July 27, 2023
In the 1970s, Omar Driskill was a full-time field trialer with a kennel full of dogs. He traveled the circuit from his home on Driskill Mountain in North Louisiana, but late in the decade, he became disillusioned. The precision required by modern field trials was creating mechanical dogs, he reckoned, and that required handlers to invest a tremendous amount of training time to win at that elevated level. As it turned out, Driskill wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. In fact, a retriever movement was in the air.
Bill Tarrant, the legendary Gun Dog editor for Field & Stream was among them. In a 1982 column titled “The Mechanical Dog,” Tarrant questioned if field trial requirements were having an adverse effect on dogs and if the training required to make them successful at those levels made them robotic. Richard Wolters, the gun dog columnist for Gun Dog magazine, begged a similar question; was there room for a dog to be titled not as a field trial dog but instead as a hunting retriever champion?
Driskill read both magazine articles and believed there was. In a letter written to the editor of Gun Dog magazine, Driskill said, “I’ve trained over 1,000 retrievers in the last 20 years, and everything Wolters says in that article is true and down to earth. Ninety-eight percent of the people that come to me to get their dogs trained would rather see or get involved in a gun dog stake than the big trials. They want a hunting dog that will love them and work hard for them, not a field trial machine. Congratulations, your magazine is a work of art.”
The stars aligned, for after reading Driskill’s letter Wolters called the handler. Wolters wanted to form a hunting retriever organization, and would Driskill drive to a meeting in Ossining, New York to help create the structure? They met with other stakeholders and hammered out organizational details, rules, and regulations. They called their group the North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA). Driskill ran the first hunt test in 1983 at the Louisiana Hunting Retriever Club outside of Acadia, Louisiana. A whopping 120 dogs were registered.
It came as no surprise that Tarrant attended the event and even wrote about it in his Field & Stream column. “I’m standing in J.D. Blondin’s horse pasture outside Arcadia, Louisiana, watching the most important event in American retriever history and I need a new vocabulary to talk about it. There are 120 Louisiana duck hunters here with their retrievers, and together they’re bird hunting. Not so that they need a license or a duck stamp, but nevertheless hunting. Test hunting, that’s what they’re doing. A test hunt actually duplicates a day’s hunt afield, and the betterment of the retriever breed is the only concern.”
After that article was published, Driskell received over 400 letters in his mailbox. Growth was inevitable, and discussions about forward movement differed and stalled. Many NAHRA stakeholders wanted to align with the American Kennel Club, but Driskill wasn’t one of them. To fulfill his vision in the way he imagined, Driskell shifted to the United Kennel Club, renamed his organization Hunting Retriever Club (HRC) so that it was shorter and faster, and moved on. Bob Rathe, Jr. came along as his Vice President/Secretary, and together with many others they created the standard that exists today. The result is higher quality dogs with factually proven breeding. The AKC continued in a different direction and launched its own hunt test program in 1985.
Domenick Muoio is the United Kennel Club’s Hunt Test and Field Trial Program Manager. He’s getting ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the UKC/HRC relationship. “The introduction of hunt tests has been a resounding success,” he said. “We currently have over 150 nationwide clubs, with new attendees participating every year. In fact, 2023 HRC events attracted the largest number of handlers in the organization’s history. Field trials are about working dogs after hunting season ends. They’re about being outdoors and around like-minded people. Hunt tests are for everyone, and it’s terrific to see so many kids getting involved. At one event I saw a seven-year-old handler earn a Started Hunting Retriever pass. In fact, her dog was the only one to earn a pass that weekend.”
Hunt tests also serve other purposes. “To pass a hunt test requires handlers to push their dogs to reach that next level training,” Muoio said. “Not only do they give handlers a goal but they require handlers to train beyond what a gun dog will normally experience in a hunt. When Opening Day rolls around all dogs are more than ready. Thanks to hunt tests we all speak in a common language. When a dog reaches a particular level we all know his skill sets and if he can run blinds, pick up multiples, honor, be steady and everything else. That’s especially important when breeding so that duck hunters can buy puppies that meet their expectations.”
A lot of clubs hold training days where members can focus on next-level training. Older handlers help younger ones improve, and there always is someone around with wisdom to pass along. UKC makes it easy for a group to start a new club, and the details are on their website. There isn’t a lot of overhead to get a club off the ground, and many other clubs offer help and assistance.
Hunting Retriever Club (HRC) and United Kennel Club (UKC) Hunt Tests
HRC/UKC offers five, ability-based categories. Clothing appropriate to the test is worn, with blaze orange for the Upland Hunter and camouflage for all others. Other gear representative of a real hunting situation is used as well and includes shotguns, boats, paddles, life preservers, motors, stools/chairs, decoys, calls, camo material for blinds and the like. Creating an authentic hunting situation in which the dog works is key.
- Started Hunting Retriever: A Started Hunting Retriever should be able to do a simple dove or waterfowl hunt and retrieve game from land and water.
- Seasoned Hunting Retriever: The Seasoned hunt will have five (5) tests. These five tests shall consist of at least the following: (1) a double-marked land retrieve, (2) a double-marked water retrieve, (3) a walk-up, (4) a blind land retrieve, and (5) a blind water retrieve. Part of the test must include a diversion.
