Lightning at eighteen months (with four videos)

On the sixth, Lightning will be eighteen months old, and well into some aspects of Stage 3 of our PRT program, comparable to TRT transition. On the positive side, he’s healthy; mostly steady at the line; runs singles, doubles, and triples at distances typically 80-200y, including some retired memory birds; takes a nice line on marks and blinds; is improving his sit whistle and casting; and runs fairly long blinds if they have minimal diversions. On the negative side, he’s had little water work yet though he had some last fall, and he still goes into keep-away when stressed. The keep-away issue can usually be switched off by running him on a long line. When not stressed, he doesn’t need the line.

I’ve included some videos taken by Annette from today’s two-hour session. Laddie is still recovering from surgery so all of today’s work was Lightning. Temps were in the 30s with moderate wind, so Lightning didn’t seem to get too hot, and we kept a bowl of water near the start line for him. But after running nine blinds and about three dozen marks, he may have gotten a bit tired toward the end, resulting in some avoidance behavior (keep-away) that we worked thru until we ran a nice triple to end the day.

BLINDS

For the blinds, I set up three poles in a line 40y apart, with three orange bumpers at each one, and had Lightning run them in random order from a couple of start lines that allowed him to see more than one pole at a time. We ran closer to one end, so the lines to the poles were at different distances and angles, and Lightning was required to run to the blind I selected, even if it meant running past closer ones. In one case he ran to the wrong blind, so I put him in a sit when he returned and tossed the bumper back to the pole it had come from. I eventually sent him to that blind again, but not till he’d run the one I asked him to.

Since I train my dogs to run from both sides, I ran Lightning randomly from either side during this drill. At the beginning I ran him on a long line so I could catch him if he decided to go into keep-away mode, but when I saw he wasn’t doing that, I took the line off for the rest of the blinds.

To keep up Lightning’s motivation and reduce likelihood of popping, I ran many of the blinds as freebies, meaning that I let Lightning line the blind without blowing my whistle. Today he never slipped any whistle when I did blow. All of the casts were slight angles back to the left, since Lightning invariably stops with a loop to the right.

At the beginning of the blinds, I was running Lightning and poor Annie was taking the video with frozen hands. About halfway thru, two other assistants, Sean and Evan, arrived and I lost control of Lightning for awhile as he ran to greet them. But we were then able to finish up the last of the blinds. By that time, I noticed that the longest pole had fallen over, so Lightning had to run that blind without being able to see the pole, even though the second pole, which he needed to run past, was still standing. He did a good job and didn’t appear to be too stressed, since he didn’t go into keep-away mode on his returns.

For both the blinds and the marks, these days we always throw a ball for Lightning once or twice after each retrieve (on blinds and singles) or setup (on multiple marks). I’ve found that Lightning is far less likely to go into keep-away mode when we do that. Using a training aid is not be legal in competition, and I’ll fade it when I can, but for now, it improves Lightning’s returns noticeably.

After viewing this video, I’m sorry to say that my handling is quite poor. I move my hand when sending Lightning, I cast too quickly after Lightning sits, and I tend to just flick my arm on the Back casts rather than giving a clean, crisp cast. One of Bob Bailey’s aphorisms is that videos are the best training equipment since treats. Sigh. I hope I can learn something from this one.

Anyway, here’s a video of this afternoon’s triple blind drill:

MARKS

If I hadn’t had Annie videotaping, I would have run Lightning some singles with the guns out and perhaps some doubles as well as triples. But since we would only have two gunners, I decided to stick with triples during the entire marking session.

Today, Evan did the handling while Sean and I threw from the field, moving around to various distances and angles. Although we have lots of cover on this field, our rule for Lightning is to throw onto an area of low cover, making the marks nearly always easy to find. In one case, I threw the go-bird into cover and Lightning required a hunt. I think it’s beneficial that we get to the point of throwing into cover for Lightning — we nearly always throw into cover for Laddie — but right now I’m more interested in Lightning learning to run a straight line. I’ve seen with other trainers that throwing marks into cover for young dogs seems to train them to run an approximate line to the area of the fall and then hunt. Sometimes, of course, that’s necessary on a long or difficult mark in competition, but placements in a trial tend to go to dogs that nail most of the birds without a hunt, so that’s the style of marking I want to encourage.

