The oldest dog registries in the United States are the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the United Kennel Club (UKC). The AKC conducts retriever field trials; the UKC does not. There are four classes of AKC field trials: the Derby Stake, Qualifying Stake, Amateur Stake, and Open Stake. The Derby and Qualifying stakes are referred to as minor stakes, while the Amateur and Open stakes are called major stakes. Both amateur and professional trainers are allowed to compete in the Open Stake, but professional trainers are excluded from the Amateur Stake. Dogs entering all stakes are categorized by proficiency, with some additional stipulations on age. Other rules, such as the amount of handling allowed by the trainer and the types of retrieves that are performed, vary from stake to stake.
Field-trial judges evaluate dogs based on their performance in a particular stake. Evaluations are made on both natural ability and training proficiency. Desirable traits also include characteristics such as good eyesight, memory, obedience, and manners.
During the early 1980s, some retriever training enthusiasts believed that field-trial exercises had become too far removed from hunting. The expense and competitive nature of field trialing also discouraged participation among rank-and-file retriever owners. To make the sport more accessible, especially to waterfowl hunters, they developed the concept of “hunt tests.” The objective was to test retrievers against a standard, rather than against other retrievers and handlers in field-trial fashion.
Although different organizations conduct hunt tests in different ways, the general themes and steps to advancement are the same. If a dog performs well and meets the standard requirements in one category, it may advance to the next level. Hunt tests are designed to closely represent actual hunting scenarios. Retrieves rarely extend beyond 150 yards, and duck blinds, decoys, and guns are often incorporated in retrieves.
The AKC conducts hunt tests in addition to its field trials. Dogs participating in AKC tests pass at the Junior, Senior, and Master levels. “The hunt test programs were designed to get people into retriever sports who may not be interested in field trials,” said Jerry Mann, the AKC’s sporting breeds field director. “They’re usually for hunters who want to see what their dogs can do, so they try to meet a standard that the AKC sets.”
The Hunting Retriever Club (HRC), which is affiliated with the UKC, is another popular hunt-test organization. HRC tests include Started, Seasoned, Finished, and Grand categories. The HRC also has a separate upland category, which replicates pheasant- and other upland bird-hunting scenarios.