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Dog Field Sports: How to Hunt Without Killing Anything

Originally published: 04/01/2007

Your dog's natural inclinations

Among the American Kennel Club (AKC) breed groups, the Sporting Group is by far the most popular. In 2005, nearly a quarter of a million sporting breed dogs were registered, and this does not count the untold thousands whose owners did not register. In training programs at the R.I. Dog Guy training center in southern New England, 30% of the dogs that participate are sporting breeds or sporting breed mixes; Labrador retrievers and Lab mixes alone constitute more than 20% of the dogs in our classes.

These dogs are bred to hunt. They have been selected for generations to emphasize the ability to find, point, flush, and retrieve game. Even sporting dogs from show lines are likely to display these behaviors to a high degree; those from field lines can be completely consumed by them! While sporting dogs have been increasing in popularity, the number of people who hunt has been declining. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, between 1991 and 2001 (the last year for which comprehensive figures are available) the number of hunters in the United States declined by nearly 10%. And most hunters pursue big game, an activity in which dogs are rarely used. So most sporting breed dogs will never have a chance to participate in the activity for which they were specifically bred.

Toby and Jim work on "non-hunting" skills.

Toby and Jim work on "non-hunting" skills.

The field sports spectrum

Don't be discouraged if you have one of these great sporting dogs but you're not a hunter. You can choose from a variety of field sports, including both organized and individual activities that will put your dog's talents to good use.

Organized field sports are sponsored by dog clubs. These sports involve training dogs to perform actual or simulated hunting tasks. The dogs are then evaluated against each other or against a prescribed standard. Gun dog tasks are categorized by the breed's particular work in the field, which usually falls into one of three general subgroups:

  • Flushing dogs like spaniels search for birds within gunshot range from the hunter. When they locate a bird, they flush it into the air and then retrieve it after it's been shot.
  • Pointing breeds, including those with "pointer" in their name as well as setters and several other breeds, hunt and point game. In the US, hunters flush the game after the pointer dogs have successfully hunted and pointed, while in other countries pointer dogs may flush on command. Pointers must retrieve on both land and water.
  • Retrievers, of course, retrieve! They are used mainly in hunting waterfowl and must bring back birds from long distances, over land and water, in icy conditions, and in difficult terrain. Many retrievers also are good upland hunters.

Some gun dogs are "versatile hunting breeds," defined by the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) as "the dog that is bred and trained to dependably hunt and track game, to retrieve on both land and water, and to track wounded game on both land and water." These dogs include the pointing breeds and the Weimaraner, vizsla, Brittany spaniel, and spinone. The three setter breeds—Gordon, English, and Irish—are also quite versatile, although not included in the NAVHDA registry.

The organized field sports reflect these groupings. At the top of the hierarchy are field trials under the auspices of the AKC. These are competitive affairs, with dog/handler teams surmounting increasingly difficult tasks until one is named the winner. A dog that achieves a series of victories is deemed a "Field Trial Champion." Field trial champions are highly desired for breeding programs and may command very large fees.

Field trials tend to be dominated by a relatively small number of professional and dedicated amateur trainers. Some of these individuals have developed their own training programs, organized around field trial requirements. Most involve using electronic collars and other forceful tools to develop highly reliable performance under very demanding conditions. "Campaigning" a field trial dog is costly and involves much travel.

Another category of field sports is hunt tests. In hunt tests, the dogs are judged not against one another but against a performance standard. Hunt tests are sponsored by the American Kennel Club as well as by other organizations, including the United Kennel Club (UKC), the North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA), and NAVHDA. Most of these organizations award titles at three or four levels. In the AKC system, for example, the titles are Junior Hunter (JH), Senior Hunter (SH), and Master Hunter (MH).

The hunt test standards increase in difficulty as the dog progresses. A JH retrieve test involves two retrieves on land and two in the water at distances up to 100 yards, with distractions typical of an average hunting day. At the MH level, dogs may have to retrieve multiple birds, at distances of hundreds of yards, and in very difficult terrain. They also must find "blind retrieves," locating birds that they have not seen fall by following the directions of the handler. The progression of difficulty is similar for flushing, pointing, and versatile breed hunt tests.

Most of the national breed clubs for sporting dogs also award working certificates. These certifications indicate that the dog has reached at least a minimal level of hunting ability. For example, the working certificate for a golden retriever requires the dog to make two "double retrieves" (picking up two birds in the order indicated by the handler) at distances of about 50 yards on land and in the water.

Not for the birds

A common characteristic of field trials, hunt tests, and working certificates is that the dog is required to work with live or "formerly live" birds. In most of these activities, birds are shot during the tests. This is a turnoff for many dog owners, and undoubtedly limits the participation of family dogs in these sports. There are, however, two programs that families can pursue that involve gun dog tasks, but without the guns.

One such program is run by the Gundog Club, a UK-based club centered around the interests of gun dog owners (www.thegundogclub.co.uk). One of the objectives of the founder, Pippa Mattinson, was to provide options for non-hunters to participate in field activities. The club mission includes as a goal: "To raise standards of skill and behaviour amongst working and pet gundogs. For every gundog fulfilling his potential in the field there are many who fail to do so. Every dog in the field deserves the chance to be a capable member of the team, every pet dog deserves the chance to experience the joys of fieldwork."