Lately we’ve been running marks with dokkens, the retrieval article that Lightning is most likely to stress over other than real birds. For that reason, as well perhaps as other reasons such as the presence of so many of his young friends, the difficulty of some of the triples, the late-afternoon lighting and shadows, and the icy, swirling wind, Lightning did behave as though stressed, necessitating that we ran him on a long line. A 60′ line is pretty heavy and I’d rather run him naked, but until he stops being at risk to go into keep-away mode when stressed, we need the line to prevent time-consuming keep-away chases.

Sean and Evan have both been handling Lightning on marks a lot lately and are getting better and better. Today, Evan was scrupulous about running Lightning on the side of the throw, since I haven’t yet burdened him with other considerations. He also showed nice patience on one of #2 birds, where Lightning had selected the shorter memory bird and Evan had made up his mind to run Lightning on the longer, more difficult memory bird in the center. I’m not sure why Evan made that decision, since taking the outer, shorter bird as #2 would have been reasonable, especially since Lightning wanted it. But Evan stuck with his decision, and once Evan got Lightning locked in on the middle bird, he did a nice job of taking the line Evan had chosen for him.

I’d like to make a few comments on Evan’s handling, I hope not to embarrass him, but for readers interested in what they see in the videos:

  • Sometimes Evan doesn’t use his guide hand the way I want him to. I want it to act sort of as a gun sight, and to be held completely still until the dog has run under it when sent. And while the dog is lining up, I only want it to be in place when the dog is locked in on the mark, so that the hand placement acts as a reinforcement for locking in. I want it pulled away if the dog looks away.
  • Evan tends to turn to the next throw too soon after the previous bird has been thrown, taking the dog’s focus off the previous fall before the dog has had a chance to fully grok it. I want to give the dog time to hold his concentration on every throw, as if that may be the go-bird, not to anticipate another throw and take the previous one for granted. In fact, if the dog does head-swing, I’d like to seem him sent immediately even though all the birds may not have been thrown yet. (Running singles off multiple guns also addresses the same issue, as well as encouraging quality lines to the fall, though we didn’t do that today.)
  • In the videos, you can sometimes hear Evan talking to the dog (“sit”) while the birds are being thrown. That would get the team disqualified in competition, and we should not be doing that in training at this stage in Lightning’s and Laddie’s development, though it may possibly have been helpful when the dog was first learning to be steady.
  • Our rule is that if the dog creeps forward while the birds are being thrown, the handler is to instantly call out the phrase “Pick it up” (or “Pick it up please”). Of course that’s instructions to the gunners to pick up the birds they’ve already thrown, but it also needs to be used in a consistent way as a no-reward marker for Lightning. I’ve found with my dogs that calling for the birds to be picked up tends to cause creeping to diminish quickly. In at least one of the videos, Evan elects not to do this when Lightning creeps. Unfortunately, that’s like taking ten steps backwards in Lightning’s training. Consistency is critical. Otherwise, the dog behaves as though maybe this will be the time he or she gets to creep without losing the opportunity to retrieve, and it may take several reps before the dog is convinced that creeping will never work again.
  • By the way, after “Pick it up,” I ask that any birds that are down be picked up and re-thrown silently when called for. That’s because dogs are excited by gunfire, making it reinforcing. Since we don’t want to reinforce creeping, we don’t want to fire the gun again on the birds that were already thrown. Firing the gun again could tend to create an undesirable behavior chain: watch the birds, creep, and get to watch the birds with gunfire a second time.
  • During the training today, it appeared that Evan kicked Lightning a few times while trying to get him lined up on one of the #2 memory birds. That would get him disqualified for touching the dog, and more seriously, for intimidation. Though it was gentle, it’s not the way we want to train. As an alternative, Evan could have let Lightning have the bird he wanted, or he could have swung Lightning around to his other side as a reset, or he could have kept trying to get him lined up without kicking him. Any of those would have been preferable.
  • Evan consistently does a nice job, when Lightning returns to the line, of lining him up on the next mark as Lightning sits down. If you try to line the dog up after he’s already sitting in a different direction, it’s not unusual for him to take a wrong line when sent. That’s less likely if he’s sitting on the correct line in the first place.
  • Originally I trained Lightning to hold onto the bird until he’s come to heel and sat down, but as far as I know, there’s no rule that the dog has to do that, and I finally decided that the risk the dog will drop the bird while coming to heel is not worth the higher style points some judges may give for the dog sitting while still holding the bird. By taking the bird as the dog arrives, a drop is less likely and you can focus on getting the dog to sit on the exact line to the next bird. This may not be best for all dogs, but it seems to work best with my dogs. In these videos, I believe Evan always takes the bird as Lightning arrives, though sometimes when I’m handling Laddie or Lightning, I do ask them to sit at heel before I take the bird, just for practice.

