Tuesday, August 21, 2012

clearing the hurdles

To start here's a picture of the entire crew staked out under the big willow tree -- and which includes Capo's sister, Moxie, and Rye's son, Waylon.  It's been great to have Rob + Kacey be so close to bring me donuts and pigeons on a fairly regular basis -- and to be able to show them how I train so they can make decisions for themselves about how to bring along their own dogs.  Incidentally, if you click on the picture, you may notice the new spiffy stainless stakes anchoring my chains: these are from Mike Coleman at Heartland Dog Stakes and all I can say is that they're worth every penny.

In the last post I mentioned that I had seen a few potential hiccups and was working out some strategies to deal with them.  Martha Greenlee has posted a similarly-themed article on Steady with Style which is definitely worth checking out.  I experienced something similar with Bill back in 2010 in that first month I was able to spend out in Arizona (before the White Mountains went up in flames).  But the points are several:
  • The dog determines the speed of the training, not the competition schedule, not the friend or the pro bragging about breaking a dog in 6 weeks;
  • Keep it simple, stupid;
  • Establish a solid foundation: this can be tough if you're working largely by yourself because working one dog behind another can provide both a great canine model for the dog you have, the distance that hopefully prevents the dog behind associating the pressure they will experience with the bird, but the reward of seeing a bird in flight;
  • When you or the dog do make mistake, the solid foundation gives you something to come back to restart;
  • Stick to the plan, a mistake doesn't mean the plan is flawed -- merely that you now have an opportunity to reflect on why things didn't go to plan.  Were you asking the dog to be perfect in less than ideal conditions? is it late in the morning and getting hot? is the air still and scenting conditions are lousy? is the air thick and humid such that even normally good flying birds just don't want to get up until absolutely pressed to?
  • Assuming your execution of the plan was perfect, a dog's mistake can be a great learning opportunity for the dog because a dog that is otherwise perfect only knows what's right, it doesn't know what's wrong -- and as such only has half the picture.
To give you an example, working behind this spring, Jake made few, if any mistakes and I wasn't even entirely sure that he was registering the e-collar cue to stop when overlayed with the pinch collar.  I wrote about this in my next-to-last post and the remarkable silver lining experience we had despite having forgotten a key piece of training equipment.  As I mentioned last time, though, as he realized that birdwork was going to be part of his regular day-to-day experience, his intensity and drive went through the roof -- and where heat, humidity, and far-from-explosive birds hadn't driven him mental before, up here in Maine he blew through the e-collar on at least two occasions faster than I could turn the dial as he broke on the flush and went for the bird.  Again, mistakes help frame situations for both the dog and the handler.  A week or so later after getting a nice solid rhythm of reliable stands, I decided to enlist a friend to shoot a bird for him.  I popped the bird in the launcher and it flopped in the still air -- and instead of saying to heck with it, I picked it up and threw it.  My gunner shot and missed and Jake was off to the races, ignoring the e-collar cue to stop.  I wanted so hard to end on a positive note but could feel myself getting knotted up in my own confusion and decided to stop.

As I sat down with a sandwich, I recognized several things.  While I don't want to waste valuable resources like pigeons, I had chosen a poor flier as the sacrificial bird.  After being sure he wasn't sensitive to the gun (and in awareness of the various articles in The American Field about human and canine hearing loss), I have deliberately not fired a lot of rounds off around him.  When he was working behind and a bird was shot for the dog in front, I would ask him to stand while the dead bird was waggled and thrown ahead of him, and then send him to go grab it.  And while he might still be a pig-headed demon dog, I realized that I had put him in a situation where there were several cues that might have encouraged him to break -- a shotgun being fired, a crappy bird he knew he could catch, and a thrown bird to boot.  I took him back out in the evening once it had cooled and a light breeze had gotten up with two uncarded birds in launchers with the intent just to work on stopping-to-flush, something he knew and could do well.  Despite deliberately coming from mostly upwind, the breeze fishtailed and he caught of scent, began to style, and as he took a couple of steps, I popped the bird.  As it turned out, he turned his head as I did it, missed the initial flush, then saw the bird flapping and stopped himself.  It turned out to be a not-to-great bird and I was admittedly nervous.  He took a half-step, got a correction, stopped, and I walked out in front of him and fired the pistol.  As soon as he got scent on the second bird, he stopped and styled up.  I walked out in front, kicked around, popped the bird, fired the gun, and all was good.

As can be seen from this picture, if there is one thing about this dog that stuns me, it is that when scenting conditions are good, he will point a pigeon at 25+yards out.  This picture is actually from this morning -- two or three sessions since I started writing this post -- but part of why I think he is doing so well now is because I eliminated those various points of potential confusion for him.  I'll restate them, not to preach but to hopefully help other folks understand how they might not be clearly communicating to their dog and how they might unpack other training issues:
  •  Weak birds can be useful for less-experienced dogs whose fire and drive you really want to stoke by letting the dog break or chase up and catch a bird;
  • Weak birds are not useful for dogs who are in that intermediate stage before being fully broke but whose drive is intense -- and so use the best birds you can find.  In an ideal world, your pigeons are strong-flying homers who don't need cards and your quail accustomed to a johnny-house and never touched by your hands;
  • If you've helped a dog understand the concept of standing still by throwing a dead bird for them during the introductory phases of this method, then make a decision about how far they are in their development and then never throw a bird for them again;
  • If the only time you bring out a shotgun is to shoot a bird (which they already understand they will be sent for), then keep the dog guessing by using a shotgun with a 209 insert or a primed, empty hull.
Talking to Lary Cox at Christies Saddlery last week, he reminded me of Buck Brannaman's introduction to Bill Dorrance's True Horsemanship Through Feel.  It's a great story for many reasons, not least of which because Buck concludes his interaction with Bill by saying "Considering I wasn't really listening to me, he could have said a number of things to me."  If you take time to consider your mistakes and ask for help, sometimes the solution is often exactly opposite of what you'd have thought.

In other related news: my johnny-house quail are now in fine form and so some of the dogs have graduated to them.  After all my trials and tribulations with Jozsi outlined in this blog over the years, watching him do so nicely this morning was a real treat.  He is another example of why, even after you've started down the wrong path, the first six points in this post hold true.


Meg said...

Love this post, hon! It reminds me about how in education we ask teachers to be reflective practitioners, and how we promote developmentally appropriate tasks for students' learning. Plus, I really just like your "donuts + pigeons" reference in the opening paragraph! xoxo Meg

Jan said...

Love your bullets Andrew! I have copied and pasted to make a screen saver for myself to remind me that some mistakes are opportunities and to listen to your dog while training. Also love that you forgot a piece of training equipment.