Extend Your Hunting Season

Extend Your Hunting Season

Entry level hunting test programs will keep you and your dog in the field.

With hunting season at hand, you're probably not spending a lot of time thinking about next spring and summer and how you'll keep your dog in top mental and physical condition. Here's a suggestion, however, that will help you extend your time afield and leave you and your dog better prepared for hunting season the following year.


In NAVHDA's Natural Ability Test, young dogs are given the opportunity to show self-confidence and desire during a water segment of the test in which they're asked to swim after a training dummy.

I'm talking about the hunt test programs sponsored by various dog organizations. The best place to start is with one of the established testing organizations, where you'll find help at all levels and a bunch of folks with similar interests, whether it's the AKC, UKC or a NAVHDA chapter.

Let's take a look at their "Entry Level" options.


At first impression entry level tests with titles like Natural Ability, Junior, or Started seem so easy some folks question their value. But I think if we take the time to really find out what's going on we may discover they offer some real advantages.


Tests exist across most sporting dog segments, and they are designed to evaluate and score dogs against standards on an individual pass-fail basis, rather than having the dogs compete against each other as they do in field trials, where there can be only one winner.

All test systems have multiple levels with increasingly difficult requirements, but for this discussion we'll focus on those tests at the entry level, which are all basically designed to evaluate the genetic potential of younger dogs. They do this by looking at inherited characteristics like desire, cooperative nature, strong pointing instinct in pointing breeds and retrieving instinct in retrievers, plus overall mental stability. In some cases coat and conformation are also evaluated as functional attributes.

Training and obedience are increasingly evaluated as you move through the higher testing levels.

Examples of Entry Level Tests
"Natural Ability" is the name chosen by the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) to identify their test for pups up to 16 months.

"Junior" is used throughout the American Kennel Club (AKC) Hunt Test system for pointing breeds, spaniels and retrievers to identify their entry-level tests. There is no age limit.

"Started" is the term used by the Hunting Retriever Club (HRC), whose members conduct tests under the auspices of the United Kennel Club (UKC) Registry, to identify their beginning level.

Now that we're kind of bunched up here on the "same page," let me share some thoughts on the values of entry level tests along with a "heads-up" or two.

Most importantly, the tests are evaluations of individual dogs. Entry level tests are designed to present real field scenarios, giving judges the opportunity to observe and compare each dog's performance with test standards emphasizing inherited characteristics with less emphasis on training.

Don't infer, however, that preparation in the form of positive exposure to birds, cover, guns, etc., along with basic training, is not a key to success.

The deal is, you can't "teach" desire, or the drive needed to persist under adverse conditions to be successful at hunting. Yes, you can reward and nurture or reinforce, but if the dog is lazy, you're stuck with lazy.

In both AKC Junior and NAVHDA Natural Ability Tests, young pointing dogs are evaluated for their pointing instinct.

The same with prey drive, the intelligent and discriminating use of nose, pointing instinct in the pointing breeds or marking ability in the retrievers, and so on. These are the attributes primarily looked for at entry level tests.

Again, we can condition, enhance, hone and polish these attributes through proper exposure, but believe me, you'll never surpass genetic or "God given" potential'¦and that's what these tests evaluate.

When entry level tests are constructed well, using terrain, cover, and gamebirds properly to set up less challenging but realistic hunting situations, they provide judges a "looking glass" to observe, evaluate and compare each dog's performance with test standards and arrive at a score.

So, we can understand why entry level tests may appear "easy" or "simple." Test standards and supporting judges are not looking for polish and training; rather, they are attempting to interpret and evaluate the dog's basic inherited attributes, as just described.

That is both good news and bad news.

If your prospect tests high, you're faced with the knowledge that if the dog's potential is not reached, it's probably your fault. In other words, you've got a bunch of work ahead of you to bring this dog through all phases of training and exposure to becoming a finished, well-trained gun dog, as proven through subsequent testing levels. (Caution: Accomplishments at the entry level alone do NOT justify breeding!)

Additional Benefits
Besides the evaluation of your dog's potential provided by entry level testing, there are many other benefits.

For example, participating in entry level testing is a great way to introduce folks to dog sports, hunting and the outdoors in general. I can't tell you how many people from obedience and other dog sports have experienced hunting and the outdoors in a positive way through these tests.

The tests are a wonderful way for bird hunters itching to get into the dog sports to gain experience and build confidence rather than jumping headlong into highly competitive field trials or higher-level tests.

While around the hunt tests you'll meet folks with your same interests, have the opportunity to get involved in training groups, and in a very real way be able to extend your hunting season through the spring and summer months.

They're great experience for young dogs'¦and young folks too.

In m

y view, if the only benefit entry level tests provided was the opportunity for sporting dogs to enjoy what they have evolved to be and help folks understand our sport from that perspective, then we have a winner.

Of course, you can also continue through the systems of NAVHDA, AKC, or the UKC's HRC program to the Utility, Master or Finished levels, and beyond. If you do, I'll guarantee you'll meet some outstanding people and make some lifelong friends'¦in addition to developing yourself as a trainer and owning a truly outstanding dog.

So, after hunting season ends, get off the couch, contact one of the groups listed here and have some fun during the "off season"!

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