- Finished Hunting Retriever: The Finished hunt will have at least four (4) tests. These four tests shall consist of the following: (1) a triple marked water retrieve, (2) a triple marked land retrieve (either or both of the triple marked water retrieves or the triple marked land retrieves must include an honor), (3) a water blind retrieve, and (4) a land blind retrieve.
- Grand Hunting Retriever: This title is evidence that the hunting retriever has demonstrated versatility and excellence in performing under hunting conditions, ranging from various waterfowl environments found in coastal marshes, inland waterways, flood timber, or western prairies, to upland game conditions while hunting upland birds such as pheasant, grouse, chukar, or doves. The Grand hunting retriever is expected to be steady, be under control at all times and demonstrate an eager and prompt response to all commands with style and precision. The Grand Hunting Retriever Champion should represent the best of the breed.
- Upland Hunting Retriever: The upland game test shall consist of a simulated walk-up hunt, a quartering test, and an optional tracking test. The upland hunting dog must be steady to wing and shot. Honoring of another dog is required. During this test, the dog will be required to locate and retrieve game, as the judges shall direct. II. Quartering. The dog hunts in a radius ideally 10 to 30 yards to the front of the handler. In all cases, a natural flush is preferred.
Points are earned for each pass and roll up to earn one of five titles.
- Started Hunting Retriever (SHR)
- Hunting Retriever (HR)
- Hunting Retriever Champion (HRCH)
- Grand Hunting Retriever Champion (GRHRCH)
- Upland Hunter (UH)
American Kennel Club (AKC) Hunt Tests
The AKC test has three titles: Junior Hunter, Senior Hunter and Master Hunter.
- Junior Hunter Tests: A single marked retrieve on land or water, with dogs being able to be lightly restrained.
- Senior Hunting Tests: Double marked retrieves and simple blind retrieves on land and water as well as honoring the retrieve of another dog.
- Master Hunting Tests: Multiple marked retrieves on land, water, and the combination of the two. One must be a double-blind retrieve. Honoring is required as well as walking at heel when the first bird is thrown.
Super Retriever Series (SRS) Hunt Tests
If you’re successful with UKC and AKC hunt tests, then maybe it’s time to compete in the Super Retriever Series (SRS). Shannon Nardi who owns the SRS, describes it as a hunting retriever competition designed to crown the most athletic dogs. “The Super Retriever Series is a hybrid game to find out just what it states---The Super Retriever---which is the retriever that can do it all. It’s a blend of tests used in field trials, in hunt tests, and in hunting situations, too. Handlers and retrievers work as a team in an advanced level of performance that is competitive and fun.”
There are three categories in which retrievers participate:
- Field Trial. Handlers wear white coats at the line and white coated bird boys are exposed to both retriever and handler before each mark is thrown. A shot in the field is discharged with the thrown marks.
- Hunt Test. Handlers wear camo, black or tan, with marks being accompanied by either a shot from the line or a shot from the field. Distances are to exceed 175 yards.
- Hunt Savvy. Handlers wear camo or hip boots/waders and other hunting attire. Dogs run out of layout blinds, boats or stands through large decoy spreads. To begin the run, multiple shots are fired to mirror a real hunting scenario.
SRS has evolved over the years. “We went from one page of rules in our first year to 20 pages now,” laughed Nardi. “We’re competitive, ours is a tough course, and handlers and dogs have to be good at both field trials and hunt tests. SRS events start after duck season ends and run right up to when it begins. This year in 2023 we are holding 30 events in 32 weeks. They all culminate in the Super Bowl of hunting dog competitions, The SRS Crown Championship.”
Brad Arington of Mossy Pond Retrievers in Patterson, Georgia has been involved in hunt tests since 2003. The Eukanuba pro trainer “started off in the HRC/UKC tests because they’re most like hunting. I run some AKC events which are more technical like a field trial. AKC is more focused on dogs running according to a judging standard like taking a particular line whereas UKC is hunting retriever focused. Campaigning dogs in hunt test programs has gotten to be real popular. You can find three of our pro trainers, Lee Howard, Carter Turner and Josh Rogers working to title dogs just about every weekend. They’re hardworking guys who run 15 dogs each on 4 set ups per day so that they can run between 20 and 40 dogs each weekend. I keep a close eye on pass percentages and watch to make sure our dogs are developing into obedient, stylish gundogs that can compete in any condition with any handler. I’m proud of them, and Carter is currently holding 1st, 2nd, and 3rd for 2023 in the Super Retriever Series Dog/Handler of the Year awards.”
Over the years, Arington’s goals have changed. “I initially got into hunt tests to keep my dogs in excellent condition when we weren’t hunting. A lot of my customers asked if I’d run their dogs in hunt tests, too. These days I train and campaign a lot of client dogs, but I’m also working with owners so they can run their own dogs in tests. It’s a lot of fun when we all come together because we’re from all different regions and walks of life. Some of my customers are Manhattan brokers and traders, others are Texas cowboys, but we all have the same goals. We want to work with our dogs, to run them in hunt tests, and keep them sharp for when hunting season rolls around.”
Forty years later, the hunt test goals remain the same. They’re a fun and simple way to keep dogs in shape for hunting season while establishing a way to enhance each retriever breed. Try one if you haven’t already. These days, it’s a necessity to be surrounded by like-minded people and their dogs.