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Hunt Test

Many people are wary about getting involved in formal field-related competition with their upland bird dogs, as they've heard many tales about the prohibitive expense and huge investment in time.

No question that field trials can involve everything from towing horses to living out of an RV for the weekend, and you can go years without even your best gun dog winning at a trial. Some handlers live for that type of competition, but it's the intensity and scale of the involvement that scares most weekend warriors away. The AKC has recognized that win-or-lose field trials aren't the only way to assess the field-worthiness of a dog, and know that many hunters and breeders need to demonstrate their dogs' skills in an objective, regulated arena. AKC sanctioned hunt tests are just the ticket.

Starting out with Junior tests (that's "junior" in reference to the dog's experience, not the age of the handler!), these events are designed to let judges see a gun dog's basic in-born skills: hunting, bird finding, pointing, and trainability - it's not a showplace for how many hours the handler has worked with the dog, or how many birds the dog has already been on (though of course those things always help!). The dogs run in a brace (a pair), and the handlers work them through a relatively bird-free "back course" that gives the typically young dogs a chance to blow off some steam and show their manners. The back course may be a quarter or a half a mile through some fields and woods, and the handlers (on foot) are followed by two judges on horseback. The judges are typically doing this all day long, so being in the saddle saves them from exhaustion, and also gives them a better view of what's happening in the field.

Once out of the back field, the dogs are steered into the "bird field." If they're not the first brace of the day, they'll hardly need direction - they'll smell where the previous brace, handlers, and judges have gone, and the handlers will often have a hard time catching up to their dogs, which will usually beat them into the bird field. At their destination will be a comfortably bordered field with good cover and at least a few planted birds. These will typically be quail or chukar. With any luck, the junior dog will find and point a bird in the cover, and the handler will flush the bird while verbally encouraging the dog to remain steady, and will shoot a blank pistol to simulate a shotgun. Most junior dogs are not steady to wing and shot, but if she hunted the ground well, found a bird, was steady up to the flush, and can be brought back (with a verbal command, usually, from chasing the flying bird), then the judges will "qualify" the dog. Once a junior dog has qualified in four tests, she will have attained the title of a Junior Hunter (often abbreviated as "JH") and the handler knows that the dog has the potential for more serious work.

A Senior Hunt Test involves essentially the same procedures, but there are some more involved activities and more stringent standards. On the back course, the judges will be watching for how the dog handles birds that will be planted and flushed. Dogs that break from their points and chase are generally disqualified. Likewise, the dog's bracemate must back the other dog's points. When the brace gets to the bird field, there's another important difference. We're not using blank guns at this point, but instead have two gunners with shotguns that will be killing the flushed birds. Again, the bracemate must honor (back) the other dog's work, and the pointing dog will be expected to go after the shot bird and retrieve it to the handler's hand. It's OK, at this stage, for the dog to break on the shot, but she must be steady when the bird flushes. At the senior level, handlers are allowed a quiet, reasonable amount of verbal coaching to the dog during the hunt, and judges are still looking at basic instincts and evidence that the dog can be and has been taught some manners and restraint.

At the next level, a Master Hunt Test, you've got all of the same expectations as the Senior test, but handlers are expected to be able to work their dogs without even speaking a word. Further, the dog should not break after the bird as the gun is shot, but only go for the retrieve when the handler indicates that it's time to do so. A dog that achieves a Master Hunter title is a hunter's dream: birdy but thoughtful, energetic but controlled, and totally respectful of the hunting party (including other dogs). Needless to say, most Master Hunters are at least three or more years old - this is not a game for adolescent dogs!

Your best bet for understanding a hunt test's ins and outs is to attend a few and watch what happens. Usually, you'll have a chance to see pointers, setters, and spaniels doing what they were born to do. Most handlers are also more than happy to tell you about what they've just experiences, and you'll get abundant advice from the veterans. Don't be shy! These are upland dog people, and they want nothing more than to get more folks involved in their passion.

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