Here then are Annie’s videos of three of the dozen or so triples Lightning ran this afternoon:

BB blinds

Bird boy blinds, or BB blinds for short, do not appear to be part of Mike Lardy’s TRT program, but they are widely used by traditional trainers and provide a useful drill for a dog like Lightning in Stage 3 of the PRT program, corresponding to TRT Transition.

BB blinds are sort of the handling equivalent of walking singles for marks. As the handler sets up at the start line with the dog, an assistant walks out into the field with a bunch of retrieval articles. One by one, the assistant places an article on the ground and steps away, and the handler sends the dog to pick up the article, practicing handling cues along the way.

Here are some details covering the specific version of BB blinds that I’m currently using with Lightning:

  • Sometimes I handle, sometimes one of my assistants handles and I act the bird boy. I feel that having Lightning work with various handlers strengthens his understanding of what we’re practicing.
  • We generally use a mat at the start line for Lightning to set up on.
  • We randomly run Lightning from either side of the handler. We also randomly have the bird boy step away to either side of the blind, generally about 10y. Over time the dog practices all four combinations of sides.
  • We use 2″ red bumpers as our articles. I believe some trainers begin with white bumpers.
  • Currently we plant a lining pole just behind the retrieval article. We may stop using a lining pole in the future.
  • We start at around 70y and gradually lengthen the blinds to 200y or more during the session.
  • The first step of the handler’s cueing sequence is to position the standing dog so that he/she is facing the blind. It’s important for both marks and blinds for the dog to be aimed correctly before sitting down.
  • Cue “dead bird”, then, if necessary, “sit”. The dog gradually learns that “dead bird” means a handling retrieve rather than a mark, so control will be paramount and the dog is not being asked to hunt as is the case on a mark.
  • If necessary, the handler adjusts the dog’s position until the dog is locked in on the blind, with back, head, and eyes all in line. You can adjust the dog’s position by using Here and Heel verbal cues along with physical body language and hand motions, tapping on the legs, and so forth. You can also have the dog stand up and sit back down in the improved alignment.
  • Once the dog is aligned, the handler places his/her hand vertically just in front of the dog’s head, so that the dog’s head will almost brush the hand while launching. Actual physical contact would be illegal. Some handlers move their hand while launching, but many handlers believe it is preferable to hold the hand still, like a gun sight.
  • The hand is an affirmation that the dog is locked in correctly. If the dog looks away, the handler lifts his/her hand away and says Nope, Uh-uh, or some equivalent. When the dog looks back in the correct direction, the handler says Good and puts his/her hand back into position.
  • As soon as the dog is locked in, the handlert sends the dog immediately. A delay tends to cause the dog to lose confidence in his/her alignment.
  • Most handlers launch the dog using the dog’s name for marks, but using the cue “Back” for blinds. We always use Back for blinds, including BB blinds. Again, the dog gradually learns to distinguish between the hunting mindset of a mark and the control mindset of a blind with that extra information.
  • The handler may also use loudness of the launch cue to indicate distance of the mark or blind. I believe that’s valuable for marks, but I feel that a quiet Back is usually best for blinds. The dog does not need to know in advance how far the blind is. The dog’s mindset needs to be that the dog will get all navigational information during the blind from the handler.
