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.