In March of 2007, there was a changing of the guard in the American Kennel Club’s Performance Division. Douglas Ljungren was named director of this division, replacing William Speck, who retired after more than 20 years in that position. Ljungren is responsible for all facets of AKC Field Trials and Hunting Tests for retrievers, spaniels, beagles and pointing breeds, as well as herding, lure coursing, earthdog events and the AKC’s newest program, titled Working Dog Sport.
Ljungren came to his job with the AKC from the Port of Tacoma in Washington. During the time he worked for the port, it grew from a local port to the sixth largest container port in North America. It was, he said, a very interesting time.
Ljungren grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, where he spent much of his youth being outwitted by ruffed grouse. While he was a student at Iowa State University, from which he holds a master’s degree in economics, he spent as much time as possible each fall away from the classroom and studies chasing Iowa ringnecks. While he was in Washington, chukar and quail were his quarry on fall afternoons.
He took over his position at a time when the American Kennel Club is faced with a number of issues, many of which are of great concern to hunters. He recently agreed to address some of these issues with Gun Dog.
Gun Dog: What qualified you to be selected as the new Director of Performance Events? In other words, what’s your “pedigree”?
Doug Ljungren: I have owned, bred, trained and hunted German wirehaired pointers for over 30 years. During the off-season I participated in field trials and hunting tests and occasionally showed the dogs in conformation and obedience events. I very much enjoy working with the dogs and do all my own training and handling. I was fortunate enough to have finished 11 dogs in the field of which five were dual champions.
Judging at both the local and national level has helped to broaden my perspective. This is one of those evolutions that some dog people experience–a hobby turned into a lifetime passion. The job requires a mixture of dog and business knowledge.
My 30-plus years of corporate business experience has been a huge benefit in being prepared for this position. There is much more activity and a much wider range of issues to deal with than I think most people realize. I know I was surprised. Thank goodness the Performance Events Department has such a knowledgeable staff.
GD: Do you have any plans for long- or short-range changes to the hunt test program?
DL: The AKC administers three hunting test programs–one each for retrievers, pointing breeds and spaniels. The programs are over 20 years old. Hunting tests are non-competitive as each dog is judged against a standard of performance. The hunting test program is very popular with over 900 events and 50,000 entries per year.
The events have wide appeal for owners who want to provide an opportunity for their dog to participate in the activity for which it was bred. Many hunters participate in order to keep their dogs trained and in condition between hunting seasons. One of the keys to the success of this program is quality judging and uniformity in the performance standards across the country. AKC field representatives conduct seminars for participants to review the regulations and discuss how to judge a dog’s performance.
AKC periodically holds Advisory Committee meetings to review the test regulations and address other issues that may have arise. In 2007 there was a Pointing Breed Advisory Committee meeting that resulted in some recommended changes to that program. Those changes went info effect at the beginning of 2008. There are no hunting test advisory committee meetings planned for 2008. While we are always discussing ideas internally, AKC has no plans of its own to make any significant changes to any of the hunting test programs at this time.
Many participants provide their thoughts concerning the programs. Suggestions or questions about the hunting test program can be e-mailed to AKC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GD: As you are no doubt aware, the retriever field trial and hunt test programs have long been the “property” of the Labrador Retriever Club of America, in that they have pretty much controlled everything that has happened with either program. Since you are not part of the Labrador world, do you have any plans to include more input from people who represent other retriever breeds in these programs?
DL: There are eight retrieving breeds allowed to participate in the Retriever Hunting Test program. The Retriever Hunting Test Advisory Committee develops recommendations based on their own initiative or based on input from participants and clubs.
These recommendations are then voted on by every licensed retriever club in the U.S. These cubs are open to all retrieving breeds. The Performance Events Department is certainly open to suggestions or questions about the Retriever Hunting Test program. Again, these can be e-mailed to AKC at email@example.com.
GD: There have been a number of stories in the past few years that contained comments from both professional trainers and hunt test participants charging that hunt tests, by definition non-competitive, are in fact becoming more and more competitive and difficult so that many, perhaps most, of the dogs now require professional training and handling to be successful at anything past the junior levels. Since this was not the original intent of the program, and if these complaints are accurate, what is your response? Do you have any plans to address this issue?
DL: All three hunting test programs (pointing breeds, retrievers and spaniels) are non-competitive events, meaning that each dog either passes or fails depending on how the judges evaluate the dog’s actions against a standard of performance. Each hunting test contains three skill levels–junior, senior or master. The master level is designed to be quite difficult.
There are many people that, given their lifestyle or time availability,
choose to have their dog trained by a professional trainer, especially at the higher levels. There are also many knowledgeable amateur owners who train their dogs and successfully participate in the program.