  • The dog may be able to line the blind, since the dog watches the article being planted, the lining pole is visible, and the bird boy is nearby. Ideally, the handler would let the dog line the blind at least half the time to build and maintain motivation for the drill.
  • But some of the time, even if the dog is on a good line, the handler cues a whistle sit, then uses a verbal or visual Back cue, or both, to send the dog the rest of the way. For a dog in the PRT program, BB blinds are a good way to focus on training a high quality whistle sit.
  • If the dog slips the whistle, the handler instantly calls out “Sit”. The dog will eventually learn to respond to the whistle and the verbal Sit will be unnecessary. Only the whistle is used as a sit cue in competition.
  • If the dog doesn’t sit even on the verbal cue, the handler calls out, “Pick it up,” the assistant rushes to pick up the article before the dog gets to it, and the handler walks out to the dog, gently slips on the dog’s lead, and walks the dog back to the start line, using little or no additional communication. This Walkout ritual, though quiet and gentle, has enormous impact on the dog’s behavior, and can be used throughout the dog’s career to train and fine tune the dog’s response to handling cues.
  • If the dog gets to the blind before the assistant is able to reach it on a Sit refusal, is not the end of the world. The dog should never be punished for a successful retrieve. It’s simply a lost training opportunity for the whistle sit, not a big deal. Just call the dog in. Granted the dog has been reinforced for ignoring the Sit cue, which is a step in the wrong direction, but hopefully it doesn’t happen too often. To make it less likely, don’t blow the sit whistle when the dog is too close to the blind for the verbal Sit and Pick It Up to be used if necessary.
  • Some trainers get in a habit of cueing Sit just as the dog reaches the blind. While that is sometimes necessary in competition, it can be risky to practice it too much even if you’re confident the dog will take the Sit. If the dog begins to anticipate your sit whistle and inadvertently learns to automatically at the sight or scent of the blird, that counts as a pop in competition and can ruin a dog’s career. I believe that most judges will not count it against the dog if the handler uses a “safety” whistle to prevent an overrun when the dog is next to the bird and the dog simply picks the bird up rather than first sitting, so I allow that response in practice as well. To distinguish a safety whistle from a true Sit, I often immediately whistle come-in afterwards: “tweet, tweet-tweet-tweet.” That combination becomes the whistle equivalent of, “You’re right near the bird, fetch it up.”
  • Speaking of popping, it’s a minor fault if it happens occasionally, especially on blinds, but must not occur often. Watch carefully to see whether it is increasing with whatever approach you’re using to deal with it. If it is increasing, you are inadvertently reinforcing the pop rather than training the dog not to do it. With Lightning, if he turns to face me when launched, I simply lower my hand to my side and quietly say, Nope, come on in. So far, that seems to be gradually extinguishing his occasional popping. It probably happens when I’m not letting him line the blind frequently enough, so I add more of those freebies to the session. In any case, I’ll save a larger discussion of popping for another post.
  • In Lightning’s case, the handler throws his ball for him once or twice after each delivery. That minimizes incidents of keep-away on the return.

All the contingencies I’ve discussed may result in the BB blind seeming complex for you and/or your dog at first, but keep at it until it becomes a simple confidence-building tool. Then you can use it even in the future when needed, to tune-up your dog’s whistle sit.

