AKC, HRC/UKC, and NAHRA programs all stress hunting realism. Here, in an AKC hunting test, a black Lab delivers a bird to its owner who is standing in a blind.
February. . .yuk! The long off-season begins. What to do, what to do? Happily, our predecessors solved this problem for us with a nicely designed off-season dog game. Not surprisingly, it took them three tries to get it right: First came field trials ("This porridge is too hot!"); then working certificate tests ("This porridge is too cold!"); finally, hunt tests ("This porridge is just right!"). Through the late 19th and early 20th century, retriever owners occasionally held informal field trials, called "water trials," mostly for our native Chesapeakes. In 1932, several Labrador-owning members of our economic aristocracy (Marshall Field, Averell Harriman, Jay Carlisle, et al.) launched AKC retriever field trials. From the beginning, professional trainers dominated this highly competitive sport, initially as full-time employees of the wealthy founders. Then, as the Depression ebbed and the market broadened, more and more pros hung out their shingles as independent operators.
After WWII, the American middle class emerged and grew prosperous, allowing more and more people to acquire retrievers for hunting. During the off-season, the really well heeled among them plunged into field trialing, thereby greatly expanding the number and size of trials. According to numbers published by Retriever Field Trial News (April, 2001), from 1951 to 2000, the number of trials increased from 53 to 235 and the total entries increased from 4,471 to 35,394. Others of the post-WWII middle class flocked into dog shows. Although primarily interested in conformation, some strove to maintain the working ability of their dogs. Thus, the various national breed clubs developed "working certificate tests," with related titles, to provide conformation breeders with a non-competitive way to prove the basic field ability of their stock. Most of these are simple marking tests. Only those of the American Chesapeake Club include blind retrieves. Thus, working certificate tests didn't provide the off-season activity most post-WWII retriever-owning hunters needed.
But, if working certificate tests were too little for most hunters, field trials were too much. Many shied away from trials, feeling it made no sense for one's recreation to be more competitive than one's workaday world. Others were held back because successful field trialing, especially in the major (title-awarding) stakes, is some distance from cheap. But most were turned off because, over the years, field trial tests had become so unrealistically long and difficult, so far removed from "an ordinary day's shoot." Why, many wondered, spend 80 percent of one's training time on concocted marks and blinds unlikely to come up in a lifetime of hunting? Still, although turned off by field trials and working certificate tests, these retriever-owning hunters needed an off-season hunting-like activity. Belatedly, in the early 1980s, three organizations launched very similar programs to satisfy this huge market. The American Kennel Club (AKC) started their "hunting tests." The Hunting Retriever Club/United Kennel Club (HRC/UKC) started their "hunts." And the North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA) started their "field tests."
For simplicity's sake, let's call all three by the generic name, "hunt tests." Each has succeeded beyond anyone's most fanciful hopes. In 2000, retriever hunt tests out-numbered retriever field trials, 661 to 235, and hunt test entries out-numbered field trial entries, 52,104 to 35,394.
THE HUNT TEST CONCEPT
All three organizations designed their programs specifically for hunters. The HRC/UKC motto, "Conceived by and for hunters," best expresses that intent. Most importantly, all three adopted a sensible safeguard to prevent these programs from following field trial's footsteps to overkill. In trials, competition has necessitated the increasing length, complexity and artificiality of tests. In each stake, judges have about a day and a half to find and rank the four best dogs from larger and larger entries of better and better-trained retrievers. They simply cannot separate the sheep from the goats with "ordinary hunting" tests. Ergo, to prevent a similar escalation in "test sophistication" in hunt tests, all three organizations made their programs non-competitive (pass/fail) affairs.
Hunt test judges don't have to find winners, don't have to grade on a curve. They must determine only which dogs perform satisfactorily. Consequently, test difficulty needn't escalate over time. Of course, like all non-competitive performance events, hunt tests need well-defined requirements, lest judging become arbitrary and inconsistent. All three organizations have established and promulgated such requirements, especially relating to test types and length.
In an AKC hunting test, a handler sets his golden up for a land blind in natural hunting cover.
Since not all hunting retrievers have equal talent and training, each organization divided its program into three graduated testing levels. Happily, each level of each program simulates the atmosphere of hunting quite nicely with decoy spreads, duck and goose calling, blinds, boats, and hunting clothing for all participants. To further maintain hunting realism, judges explain their tests to handlers in terms of a "hunting scenario."
Here, single marked retrieves on land and water test the performance expected of a beginning retriever with a modicum of training. The dogs need not be completely steady. In the details, the three programs differ only slightly from one another. In AKC hunting tests, this level, called "Junior," requires two single land marks and two single water marks, none longer than 100 yards. The dog must deliver to hand. In HRC/UKC hunts, this level, called "Started," requires two single land marks, no longer than 75 yards, and two single water marks, no longer than 60 yards. The dog needn't deliver to hand. In NAHRA field tests, this level, also called "Started," requires five single marks, with at least two in water. Land marks cannot exceed 75 yards, water marks, 50 yards. The dog needn't deliver to hand.
At this level, double marked retrieves and single blind retrieves on land and in water test the performance expected of a good hunting retriever with a reasonable amount of training. In the details, however, the three programs differ significantly from one another. In AKC hunting tests, this level, called "Senior," requires a double land mark, a single land blind, a double water mark, and a single water blind, none longer than 100 yards. The blinds may be incorpor
ated into the marking tests, but not between the falls. The dog must be steady, must deliver to hand, and must honor while another dog works in a marking test. At least one marking test must include a walk-up. At least one diversion shot is required. In the marking tests, the handler points an empty shotgun at each bird while it is in the air.
