Hunting Tests – Junior

By Glenda Brown

Originally published in the November-December 2009 Golden Retriever News.

Hunting tests should be fun for both the dog and the handler. They represent a really pure form of competition, similar to tracking in that you are competing against a standard rather than against other handlers and dogs. Everyone there should be on your side, encouraging you and your dog to succeed, and you in turn, should be cheering for everyone else.

In discussing hunting tests, one complaint heard is “this isn’t what I would do in a real hunting situation.” Many times the person saying this has never hunted and is basing it on what he thinks would be done in a hunting situation. Sometimes the basis for the complaint is predicated on whether the complainer’s dog can or cannot do the test! Participants must realize that hunting tests are simulated situations set up to judge a dog’s performance against a set of standards.

Ideally in a hunting test, the judges are looking for dogs that they would like to hunt with on a regular long-term basis. Obviously in Junior you will have a green dog, and the judges are looking for potential. They are trying to determine if that dog will eventually become a good hunting dog. They are looking for a dog that shows drive, instinct, good marking ability, and trainability to an extent. With each step up, they are looking for a more polished performance. When you and your dog reach Master level, your dog should be one that anyone would be delighted to hunt with at anytime, anywhere.

One problem encountered at the Junior level (and sometimes beyond) is that the participant has never read the rules and has not spent any time working with the dog. They believe the dog will be judged on natural attributes. This is fine to a point, but it is not realistic. Too many of the problems seen at the Junior level fall under the trainability category and show up in a variety of ways. A dog may have done a beautiful job of marking the bird, and then it plays with the bird, drops the bird, or even plays keep away! These are all obedience (training) problems. Working the dog in the yard on basic obedience, then transferring that obedience work to the field should help clean up many of these problems.

In Junior, many persons do not realize that the dog must deliver to hand. The handler lets the dog drop the bird and then reaches down and picks it up himself. This is an automatic zero. If this should happen with your dog, tell the dog to “fetch,” then when the dog picks it up, take it directly from the dog. In a training situation, one should always make the dog sit, hold the bird, and when you reach for the bird and say “drop” or “give,” the dog should release it. In a test, if you are worried that the dog will not sit holding the bird, feel free to take the bird as quickly as possible. It doesn’t look as good, it is not a good habit to establish, but it might mean the difference between a passing score and a failing score. Then, return to the yard and work on obedience! Fetch, hold, and drop are not requests, they are commands, and your dog should respond accordingly.

If your dog is reluctant to return with the bird, or it looks like he might stop and play with the bird, move backwards behind the line (obviously not to the point of being ridiculous) and encourage the dog to come in. You can use a verbal “here,” “heel,” or “come,” or blow a come-in whistle when doing this. Make sure your dog crosses the original line and gets to your side. You cannot go out to the dog and take the bird. Do not start telling the dog what a good dog it is while encouraging it to come to you. It is not a good dog until it crosses the line and willingly delivers the bird to you. Again, if this is a problem, return to the yard and work on your recalls. After picking up the bird, your dog should automatically return directly to you.

Before indicating to the judge that you are ready for the bird to be thrown, make sure your dog is looking at the guns or in that direction. This sounds like a very basic instruction, but at times the dog is looking anywhere but at the guns, and the handler is not paying attention to the dog. The handler is looking out and sees the guns and indicates he is ready, but the dog is looking at something off to one side. Although the gunfire normally gets their attention, occasionally a young dog will be turned around and looking at the gallery as the handler is signaling the judges! When the dog hears the shot, he may well turn back, but could easily miss seeing the bird go down.

“Gentle restraint,” by calmly holding onto the dog’s collar, is allowed to steady the dog; however, the steadier the dog is the more likely it is to mark the fall. Even if you are convinced your dog is rock solid steady, since the rules allow this restraint, don’t let your ego get in the way of common sense, be sure and hold onto the collar. Do not send your dog for the bird until the judge either says “dog” or calls your number. Be sure to send a dog on a command rather than allowing it to go on its own. These are basic things, but in the excitement of being on the line, it is easy to forget them. Try to practice with friends and set up these situations so that you will become more at ease on the line and be able to convey this ease to your dog. Remember, you must be quiet and not speak to or touch your dog (other than your gentle restraint) after signaling for the bird to be thrown or shot.