Solid returns (with video)

The last several sessions, Lightning has had no incidents of keep-away on his returns. The last couple of sessions, I’ve been running Laddie on short versions of the same setups I’m running Lightning on. Laddie is not completely healed from his surgery, but he craves training so much, and these short setups don’t seem to be slowing his healing.

So, for example, three days ago, Lightning ran alone, a total of a dozen triples, 36 retrieves. That was a bit much at those distances. But the last two sessions, I alternated Laddie and Lightning, so that each dog only ran six triples, and with breaks in between.

As I mentioned, Lightning is getting a variety of handlers and retrieval articles. We also randomly alternate throwing to both sides and running him from both sides.

Here’s a video from a few days ago. Annette is taking our video, Peter is handling, and Liza and I are throwing a double.

 

Lightning at sixteen months

As Lightning turns 16 months old, temps have dropped into the 20s with wind chills into the teens and below, and snow flurries are becoming common. Lightning is training almost every day, but unfortunately without his training buddie. Laddie had a Stage 2 mast cell tumor removed from his forearm several weeks ago and it’s still healing.  

In terms of our PRT program, Lightning is well into Stage 3 for land marks, is also in Stage 3 for land blinds, and is in Stage 2 for water work. He’ll have to stay in that last stage till winter is over, since it’s too cold to train in water, but I expect to continue his progress on land in the meantime. 

In one way Lightning is not like other dogs at this stage of training: we always have the handler throw Lightning’s red ball for him once or twice after he’s delivered the last article of a series. This seems important to Lightning, because his performance diminishes markedly if we forget to do it. Of course we’ll need to fade it eventually since training equipment is not permitted in competition, but it keeps Lightning’s performance at a high level for now so I feel it’s worth continuing to use it. 

For marking, Lightning runs a lot of doubles, some singles, and some triples. Distances are sometimes short, often up to 200y, sometimes even more, with factors such as wind, hills, and high cover. I rarely have the article thrown into high cover, though. To encourage high quality marking, we usually follow the guidance, “Hard to get to, easy to find.” Every once in a while we do throw into cover, however, to introduce that skill gradually. 

When Lightning needs to hunt on a mark, I handle only when he clearly makes the decision to avoid a factor. I allow him to hunt without help as long as he stays in the area of the fall, but call for help from the gunner if he gets too far afield. I’m probably more likely to call for help than a lot of trainers, because I want Lightning to have a well-developed sense of Plan B: When you forget where the fall is, look for the gunner to get your bearings. And I handle as little as possible on marks because I don’t want Lightning to start popping. Eventually we’ll need to practice handling on marks, since it’s needed occasionally in competition, but it’s not something we work on now. 

We use a lot of configurations for doubles, triples, and singles off multiple guns. Sometimes the guns are widely spaced, sometimes we run hip-pockets and reverse hip-pockets which are quite tight, sometimes a single gunner throws multiple marks either from the same spot or by moving to different spots for each throw, and sometimes we retire a gunner. By end of winter, we’ll add more complexity, as we adapt Mike Lardy’s land marking training concepts from the TRT advanced phase. 

We use a wide spectrum of retrieval articles for marking, including: white, black, and black/white bumpers, with and without streamers, 2″ and 3″; duck and pheasant dokkens; and birds, frozen and thawed. 

For marking series, most of my assistants like to handle as well as throw, so about half the time, I’m one of the gunners rather than the handler. We also train in a wide variety of locations and orientations. The idea is for Lightning to generalize the principles of retrieving as much as possible without tying them to particular setups. 

For marking, Lightning has two intermittent flaws we still need to work on at times. One is that he occasionally goes into keep-away mode after picking up the article. We address that by having the handler return to the vehicle until Lightning brings the article, and by running Lightning on a long line as needed. Sometimes we keep the mark within the length of the line so the handler can hold on. Sometimes we run long marks but with Lightning wearing the line. None of those measures is needed very often. Sometimes we get thru an entire session without any incidents. 