At AKC we hear from participants that feel the tests are too difficult. We also hear from participants that feel just the opposite. AKC has tracked over time the ratio of entries per title earned at each test level to ensure the tests are not becoming easier or more difficult. This measurement also allows us to compare across the three hunt test programs (retrievers, pointing breeds and spaniels). Our tracking indicates there has been no significant change in the difficulty of the hunting test program over the past 10 years. It also indicates that dogs that enter the retriever test pass slightly more often than in the other two tests.
GD: Many hunters and people who train gun dogs have been unhappy for a number of years with dogs from field trial lines. Just in the past few months, a number of successful trainers from all three disciplines–retriever, pointing breed and spaniel–have stated that most field trial line dogs are simply too “hot” for the average hunter to handle, or, in the case of most field-trial Labs and goldens, too hot-wired to be pleasant companions in the duck blind or the goose pits.
An additional complaint is that the dogs from these lines will run 1000 yards in a straight line but they can’t accurately mark a 30-yard fall. This being the case, where do hunters go to find dogs that are sensible enough and possess the needed traits for real hunting?
DL: A dog’s actions while hunting are being influenced by three motivating factors: desire to hunt, willingness to cooperate with the handler, and obedience to the handler. The difficulty facing a breeder or trainer who is attempting to develop a successful field trial dog or a great hunting dog is achieving the proper balance between these three factors.
I believe desire to hunt and willingness to cooperate are primarily inherited. Obedience is primarily trained. Desire to hunt is the engine that drives the dog. The willingness to cooperate coupled with the degree of obedience is the steering wheel. These traits must be in balance with one another. I don’t think a field trial dog or a hunting dog can have too much desire to hunt unless it is out of proportion to the ability of the handler to control the dog.
I would define “hot” as the inability of a dog to temper its desire to do whatever it wants through its inherent willingness to cooperate and its trained obedience to its handler’s commands. Good field trial dogs and good hunting dogs are bred with desire and a cooperative attitude in mind.
I do not believe that lines which consistently produce dogs that are too hot will be successful in field trials over the long run. A dog that demonstrates both desire and cooperation with its handler will be appreciated by a knowledgeable judge. In addition, since trainers spend so much time working with their field trial prospects, they appreciate a cooperative, highly trainable dog. It makes their job much easier.
1. Field Testing – AKC events provide owners an opportunity to evaluate their dog’s ability in the field. Most owners have been working with their dogs and they want an objective method to gauge their progress. The graduated testing levels in the hunting test program challenges their dog to become a better hunting companion.
2. Benefit For The Dog – Their dog enjoys the field activities and they want to provide their dog an opportunity to do what it was bred to do. The events help keep their dog in good physical and mental condition.
3. Healthy Activity – The owners enjoy being outdoors and participating in the healthy activities associated with these organized events. They enjoy watching dogs perform in the tests.
4. Camaraderie – The owners enjoy meeting and associating with people that share their interests. The clubs and events provide a social connection and a resource for learning.
The trainers and breeders that work with dogs and study their behavior on a long-term basis have learned a great deal about what makes a great dog. I think the hunter looking for a great hunting companion should take advantage of the knowledge that these dedicated dog people possess.
Regarding retrievers taking a line for extreme distances but not being able to mark a 30-yard fall, in both the field trial and hunting test programs, a dog’s blind retrieving skills and ability to mark are tested approximately evenly. The standards for both event types specifically state “the ability to mark accurately is of primary importance.” A dog that could not complete a 30-yard mark would not be able to pass even the beginning level of the hunting test program.
GD: One of this magazine’s regular contributors recently stated that unless you have specific plans to breed or sell your dog, there was no compelling reason to register the dog with the AKC. What is your response?
DL: I attend many sporting dog activities and have met thousands of participants. There are many good reasons why they register their dogs with the AKC.
5. Acting For The Greater Good – Many owners have a desire to be associated with an organization that is interested in acting on behalf of their breed, their sport and dogs in general. The AKC does this in many ways, including providing support to local groups seeking responsible canine legislation, support for canine health research, hiring a team of field inspectors to identify unhealthy and indiscriminate breeding facilities, and providing assistance to all pet owners and their animals during a time of natural disasters.
GD: Many sporting breeds are badly split between “show” and “field” lines to the point that the two different types do not look like they are the same breed. What is the AKC doing to discourage this divergence? Are there any plans for programs that will encourage the proponents of “field” and “show” lines to start talking to each other and perhaps begin to recognize the importance to the breeds as a whole of correct conformation in the field dogs and field ability in the show dogs?
