“GUNS UP…DOG TO THE LINE.” Those simple words may not mean much for many folks, but if you own a retriever breed of dog – whether they be Labrador, Chesapeake, Golden, Flat- or Curly-coat retrievers, Irish water or Boykin spaniels, even standard poodles – and you run hunting tests, these words mean you and your dog are about to have some fun.
Hunting tests were born from field trials where handlers and retrievers are tested on their ability to mark and retrieve live shot birds or thrown dead birds (sometimes out to 400 yards!) and handling their dog on blind retrieves. In a blind retrieve, the handler guides the dog to a bird it has not seen by with a system of whistles and hand signals
Field trial dogs compete for first, second, third and fourth places in the event. Trial placements accumulate points toward a dog receiving the title of Field Trial Champion or Amateur Field Trial Champion.
Several decades ago, some avid hunters that trained their retrievers for hunting and field trials conjured up the idea of a program where trained retrievers were tested under various hunting situations and scored against a standard of performance, rather than a competition among dogs. Live birds are shot or dead birds thrown in similar ways to field trials but at shorter distances and in scenarios more resembling that of true hunting situations for either waterfowl or upland birds.
Today, the North American Hunting Retriever Club, the United Kennel Club, and American Kennel Club all administer hunting retriever tests. All have different levels for young dogs, those at a middle stage of their training, and the most advanced dogs that can do it all – triple or quadruple marked retrieves, complex blind retrieves, honoring (sitting still and watching while another dog is working), sitting still to a flushing bird – the polished hunting companion. For the AKC program, dogs are awarded a Junior, Senior or Master Hunting Retriever title after qualifying the appropriate numbers of tests.
The pinnacle of the AKC hunting test program is the Master National, where each year the best of the Master Hunting Retrievers gather to run a week-long event to see who is at the top of their game. A dog must pass at least six Master tests in the 12 months after the preceding years’ Master National in order to qualify to attend that years’ event.
Master Hunting Retrievers are tested to the maximum of the standard set by the AKC. To obtain this high standard, judges use terrain, wind direction and other factors when placing birds for marked and blind retrieves so as to provide a significant challenge for the dogs.
I have been running and judging AKC hunting retriever events since 1992. I started my life with retrievers in 1991 with the goal of having a good hunting companion. After reading several books and articles on training, I discovered the hunting test programs and once my new puppy was of age to run tests, I was hooked!
This year, I was honored with the opportunity to judge the prestigious Master National event, along with seven other retriever enthusiasts and dedicated judges. The popularity of the program and quality of dogs has increased dramatically and the number of Master Hunters qualifying for the National event has more than doubled in recent years. In 2013, the number of qualifying dogs exceeded 830.
We will test these dogs on land, in the water, and land/water combination. If a dog gets through a total of all the series of tests we throw at them, they will receive a qualifying score, a big orange ribbon and a silver plate. If a dog can pass the Master National at least three times, they will enter the Master National Hall of Fame.
Why does any of this matter to the average sportsman andwhy is it important to conservation? Most hunters will tell you they just want a good huntin’ dog and don’t need to run trials. Running field trials or hunting tests no doubt takes time and money, and titles for the dog may not mean anything to most hunters – but it’s the training that is the most critical piece.
What represents “good” is in the eye of the beholder, but a well-trained retriever in the field is an extension of a good sportsman-conservationist. The ability for a retriever to mark birds and be handled to a crippled bird quickly is critically important for recovering all shot game.
While there are no valid statistics on the amount of lost game when hunters don’t use a dog, use a poorly trained dog, or one that is well-trained, my experience has been that having a well-trained retriever conserves game. I am far more likely to find a downed bird and retrieve all of my shot game when I have a well-trained retrieving machine with me in the field. I suspect if surveyed, most waterfowl and upland hunters would agree.
The 2013 AKC Master National runs from September 21st to the 29th in Fall River, Kan. If you are nearby, come watch the best of the best retrievers in the country, or follow the action on the Master National website and blog. Watch a little of this event, join a retriever club, and train for and run these tests – and you just might good hooked like I did!