The American Kennel Club started their own Hunting Test program, awarding Junior Hunter, Senior Hunter, and Master Hunter titles.
Hunt tests are not limited to one winner, such as in a field trial. Dogs are not judged against other dogs in the trial, but rather against a standard test. If there are 20 dogs entered into a Master Hunter test and they all pass the test, then they all pass the test! However, it’s a rare occasion when more than half the dogs pass a test. According to the AKC,
“Dogs are judged in three divisions: Junior, Senior, and Master. The Junior dog is judged only on marked retrieves, no blinds and the dog need not be steady, but may be held. This is generally the beginning level for most people. Senior is the next step and here the dog in addition to marked retrieves must also be able to deal with relatively easy blind retrieves, honoring another dog’s retrieve, and be steady. Master is the top level and here the dog is required to retrieve difficult marking situations such as three or more birds down prior to being sent to retrieve and be able to honor another dog’s retrieve. The dog in general must exhibit those qualities which must be expected in a truly finished and experienced hunting retriever.
All test levels should be designed to simulate, as nearly as possible, true hunting situations and natural hazards, obstacles, numerous decoys. Hunting equipment and implements should be used to help with this effort. While at the same time the judges must keep in mind that in a hunting “test,” we are testing dogs, not “hunting.” This is quite important as everything that happens while hunting does not necessarily make for a good Hunting Test. Hunting tests shall be open to dogs six months of age or over in all eligible breeds.
Make no mistake about it, even a Junior Hunter title is an achievement. Most Junior Hunters would be the best dog in the kennel for a group of dedicated waterfowl or upland bird hunters. If the dog has been well started at home before he goes to the trainer, it normally takes 2-3 months of professional training to develop a pup into a Junior Hunter.
A Junior Hunter has:
- Reasonable steadiness (doesn’t bolt when a mark is thrown or a bird is shot. The handler may use light restraint, such as a finger under the dog’s collar, while the dog watches marks fall.)
- Force fetch—if the handler calls for a retrieve, the dog retrieves, period, end of story.
- Responds to the whistle.
- Accomplishes two separate marked retrieves on land and two on water.
A dog must pass four separate hunt tests, or “passes”, before the dog is awarded a Junior Hunter title.
The big difference between a Junior Hunter and Senior Hunter dog is that Senior Hunters must have the ability to “handle”, that is, take hand signals from the handler to be maneuvered into making a blind retrieve, that is, a bird whose location the dog doesn’t know. Teaching a dog to handle can take a long time—a couple of months at least—but it’s integral for the goal of a finished gun dog.
A Senior Hunter dog must be able to handle double marked retrieves, as well as a single blind retrieve. The dog must also be able to “honor” another dog, i.e., watch another dog do its work without interfering. The handler may use only a light verbal restraint to bring a dog in line. If a dog has a Junior Hunter title, he can earn a Senior Hunter title with four passes. Without a JH title, it takes five passes.
Once a dog is handling, or taking hand signal casts from a trainer to make a blind retrieve, the difference between Senior Hunter ability and Master Hunter status is simply one of repetition and mastery. A Master Hunter retriever can make longer, more difficult, and trickier marked retrieves. A Master Hunter is not fooled by diversion birds, memory birds, and other tests devised by the judges. A Master Hunter is a confident, well-trained, finished gun dog.
The Master Hunter is capable of multiple marked retrieves—doubles, triples, quads. The dog is handled with no restraints, and there are no controlled “breaks” allowed at all. The dog cannot bolt to retrieve before his name is called. A Master Hunter must be able to accomplish a double blind retrieve either on land or water. In one weekend hunt test, a Master Hunter must pass three separate series of tests to earn one “pass”, and it takes five passes to earn a MH title for dogs that already have a Senior Hunter title, and six passes for those who haven’t passed a Senior Hunter test.
No foolin’, there’s a lot of time and energy devoted to making a Master Hunter dog. Each year’s best Master Hunters are invited to the Master Nationals hunt test by passing 6 Master Hunt tests within a certain time frame that year.