Now that the NAVHDA Utility Test is finally over, my goal this fall and winter is to enter Zara into some AKC Master Hunter tests and hopefully earn her MH title. Last winter, we ran in Senior Hunter tests. There’s a big enough difference between Senior and Master Hunter that we have some things to clean up and prepare for.

Backing

At the Master level, dogs must stop and back when their bracemate is on point without a command. At the Senior level, you can command them into a back (for example, by giving a “whoa” command when they can see the other dog). I actually found it hard to set up Zara correctly for a commanded back during the tests, so I’m hoping this part will be less stressful once she grasps the concept. Backing is the main thing we need to work on right now. We started doing some of this last spring and I think Zara was beginning to understand the concept. But then COVID-19 hit and we didn’t work on backing for six months.

I just met up with a fellow NAVHDA member last week to try some backing with his GSP. We set up several electronic launchers with pigeons in them. When the GSP went on point, I called Zara into the vicinity. If she didn’t stop as soon as she saw him, we launched the birds. Since she understands that a bird flushing means “stop and don’t move,” this caused her to stop. The third time the other dog went on point, she stopped on her own and backed him. I was excited to see this progress, so hopefully she’s beginning to understand the idea.

Stop to Flush

During Master Hunter tests, if a dog accidentally bumps a bird and causes it to fly, they are required to “stop to flush.” They have to do this without a command from the handler. This is the main concept I have been working on with Zara since we started training at our bird dog club in January. She should stop to flush automatically, but I’ve noticed that she is sometimes slow to do it if I’m not close to her. I will continue working on this and try to do it in different areas besides the bird dog club where we train.

Zara stops to flush.

Steadiness

Dogs are required to be steady through the flush, shot, and fall of the bird at the MH level. They must remain steady until the handler releases them to retrieve the bird. This is not my main concern with Zara, because she was steady until release even during our Senior Hunter tests last winter. However, she seemed to have a relapse during the Utility Test a few weeks ago and was trying to break on the shot. Sigh. So clearly I need to reinforce her steadiness some more.

Retrieving

As I discussed in my blog post about retrieving, Zara has a tendency to want to do a “victory lap” with a shot bird instead of bringing it right to me. I often have to give her one or two extra commands to get her to come directly to me. I’m guessing that this is not going to fly in Master Hunter tests, because you are supposed to give as few commands as possible. I will continue to work on retrieving drills with her to reduce this behavior.

Zara retrieving

Zara retrieves a chukar. Photo by Issac Turton.

Heeling

While heeling is not something that is specifically judged at hunt tests (unlike in Utility), it’s an important skill at the Senior and Master levels. Since most tests have a back course where no birds are planted and a bird field where birds are planted, the official gunners often hang out and wait for the handlers, dogs, and judges to arrive at the bird field before walking with the group. That means, if birds migrate to the back course, they will not be shot. This did happen to us last year. If the dog points a bird on the back course, the handler has to flush it and shoot their blank pistol, but the bird will fly away. Since the dog will not be retrieving, you need a way to reorient the dog away from the bird so that it doesn’t engage in a “delayed chase” where it goes running in the direction of the bird after it’s released.

This is where heeling comes in. The handler should be able to walk up to the dog and heel it in the opposite direction from the bird without touching it or giving more than one command. I have practiced this with Zara lot, but when she’s amped up in a test environment, her heeling becomes a bit loose. I’ll keep working on it, though.

MH, Here We Come!

I’m hopeful that Zara will be able to earn her Master Hunter title this season. Since she already has a Senior Hunter title, she will need five passes. (If you don’t have a SH title, you need six passes). I’m anticipating that we will need to enter more than five tests to earn the title, though. Last year it took us six tries to get four Senior passes. I’ve talked to some other people who have ran in Master Hunter tests and it seems like the judges can be pretty strict. But I like ambitious goals, so we’ll give it a shot. Have you competed in Master Hunter tests with your dog? Leave me a comment below.

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