Generally, a test dog is run first to show handlers what is involved with a test and what problems might arise. The main purpose of a test dog, though, is to make sure the mechanics of the test are working well before a running dog comes to line. It is important to watch the test dog, or at least to watch other dogs run before your turn. This will help prepare you for what you need to do to prevent problems with your dog. This is more important at the advanced levels since in Junior, the marks will consist of singles. If you have any questions about the set up or procedure, ask them after the test dog runs. If there are special instructions, these should be posted in the holding blind so that each handler will have an opportunity to study them. If none are posted and you are still unsure, ask the marshal if the judges issued any special instructions.

Don’t forget to expose your dog to working around and through decoys. Never allow your dog to retrieve a decoy. You will receive a zero if your dog comes back with one. Many types of decoys are used so it is a good idea to buy, borrow, or train around a number of different ones. Get your dog used to shots going off behind it, duck calls from the line and in the field, and to you the handler using a duck call. You should practice entering the water from a boat and returning back into a boat just in case a test such as this is set up. Practice working your dog with a gun in your hand and be aware of what good gun safety is. Never point your gun at a judge, no matter how strong the temptation may be! Even if the gun you are given is made of wood, you will be judged on how you handle it. Treat it as though it is a real, loaded gun capable of injuring or killing another person or your dog. Even though the rules have been changed so that you no longer are required to carry a gun while running Junior in AKC events (it can be required in NAHRA and UKC), still, practicing with one will help to prepare you and your dog for when you move on to Senior hunting tests. Any type of proofing you do will be time well spent to prepare your dog for what it might encounter in a test.

In AKC hunting tests, you may handle on a mark if necessary, but only on one of the marks. If your dog is trained to handle, the handling should be crisp and clean. Once you begin to handle, you should continue handling until your dog picks up the bird.

Courtesy at hunting tests begins with checking in with the marshal when you arrive. Once there, you should stay available, as it is your responsibility to be ready to go to the line when called. It is not the responsibility of the marshal to find you. If you need to go to another stake, be sure to tell the marshal where you are going.

Another courtesy, often forgotten, is when there is a dog on the line and you are in the gallery. You should be as quiet as possible, especially if the gallery is near the line. If you are more interested in talking than watching the dog, move to another area where you cannot interfere with the running dog. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you when you and your dog are the ones on the line.

Do not wear white when in the gallery. Some of the dogs may have run either in field trials or in events where they have to turn to look for someone in white to give them directions. If you are in white, the dog may focus on you rather than on the handler who is in camouflage. If someone is handling a dog, and you might be in the dog’s line of vision, do not move—especially, do not move to the right if, for example, the handler is trying to cast the dog to the left! The judges should position the gallery so no one can stand behind the handler, but sometimes they are a little remiss in regard to this.

Beginning handlers do not always understand the judging and what the judges are looking for in the dogs. A good mark is one in which the dog knows the direction, area, and depth of the fall. It does not necessarily mean pinning the bird (going directly to the bird). A dog that puts up an intelligent hunt in the area of the bird, sticks in there and works it out, has indicated that it is a good marker.

On the other hand, some persons tend to feel their dogs have done a good job of marking if, after spending an inordinate amount of time running about, the dog accidentally comes upon the bird. If this happens on every single mark, it is going to be a judgment call as to whether or not the dog has sufficient marking ability to pass. It may get a good score in perseverance if it stays out there for fifteen minutes looking for one bird, but its marking score will be low. Judges tend to mark “SOB” on the judging sheets for this—stumbled on bird! From a hunting point of view, if the dog is out there for a long time, it is disturbing the area and game. The longer the dog is out there, the more tired it becomes. Other birds may be coming in and leaving while the dog is still hunting for the first bird shot. Some newcomers (as well as some old timers) may be unrealistic in what they feel is a good job done by their own dogs.

Remember, good sportsmanship is a large component of this game. Always thank the judges, no matter what you might feel about the tests they set up. They have given up their time (and sometimes it has cost them money) to be there so you could run the tests. Thank the members of the Club who have worked so hard to put on the test. If, on that particular day, you did not do well, an old obedience adage is “Train; don’t complain.” Make note of your problems and determine what you need to train on to improve your dog’s performance the next time out. If you do feel the judging or the conducting of the hunting test could have been better, get involved with the Club and contribute to the betterment of the next test.

Addendum: The above was written with the AKC Hunting Tests in mind, but the majority of it also would apply to hunting tests put on by other organizations. It is very important that you read the rules, regulations and/or guidelines for any organization in which you have entered a hunting test.