Sometimes what works well for training one Lab doesn't work for another; kind of like for teaching people. And it's helpful to understand the whys.
I easily trained my Bess to turn to her Right or Left by whistling (1 longer lower tone = L; 2 short high tones = R). But I've been working on it for 6+ years with Puff and she still only vaguely gets it. Yet (IIRC) there's no difference between them in their speed of learning usual commands such as Come, Stay, Sit, Down, Stand, Shake (water off), etc.
After some years of working on the R-L bit with Puff, it finally (DUH!) dawns on me that it's probably not that Puff is not as bright. It's a combination of both some lacks and some super-keen abilities that are interfering.
Dogs have a variety of sensory skills -- their smelling (olfactory) ability is notoriously far superior to humans. But they have other sensory skills: auditory sensitivity and stereo-location, cognitive mapping, etc. And different dogs vary in their endowed strengths
Those together with various other interacting factors such as intelligence, ability to learn, motivations for various things (food, praise, fulfilling an instinct, etc.) probably all get mixed in the kettle when we teach a Lab something like "retrieve" and variations on it.
After she learned to retrieve (her most favorite thing to do) I taught her to turn on command by sending her in the water along an imaginary line, then slinging the Training Dummy (TD) so it'd splash down maybe 10 ft/3 m. to her R or L. Just before it hit the water, I'd make my appropriate (R or L) whistle and she'd turn and get it. She so quickly learned to make the correct turn, I gradually lengthened the time between the signal and splash down, and then began adding other turns (R-L, splash; L-R-R, splash; R-L-L-R, splash; etc.) Bess quickly got up to making 5-7 turns before I'd throw in her TD for her to get.
I tried much the same method with Puff and got nowhere. I posted about it on a previous JL board several years ago and someone suggested maybe it was my whistling that was causing the problem in Puff's discrimination so I switched to yelling "left" or "right". No progress (but I still yell Left or Right).
Puff and I practice this about 3-8 times on our daily morning offleash walks and it's only gradually that I've become aware that while Puff has one lack, she also some super-sensitivities that also may be interfering with her learning.
The main lack is that Bess had an enormous drive for retrieving while Puff doesn't. I used to half-jokingly tell people I could probably teach Bess to read -- if only I could figure a way of making retrieving dependent on her learning printed words. I wondered how fast she was so several times measured out courses, enlisted helpers, and used stop watches to time her running speeds. As best we could tell, it was about 30 mph/48 kmh while she was running top speed (not counting starts, TD pickups, or stopping to give the TD on the return).
Puff runs, sometimes trots or ambles, out to get the TD and return it but she's often distracted by interesting odors and stops to explore. And in her investigating, she may drop the TD and need to be told to go back and pick it up.
Bess had a "nose" but I remember thinking it wasn't terribly acute. I think she as often relied on sight as her nose. When sent to find a TD or object in an area, Bess frequently made fast, sweeping Figure 8s, using both sight and probably odor to locate it.
Puff is extremely odor oriented.
An example of her super-acuity happened several years ago on our daily morning offleash walk along some of the trails of the nature preserve. We were on one arm of a trail where it "Y-ed" in with another upper arm to join a third main section. About 150 ft/45 m. from the junction, Puff started barking and wouldn't move forward. Because of trees and bushes, I couldn't see what was ahead or on the other arm. I finally left Puff there and cautiously went to look. Nothing on the main trail, but on walking down the other arm, about 100 ft/30 m. ahead I saw a man's body lying face down on the path. I called the emergency 911 number on my cell phone, gave police directions, and after 15 minutes or so a number of them arrived. They discovered the body was alive and probably sleeping off a drunk (despite a drizzling rain all that night); he looked in his 50s, small, thin, unshaven -- maybe a vet from the nearby veteran's hospital.
Watching Puff at many other times has convinced me she relies on her nose quite a bit. She doesn't do Figure 8s like Bess did but she can be 50 ft/15 m. away from the TD in tall weeds and get a trace of my scent on the TD's lanyard and home in on it.
For awhile, I tried putting Puff behind bushes or obstacles so she can't see where the TD lands after slinging it, thinking that THEN I could give the commands for L or R that would assist her so she'd learn. But after she so often unerringly went to within a 10 ft/ 3 m. radius of where the TD landed (& could then sniff its location), I had to conclude she was seeing enough of the trajectory of the arc that she was able to mentally compute the rest of it enough to fairly accurately judge its landing location.
