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AKC Hunt Tests for Rymans and other Wild Bird dogs?

Knowing that in the past I had judged dozens of AKC Hunt Tests (HTs) as well as trained and ran numerous dogs through all levels, I recently had some folks ask me to talk a bit about HTs relative to ryman-type setters.  HTs were developed by the AKC about 30 years ago and were originally promoted as a way to reach out to hunters who chose not to participate in Field Trials but wanted a venue in which to participate with their dogs. In HTs, dogs are evaluated on tasks expected of pointing dogs such as finding birds, pointing, backing and retrieving.  HTs are not competitions, each dog entered is individually measured for how they perform each of the expected behaviors.  So there are no ‘winners’ or ‘placements’, instead dogs who pass the criteria for their level on that day earn a passing score toward one of the AKC levels of Junior, Senior or Master Hunter.  Four – five passing scores earns a title.

In the first few years hunters did flock to HTs and entries filled quickly. Hunters soon discovered that their experienced hunting dogs could jump straight into Senior or even Master level with just a little formal training. Many skipped the Junior level since the JH expectations were too minimal for their hunting dogs plus too often a brace in JH meant young dogs running amok in a small field with too many pen birds, a recipe for trouble for a wild bird dog.  Over the years HTs became more popular with people who do AKC shows with their pointing dogs. Many of these owners today are not hunters but find it fun to be involved with a type of field work with their dogs.

So do AKC Hunt Tests have a role in helping to evaluate Rymans or other wild bird hunting dogs?  HTs are a way to demonstrate the training level of a dog and they are a way for non-hunters to enjoy some type of field activity and both dog and handler have fun.  But HTs are 15-30 minute runs in prepared fields and utilize pen raised birds which are released for each and every dog that runs, often rocked and tucked into place to be found by the dog.   The HT scenario is not one where the dog is asked to find and pin the only group of birds in a 300 acre CRP field, wild birds who are alive because every day they have outsmarted every other feather & fur predator…  until that dog came along.  HTs are not able to measure how a dog locates a running grouse in the state forest, carefully trailing and working the bird until ruff becomes convinced to hold tight instead of bursting out ahead.  HTs are not able to measure how a dog can handle a 3 hour hunt in the morning and go back out to hunt in the afternoon. HTs cannot begin to measure if this dog is one who, time after time, can find and handle birds when other dogs are coming up empty handed.

So, as a serious hunter my answer is no, HTs do not serve as a good evaluation of the traits and skills necessary in a good wild bird dog and therefore are not useful for evaluating individual dogs or breeding programs.  While HTs might be a fun game for owners and dogs, they fall short in providing a picture or assessment of the innate skills and talent that make a good wild bird dog.  To have and breed good wild bird dogs requires, well, wild birds.

– Lynn Dee Galey

Authors note: When the AKC Hunt Tests first started I ran my hunting dogs for titles at all 3 levels.  Due to my hunting experience I was also frequently asked to judge and have judged all levels dozens of times. After a few years I stopped running my own dogs but continued to judge and went on to run a training group and taught many AKC show enthusiasts how to handle their own dogs in HTs since the original intent was for dogs to be owner trained and handled.  The owners and dogs in my group both enjoyed the HTs and I felt that helping to increase awareness and love of field work was a good thing. A side benefit was that many of the women had never before been around firearms, so I made a point of teaching what safe gun handling looked like and through their enthusiasm and experience in training I am happy to say that most would now say that they are pro-sporting guns.  For the above reasons I am no longer involved with the AKC HTs and instead simply use my resources to hunt my dogs on wild birds across multiple states and species.


  1. Sandra Hudson

    You must have been out of Hunt Tests for many years as the requirements are: four passes for a Junior Hunter, five passes for a Senior Hunter with a Junior title, six passes for a Master Hunter, five with a Senior Hunter title.

    I will agree that Hunt Tests are a fun game to play with your dog and they offer an opportunity to see how your dogs measure up to other breeds. In the area that I compete in many of the dogs running are GSP’s that also are field trial dogs. You won’t do well in the advanced levels with out a dog with exceptional run and drive. You won’t qualify in Juniors with a dog shuffling along out in front of you.

    True the dogs are down for a half hour at Master Level but in that half hour they are expected to find birds, point be steady to wing, shot and fall. Retrieve to hand. Stop to wild flush.
    Honor their brace mate through flushing the bird, shot, fall and retrieve. All of this with a minimum of hacking. Often through multiple finds within the half hour.

    When running one will encounter woodcock, running birds, covey’s of quail, in one case an entire flock of pheasants. The dogs are expected to meet all of the previously enumerated qualifications with perfection.

    This leaves one with a dog that when you take them hunting on wild birds does not disappoint. My MH dog knew how to cut off a running Grouse, he didn’t know or care to him a bird was a bird.

  2. Avatar photo
    October Setters

    Hi Sandy,

    Thanks for your comment on this post. I too read Lynn Dee’s article with interest. Looking at it from a breeder’s perspective I see a different message. Most of the behaviors you describe (“steady to wing, shot and fall. Retrieve to hand. Stop to wild flush. Honor their brace mate through flushing the bird, shot, fall and retrieve.”) are or can be trained, or learned, behaviors that are not part of the dog’s genetic make up, therefore are not necessarily traits you would expect to be produced in its offspring (except possibly the ability to mentally handle a high level of training). In order to identify the best possible candidates for breeding you have to evaluate innate abilities, not learned behaviors. The main take away point for me is that hunt tests do not evaluate the innate abilities required to excel on wild birds so a title can’t tell you if a dog will, or can, handle wild birds. The only way to evaluate that is by seeing the dog handle those birds.

