From Scrap Heap to Master Hunting Retriever

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Training a Master Hunting Retriever

This article is the first in a series by Paul Agranoff on raising, training, hunting and competing with hunting Labrador Retrievers.

I came to the world of Retriever games in 2010 after my retirement from 35 years as a classroom teacher. We had gotten a puppy in October of 2009, and my plan was to make this puppy my “retirement dog”. His name is Ti, short for Tiberius (if you watch Star Trek, it came from Captain James Tiberius Kirk to boldly go where no one has gone before). I’ve always had one or two Labrador Retrievers since 1978, but finally had the time and wanted to build a finished retriever. After training this dog from late 2009 through the summer of 2011, I thought we’d try our first Started level hunt test. So, in August of 2011 we did, and failed miserably. Two years of work and I couldn’t get past the first series of a beginner level hunt test. We belonged on the scrap heap with two years of work for nothing. What had I done wrong?

I had read books and watched videos on how to train a Retriever. Resources from Mike Lardy, Bill Hillmann, Richard Wolters, Evan Graham, and many others. I did training at home with this puppy like I’d never done before. I reached out to a local Retriever club and was allowed to train with a group of kind and patient people once a week during the summer. I quickly realized I knew nothing about training a Retriever, even though I’d always had a Retriever for the past 30 years. I thought I was on my way. I was learning new things every week.

After each weekly training session, the group members would talk about how their dogs did at the previous weekend’s test, and what was coming up in future weekend tests. Tests? What are tests? The other trainers explained to me how Retriever clubs hold sanctioned weekend hunt tests to evaluate dog and handler teamwork in the field, as measured against a standard. If you perform at or above the standard you pass the test. If you pass enough tests your dog earns a title. It sounded difficult and foreign to me. I thought I’d pass on this hunt test thing and just focus on training my dog for hunting.

Summer of 2010 had ended, and I didn’t run any tests. I hunted with my dog that fall and trained alone all winter. As summer of 2011 approached, I was told that the evening training group had gotten too big, and there wasn’t room for me to join them. Oh well, I just had to move on and train by myself at home for the summer of 2011. At the end of that summer, I decided I would take a chance and try a hunt test. What have I got to lose? I’ve been training for two years, and I think my dog is pretty darn good. So, I paid my entry fees and entered a Saturday and Sunday pair of NAHRA Started Hunt Tests.

I showed up early Saturday morning at the first hunt test and was pretty nervous. I didn’t see anyone I knew there. I didn’t know what to expect. I found where my stake, Started level, was going to be held. A NAHRA Started hunt test is made up of two parts; a land series and a water series. There are a total of 5 single marks including a combination of either 3 land and two water marks, or 2 land and 3 water marks. I watched the test dog run 3 single marks on land. As I watched the first few dogs run this series, I thought yeah, this is something we could do.

However, when we ran the test, we struggled and did very poorly. Ti would go out when sent on a bird, but had problems returning it to me. He’d drop it, pick it back up, drop it again, pick it back up, and this continued for some time. Before they ran the second series of the test, the marshal read the names of the dogs that were called back for the second series. We were not called back. We had been dropped and were done for the day. I didn’t have the stomach to stay and watch the second series. I had to get out of there knowing we were entered in Sunday’s test. There was no way of fixing our problems before tomorrow.

So, I showed up again the next morning hoping things would be better. What’s Einstein’s definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Well, that was me. Like Saturday, we couldn’t do it. We failed miserably in the first series on Sunday. I hung around for a while, waiting for callbacks and not sure what to do.

The marshal read the callbacks for the second series, and we were not included, again. I felt awful. I had failed again. Children being dragged to the line by their dogs were called back, but we didn’t make it. Two summers of training and I couldn’t even make it to the second series of a Started level hunt test. I was as angry, embarrassed, and frustrated as I’ve ever been in my life. I was done. Get me out of here. No more hunt tests for me. I give up. Just as I was about to leave, one of the judges called out to me. He asked me to come over and talk to them for a minute.

What were they going to say to me? Was I going to get scolded for being so bad? Was I going to hear what a lousy trainer and handler I am? There was nothing I saw that was positive in failing badly two days in a row. One of the judges complimented me on my dog. How his line manners were excellent and how he was steady at the line and focused on the marks. He said my dog did everything right but wouldn’t deliver the birds to my hand. On the way back with the bird he’d drop it, mess around with it, pick it back up, mess around with it some more, and eventually bring it close to me. That is not acceptable in the standards for a qualified Started dog.

His key question was, “have you trained him on force fetch?” I said yes, I have. Well, truth be told I had done what I thought was force fetch, but obviously what I did was not right. He said I had a good dog with lots of potential, but I needed to clean up this force fetch issue. He gave me my “report card”.

So, I took his comments to heart. All winter we worked on force fetch. We worked slowly through the steps of force fetch but worked on it every day. When spring came, I reached out to this judge that had pulled me back and talked to me. He met me and we trained together, and my dog did not drop a single bird. I had successfully taught force fetch. I continued to train with that judge for the next several summers and became good friends.

Going forward, my dog and I ran one Started level hunt test in the spring of 2012 and passed. The rest of that summer we ran Intermediate level tests, and earned a WR (Working Retriever Title), though our blinds were still not pretty. Over the following years we went on to earn NAHRA MHR (Master Hunting Retriever), GMHR (Grand Master Hunting Retriever), and MUR (Master Upland Retriever) titles. In HRC we earned HR (Seasoned Retriever), HRCH (Finished Retriever), and UH (Upland Hunter) titles. Through AKC we earned SH (Senior Hunter) and MH (Master Hunter) titles.

I was at one time literally one minute away from never achieving these goals. I was one minute away from quitting, walking away, and giving up on my retirement dog, but the words and encouragement of one person turned me around to a long and successful hunt test career for my dog. Those words picked us up off the scrap heap and moved us in a different direction of growth and learning that continues today. In the words of behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner, “A failure is not always a mistake. It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”


Paul AgranoffAbout Paul: Paul Agranoff is a member of Team Kinetic, an avid hunter and Retriever trainer, and the Central Region Director for the North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA). You can view his full bio on his Team Kinetic page.

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