So THEN, I tried draping a small towel over her head (+ ears and nose) to eliminate all visual cues.
To my surprise, she still located the TD amazingly well.
Deciding it was probably through echo-location/stereophonic location**, I had Puff sit with her back to the direction I'd throw it. That helped some, but still maybe 80% of the time she was able to map the TD's location apparently by the sound of its thud in hitting the ground with sufficient accuracy she didn't need to rely on my signals.
What's worked the best is to have her sit with her back to the landing area, drape the towel over her head, sling the TD, and then just before and through its landing, clamp my hands tightly over her ears while yelling or singing loud enough to drown out the sound of the TD's landing thud.
Unfortunately, the area into which I usually sling the dummy has grass about 1 ft/30 cm high so my visual memory of where it lands is quite often not as sharp as Puff's nose. After a 30" or so, shouting commands, following Puff's movements, my recollection of its precise location has wandered.
But now I have a new appreciation of Puff's special skills and am enjoying exploring them and understanding them better. For instance, after or during a rain, when the ground is much softer and the sound of the TD landing is muted, Puff's stereolocation of its position from landing thud is greatly impaired.
So it's been an interesting progression from thinking I have a stupid dog to one in which I'm realizing her special skills.
BTW, after her location of the drunk sleeping man, I contacted Kansas Search and Rescue to volunteer her but she was 2-3 years old at the time and they only accepted younger dogs. Their loss.
ETA echo-location/stereophonic location** -- echo location (aka biosonar) is a legitimate term that I used incorrectly. Its proper use labels the technique that bats, porpoises, etc., use to identify object locations by emitting high frequency sound beeps and their processing of the echo reflections off the object and back to them.
Puff doesn't emit any sounds (that I'm aware of) so it's not through echolocation/ biosonar. Instead, from what I can tell, Puff seems to rely on the time difference of the sound on landing reaching her L & R ears.
What seems so remarkable to me is that there's so little decline in her ability to judge the location of the object whether she's "blindfolded" facing the throwing field or sitting with her back to it. Apparently she has a cognitive map of the area that she can read backwards and forwards. I'll try having her sit at 90 degrees to the throwing field and see if that makes any difference in her accuracy.
There are 2 main factors in accurately judging landing location from sound. One is the correct (or near correct) angle to follow from the place she was sitting. The other is how far to go along that angle. While Puff does get the angle fairly accurately (often within +/- 5 degrees), she's not as accuate on the distance to go out. On distance, she'll often go 80-90% of the way and then break off her straight course to search and sniff.
Something for me to have fun exploring on our morning walks; no reason Puff should have all the fun.
Puff [YF, AKC field line (from competing HT/FT breeder) 62 lbs, dob: 8-'01]
Update on: Reflections on difficulties in training (l-o-n-g)
Yesterday morning on Puff's & my daily morning walk in the nature preserve, I ran into a friend (Tom, the retired state archaeologist) with his Golden, Dolly.
They regularly come to our weekly LabFests (we call Dolly a long-haired hippy Lab). Dolly is a fanatic about retrieving anything thrown for her but not very good about giving it back; Tom can make her give to him but she wrestles (& wins) with anyone else.
We four walked along together for awhile. When we came to a suitable field, to test my belief that Puff can accurately locate the position of an object by sound when blindfolded, I asked Tom to hold Dolly.
Then I draped the towel over Puff's head and ears, slung the Training Dummy, and told Puff fetch. Once she took off within about 5 degrees of its location and easily located it by sight from that course. A second time, perhaps she was 10 degrees off course but again easily spotted it.
A third time, the dummy landed on a soft pile of compost and made no sound (that we could hear) on landing. Apparently Puff couldn't hear it, either -- her course was about 45 degrees off.
Tom remarked that her ability to locate by sound was amazing.
I didn't try having Puff face away from the field, blindfolded, and try to locate the dummy that way. Dolly was getting increasingly unhappy watching Puff retrieve without her having a chance to compete so I slung it just for her 3X so she could have equal fun. (Puff never objects to sharing fetching like that.)
Puff [YF, AKC field line (from competing HT/FT breeder) 62 lbs, dob: 8-'01]