Hunting Tests – Senior and Master
By Glenda Brown
Originally published in the Nov/Dec 2010 Golden Retriever News.
One of the biggest challenges in advancing from Junior level to competing in Senior is that most people are not aware of just how big a leap it is. In addition to having multiple marks, diversions and blinds are now required and control is essential.
Leash and Collar
The first change in Senior is that you cannot go to the line with a leash or collar on your dog. You can wait in the holding blind with your leash on, but when called to the line, you must remove it from your dog and the leash must either be left behind at the blind or put in your pocket out of sight.
At some point, your dog will be asked to honor another dog’s work. Here, again, control is stressed because if your dog breaks and interferes with another dog, your dog is out. In Senior, you are allowed a controlled break. An example: If your dog tries to leave the line and you can get him back to your side under control without interfering with the running dog, your score will be lower, but you should not be dropped. If you have more than one controlled break, your score will likely be too low for you to pass. It also indicates you have a lot more training to do!
When competing in Master, you may be asked to honor throughout another dog’s work, or possibly two or more dogs may have to work together, with only one dog being sent to retrieve at a time. If your dog breaks in Master, either when the marks are going down or on the honor, you will be dropped. There are no controlled breaks allowed at the Master level.
Diversion birds may be used on a blind retrieve either after the dog has been sent for the blind or when the dog is returning from the blind. On a mark, a diversion bird can only occur while the dog is returning from a retrieve. This is usually termed “a bulldog.” Both of these situations are a test of trainability and generally need a considerable amount of training for a dog to do them well. After completing the blind or retrieving the mark, your dog then must retrieve the diversion bird. Diversion birds are always shot or thrown in front of the dog so the dog can see the bird as it goes up into the air and as it falls.
In addition, there can be diversion shots in both Senior and Master. In a diversion shot, no bird is thrown. Often this shot will occur when the dog is walking to the line or just reaches the line.
In both Senior and Master you will have walk-ups with the dog walking under control at your side while birds are being shot. As the first bird is shot, you may quietly give your dog a sit command and/or whistle command. The judges will tell all the handlers in advance at what point they may give a command.
The important thing is to have your dog under control while walking so that the minute those birds go up you can say “sit” and have your dog in a good position to mark the falls and not break. You do not want your dog looking behind you when the marks are going off in front of you.
Blinds & Handling
Some handlers may have a misconception as to how a blind is judged. They assume that if their dog gets out there and eventually stumbles on a bird, it has run a good blind. Of first importance in a blind is the initial line the dog takes. This does not mean that the dog has to line the blind. It means that if you give your dog a line, it should take that line for a reasonable distance and not peel off to return to an old mark, go to another area, or join the gallery for lunch. If the dog does start towards a previous mark or towards something which offers suction, such as decoys, blow your whistle and handle. At times, handlers do not handle quickly enough. They let their dog get completely off the initial line before they blow their whistle. As a result, they can dig themselves a deep hole in which it may take innumerable whistles and casts to correct the dog, whereas a quick whistle might have gotten the dog back on track immediately.
Judges generally do not judge by the number of whistles blown. They judge as to how the dog is maintaining the initial line and how far the dog varies from this line; whether the dog challenges the blind by taking cover, ditches, and other obstacles on the way to the blind; and just how many whistle and cast refusals there are. Does the dog sit? Is it attentive? Does it take the cast and make progress in the direction of the blind? Judges want to see if the dog is trying to work with the handler, or is it just romping around having a good time, totally out of control.
The cleanest blind is one where you put your dog right on the bird. This is also the safest as far as meeting the requirements of the judges. As you approach the end of the blind with your dog, make sure your dog is in a downwind position so it is able to wind the blind. The number of whistle and cast refusals allowed becomes very stringent when you reach the Master level.