The other flaw is that Lightning sometimes picks up the go-bird on a double and then runs with it to the memory-bird, where he switches articles and returns to the handler with the memory-bird. The handler can then send him back to pick up the go-bird, but that pattern is called a switch and results in a DQ in competition. When Lightning starts doing that, we repair it by running him on a long line with the go-bird short enough that the handler can hold on and prevent the switch. As soon as Lightning stops trying to switch, we can remove the line and stretch out the go-bird again. 

Because of Lightning’s occasional keep-away, which seems clearly to be an avoidance behavior associated with stress based on when it occurs, I’m still doing relatively little handling with him. For example, we haven’t gone back to drills such as wagon wheels yet. But he does seem comfortable running cold blinds as long as 200y, either with or without an orange lining pole, and takes whistle sits, and casts, with great enthusiasm. He has too many cast refusals — that is, slipped whistles and casting in the wrong direction — for competition, but he’s coming along and having fun with his blinds. 

One handling drill we do use, which I learned from a trainer and isn’t in the TRT program as far as I know, consists of a setting up a series of lining poles at distances from short to long, each with a pile of bumpers, and then running Lightning on each of them, starting with shortest one first and then stretching him out. I think Lightning enjoys, and learns a lot from, that drill, without it being too stressful for his current level of development. The guy I learned it from would set up the identical course day after day, but I haven’t been doing that. Maybe that would be better, I don’t know. 

I’ll end this post by mentioning what a relief it is that we finally found a solution to Lightning’s keep-away habit, which at times seemed to be getting worse rather than better, depending on what approach I was experimenting with to address it. In all honesty, at times it seemed almost hopeless. Yet here we are, practicing pretty much as normal for Lightning’s stage of development, with keep-away ever diminishing and hopefully someday to be entirely in the rearview mirror. 

Retrieve tune-up

Over the last three months, I’ve run dozens of experiments attempting to repair Lightning’s returns on retrieves and train him not to go into a game of keep-away once he’s picked up the retrieval article. I’ve described some of my observations in previous posts, but we’ve made progress since the last one so this is an update.

We are now at the point where Lightning can run fairly advanced marking setups, including triples, retired guns, and mama-poppa doubles, with factors such as wind and strips of high cover, at distances of 200y and more. Lightning is able to run good marks with thawed ducks as well as duck and pheasant dokkens and bumpers.

However, he isn’t reliable at the beginning of a session and may go into keep-away with the first few retrieves. Therefore, we first need to go thru a process I call a retrieve tune-up. Once the tune-up is complete, Lightning stops switching into keep-away mode and we can run normal marking practice.

The retrieve tune-up is performed as the following steps:

