What Does Daisy Need?


Daisy presently is not the best of markers. Once in awhile she will amaze me on a mark, and then screw up on easy “stuff”. For the longest time her mother Taffey had issues with marking. It was not for want of quantity, quality, difficulty or drive. For Taffey, it was mostly about focus.  

Daisy has her Senior title, and the next step is to start running HRC tests. Therefore, our long and cold winter gave me time to really analyze what to do about her marking. Not all of this will be applicable to another dog, but the theme may provide a useful perspective.

To start with, the main focus of my training revolves around balance. Balance is judged within a set of five criteria. These are “birdiness”, control, focus, responsiveness and retrieving. Note, this approach is not mine. It is something I learned at a training seminar about two years ago. Last year, I did not run a single test. The reason was to work on my teaching and training skills.  

The first step for "improving Miss Daisy" was to clearly define the problem. The second step was to determine what was out of balance. The next step was to develop a plan to restore balance. The focus is “do what the dog needs”.

Here’s the analysis for Daisy. She is high energy, intense, extremely “birdy”, smart as a whip, very
fast, through transition and easily distracted. Genetically and in real situations, both parents are excellent markers. However, Daisy’s mother was not, until she (Taffey) became more focused. So the history of her mother and observable mental makeup of Daisy clearly points toward a lack of focus as the issue.

One critical aspect in quality marking is focus. If focus is weak….the results are “poor pictures”.  “Poor pictures” inhibit memory. So how does one create more focus? In theory, enhancing responsiveness and control will positively influence focus. Thus, better focus means improved marking. In training circles the usual way of stating this is, "poor line manners can result in lousy marking". Better line manners can be the direct result of better OB, but it is not always the solution. It may not be what the dog truly needs.  

Daisy is almost manic about birds and bumpers. Presently, her speed mentally and physically gets in the way. Therefore, we need to slow the game down. It is too fast for her. Somewhat like a skilled athlete that moves to the next level…….often things are too “fast”.  

Armed with this information, it is clear that more marks, more singles and better placed marks are not going to deal with what is out of balance.

For many dogs, the situational aspect of marking has a dog at the handler’s side. In many cases this position is a cue for anxiety. Where else is a dog under more pressure? This positional anxiety often is ignored and needs to be dealt with. Handler perceptions are not always the same as the dog.  

Therefore, a plan was devised to deal with Daisy’s dysfunction. Her marking will improve if OTHER things are addressed. This is in keeping with “do what the dog needs” and “not what I want”. Not surprisingly, if one does what the dog needs…..I will get what I want.

First, Daisy sat beside me with the sole intent of making it less of an anticipatory rush. I wanted her sitting beside me and feeling bored......well, at least closer to that. Secondly, "de-speeding" a dog at my side will require working very, very much more slower and quieter.

At first, we desensitized away from anxiety by keeping the marks simple and NOT terribly exciting. For example, birds would be counter-productive for Daisy.  Since Daisy is easily distracted, we have begun work with an extended focus (just staring) on close visible, marks before releasing. Purposefully, distractions were randomly added. When she “fell for them”, Daisy was corrected with quiet, calm verbal “nos” until she began to maintain a zone where everything else was tuned out except the mark. Improvement was very incremental......but encouraging. The "rush of the look" needed nurturing.

This last idea comes from working with the pointing aspect of my Labs. A dog on an intense point goes into a mental state of concentrated euphoria. Everything around them becomes insignificant and they are in an intense zone of focus (their own world). This parallel was (in theory) expected to increase Daisy’s focus on marks. It has. 

There was an obvious “need” for Daisy to become more responsive. She has started to give me more eye contact because I am consistently seeking it.......this has become a conscious effort on my part. This will move her into a “sharing anxiety” mode. Focus is the goal, but by working on responsiveness her anxiety at the line will be reduced. The reasoning is she will not be all alone in her emotions at the line. I will be able to have some impact on that issue. By being more responsive through enhanced eye contact, I will be able to calm her down some. This will lessen her anxiety, improve her focus and positively impact her marking skills.  She will not be isolated in the "heat of the moment", and I do not enjoy being a "potted plant" at the line.

To date, here is what we’ve done this winter. 1) She is enrolled in a weekly OB class for two reasons, more distractions around her (other people & dogs). OB work demands more eye contact because the skills are a team effort.  The OB classes actually increase the amount of OB we do daily, so a comfort level of just doing “stuff” quietly and calmly together is broadened.  2) Every day Daisy sits beside me in the heeling position while I’m on an HRC bucket. We just sit there and “shoot the breeze”.......a lot. It is becoming a calm, relaxed and pleasant position for her to be in.

