By Tom Davis
The first retriever field trial sanctioned by the American Kennel Club was held on December 21, 1931—a Monday. The organizers of the event, Eastern bluebloods who were members of the Labrador Retriever Club, chose the date with an eye toward keeping the party private. Reflecting the club's Anglophile bias, the trial was limited to breeds of British origin and closed to Chesapeake Bay retrievers, a breed developed in the United States. The tests were conducted along British lines, with dogs competing in a walk-up format that simulated the kind of work these breeds had been brought here to do, namely, to retrieve pheasants on land.
It wasn't until the following November that the second AKC-sanctioned trial, this one sponsored by the American Chesapeake Club, was held. Open to all breeds, it included land and water tests, and this format quickly became the norm.
In those days, the things that retrievers did in field trials weren't so different from the things they did in the marsh, the field, or the flooded timber. But as training grew more sophisticated, and especially as use of electronic collars gained popularity, retrievers became capable of feats that would have been the stuff of fantasy in the 1930s. Field trial judges were forced to devise increasingly challenging tests, and over time these testing scenarios came to bear about as much resemblance to real-world hunting as a Formula One event does to a morning commute.
The "hunt test," a new category of competition that was more closely aligned to the interests, abilities, and aspirations of the average hunter, emerged in the 1980s. Hunt tests differ from traditional field trials in a number of respects. In field trials, dogs compete for placements (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.). Hunt test dogs are judged against a standard on what amounts to a pass/fail basis. After receiving enough passing scores at a certain level of competition, the dog earns a title, such as Junior Hunter, Senior Hunter, and so on.
The AKC is the governing body for all retriever field trials held in the United States. The AKC also sponsors hunt tests, and in terms of clubs, events, and entries it's the biggest player on the hunt test stage. It's also the source of the most familiar hunt test titles—Junior Hunter, Senior Hunter, and Master Hunter—which appear on the pedigrees of AKC-registered dogs. Two other well-established organizations also sponsor hunt tests: the North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA) and the Hunting Retriever Club (HRC). While each has its own rules, nomenclature, and culture, their tests are a lot more alike than different.
If the idea of participating in hunt tests trips your trigger, you can shop around to find the best fit. That's what Glenn Dye, the Mississippi sportsman who currently serves as president of the HRC, did. He'd run some other hunt tests, but when he ran his first HRC event, he knew that he and his dogs had found a home. "I don't do this except for one reason—to get a better duck dog," he says. "We set up our water testing scenarios to closely resemble an actual duck hunt. We're very particular about getting it right, and we're proud of our traditions. Our motto is ‘Conceived by hunters, for hunters,' and our purpose is the betterment of the retrieving breeds as useful hunting companions."
Washington sportsman Harry Williams, a longtime NAHRA officer, argues that the association's format is the best test of the complete retriever. "We test all the elements—marking and blind running, of course," he says, "but as you climb the ladder there's also an upland portion, requiring the dog to flush a bird and remain steady to wing and shot, and a trailing test that simulates recovering wounded game in the field. A dog that reaches the NAHRA Senior Retriever level is a dog that you can use to hunt any game bird, under any conditions."
Bob West, a legendary figure on the sporting dog scene, offers a final thought. "Hunt tests have been an amazing benefit both to dogs and to hunters," he muses. "They've fostered better training, improved the dogs and their breeding, and gotten people from all walks of life involved in the sport."