In HRC/UKC hunts, this level, called "Seasoned," requires a double land mark of 100 yards or less, a single land blind of 40 yards or less, a double water mark of 75 yards or less, a single water blind of 40 yards or less, plus one of the following: a walk-up, a tracking test, or a quartering test. A diversion bird is required. The dog must be steady and must deliver to hand. In the marking tests, the handler points a shotgun at each bird and fires a popper shell while the bird is in the air.
In NAHRA field tests, this level, called "Intermediate," requires a double land mark of 100 yards or less, a double water mark of 75 yards or less, a single water blind of 30 yards or less, an upland hunting (quartering) test, and a trailing test. The blind may not be incorporated into a marking test. The dog must be steady and must deliver to hand. In the marking tests, the handler may be required to handle an empty shotgun during the marking tests.
Here, multiple (double and triple) land and water marks, land and water blind retrieves, and honoring test the performance expected of a fully trained retriever, a "dream dog." Once again, in the details the three programs differ markedly from one another.
Hunt tests sometimes use simple blinds, just as hunters do, at least sometimes.
In AKC hunting tests, this level, called "Master," requires a multiple land mark, a multiple water mark, a multiple land and water mark, a land blind, and a water blind. Maximum distance for all tests is 100 yards. At least one of the three multiple marks must be a triple, and at least one of the blind retrieves must be a double. The blinds may be incorporated into marking tests. One marking series must include a walk-up, and diversion birds and diversion shots must be used. The dog must be steady, must deliver to hand, and must honor while another dog works in at least one marking test. In marking tests, the handler points an empty shotgun at each bird while it's in the air.
In HRC/UKC hunts, this level, called "Finished," requires a multiple land mark of 150 yards or less, a multiple water mark of 125 yards or less, a land blind of 100 yards or less, and a water blind of 100 yards or less. Multiple marks may be doubles or triples. The blinds may be incorporated into marking tests. The dog must be steady, must deliver to hand, and must honor while another dog works in at least one marking test. In marking tests, the handler points a shotgun at each bird and fires a popper shell while the bird is in the air.
In NAHRA field tests, this level, called "Senior," requires a multiple land mark, a multiple water mark, a land blind, a water blind, an upland hunting (quartering) test, and a trailing test. Maximum distance for all tests is 100 yards. Multiple marks may be doubles or triples. One of the blind retrieves must be incorporated into a marking test. The dog must be steady, must deliver to hand, and may be required to honor while another dog works in a marking test. The handler may be required to handle an empty gun during the marking tests. (Nota bene: HRC/UKC also conducts separate "Upland Hunter" tests for those who want their retrievers to quarter in the uplands.)
Each organization awards titles at each level. These titles help breeders select breeding stock and help puppy buyers evaluate pedigrees. (In pedigrees, AKC hunting test title abbreviations follow the dog's registered name, while HRC/UKC and NAHRA title abbreviations precede it.) To earn an AKC title, the dog must qualify at the appropriate level a certain number of times. To earn an HRC/UKC or NAHRA title, the dog must earn a certain number of "points" in a system too complex to be explained here. The various titles (and the related abbreviations) are: Each organization also conducts annual or semi-annual big-deal invitational hunt tests for dogs that qualify in one way or another. They give special titles to dogs succeeding in these events, too, but you won't need that information until you're deeply involved in these programs.
WHY NOT TRY HUNT TESTS?
So there you have it. Hunt tests resemble actual hunting about as closely as an off-season game can. Regular participants find that they hunt with better trained and conditioned retrievers each fall than they did the previous year. A new retriever owner can learn more quickly what he can expect from a well-trained retriever. The experienced person, knowing he'll exhibit his dog's work before many other retriever owners several times a year, is highly motivated to train the beast regularly.
Then, too, at hunt tests, retriever people meet other retriever people and often form simpatico training groups to help one another as well as to share equipment and training grounds. The camaraderie in such a group motivates each member to train more regularly. Besides, training buddies usually become hunting buddies, and sometimes even share secret hunting hot spots with one another.
Of course, if you decide to breed your retriever, her hunt-test titles will help you place the puppies in "proper" hunting homes, and at a higher price. Finally, when you decide to acquire another retriever, whether a pup, started dog, or fully trained gem, you'll be able to locate excellent sources through the people you meet at hunt tests. So much for the practical reasons for running your dog in hunt tests. Once you start participating, you'll continue doing so mostly because you enjoy the sport itself so much. You'll enjoy seeing dogs performing at every level of competence. You'll see mediocre dogs do great things, at least sometimes. You'll see great dogs do mediocre (or worse) things, at least sometimes. You'll congratulate and be congratulated. You'll commiserate and be commiserated. You'll also find that you can cheer from the heart for every dog entered, because your dog isn't competing with any of them. Your dog pass
es or fails based on his own performance, not on how his work stacks up against that of other dogs. What a wonderful attitude this simple fact gives most hunt-test participants! (Granted, a few can't grasp the full meaning of "non-competitive," but you can usually avoid them.)
To learn more about hunt tests and to locate them in your area, go to the sponsoring organizations' websites: AKC, www.akc.org; HRC/UKC, www.ukcdogs.com; NAHRA, www.nahra.org. For starters, perhaps you should be a spectator at tests in each program. That will help you find the proper niche for you and your dog. Of course, you can run one retriever in all three programs, and some hunt-test junkies do exactly that. However, like most, you'll probably come to prefer one program and run your dog mostly in it. But regardless of your preference, if you participate regularly, you'll hunt with a better retriever next year than you did last year. Good luck!
Jim Spencer's books can be ordered from the Gun Dog Bookshelf. Titles are: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows, Retriever Training Tests, Retriever Training Drills for Marking, Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves, and HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way. Jim is also featured in the Gun Dog video, Duck Dog.