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It seems like just yesterday when I stumbled into the world of hunt tests. At that time, a distinct neophyte (some would say still so) in the world of flushing dog training and handling, I decided that I would try my hand at an AKC hunt test. Having just acquired my English springer spaniel, Dixie, from Tony Roettger - a frequent contributor to The Spaniel Journal - I set off with unabashed enthusiasm and naivetť to my first test in Pennsylvania. The first person I met was Harold Bixby, a delightful gentleman of the old school thoroughly addicted to field bred English cocker spaniels. Harold was just about to take his dog, Millie, an extremely talented English cocker National Field Champion, to the Master Hunter line, but paused to exchange pleasantries as well as help me to understand the AKC hunt test basics. I had entered Dixie in the Junior Hunter category with no earthly idea of what to expect. To say that my inaugural hunt test was a belly flop from the ten-meter board would be a distinct understatement.

After witnessing my own personal debacle on that fine November day, the prospects appeared very good that I could safely count on participating in AKC hunt tests with the same dog for the next ten years before completing the Junior Hunter title. The Master Hunter title was so far beyond our grasp at that point that I gave it little thought. However, Dixie overcame my patent inadequacies as a trainer and handler, and ultimately achieved both the Junior Hunter and Senior Hunter titles. It was when she was on the road to Master Hunter, that I began to think about what I would do with her when (and if) she attained the coveted MH suffix. This led me to begin to explore both the North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA) and the United Kennel Clubís Hunting Retriever Club programs. This is the first installment of a two-part article on the two programs and the opportunities they offer to spaniel owners. Part 1 of this article will center on NAHRA, while part 2 will focus on the Hunting Retriever Clubís program.

"As spaniel enthusiasts, most of us believe that spaniels truly are dogs that can do it all. Moreover, as outdoor men and women, we want our spaniels to do it all."

As many of you know, most spaniel owners with AKC registered dogs have concentrated their focus almost exclusively on American Kennel Club sanctioned hunt tests that are open to AKC registered English springer spaniels, Welsh springer spaniels, English cocker spaniels, American cocker spaniels, Sussex spaniels, clumber spaniels, and field spaniels. The AKC spaniel hunt tests appeared on the hunt test scene in 1988 - roughly three years after the AKC adopted its retriever hunt tests. Here is where the AKCís spaniel program gets interesting. The AKC, unlike the United Kennel Clubís hunts and the North American Hunting Retriever Associationís field test programs, split the spaniel and retriever hunt test programs. At the risk of alienating both spaniel and retriever owners (I have dear friends on both sides of the ledger), I fundamentally believe that there are a lot of similarities between the two breeds. Both breeds are primarily flushing dogs, have a strong retrieving drive, and are capable of upland hunting as well as waterfowling. Where spaniel and retriever owners primarily differ is in the area of training philosophy and breeding for field trials and hunt tests. This is not, unfortunately, an easy division for those dedicated to either breeds, and it has in the past caused some, shall we say, friendly intellectual discord between the advocates of spaniels and retrievers. I for one, believe that divide between spaniels and retrievers is more on the AKC side than either NAHRA or UKC/HRC owing to the separate AKC hunt tests and field trials for spaniels and retrievers. In both NAHRA and UKC/HRC, spaniels and retrievers face the common foe Ė the judge applying a set of standards applicable to both breed categories.

The AKC hunt tests for spaniels are designed to simulate the primarily upland game-hunting scenario a hunter would encounter in pheasant, grouse, or quail hunting. Their purpose is to measure the dogís game finding, flushing, and retrieving abilities in a variety of upland game situations. The philosophy that underpins the AKC Spaniel Hunt Tests program draws very heavily upon what the hunter and dog would experience in the field during a typical day of upland game hunting, with a little emphasis on non-slip retrieving work. This is especially so in the Junior Hunter and Senior Hunter standards. The Master Hunter standards embrace more of the non-slip retriever world in the water blind, but by and large the entire program is upland game hunting centric. Because of these hunt test standards, training programs designed to prepare spaniels for the AKC Hunt Test environment tend to emphasize upland work at the expense of non-slip retriever training.

