Retriever Olympics

Field trials and hunt tests have much to offer waterfowlers and their dogs

By Will Brantley

Training a retriever can seem an intimidating, complicated process, especially for beginners. Even more daunting can be the thought of preparing a dog to perform in field trials or other retriever tests. After all, what do these events have to do with your average Lab or Chessie that fetches ducks? Quite a bit, actually. If you want to improve your dog’s performance in the field, observing top-notch retrievers and professional trainers and learning why they do what they do can be well worth your time.

Kennel Clubs and Field Trials

When most hunters think of retriever competitions, field trials likely come to mind. Early American field trials, first held in the late 1920s and early 1930s, were simply a way for hunters to test the performance of their dogs in a competitive setting. While field-trial procedures have been refined over the years, they remain highly competitive contests.

Kennel clubs, some of which are also dog registries, often hold various events and shows to highlight desirable qualities inherent to a particular breed. Retrievers are tested, as are various pointing breeds, hounds, spaniels, herding breeds, and many others. Dogs that perform well in their events earn credentials in the form of titles or status points that can be listed on their pedigrees. These credentials make individual dogs more valuable as breeding stock.

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.

Hunt Tests

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.

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.

“Don’t be intimidated,” Tackett continues. “Anybody can be a great dog trainer. And everyone in the club started just like you.”

Spokesmen for retriever clubs agree that hunters with duck dogs should at least attend some sort of event, if only to see how effective a properly trained dog can be. “New guys should just go out and visit one of these tests,” Mann says. “It doesn’t have to be AKC. It can be UKC or NAHRA—they just need to see what these dogs are capable of.”

All three organizations have easy-to-navigate websites with a wealth of contact information. The best way to get involved is to simply decide which organization is best for you, find out where the nearest club is, and go check it out. 

Field trials and hunt tests: What are the Differences? 

Field Trial

  • Dogs compete against other dogs in their class level of proficiency
  • Handlers and bird boys wear white coats, and scenarios might not replicate true hunting situations
  • Retrieves are often conducted over long distances
  • Bird boys stand in the open to throw birds (but may leave the field afterward)

Hunt Test

  • Dogs are evaluated against a standard of proficiency but do not compete against one another
  • Retrieving scenarios are designed to closely replicate hunting. Handlers wear camouflage and often carry shotguns
  • Bird boys are hidden behind blinds, and retrieving distances are much closer

Retriever Club Links