamekeepers Retrievers for a day and half of training. It was good timing, even though it was very cold (I don’t remember feeling my toes most of the two days; I have since bought insulated boots!). I gave Devon time off from field training since mid-October when she passed the WCX for the second time. She was fresh and ready to go after time off, and I needed guidance on how we should move forward for Master.

In Page’s case, I was on the fence about her training, and I wanted Mitch’s advice. Page had been a solid worker and breezed through her force fetch. But when she hit 7 months, she started having “puppy brain farts” when it came to field. Her tracking training held up, but when we worked field she acted at times like she’d never had any training and was just a puppy out for a play session.

I was at the point of doing pile work, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to push thru the pressure of pile work with her at this time. I wasn’t sure Page was mature enough to handle it; and if she wasn’t ready due to maturity, I didn’t want to push through it and have residuals later in her training. So because I wasn’t sure what direction to go, I also gave her time off from field during October and November.

In talking through this with Mitch before we started our lesson, he said (as I expected) he thought she just needed her “driver’s license taken away,” but that he would look at what she was doing and Page went on the list for pile work. We worked a pile at 40-50 yards. Page looked more solid than she had in October. But after about 4 bumpers, Page started doing a little of the head flicking and playing with the bumper I’d seen before.

Mitch gave interesting advice: “Stop praising her. Make your commands almost robotic.” I did, and instantly her work ethic got better. I saw immediate results, and I knew the dog training behind the advice: Page didn’t need my praise because retrieving was enough of a reward.

It wasn’t until the drive back to the hotel, that I processed the training session and it solidified in my mind. I always do the my best thinking about our training sessions after I leave when I can sit back and analyze what I’ve been told.

Page in field is like a high-drive Border Collie in agility. You know the ones who are wicked fast and higher than a kite wanting to do the job. The most successful handlers of these dogs are the most quiet, laid back people you ever met. They have to be. The minute one of these handlers starts to panic and emotionally ramp up, the dog’s energy and drive goes through the ceiling and the run is usually a train wreck! But the handlers who quietly and methodically drive their dogs through the course are the most successful.

So, the advice Mitch gave me makes total sense. Page is rewarded by the work. The minute I start my happy praise voice, she gets revved up and starts being goofy, flipping her head and the bumper around and acting silly and sloppy in her work. She doesn’t need my praise and it’s actually more distracting to her. If I calmly and methodically work her through the drills, she works very well.

The only other thing to work on with Page is going back to the force fetch table with real ducks. She wasn’t confident picking up the ducks like she is the bumpers. This was something I realized back in late-September/early October. It shouldn’t take too much time to revisit. And after that is complete, we’ll finish Page’s pile work this winter

As for Devon, she started angle back casting. We did a split cast drill, which she handled beautifully and even worked discipline casting on this drill. We also worked a poison bird drill, which she also did very well. The hardest part of this drill was when Mitch actually used ducks as the poison birds. Devon broke for the poison bird the very first time, but Mitch was fast and knocked it out of her mouth with a verbal correction. After this correction, even though she really wanted the poison bird, Devon had been convinced she should listen to mom and not get it until told to!

Getting There, A Retriever Trainers Symposium

On December 19, I went to a one-day symposium given my Mitch at Canine Sports in Vermillion, Ohio. This was a wonderful day of learning about Senior and Master Hunter tests. Mitch did a great job of describing the tests and the rules, as well as what we could expect at these tests.

In going through the requirements for the tests and various examples of tests, it hit home why I needed to work certain drills in preparing for Senior and Master. Devon and I were ready for Senior this fall, but there were several drills we didn’t do that would have helped her and I need to do for Page. Specifically, I need to work lining drills around and past gun stations. This is a weakness for Devon, since she’s so friendly she thinks the gunners need at least a smile and sometimes a wag. Running blinds between and near gunning stations during Master will be tough for Devon without this foundation.

I also got a better understanding of teaching marking concepts. I am blessed with extremely good marking dogs. But I can give them an advantage by actually training the concepts. Mitch did a great job of outlining these concepts and talking about how to teach them to the dogs and then move them to the field environment.

The reason I like Mitch’s program is the amount of teaching he does. This teaching of foundation elements is parallel to the way I train agility, obedience and tracking. For example, many field trainers throw the dogs into the field and run set ups with various types of marks. They work the dogs in these situations until they think the dog “gets it” and then they test. A parallel to this type of training would be working a whole obedience exercise from start to finish or just running courses in agility. There is a time and place for doing this, but it’s during the “proofing” or “testing” phase of your training, not the teaching phase.

In the teaching phase of training, you break down the exercises into their component parts. This is obvious in obedience exercises and agility. And moving it to field, you can start teaching marking concepts on short grass with obvious gunners (even dressed in white) and shorter distances. Once the dog learns these concepts you can add hidden gunners and then field type factors for the “proofing” and “testing” phase.

I really appreciate the Gamekeeper’s program because it teaches first and then tests. It recognizes the dog’s ability to problems solve and appreciates that the dog is a responsible member of the team. You as the handler may be the coach of the team, but your dog has responsibilities as the key player on the team. And when you are both well trained, you step to the line as a team to be tested.


Deanna N. Fit said...

Wow Deb! you definately lit my light bulb in this blog. My dog who is one acts exactly like page does in the field. No other venue can get her this excited. She's a labrador and boy does she go crazy once she picks up that bumper. Now come to think of it, everythime she was coming towards me she'd run faster in circles! The one time i didn't say a word she came back to me. This is great to finally put that together in my head!! thanks again!
And though i might live in NJ, i'm thinking i might have to contact the famous Mitch and see if i can drive down there. I need some very good pointers and advice for this dog in the field.. well mostly for me.. of course... ;)

Deb said...

Hey Deanna! Glad I could put that thought out there. You know, Mitch is coming to Maryland in May for a seminar, so maybe you could get a working or auditor spot. Contact the host club and see if they will offer some private lessons before or after the seminar. check out Mitch's website for early info: