With gun dogs there is value, and then there is value.
Any spaniel that produces birds with consistency is worth far more than his purchase price and upkeep.
What is a good gun dog worth?
For many of us the value of a good gun dog is incalculable. Years later, memories of that dog are sometimes worth the world. We can determine what a gun dog costs financially. It's interesting€¦and a bit scary.
Gents, you might not want to share this information with your wives.
A good gun dog puppy from good breeding costs from $500-$1,500; let's use $750 as an average. Using 13 years as an average lifespan, pup's purchase cost is $58/year.
We feed a good dry food mixed with half-a-can of gravy-laden chow, and one large dog bone/biscuit daily, and figure that costs $2/day, or $730/year. Annual shots and vet bills cost $200. Twenty days of boarding when we travel costs $340 annually. One buzz-cut a year costs about $50. Add another miscellaneous $50/year for license, collars, leads, etc.
Adding the annual costs of pup, food, vet, boarding, grooming and miscellaneous totals $1,728/year, or $22,464 over pup's 13-year lifespan. These are pretty accurate numbers for gun dogs.
Holy mackerel, I have never (honestly) done that calculation before. I had actually planned to justify the cost of hunting dogs but that, obviously, cannot be done.
Using the figure of $1,728 per year, pup costs you $144 per month; I can, in my mind, justify that amount during the year's three months of hunting. The other nine months, though, are a bit tougher to justify.
Wait, I've got it. If we get pup involved with AKC (or other) hunt tests we can squeeze out another nine months of worthwhile use from pup each year. That works for me.
Fellow hunters, I suspect that many of our spouses would be happy to get nine worthwhile months from us in a year, but that's a subject for another magazine.
Fact is that hunt tests are fun for pup and for us, and it gets us and the dog out of our wife's way and lets her get some things done around the house. I have had neighbors accuse me of training my dogs too much. Hogwash! The only thing pup likes more than training is hunting.
Hunt tests are non-competitive field events that allow us to test our gun dogs against a written performance standard. Two judges experienced with gun dogs will try to provide an unemotional, unbiased evaluation of your dog doing certain tasks, which will then be compared to a written standard. Dogs pass or fail. There are always more happy people at the end of the day at hunt tests than at field trials.
Hunt tests have several performance levels, each requiring different skills from pup, with skills advancing upwards from Junior Hunter, Senior Hunter and Master Hunter. A titled Master Hunter is indeed a very good gun dog. Here are most of the general requirements for each test level.
Junior Hunters must show basic quartering, enter cover and actively hunt for birds. If a bird is flushed and missed, pup should not chase it too far and risk flushing additional birds. Pup should retrieve shot birds in a timely manner, not necessarily to hand, but at least close to the handler. Pup should show no signs of gunshyness.
Dogs at the Junior Hunter level must make a marked (pup has seen bird being thrown, accompanied by a shot) retrieve from water, of short to moderate distance. Pup need not be steady at the line, but he must be easily restrained.
A blind land retrieve of close to moderate distance must be made. A blind retrieve is one where pup did not hear a shot or see a bird fall; it is accomplished via hand and voice signals.
A titled Senior Hunter should be a pretty darned good hunting dog, hunting eagerly and quartering well, covering all areas, including thick cover, while staying within gun range.
A Senior Hunter may not wildly chase flushed birds; rather, he should remain fairly close and return on voice or whistle signals. Both water and land retrieves must be to hand at the Senior Hunter level. Additionally, pup must be steady to wing and shot for water retrieves, which are longer than the Junior Hunter's water retrieve. A longer land-blind retrieve is performed at the Senior Hunter level than at the Junior Hunter level; both must be done in a timely manner.
Master Hunter level is just what the term implies; dogs earning that title should be Master Hunting dogs. A Master Hunter hunts hard, quartering all the ground while remaining in (realistic) gun range.
An aside: Gun range can vary, but closer is better. For the average hunter, gun range is about 25 yards, maximum. If one hunted with some of the "official guns" on the eastern springer spaniel field trial circuit they might find that gun range was extended to 35-40 yards. Those guys are good, and they often "save" a competitor by shooting a bird that flushed at what is generally considered to be out of range. It is always easier to get pup to go out farther than it is to keep him close; start him out quite close.
Land and water retrieves must be brought to hand, and pup must be steady (either sit or stand stationary) to flush and shot. Pup rushes directly out and back on retrieves, and can take hand signals to some degree if it has trouble finding a downed bird.
A Master Hunter is a finished gun dog, and a joy to hunt over.
Something new that has been discussed and is being evaluated is a test that goes beyond
Master Hunter; it is called Master Excellent.
Two hunters, each with a dog, hunt a field and each dog must find, flush and retrieve a minimum of two birds. The other dog must honor the flush and retrieve. Dogs may not interfere, and each dog works its own 30- to 40-yard swath of land.
Pup must perform a 40- to 60-yard land blind (he didn't see the bird), with pup being directed through a natural barrier such as a fencerow, woodlot or marsh. Pup must take at least one hand signal.
Pup must make a marked (pup saw birds fall) 40- to 60-yard double water retrieve, through decoys. A water blind of 40 to 60 yards is also required; the bird will be in cover on or near the water, and pup must take at least one hand signal.
With the information a
bove gun dog folks can get an idea of what is required to play the hunt-test game. As can be seen, one can do a minimum amount of work to achieve Junior Hunter status for pup, or a lot of work to obtain Master Hunter status for pup.
It's not known yet if the Master Excellent program will be implemented. I personally believe that it is too similar to field trials, and that it is over the top. I also believe that promoters of the Master Excellent test are trying to advance spaniels in an arena that, although unspoken, is undeniably competitive--which the hunt-test format was never intended to be.
Fact is, time spent training pup alone, or with a small group of friends (or folks who soon will be friends), is good for you and for pup, and it's fun. I will never forget how surprised my wife was early on when we got a springer spaniel and she saw how excited and happy Sam was when I put on hunting boots, grabbed the training equipment bag and put a dog whistle around my neck.
"He knows what's happening!" she said, surprised not only that he knew it was training time.
In today's urban society that knows little about agriculture, the land, wildlife or our hunting heritage, training gun dogs with a group of like-minded people is a matter to celebrate and enjoy. With a training group or club one does not have to whisper when telling someone about a new shotgun, or that you bagged a brace of birds Saturday. You can talk about pup's first retrieve or a difficult piece of cover you hunted and know that you are understood.
Contact the American Kennel Club to find out where the closest field trial or hunt test club is. Most welcome newcomers and are glad to help steer novices in the right direction.
It's just about time to take my two gun dogs for a run. And as the commercial says, that's priceless.