I have a large indoor, heated area in which I can toss short marks and do handling drills. Right now, we are reprogramming her routine at the bucket. Slow, calm, no motion, quiet mouth, long focuses on short visible bumpers are the norm. The time taken is stretched out considerably. We are never in a rush.........it would be agonizingly boring to watch. Action is deemphasized. She is being reprogrammed....so to speak.

Distractions (looking away from the “fall”) are met with a quiet “no/watch” command/reminder. A “sit” indirect pressure is useful. The little ring on top of her pinch collar is easily accessible to lift up on and produce a higher sit. The hand cue is extended and held for many seconds. The use of quiet “goods”, “get your mark” and other dogs’ names are used to desensitize her to distractions and increase focus. Intense, deep, lasting focus is the standard. .

A great deal of time is taken to properly position her on the retrieve, to calm down, to establish meaningful eye contact, to eliminate mouthing and to willingly release the bumper on “drop”.  There is considerable time taken to relax and prepare for the next toss.

With three or four “tosses” per day (using the above), the last few weeks have produced these results. She 1) no longer slips into the “anxiety pant” during the exercise, 2) can sit quietly on a remote as I prepare the area, 3) will make eye contact when asked, 4) no longer makes darting glances off toward distractions (imaginary or real), 5) has transitioned into the “focused trance look”,  6) she sits higher, 7) does not flinch on "verbals" and 8) most importantly, loves every minute of the time spent.  

The plan is to extend this to field training when spring decides to get here.

Now the question might be, "What has this got to do with her marking?" The answer is everything.
A properly focused, aware dog is a better marker.

February 1, 2009

Update: March, 2010 - Daisy is much more consistent. Here's why from journal entries last July.

July 20th morning - trained with group at Gallagher's FT grounds in Wisconsin,
               ran two setups, the first was a water double with two blinds, ran a wide
               blind first, then the double followed by the second blind up the middle,
               water & a land double followed by a land blind, Taffey & Kooly did not run
                     note: Daisy ran the first water series and blind without any issues, the
                              second set she forgot the memory or something not sure what,
                              big hunt, popped and quit didn't run the blind ??????? again
                              the coming in heat issue ?????
                     note: spent the evening analyzing her history related to heat cycles,
                              ongoing thoughts revolve around continued inconsistencies in
                              training, brilliant work once in awhile and "ditzy dumb stuff" or
                              off the wall behavior on other occasions

     summary of findings in past journals:        
     April 07 in heat......extremely erratic in training before no apparent heat cycle
     during all of July 08, but she had consistently terrible training sessions for a
     month, then in August 08 she was extremely sharp

     no apparent heat cycle until November 08,,,,regular cycle symptoms, but it is
     hunting season and the complex training wasn't going on

     nothing since then – 8 months

     a month ago (June and early July 09) she was stepping on triples, "flashy"
     and sharp, late July 09 she jumps to total “ditz” mode, can’t mark, popping
     and quitting in several training sessions, can’t remember even the second mark
     and easily distracted, zero bleeding or swelling not in heat.....yet?????,
    t alk to vet tomorrow 
July 21st
- after a long conversation with my vet decided the best
               course of action is to remove the heat cycle/hormone issue from the
               equation, there were only slight thoughts about breeding her, but the
               main goals are to make training more consistent and not miss parts of
               every year during training & hunting season with a bitch in heat....that
               is not going to be bred

Further analysis.....every bitch deals with heat cycles in different ways. Some take it in stride and
even do well. Others that are totally off the wall could be placed on the other end of a Bell shaped curve measuring how they handle hormone swings. Daisy's history suggests that hormonal
problems may have irregularly impacted her long before and after erratic heat cycles.

She may have been asked to do "stuff" in training that was unfair. In any event, by removing the
hormone issues from the equation, she will be able to function on the same playing field every day
of the year. If a lot of bad habits were developed through warped manners of coping with the problem, it make take awhile to level these out. Life will be more fair.

In any even, her training this spring (2010) has begun with consistent displays of brilliance and focus. In addition, the manic tendencies appear to be more subdued and replaced with more awareness
and responsiveness. We will see now this plays out. It might that I'm just seeing what I wish would happen......then again she is at least being consistent. That in itself should prove useful.

March, 2010

update: April 14, 2010.....she's more predictable and training is going well.....marking has
             improved and her memory on multiples is a complete turn-around (she remembers),
             drill work is sharp......running blinds is exciting.........she's fast and precise with
             consistent initial lines........but she is always going to be a high dog