On occasion, you will be faced with a blind which has no obvious marker but where you are sent to an area. The bird is somewhere within this area. Occasionally two trees are used as the boundary, and other times you may even be sent into heavy cover or tules and have to trust your dog to hunt it up at the end. Again, try to put your dog in a position at the end of the blind where it can wind the bird.
In Senior, it is not uncommon to see handlers sending their dog on a blind without lining the dog up correctly. Many times the dogs are not even looking in the direction of the blind. The dog should be brought to the line and given its cue for a blind (such as “dead bird”), and the dog’s spine should be lined up in the direction of the blind. After the spine, the eyes should be lined up. Do not send your dog until it is focused on the correct line. With training and the use of drills, dogs learn to ignore old marks and diversions. Handling is challenging and interesting as you learn to work with and read your dog. You develop a much closer bond as your handling skills improve and advance.
A lot of line work can be done using what could be referred to as “bits and pieces.” If you do not have good grounds or water at home, use whatever you can find. You can work on obstacles such as bushes, logs, ditches, etc. in small increments, teaching your dog the concept of taking a straight line. You can utilize agility/obedience jumps in your yard while running a dog to a pile of bumpers. After a good heavy rain, look for lovely puddles! With time and practice, your dog will realize when it is pointed at something such as cover, a small piece of water, or a log, the purpose is to go through it or over it, and not around it. You can start up close to these obstacles and gradually move back as the light bulb goes on!
Casting can be improved by watching yourself in a mirror. Observe yourself; are you doing something that might be confusing to your dog? Is your right hand and arm moving at the same time you are trying to cast your dog to the left? When training with a friend or friends, have others watch you from the field and see if you are giving clear, informative casts. During training, use the least exaggerated cast possible. If your dog only sees big casts while training, you will have nothing to fall back on in a test situation.
Verbal casts tend to drive the dog back in the direction it was going or wants to go. Verbal is good if your dog is losing momentum, silent casts are best for changing direction. Save the big, walking casts for when you are in a test and are desperate! A comment—often you are not even watching a dog and you can tell the handler is in trouble by the tone of his/her voice and sometimes even the pitch of the whistle. Try to keep any panic from your voice when casting.
It is completely acceptable to handle on a mark in a hunting test. A quick handle is often preferable to a long hunt. Once you begin to handle, you should continue to handle until the dog gets the bird. Some people let their dog hunt and hunt until it is completely out of the area, give it a cast, and let it hunt again. Once you start to handle, get the dog to the bird as quickly as possible. In a test, if you notice that most of the dogs that have run before you have blown through a mark, going out of the area of the fall, be prepared to give a quick whistle if it looks as though your dog might do the same thing. You will have a much cleaner job, and sometimes if you let a dog get too far out of an area, you cannot get them back.
Although it is acceptable to handle on a mark, obviously, if you handle on every mark or a high percentage of the marks, it becomes apparent that your dog is not marking well and can be dropped.
There are different types of handling on a mark. If the dog goes to the area of the fall, indicates it knows a bird is there but can’t come up with it, then at least your dog knew a mark was there before you handled. Whereas, if your dog hasn’t a clue as to where the mark is and indicates this by going in a totally different direction, even though you handle your dog to the mark, the judges will take this into consideration. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, it just means depending on your other work, that it could lower your score enough to not pass on that day.
Water marks deserve special attention at all levels of hunting tests. A hunting dog can cheat the water, but there are marks that if the dog does not take a line through the water, he will not be able to come up with the bird. Avoiding the water can indicate lack of perseverance on the part of the dog, though many times this may be due to insufficient training. There are some cases while hunting where it is unsafe for a dog to go by land rather than water such as dangerous terrain, harmful surfaces, barbed wire fences, etc. This is why your dog should be trained to go by water even if running around the pond looks more inviting. You should be able to handle your dog into water on both marks and blinds. If a dog repeatedly will not handle into the water, it indicates your dog is not only refusing your cast, but also is not working with you as a partner. His respect level for you is not high enough to do what you are asking of him. When you are hunting, the dog must be your partner!