In pursuit of this goal, the club has developed a six-level award system, with categories for retrievers, spaniels, and versatile dogs (which the British call HPRs, for hunter-pointer-retriever). The first three award levels can be achieved by working with retrieving dummies rather than actual game. Another advantage of this system is that it begins with relatively simple tasks, with the degree of difficulty increasing in small steps that most handlers can manage with due diligence. This makes the awards more accessible than those of the AKC and other hunt tests in which the "criteria jumps" are much greater. For example, in the Gundog Club program, a Beginner Retriever must:

  • Heel on lead for 20 yards
  • Sit on a single command
  • Stay in position for 2 minutes with the handler 20 yards away
  • Recall on command
  • Retrieve two dummies at 25-30 yards

A Junior Retriever in the Gundog Club program must:

  • Work off lead during the test
  • Heel for 30 yards and stay for 3 minutes
  • Retrieve two dummies at 50 yards
  • Find a dummy dropped surreptitiously by the handler at a short distance
  • Recall and sit on a whistle command

This step up is much more manageable than that in the AKC retriever programs, where the advancement from Junior to Senior levels requires the dog to master longer distances, blind retrieves, directional control from the handler, and steadiness throughout the test. The more closely spaced levels of the Gundog Club program make it well suited for clicker training and other positive methods that depend on shaping behavior by rewarding small increments of behavior.

four dogs

These four dogs, with a little help from their handlers,
recently passed the Gundog Club's Beginner Retriever
test after a short clicker training course. RI Dog Guy
has begun to organize weekend training programs
that culminate in the Beginner, Junior, and
Intermediate tests, so the owners can proudly display
their ribbons and certificates to mark
their accomplishments.

Individual field sports programs

Another way to work with a dog in the field if you are not a hunter is an individual activity that I dub "non-hunting." This sport can range from very simple to very elaborate. Essentially, the dog is trained to carry out hunting tasks, but the training occurs without anything actually being shot. Sporting dogs can be trained to find, point, and retrieve dummies in the backyard. By investing in some equipment, such as dummy launchers or remote bird releasers, the handler can extend the distance and incorporate other tasks such as flushing and steadiness under simulated field conditions.

The pinnacle of non-hunting is to don camouflage or upland hunting garb and take a dog into an area where it would be likely to encounter game. The handler encourages the dog to perform all of the tasks appropriate to its breed and the conditions, but uses reinforcers other than actual prey to reward the dog. Pointers can hunt bird fields for pheasants, hold steady on point, and be rewarded with a treat or a retrieving dummy. Spaniels can flush a bird and chase a "happy bumper." Retrievers can hold their position in the blind, and then find a hidden dummy for a treat or toy.

The "non-hunter" can carry a gun or not, as best suits his or her style and values, and can load the gun with blanks, or "poppers," rather than shot. It may seem silly to hunters, but the experience of taking a sporting dog into the field or marsh at sunrise and collaborating on a challenging task is not to be missed. And, the dog is very likely to be happier and better behaved as a result.

Getting started

Starting out in field sports is much easier now that there are positive alternatives for training. The first steps are to work on basic obedience, especially heeling, stay with distractions, and recalls. Next, there are some specific gun dog skills that can be taught with a clicker or reward marker, by capturing, shaping, and luring. Susan Smith, Mary Emmen, and I recently published Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds, which includes comprehensive sections on learning theory, obedience tasks, record keeping, retrieving, and upland hunting. There are two Yahoo Group online discussion lists related to the book and clicker training principles in general: clicker gundog and PositiveGunDogs. Both are active lists.

Training for field sports will provide endless opportunities to engage your dog's skills and talents. Any one of the following tasks would be a good starting point:

  • Retrieving: It's easy to free-shape a retrieve by successive approximation, starting with looking at a dummy and proceeding in steps through targeting, touching with teeth, taking in the mouth, holding, moving forward, and bringing back. There are good methods for training these behaviors in Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds, as well as in Morgan Spector's Clicker Training for Obedience.
  • Quartering (systematic hunting): Pointing and flushing dogs hunt in a zigzag pattern, and dogs can be trained to do this starting when they are quite young. The handler simply walks with the dog and changes direction, marking and rewarding the dog when he turns to follow. A whistle cue can then be added. After the dog learns the pattern, the handler can hide dummies, or even cheese, at the points where the dog should turn; the dog soon learns that moving in a zigzag is a rewarding activity.
  • Scent games: Sporting dogs naturally hunt by ground or air scent, but this instinct can be sharpened and put on cue by training three tasks: scent matching, scent tracking, and scent discrimination. To start, impregnate an object like a napkin or a retrieving dummy with an intense scent. Bottled bird scents are available from gun dog supply shops. Let the dog sniff the original scent source and then coax it toward the impregnated object, rewarding a successful match. Gradually increase the distance to the object and then hide it in other areas, encouraging the dog to "hunt it up." You can then make a scent trail for the dog to follow, and place other scented items nearby, rewarding the dog when he finds the right one.

Pleasures enhanced, problems resolved

Why bother with all of this training? There are three simple reasons: It's fun, the teamwork that field sports requires deepens the bond between dog and handler, and it's a great way to help resolve those knotty behavior problems that result from lack of exercise, boredom, and inappropriate attention. Try it—you, and especially your dog, will love it!

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About the author
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Jim Barry CPDT, CDBC, is co-author of Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds as well as the editor of the ethics column for the APDT Chronicle of the Dog. Jim conducts private and group field training programs using positive methods. His website is www.ridogguy.com.