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Entry-Level Hunt Tests for Young Dogs

Entry-Level Hunt Tests for Young Dogs

Starting a new pup and looking for ways to get him into top mental and physical condition during the summer?  Hunt tests might be a great option.

They provide an opportunity to enjoy time spent training with other folks with like interests while at the same time ensuring you and your gun dog are better positioned as you swing into hunting seasons next fall.

For the serious breeder, entry-level hunt tests are the first step in evaluating a young dog's potential before moving into advanced training for hunting competition.

A great way to stay active through the summer is by joining a local dog club, and a great place to start looking would be with one of the "testing organizations" where you'll find help at all levels and a bunch of folks with similar interests, whether it be the AKC, UKC or a NAVHDA (North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association) chapter.

Hoping I have your interest, let's take a look at the "entry level" testing options.

At first glance entry-level tests with titles like Natural Ability, Junior, or Started may 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 these tests all present some challenges and real advantages.

Tests exist across most sporting dog segments and are designed to evaluate/score dogs against standards where the dog passes or fails based on its individual performance, rather than competing against each other in field trials where there can only be one winner, one runner-up, etc.

All test systems have multiple levels with increasingly difficult requirements, but entry-level tests are 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, retrieving instinct, mental stability, and in some cases coat and conformation as a functional attribute.

Complicated training and strict obedience are not required at this level but will play a critical role as we move to the higher testing levels.

What Value?   

"Natural Ability" is the name chosen by the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association to identify their test for pups up to 16 months.

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

Centered around younger dogs, entry-level hunt tests also offer a great opportunity for younger handlers to get involved.

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

Let me share some thoughts on the value of entry-level tests along with a "heads-up" or two.

Most importantly, these tests evaluate individual dogs by presenting 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 misunderstand, however. Emphasis on inherited traits doesn't mean that preparation in the form of positive exposure to birds, cover, guns, etc., along with basic training, is not key to success. But 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 a dog is lazy you're stuck with lazy. The same with prey drive (or lack of it), and what about intelligent and discriminating use of nose, pointing instinct in pointing breeds, or marking ability in retrievers? These are the attributes primarily evaluated in entry-level tests.

Again, we can condition, enhance, hone and polish these attributes through proper exposure, but we will never surpass genetic or "God given" potential.

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

This is why entry-level tests may appear "easy" or "simple." Test standards and supporting judges are not looking for polish and training; rather, they're attempting to interpret and evaluate only the dog's basic inherited attributes.

This can result in a good news/bad news scenario. If your prospect tests high, you're faced with the knowledge that if 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 become a finished, well-trained gun dog, proven through subsequent testing levels. If he doesn't achieve these levels, it's probably because you dropped the ball.

More Benefits 

There are many other benefits to be derived from entry-level hunt tests.

First, the tests provide a wonderful introduction to dog sports, hunting and the outdoors in general. I can't tell you how many people from obedience, agility and other dog sports have experienced hunting and the outdoors in a positive way through these tests.

In all hunt test systems, judges do everything possible to explain test scenarios, answer questions and reassure handlers before beginning.

And for folks who already hunt, entry-level tests are a terrific way to get into dog sports to gain experience and build confidence rather than jumping headlong into field trials or higher-level tests.

They're great experience for young dogs and young folks alike, and as noted at the outset, you'll meet folks with your same interests, have opportunities to get involved in training groups, and in a very real way be able to extend your hunting season through the summer months. If the only benefit of entry-level tests was providing another opportunity for sporting dogs to enjoy what they have evolved to be and helping folks understand our sport from that perspective, we would still have a winner.

And finally, if you continue through the systems of NAVHDA, AKC, or the UKC to Utility, Master, or Finished levels and beyond, I'll guarantee you will meet some outstanding people and make some lifelong friends, in addition to developing yourself as a trainer and owning a truly outstanding dog.

So, get off the couch, contact one of the groups listed here and have some fun!

The Hunting

Retriever Club

Mike Witt

HRC Past President

26633-122nd Street

Trevor, WI  53179

Cell: 815-341-6879


Central Office

Jim Applegate

116 West Eastman suite 204

Arlington Heights, IL  60006

AKC Hunt Tests

Doug Ljundgren

VP Performance Events

5580 Center View Dr.

Raleigh, NC. 27606-9767

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