Really Long Marks and Blinds
Handlers tend to be critical of long marks, but there are times when a bird was winged and flew a great distance before going down. Another situation that could create a longer mark is hunting with friends and they shoot a bird that is a distance from you. Hunting test distances should generally stay within the limits set by the rules. If a mark is 125 yards rather than 100 yards, it does not necessarily make the test invalid. Occasionally there are tests where the marks are extremely long for a hunting dog and are not justifiable as a hunting test under the most generous assessment. When training, you do need to work your dog on both marks and blinds that are longer than the distances given in the rule book. With marks, you want to vary the distances so your dog will not always assume they are a certain length. With blinds, if you can have good control on a 200 yard blind, think how much better your control will be on a 100 yard blind.
Quartering and Trailing
Quartering tests with dead birds planted in the field may be used. Sometimes flags are put out and the dog has to cover the area between the flags and show that it knows how to quarter and work within gun range under control. As the dog is working, a bird can be thrown and shot. This works well as a “steady to wing and shot” test and is more controlled and safer for both dog and handler than an actual flushing test may be. There are some good drills for teaching your dog to automatically sit when a bird takes flight and is shot. This will increase steadiness on line as well.
Quartering and trailing tests can be practiced alone. Find a big field, put out dead birds, mark their locations with surveyor’s tape or near an object you will recognize so you will know where they are, and then work on quartering. One thing a pointing dog trainer taught me was that before you begin your quartering, have the dog face you as in the front position in obedience. Then give the dog a command to hunt and signal either towards your right or your left to start the dog. This helps the dog to differentiate between running a blind and quartering.
For trailing tests, tie a bird to a long line, tie this to the end of a long stick or pole so that it is not dragged on top of your tracks, then drag it and hide it in high cover. Then get the dog out and encourage it to “find the bird.” Dogs catch on quickly as to what is wanted. Seed the beginning of the trail with feathers and heavy bird scent. A duck is a good bird to start this with as its scent is so much stronger than a pheasant or a chukar.
The less new things you and your dog have to confront while running a test, the more confident you both will feel. Practice having your dog sit in front of a blind or sit in front of you while you are behind the dog sitting on a bucket. It is amazing how many dogs who are very well trained become disconcerted when they have to be somewhere other than beside their handler. Getting in and out of a boat or running from a boat is another skill set to conquer.
The Big Picture
One of the best things about hunting tests is their non-competitive atmosphere. Everyone should be in there supporting one another and hoping each dog does the best it is capable of doing. If you don’t do well in a test, talk politely to the judges after the tests are completed, if they have the time and are willing. Ask them what they feel your problems were (if you haven’t already figured it out!), and discuss what you can do to overcome these problems. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from this and made some very good friends.
If you do not like the way some of the tests are being set up or judged, get involved and try to see that changes are made to make the tests more valid in your estimation. You can attend clinics, work with potential judges, and join committees. A lot of clubs are looking for people who will help, work at, and chair these tests. Don’t just complain. Constructive criticism is one thing; whining is another.
When a dog has earned the title of Junior Hunter, Senior Hunter, and especially Master Hunter, the owner should be filled with pride. Whenever a dog has not passed a test, the handler can be frustrated and upset, not eager to blame himself or lack of training. But if you, the handler, stop and think realistically about your dog’s performance, would you want the performance of your dog on that particular day to be the standard, or would you rather do more work and have your dog improve his performance. The titles should have meaning, and this only will occur when everyone involved is educated as to what constitutes a good test and when performances are judged according to the standard. Your goal should be work that surpasses the standard, rather than a performance that just earns a passing score.
Addendum: Read and re-read the Rules. For methods to improve your training skills, go through previous issues of the Golden Retriever News, as well as read all the ones offered on the GRCA website at grca.org under “Events” then “Field.” Also, the Field Bibliography there offers recommendations for books, videos, and DVDs which can help enhance your training abilities.