DL: The split between show and performance lines is an issue facing every performance breed. This has occurred through the collective action of the breed’s supporters. In a system that allows a breeder to decide how to breed, many breeders tend to breed for their own interest, which may be narrowly focused. There have been suggestions from a few that the breeding of performance breeds should be directed by teams of breed experts. Most breed supporters would strongly reject this idea and as a practical matter, I don’t think it would work in the United States.
Under the AKC system, each breed has a parent club. It is the responsibility of the parent club to act in the best interest of the breed. Several parent clubs hold special classes at their National Specialty Show to showcase and acknowledge the accomplishments of their dual dogs. Other parent clubs hold performance events in conjun
ction with their National Specialty Show.
AKC encourages this to the extent it is possible given the location and availability of facilities. AKC awards titles that identify what the dog has accomplished. It awards a special title–the Dual Champion–to dogs that achieve both their Field Championship and Conformation Championship. These dogs should be held in the highest regard.
Today more than ever it is important for the supporters of a breed (or a sport) to act for the greater good. This means acknowledging and cooperating with individuals within our own clubs that have similar interest in the breed but pursue that interest in a different venue. I feel this same spirit of cooperation should extend to organizations outside the AKC that choose to pursue the same general purpose in a slightly different manner.
Anytime a breed or sport “splits,” whether internal to a club or externally through other organizations, it hurts our common interests and lessens the chances of achieving our purpose–the betterment of our breed or the improvement of our sport.
GD: In the February/March 2007 issue, behavior columnist Ed Bailey made the following assertions: “The cooperative temperament is often overlooked in breeding because it won’t win field trials or attain the top qualifying placements in various hunt tests.We select winners of trials and tests for breeding stock under the assumption that if the dog has won or earned a title in an ersatz hunting configuration–no matter how farfetched from the reality of hunting wild game that test or trial might be–then it will be a useful hunting dog…Do today’s trials and tests really have much to do with selectively breeding good hunting dogs? Nowadays, mostly, they select for good field trial or test dogs and these may differ markedly from the type of dog wanted by the average hunter.” Your response?
DL: I would define temperament as the attitude the dog brings to work. It is his mindset, and as such, is a very basic factor influencing his behavior. A dog’s temperament is reflected in things such as his willingness to cooperate and his desire to work. Proper temperament should be a major consideration in one’s breeding program.
The behavior that a cooperative temperament elicits can be modified to a degree by the relationship between the trainer and the dog. The trainer must maintain a degree of discipline, and it should be applied consistently and fairly in order to promote obedient behavior from his dog. The influence of a cooperative temperament and obedience blend together and are reflected in a dog’s performance. Field trialing and hunting are “team sports” and a cooperative dog is much appreciated in both applications.
An experienced trainer can “bend” a dog to his will. This amounts to the trainer imposing a high degree of obedience on a dog in order to overcome an uncooperative temperament. The knowledgeable eye will appreciate the difference between truly cooperative behavior and forced behavior. The hunt that is not truly cooperative will lack the desired flow, the sense of teamwork, and the quiet assurance that things are under control.
Observing a dog hunting is a great pleasure to hunters and field trialers alike. It is satisfying when a dog appears at the right place at the right time. You smile to yourself and think, “How did he do that?” This is reflective of a cooperative relationship between dog and handler.
I feel strongly that cooperative behavior is important for both the hunter and the field trailer; that it is valued by a knowledgeable judge and it is a major factor in achieving an outstanding performance in field trials or hunting tests.
GD: More and more professional trainers are telling clients that if they want to be successful in hunt tests or field trials, they cannot actually hunt with their trial/test dogs, that hunting will mess the dog up for trials or tests. Is this just pro trainers’ wanting to keep the dogs in trial/test training year round in order to improve their bottom lines or have these events strayed so far from the reality of hunting that what the trainers are saying is true?
DL: Hunting test and field trial performances at the upper levels are held to a high standard. Depending on the test level or the degree of competition, a dog’s performance may almost require perfection. If a hunter is willing to correct the dog when it makes a mistake while hunting, then hunting is the ultimate way to train a dog for trials and tests. However, in the excitement of the hunt, most hunters are more interested in shooting at the bird than they are their dog’s performance.
It is not the act of hunting that messes up the dog, but rather the inconsistency in the handling of the dog. It can create habits in the dog that the professional trainer has to correct when he gets the dog back. I can understand from the trainer’s point of view, this may be something he would prefer not to do.
Hunting builds desire, particularly in younger dogs. It teaches a dog to “hunt smart” through its experience in finding birds; it can improve a dog’s style, and it can enliven the spirit of an older, experienced dog. All trial/test dogs should be hunted if at all possible. It only makes them better in the long run.