  1. Throw the dog’s ball for him a few times. Of all the reinforcers we’ve used, only two have worked well with Lightning. One was a small animal carcass he had found that only lasted a couple of sessions but was extremely valuable to him while it lasted. The other is a red rubber ball, similar to a Kong but round. Occasionally I forget to bring the ball out for the session and Lightning immediately starts playing keep-away on his returns. As soon as I bring the ball out, that stops.
  2. Run the dog on a 60′ long line on marks up to 20y, with the handler holding onto the line and reeling the dog in if he/she switches into keep-away mode. When reeling in is necessary, do it as quickly as possible so the the dog has minimal time to experience pleasure playing keep-away.
  3. For the sake of efficiency, use the most difficult article at first, that is, the article with which the dog is most likely to play keep-away. If the dog goes into keep-away mode, the handler should reel the dog in as quickly as possible, minimizing the time that the dog can self-reinforce.
  4. If the dog drops the article, cue Fetch repeatedly until the dog is close enough for delivery to hand. If the dog is doing well with deliveries at heel, use those. Otherwise, just accept the article when the dog is close enough for you to take it.
  5. No matter how the dog performed, at the instant the article is delivered, throw the ball. Allow the dog to play keep-away with the ball as long as desired, but Lightning stopped doing that after the first session. You can toss the ball another time or two if desired, but don’t wear the dog out retrieving a ball.
  6. Randomly alternate which side the gunner throws to.
  7. When the dog comes straight back with the article on both sides, have the gunner back up to around 40y. Now the handler won’t be able to hold onto the long line, but the dog will still be fairly easy to catch if he/she goes into keep-away mode. Always reinforce every return, whether the dog played keep-away or not, by throwing the ball at least once.
  8. When the dog is returning reliably at the longer distance, switch to a shorter long line. For Lightning, I switch to a 15′ line. Switch as quickly as possible so you can call for the next throw with minimal change in cadence.
  9. If the dog plays keep-away on the shorter line, switch back to the longer line and the shorter distance, and try to work back thru the steps again. There’s nothing to do but wait for the dog to come back when he/she does that on a short line, but don’t keep repeating it that way.
  10. When the dog is reliable for several consecutive retrieves and on both sides, the handler can take the dog’s collar off and run the dog without a line. As before, if the dog goes into keep-away, back up to earlier steps and try again. It’s a judgment call how many steps to back up; the key is minimizing how much time the dog is able to self+reinforce playing keep-away. The simplest approach is to go back to step 1 every time the dog plays keep-away in a later step, but if you can get good results without backing up that far in the process, it saves time.
  11. Once the dog is reliable with no collar on both sides at 40y, incrementally back up to the dog’s normal practice marking distances. You can also introduce easier articles, as well as doubles and triples, and other challenges. For multiples, you can have the handler throw the go-bird, and you can have a single gunner move to two different locations to throw a double, so that the first throw is in effect a retired gun.

That completes the tune-up. At that point the dog is returning reliably without a collar for that location and you can continue to practice as long as you like, assuming the dog’s stamina holds up. Lightning is good for at least an hour in cold weather. However, in Lightning’s case, the tune-up process has to be repeated if we go to a different location or for the same location if we leave and come back later.

As long as Lightning requires a tune-up at the beginning of each series in a new location, he’s  still not ready to train with a group again, much less compete. But the number of times he attempts to play keep-away is growing smaller every day we practice. I’m hopeful that a time will come, preferably sooner rather than later, that his attempts to play keep-away will fade entirely, eliminating the need for the tune-up.

But even now, our work has reached an exhilarating phase. For months I had to wonder whether we’d ever find a solution to the horrible keep-away game. Now we have a reliable process for getting Lightning to the point each session where he can run one retrieve after another and come running straight back with the article every time. It’s a wonderful sight.

Working on Lightning’s returns (with video)

I was lucky enough to have two assistants a couple of days ago, so I used one to take some videos while the other one acted as gunner, and tried my hand at editing one of the videos. This one shows Lightning running a single and a momma-poppa double (that is, one gunner throwing both marks) after we’d gotten Lightning to the point that day of being able to return without playing keep-away. At that point, he’d been training for about an hour, but luckily the weather was cool so we still had plenty of dog.

This particular video is not especially instructive, but I guess it’s a chance to see what Lightning looks like these days.

Using -P for keep-away

Lightning seems to be back in excellent health, and in a couple of days he’ll be fifteen months old, so here’s an update. For weeks now, my assistants and I have been trying a variety of methods to address a problem in Lightning’s performance so serious that no further progress in Lightning’s training was possible till the problem was resolved: Lightning’s tendency to go into a game of keep-away rather than returning with the article during a retrieve. He stopped doing it some time ago with 2″ bumpers as long as they didn’t have ropes, but it has been a maddening problem for any bumper with a rope, as well as 3″ bumpers even with no rope, to say nothing of dokkens and birds.

We’ve tried many methods to address the issue, variations of running Lightning on a long line, using many kinds of positive reinforcement for correct performance, and even running Lightning and Laddie simultaneously to bring out Lightning’s competitive streak. We’ve met with some success with several of the approaches. But none was able to produce consistent results.

