THREE FORKS — As the clouds parted above the far cliffs at Missouri Headwaters State Park, dawn's first light poured over the golden grasses of the field. Western meadowlarks sang a morning tune from the junipers. Cattails stirred in the light breeze.
A hunter dressed in bright orange followed a gun dog through the thicket, the black and white springer spaniel bounding in and out of the brush with unreal energy. Suddenly, a pheasant flushed and the booming report of a shotgun echoed across the landscape.
You'd swear it was hunting season again.
But the Missouri Headwaters Gun Dog Club's annual retriever hunt test is highly controlled event, much unlike a bird hunt. Here, dogs and handlers are evaluated on the skills that will bring success in the season to come.
“These guys are such a big help,” hunter Ed Woods of Bozeman said recently. “They train you to train your dog.”
During the test, dogs and handlers are measured against a variety of metrics related to real-world hunting scenarios. Judges assess a dog's natural abilities and trained attributes, and a hunter's adherence to gun safety.
“Judges are looking for a dog that will go into deep, dark cover — the thick stuff — to find a bird,” said club member Dave French of Bozeman. “You are looking for a dog that works close, within 20 yards in front and to either side of the hunter.
“You want that dog to naturally find that cover and seek that out themselves,” French said. “It is OK to get some direction from the handler, but that natural ability is the first thing we are looking for.”
Trained attributes, such as staying close, responding to whistles and sitting once a bird is flushed are essential skills for retrievers.
After a bird takes to the wing, you want the “dog to stop so the gunners can have a safe shot,” French said. “If a dog is following too close, you have the danger of shooting at the bird and missing and hitting the dog.”
Once the bird is down, the dog is released to retrieve the bird. Dogs are tested on their ability to find the bird and bring it to their handler.
Judges keep close watch on handlers throughout the event and may disqualify a handler at any time for unsafe use of the gun.
“A lot of the focus is on the dog, but the handler has to play a part in this, and gun safety is a huge part of that,” French said. “I know as a handler myself it has really helped me to pay more attention when I am hunting with a group of people and with dogs, to be cognizant of where the dog is in relation to your shot and where your partners are in relation to where you are at.”
Unlike a field trial, the retriever hunt test is a noncompetitive event in the sense that it is not dog versus dog, but dog versus a standard. Judges may give handlers suggestions and tips on ways to improve. Handlers freely share training advice and methods with other dog owners.
“Watching other dogs and you'll see some people are much better with their dogs than others,” said handler Marty Sweet of Renton, Wash. “You'll pick up a lot of tips.
“The other thing that is important at these tests is that the dogs learn how to behave with a bunch of other dogs and people,” Sweet said. “They have to learn to be socially acceptable.”
Despite the congenial aspects and noncompetitive nature of the hunt test, participating can be stressful.
“You can't help but be a little nervous when everybody's eyes are on you,” French said. “As soon as you let that dog off leash, you have no idea what it is going to do. You could train that dog to be the best dog on the planet, but dogs are dogs.”
Ben Pierce can be reached at email@example.com and 582-2625.