As spaniel enthusiasts, most of us believe that spaniels truly are dogs that can do it all. Moreover, as outdoor men and women, we want our spaniels to do it all. This is especially true if one notes the decline of traditional upland game birds in the East, South, some areas of the Mid-West, and the North offset to certain extent by the stability or even rise, in some cases, of the waterfowl and the dove populations. We want our spaniels to be capable hunting companions in the duck blind and in the dove fields, as well as solid upland game hunting partners.

Many hunters use the hunt test program to help keep their dogs in shape during the non-hunting months of the year and establish training goals that help the hunter to define a sound training program for both handler and dog. Given the orientation of the AKCís spaniel hunt test, most spaniel training regimes will have to supplement training of finding and flushing upland game birds with non-slip retriever training in order to help a spaniel prepare for the dove fields and duck blinds. The AKC program has served us all very well in terms of providing spaniel owners with goals for training their dogs to extremely high levels of proficiency, and we are all extremely grateful for the AKCís spaniel hunt test program.

"Many hunters use the hunt test program to help keep their dogs in shape during the non-hunting months of the year and establish training goals that help the hunter to define a sound training program for both handler and dog."

However, it is the absence of a level beyond the Master Hunter program at AKC that leaves one thirsting for more hunt test fun. An innovative example of how one breed's organization has approached this vacuum at AKC, is the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association. In May 2003, the ESSFTA adopted a beyond Master Hunter level test called the Master Hunting Dog Excellent (MHDX) program. It is the only spaniel breed organization to have adopted a program at this level, at this time. The MHDX program requires that a dog have an AKC Master Hunter title or at least one point toward its Field Champion or Amateur Field Champion title, and must successfully pass the MHDX test three times in order obtain the MHDX certificate. The requirements for an MHDX certificate are a significant step above the AKC Master Hunter standards, and the MHDX program is one that I am dearly looking forward to participating in with Dixie. Nonetheless, the MHDX is a one-time certificate, and only open at present to English springer spaniels. Once you have the certificate, you and your ESS are done. Other spaniel breeds currently do not have similar programs, although I suspect that other breed organizations likely will adopt the same or a similar MHDX-style test.

Given that AKC titles stop at the Master Hunter level, and that the MHDX certificate program is only available for English springer spaniels, what then does NAHRA offer a spaniel owner that can lead to hunt test enjoyment beyond the Master Hunter level? Letís take a look at the NAHRA program in some detail. NAHRAís field test (their name for a hunt test) program heavily emphasizes the non-slip retrieving aspects of hunting most commonly associated with waterfowl and dove shooting, but it also embraces the upland game hunting aspects, as well. These tests involve simulating a variety of retrieving scenarios designed to test a dogís ability to accomplish marked and unmarked retrieves on land and water. At present, NAHRA is open to all AKC and UKC registered retriever and spaniel breeds. In addition, Boykin spaniels registered with the Boykin Spaniel Society are also eligible to participate in NAHRA field tests and earn titles. Other AKC breeds may apply for and receive a Field Test Number that allows them to participate in field tests. After a dog with an FTN completes the requirements for a specific title, the owner may apply for and receive a specific title.

Part Two to appear in the March-April issue of Spaniel Journal

Chip Schleider

Chip Schleider is an avid amateur spaniel trainer and upland game hunter. He owns four dogs - one English springer spaniel and three English cocker spaniels. His English springer, Dixie, just received her Master Hunter title and is a Started Retriever in NAHRA. He also is marketing executive for a large aerospace company, and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel with a doctorate in international studies from the University of South Carolina. He lives with his wife Door, youngest son Alexander, and two of his gun dogs, Dixie and Arwen, in Great Falls, Virginia. His oldest son, Christian, is an Army First Lieutenant stationed in Iraq.

Chip is the co-author with Tony Roettger of Urban Gun Dogs: Training Flushing Dogs for Home and Field - copies of which can be purchased through the Spaniel Journal Bookstore. He also writes frequently for journals catering to gun dog training.

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