By Ed Zebrowski, Jr. 

Over the years, many owners of companion hunting dogs have been faced with countless training obstacles. Many of these problems center on having quality training time, a suitable place to train or others to train with.

Realistically, most of us do not get a chance to get out every day of the hunting season, which shortens the season and the dog’s hunting opportunities even more. Living in a state like Michigan, we also face Mother Nature’s obstacles like cold and snow, and our water tends to get hard!

 If you’re a professional trainer, chances are your dog gets out a lot more often and probably has real birds to work with on a regular basis. For most, this is only a dream.

Registries such as the American Kennel Club many years ago designed the field trial, an opportunity for some of the sporting breeds to compete and thereby establish standards for judging different breeds based upon their ability. Like any other sport, the field trial evolved to a point of developing the super athlete and leaving the rest behind.

A little over a dozen years ago, in response to a growing demand for a fairer system of measurement, the hunt test was created. Today, with distinctly different standards, the AKC, UKC (United Kennel Club), and NAHRA (North American Hunting Retriever Association) all conduct hunt tests for sporting breeds.

The AKC version, which I happen to be most familiar with, runs tests for retrievers, pointers, setters and lure coursers. The primary reason for the evolution from a field trial to a hunt test was simple. The field trial had become very competitive, placing dogs first, second, third and so on. The game also became dominated by the professional trainer/handler, thus giving the average dog owner an unfair disadvantage.

I am not criticizing the professional. I happen to earn part of my living from being paid to train hunting dogs. I do, however, appreciate the absolute necessity of keeping the average hunter and his or her dog involved in the sport.

Hunt tests by design have one basic difference from field trials. Hunt tests are designed to a standard and dogs that meet that standard pass the test. For example, the Rules and Regulations for AKC Hunting Tests for Retrievers states, “The purpose of a Hunting Test for Retrievers is to test the merits of and evaluate the abilities of Retrievers in the field in order to determine their suitability and ability as hunting companions.  Hunting Tests must, therefore, simulate as nearly as possible the conditions met in a true hunting situation.”

Test distances are expected never to exceed 100 yards. This basic rule sets the standard for the whole game. The hunt test committee and the judges assigned to each division (there are three) set up hunting conditions, using live birds and realistic terrain. Instead of being placed according to a process of elimination, dogs are judged on their ability to complete the test that has been set up.

Instead of placing, we have qualifying scores. If all dogs complete the requirements of each test, they all qualify. The result is owners who can participate and learn from the tests while their dogs get some much-needed practical experience.

The hunt test has more camaraderie with everyone pulling for everyone’s dog. We eliminate the “my dog is better than your dog” syndrome. The three hunt test divisions are Junior Hunter, Senior Hunter and Master Hunter. Each requires the dog to qualify to standard tests appropriate for the dog’s level of training.

The Junior level consists of four single marks, two on land and two in water. A dog that attains four qualifying scores from separate tests receives Junior Hunter designation from AKC. The Junior competition tests a dog’s basic skills in marking, style, perseverance and trainability. Its design is to encourage the handler and dog to hone their skills and advance to the senior level.

The Senior level tests the dog in a minimum of four hunting situations which shall include one land blind, one water blind, one double landmark, and one double land water. Dogs must also do a “walk up” off leash to demonstrate their steadiness and also honor another working dog. The dogs are tested in their ability to take casts (or handling) from their owners to aid them on blind retrieves. The Senior level dog will develop a handling bond and confidence with its owner and have the necessary training and skill to develop to the most difficult Master Hunter level.

Master Hunter, the highest level in hunt testing, requires testing in a minimum of five hunting situations as follows: multiple landmarks, multiple watermarks, multiple marks on water and land, a land blind and a water blind (at least one of which will be a double-blind in any combination). There will also be at least three series of tests. Diversion birds and/or shots must be used at least once.

Hunt test committees from the various dog clubs select judges for each test level. Judges are required to be approved by the AKC in advance of the test. Each judge must attend an AKC judge’s seminar at least once every three years and serve as an apprentice judge. These men and women are the same individuals who train their own dogs; most having titled a dog in the level they are judging, and many will be found in the marshes hunting those dogs during the waterfowl season.

Dog clubs holding a hunt test are required to use birds for all participants. Each dog is entitled to one live flier for each series run. Most clubs use game-farm-raised mallards with some opting for pheasants and chukars.  The bottom line is that your dog gets to practice on the real thing.

More and more women are involved in the sport – and I think that’s great. Judging at these events, I have also noticed more and more young people getting involved, which reassures me that this fine tradition will be preserved and passed on to our young hunters, boys and girls alike.

In Michigan, we hold AKC Hunting Tests at two primary locations, Lapeer and Belding (Flat River area). Several clubs are organized for the retriever enthusiast. The east side of the state has the Wolverine Retriever Club, Huron River Labrador Retriever Club and the Fort Detroit Golden Retriever Club. On the west side is the Flat River Retriever Club. Just to the south of Michigan in Indiana is the Backwater Retriever Club. All those clubs have one common goal: retrieving dogs. They all put on very good hunt tests, which usually begin in April and go to September. The clubs operate with members who volunteer their time and, as usual, more help is always welcome.

Other dog clubs are the HRC (Hunting Retriever Clubs) and NAVHDA, which is the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association. They too have events in Michigan.

The hunting test and belonging to a dog club will benefit both you and your canine partner. Training opportunities increase sharply and the knowledge shared among members, who most often become friends, is priceless. You will also see your dog reach a potential you never dreamed possible.