    While it may not seem like a big deal the danger I see is the current proliferation of breeders who are promoting hunt tests as a way to evaluate (or “prove”) their dogs’ hunting ability. You have to be realistic and recognize these activities for what they are. And aren’t. If you don’t hunt your dogs you can’t know if they are good hunting dogs. Period. When breeders decide to substitute hunt tests for actual hunting as a way to evaluate/prove their dogs, those innate abilities will inevitably fall by the wayside. It happened before and it will happen again.

    If your interest is in hunting wild birds you have to look beyond hunt test titles to determine if a dog, a breeding, or a breeder is likely to produce what you are looking for.

    My two cents’ worth…


  3. Avatar photo
    October Setters


    I haven’t picked up Evans’ “Troubles With Bird Dogs” for many years but your comment prompted me to do so this morning. I was pleasantly surprised to find this statement in the first paragraph:
    “no matter how much you develop a dog in the field, what he learns doesn’t affect his offspring”

    and this one on the next page:
    “If he knows what he is doing, the individual breeds only from a sire and dam he has proven or seen proven on the birds on which his dogs are specialists — breeding from experts — and he will not breed the next generation of his strain until they also have been proven to his satisfaction.”

    It’s been so long I’d forgotten reading those comments, which are indeed relevant to the current discussion. These seemingly simple observations are crucial to being successful as a breeder. Identify and evaluate traits necessary for your dogs to excel at their intended purpose. It was true then and it’s still true today.


  4. Rob Marcotte

    Let me start by saying I agree that while HT and NAVHDA test scores are not a perfect way to evaluate potential breeders they are better than nothing. The best scenario would be to hunt a few times with each of the parent dogs. If that isn’t possible you have to take the breeder’s word that their dogs are good hunters. I don’t know about you but I have never met any breeders who said their dogs weren’t good hunters.
    Reading your thoughts on pen raised birds in hunting tests, I am wondering if you do any training at all with pen raised birds prior to putting your dogs on wild birds.
    I am a registered Maine hunting guide and I train with pen raised chukar all summer. There just aren’t enough wild birds for training on around my home in Vermont.
    The biggest problem I see with using pen raised birds is the dogs sometimes creep in and crowd the bird. This won’t work on wild birds. I address this by planting the birds at least 30 minutes before working the dog to ensure a good scent cone. I also utilize electronic launchers. As soon as the dog starts to creep the bird gets launched.
    All this being said, there is absolutely no substitute for wild birds. I read somewhere that it takes 100 bird contacts to make a grouse dog.
    These are just some thoughts from a Griffon owner. I have always admired Rymans and have on occasions put one on pen raised birds.

  5. Avatar photo
    October Setters

    Hi Rob,

    I apologize for taking so long to respond. We spent a month on the road with limited internet access and we’re just getting caught up.

    Yes we use training birds but only on a limited basis. We show pups a few birds and shoot a couple before taking them hunting to get them ready to be shot over in the field. In addition to conditioning to gun fire I feel these early exposures to birds kind of kick start their development, teaching them there are birds to find and point. Ideally we get this done in 3-5 sessions around 6 months of age. After that we only use training birds if we need to staunch up a dog that doesn’t hold point naturally, but only after they’ve learned to handle wild birds and have a season under their belt. Most of our personal dogs never see another training bird after those early sessions.

    The problems you mention with training birds are precisely the reason to avoid using them more than absolutely necessary. You can’t duplicate wild birds with training birds no matter how hard you try. Using traps/releases to simulate birds flushing when a dog gets too close just doesn’t cut it. They need to try getting close on birds that will flush (IE wild birds) to learn they can’t get away with it. Most importantly, the dog needs to learn to make the decision to stop and point on his own. (again, see #3 from my 2/9/2016 response above) Repeated exposure to these birds/set ups teaches the dog to do exactly what you are trying to avoid, creep and get too close to birds. Limit the use of training birds to getting the message across, that he is not allowed to flush the bird. Once he understands that and is trying to point he’ll figure out how close he can get(to wild birds) without any help from us, and he’ll do it really fast. If you insist on “helping” by telling him whoa every time he gets birdy you’ll prevent him from gaining confidence in his own ability to make that decision.

    All that said I think the fact that you are guiding complicates the issue. You have clients you need to produce birds for who may not be terribly dog savvy so you might need to compromise somewhat on performance for the sake of control. For the safety of your dogs if nothing else – it can get hectic in dense cover so the last thing you want is your dog chasing flushed birds.

    Regarding your statement, “while HT and NAVHDA test scores are not a perfect way to evaluate potential breeders they are better than nothing.”, I’m not so sure. When you hear about dogs that require lots of training and dozens of attempts to earn a juniour hunt title, there’s no way to know if the dog you are evaluating is this dog or one that took to it naturally. In and of itself the title doesn’t tell you what you need to know about the dog (even if you believe the test is a useful way to evaluate a dog’s abilities). I agree it’s best to see a dog hunt but that isn’t always possible so you’re stuck with the owner’s opinion. While most (all?) breeders will tell you their dogs are good hunters I doubt you’ll find many who will deceive you to the extent the above dog’s title will. If you hunt, you know when you are talking to someone who doesn’t so you can consider the source when assessing their description of their dogs.

    It’s too bad but there just isn’t a way to quantify the abilities necessary for a dog to excel on wild birds.


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