Finally yesterday I came up with a way to add negative punishment to the mix. In the science of operant conditioning, negative punishment, abbreviated “-P” or “P-“, means causing a behavior ( an undesired response) to become less probable by removing reinforcement, or by removing the opportunity for reinforcement, when the behavior occurs.

Here’s the method I came up with: My assistant and I stand some distance apart, but both about the same distance from my van. One of us handles Lightning, the other acts as gunner and throws bumpers. If Lightning returns to the handler with the bumper, he receives one or more kinds of reinforcement, such as a bite of a cheeseburger (no bread), or a tossed toy or bumper. Then the handler calls him to heel for another retrieve.

But if Lightning picks up the bumper and goes into keep-away mode, the handler calls out “Stop” and then both the handler and the gunner start walking toward the van. Lightning may continue to run around with the bumper for awhile, but soon he realizes he’s alone out there and brings the bumper to the handler. The handler reinforces that delivery in some way and we all go back to setting up for the next retrieve.

Once I had worked out the basic approach in my mind, I planned to use it with 100% constituency for several sessions, in the hope that Lightning would eventually learn the no-reward-market (NRM) “Stop”, and gradually learn to avoid it and the associated -P of having the retrieve game stop, by making good returns. I thought it might take a week or so before we could evaluate whether it was working, that is, whether correct responses were becoming noticeably more probable than incorrect responses.

Well, it took a lot less than that; it took about five trials. The first few times we used it didn’t seem to make any difference, and Lightning continued his annoying practice of going into keep-away mode after picking up the bumper. But soon he noticeably shortened the time he stayed in his  game before bringing the bumper to the handler who was on his way to the van, and finally he began bringing the bumper straight back to the handler after picking it up.

The progression wasn’t perfect. Lightning would display extinction bursts as he gradually tested the new rules, but by the end of the session, he was able to run a nice momma-poppa double with both retrieves over 100y. Of course we worked toward that setup incrementally from the original setup.

That was yesterday. This morning I went out with a different assistant and we used the same method again. Lightning needed to re-learn that keep-away would end the retrieve game, but it didn’t take long. By the end of today’s session, he was able to run a series of triples, with the gunner throwing a momma-poppa and the handler throwing the go-bird from the start line.

So far we’ve worked with 2″ and 3″ bumpers, all with ropes. Tomorrow we’ll try it with dokkens, and in subsequent sessions hopefully a time will come where Lightning won’t bother to go into keep-away mode with bumpers or dokkens at all. Then, hopefully, we’ll be able to use the method with thawed birds, and eventually, finally, flyers.

If all that goes as hoped for, we’ll be able to resume the steps of our PRT program. It will be too cold for water training till next spring, but we have plenty of land work to do, on both marked and blind retrieves and associated drills, in the meantime.

Dogs are all different, and I don’t have the data to know how other dogs who stop bringing the article back would respond to this -P solution. But hopefully it will prove to be a useful tool for some of them at least. It’s been invaluable for Lightning’s training.

Update: Although all dogs are different, and the method described in this post might work for some retrievers, it turns out that it was not successful for Lightning over the long haul.

What happened was that as each day went by using this approach, Lightning became increasingly likely to go into sustained keep-away mode. The tendencies were subtle, so it took a few days to realize what was happening. But eventually it was clear that this approach was having the opposite of the desired effect.

I’m not sure why. It may be that Lightning became less concerned about me stopping the retrieve game, as he learned that we always resume once he was done playing keep-away. Or it could be that the more keep-away he played, the more reinforcing it was, gradually outweighing in value the retrieve game.

Thus, at least for Lightning, the -P method described in this post was a bust, possibly even setting Lightning further back.

This has been the challenge of developing a new training method. Sometimes you need to test a false path to discover it won’t work it.

However, in a later post, I’ll describe an alternate method I’ve come up with, using both a long line and a rubber ball, that has been far more effective.