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Retriever Olympics

Field trials and hunt tests have much to offer waterfowlers and their dogs
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The North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA) was one of the earliest organizations born from the hunt-test concept. NAHRA’s tests are divided into three categories: Started, Intermediate, and Finished. NAHRA is unique in that the Intermediate and Finished levels require each dog to complete a set of upland tasks in order to pass the standard. In contrast, the HRC’s upland tests are optional, and while AKC judges may incorporate upland scenarios in hunt tests from time to time, they aren’t required. This may explain why NAHRA tests are especially popular in pheasant country.

The waterfowl-retrieving standards for NAHRA, AKC, and HRC tests vary, but in general they include a battery of marked and blind retrieves on land and in water. The number and difficulty of these retrieves increase as dogs graduate to higher levels. As in field trials, evaluations are made on a dog’s obedience, natural ability, steadiness, and other qualities that make a good working retriever.

What They Offer Hunters

Justin Tackett, host of DU’s Waterdog TV, has spent a lifetime around retriever competitions in both the field-trial and hunt-test arenas. He’s also an avid waterfowl hunter who can’t imagine duck hunting without a good dog. He is quick to point out that understanding retriever sports provides many benefits for waterfowlers who hunt with a dog.

“The purpose is to create a program that will identify the very best dogs for breeding,” Tackett says. “The retriever sports are stronger than they’ve ever been, and your average hunter benefits from this. Reading pedigrees allows you to select a dog just like ordering a meal at a restaurant. You can pick from a hard-charging dog for hunting rice fields; a strong, big-boned dog for retrieving geese; or a calm, mild-mannered dog for hunting flooded timber. Reading a pedigree takes a lot of the guesswork out of selecting a dog.”

Tackett is quick to point out that he doesn’t favor one hunt test over another, or hunt tests over field trials. He believes all organizations and tests have their place and merit. However, he says HRC is often the choice for active waterfowl hunters. HRC tests require the use of real shotguns (loaded with primer rounds that don’t contain shot), and handlers must be dressed in camouflage before stepping to the line.

Tackett encourages all would-be trainers to join a club, even prior to buying a first puppy. “There’s a very good chance you’ll have a club within an hour’s drive of where you live,” he says. “Joining a club is going to help you put your hands on your next puppy. You’re going to be able to see a sire you really like, and sooner or later, he’ll breed a female you really like. When you’re picking a puppy, you should first pick its parents.

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