Okay, last night, it was all good. :-)
Laev's first protection session consisted of only four repetitions. I'd stated that "correct" meant she put no paws on the gate (closed first rep for review, open for all others) or the helper. I was going to let her stop herself entirely, giving her no collar help. I was a little dubious about the coming session, because she was absolutely *wired for sound* and very, very, very eager to work, so I didn't know if she could exhibit the self-control necessary for the hold and bark.
Laev's first try was to run around the blind and hit the gate with a paw, but she immediately realized her mistake and self-corrected before I could even tighten the long line. We completed the rep by allowing her to hold and bark and then giving her a bite; this had the potential for creating an unwanted chain of "touch and off and bark," but I thought I could see her thinking and gambled that she remembered that touching wasn't part of the behavior.
Repetitions two, three, and four were flawless. FLAWLESS. Just beautiful. No paws, no jumping on the helper, no dirty bites, just a fast run in, a beautiful hold just in front of Randy and strong barking. Randy was very good about rewarding quickly with the sleeve to reinforce this awesome behavior. We quit after the fourth rep because, well, why push it?
For her next session, we added even more distance (she's now about 20-25' behind the blind). We had the helper in the blind, two club members working the gates (little to "work," now, but they're on standby to close the gates between her and the helper if she gets dirty), Alena holding Laev's collar so I could send her from a distance while I myself handled long lines from the opposite side of the blind, and one more person to track success rates. When I sent Laev the first time, she tried to go around the opposite side of the blind -- we think she was confused by seeing Randy's shadow on the fabric blind in the artificial lighting -- and then ran around to the front. Later during the session, I took off the long line to the prong at Randy's suggestion, because I don't use it to slow her anymore anyway (she's not trying to break her neck on the leather, and the prong will actually push her forward if used to hold her at the blind) and she doesn't need the stimulation (she already is more than happy to bark strongly at the helper).
Nine reps, this time, and seven very good. Her two mistakes were one jump on Randy and one dirty bite to the sleeve. Her dirty bite, a product of excitement, resulted in me instantly hauling her backward, hand over hand on the line to her padded leather collar, while Laev screamed her frustration and tore out chunks of earth. "Do you think she knows what she did wrong?" asked one of the gate-holders, as I handed Laev off to Alena to send from a distance again.
"Yeah, she knows exactly what it was," Randy answered.
And Laev did. Powered even higher now because of the frustrated last effort, she zoomed around the blind and reached for the sleeve -- and caught herself, without any help from the line or Randy, and began barking with only a slight nose bump to the sleeve. "Good save!" I cheered, as Randy gave her a bite. Yippee!
So she *is* thinking in there! Even in overdrive!
One thing that I really love is that while someone else is holding her collar, ready to release her to the blind, Laev is looking at me. Most dogs focus on the goal, straining toward the helper; Laev looks at the blind and then looks at me, because even though her mind is clearly running along the lines of, "Oh please, please I want him so bad, I want that bad guy, please, let me have him," she recognizes that the way to *get* him is to have me send her. And so her focus is on me. I'm not sure if that's ideal from a performance perspective, though right now I don't see how it could hurt, but from a perspective of her attitude, I could not love it more! She is actively thinking and wants to trade some behavior for what she wants. Yay!
I've got to do more tracking with her, with lots and lots more turns, but at least some part of this stuff is firming up in a good way!