Duckhill Digest   

Number 42
Aug 2012 







Legacy Labradors


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Eat Right for Blind Retrieves
Boomer with rabbit  


The Old Man walked slowly along the river bank with the boy and a young Lab puppy. The boy had just arrived home for a 3-month vacation. The puppy, 6-month- old Sadie, had been with the old man since she was 8 weeks old. The old man occasionally puffed a pipe as he ambled along enjoying the sunset and the company of boy and puppy. Sadie divided her attention between the old man, the boy and a myriad of new scents to explore. She came up to each person periodically for a brief pet and greeting before moving on to the next sight or scent of interest.


Periodically the old man gave a soft "tweet" on a whistle, at the sound of which Sadie would spin and sit and look at him. Immediately, when she sat, the old man gave her a "good dog" as he briskly stepped over to her and gave her a treat.


"She surely sits crisply," stated the boy. "Why are you blowing the whistle so softly?' he questioned.


"Her hearing is four times a sensitive as yours is," replied the old man. "She can hear at 100 yards a sound that you can barely hear at 25 yards. If I train her to respond to a loud whistle right next to me, then she is not going to respond well to the soft sound she hears at 150 yards."


As they walked along, the old man next dropped a dummy on the path and heeled Sadie along away from it. When they were 30 yards distant, he turned and sat Sadie. He sent her back toward the dummy, stopping her with a soft whistle "tweet" at 10 yards.

At the tweet, Sadie turned and sat looking at the old man. He tossed a dummy off to the right and waited a couple of seconds before casting her to it. Upon Sadie's return, he sent her back down the path for the 30 yard dropped dummy. Sadie took off for it with alacrity. When she reached 15 yards the old man gave a whistle "tweet" which cued her to stop and look at him, which she did.

The old man exclaimed "good dog" and let her sit a couple of seconds before giving her a back cast to go onward and collect the dummy.


The old man stopped walking and relit his pipe, taking a puff or two. The boy recognized the signs and got ready to listen to the coming lecture. "Sadie learned all this stopping on the whistle and casting by my feeding her properly," said the old man. He continued, "Starting with her first meal, I would hold the bowl up until she sat. Sitting caused the bowl to come down on the ground for her to eat. Then I progressed to sitting her, moving away a couple of steps and lowering the food bowl. When Sadie got up the food bowl went higher. When Sadie sat down, the food bowl went down closer to the ground. Over the course of several meals, I was 10 feet away and Sadie learned that sitting calmly got the food bowl down onto the ground. Then we progressed to her sitting a second or two after the bowl was down, then sitting 20 or 30 seconds after the bowl was down and she was released with a hand signal toward the bowl."


The old man walked over to a stump and sat down and resumed his narrative, "The next step was to get a whistle stop while the Sadie was going somewhere. I used raising the food bowl as the cue for sitting. I first stopped her when she was coming toward me and could see the cue.

She had already learned that the bowl moving up meant sit and that sitting produced the reward of the bowl coming down to be eaten. To begin, I sat Sadie and walked off 20 feet with a food bowl. I turned, waited a bit and called her to come while lowering the bowl a little. When she had come 10 ft toward me, I gave a tweet on the whistle while raising the bowl. She stopped and sat. I waited a second or two and gave her a click or a "good dog" while putting the bowl on the ground. She arrived and ate."


The old man paused and relit his piped, taking a puff or two before continuing,"After 3 sessions, she was 90 percent reliable on sitting to the "tweet", so I upped the ante a little. I sat Sadie, walked 30 feet from her and put down the food bowl, while watching her to make sure she stayed. Then I walked 4 steps back toward her and positioned myself about three steps off her approach line to the waiting bowl. I gave her a hand signal toward to bowl, releasing her with 'over'. When she was half way to the bowl I gave her a tweet accompanied by a step toward her approach path to the bowl. She stopped and sat. I said 'good dog,' waited a couple of seconds and cast her onward to the bowl. We now had a behavior chain of: go-stop and sit on whistle -- cast onward--- reward. When Sadie was quite proficient on stopping and casting to and from food bowls, and also quite steady on thrown dummies we swapped the behavior to dummies."


The boy sat with Sadie and listened patiently to the old man's lecture. The boy said, "Thank you for getting Sadie from Dr. Stanton's last litter. She is a really nice dog and she is certainly well trained"


The old man replied, "Sadie's training was easy and fun. When training is mainly delivering rewards, it is great fun for Sadie and me both. She is fairly well started in the behaviors needed for blind retrieves, but she needs lots of practice performing those behaviors in the face of increasing distraction. She needs to perform easy blind retrieves when guns are shooting, in moderate cover, in water, in new locations; all the factors that increase the difficulty for a dog to perform."


"What about marked retrieves?" asked the boy. "My buddies mostly go out and work their retrievers on marked retrieves."


The old man cocked his head to the side and smiled. This was a topic he warmed up to. He said, "Boy, retrievers are born with the talent of marked retrieves. If an ancestral wild dog was unable to watch a bird land off in a field and then go over and hunt him up and eat him, then that ancestor died. Performing marked retrieves is something retrievers are born with. It does not need training. To the contrary, marked retrieves are such a strong instinctive behavior that they make it harder for a dog to learn blind retrieves."


He lit his pipe and took a puff or two; then pointing the stem at the boy for emphasis, continued, "Blind retrieves are not natural to a dog and they require a good bit of training. The objective is to build up the value of a blind retrieve so that it can compete with the strong innate drive of marked retrieves. We build that value with many repetitions of the behavior chain, go-stop and sit on whistle -- cast onward--- reward. Every time we pay that sequence with the reward at the end, we are building the value of blind retrieve behavior. After a large number of payments the behavior becomes valuable enough to compete with marked retrieves. That's when you start doing a few marked retrieves. Remember, a retriever's primary function is conservation. His most valuable behavior is to leave the dead marked retrieves lying and go get the long unseen cripple, that will be lost if not retrieved quickly."



Robert Milner / 350 Bailey Morrison Drive / Somerville, Tennessee 38068 / 901-428-6694