In June 1983 a visionary group of hunters and retriever lovers met in Mashomac, NY, to start the first nationally organized program aimed at testing the work needed for excellent hunting retrievers. The North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA) was the first of what has become an enormous collection of weekend and national events that test dogs against a standard rather than competing for first place. HRC, AKC, and even SRS joined in the idea. The combined success of all these organizations vastly exceeds what anyone predicted in 1983, and without reducing participation in competitive retriever trials, as some feared at the time. In fact, trials and hunt tests have complimented and supported each other in then unexpected ways. For example, professional trial trainers have helped many hunters learn how to train their dogs to a high level. New hunt test professionals have prospered. Some NAHRA members got bit by the competition bug and have gone even as far as winning an NAFC.
NAHRA is the smallest of the three main programs now, but has remained true to it’s slogan, “Want better retrievers? Test like you hunt.” This was never better illustrated than at the 2021 NAHRA Invitational Field Test held at Chichaqua Wildlife Area in Iowa 16-19 June 2021. Many Iowa hunters seek both upland birds and waterfowl with their retrievers. As I drove in toward the public duck hunting marsh one day during the Invitational, a big Iowa rooster pheasant flew across the road in front of me. I always consider that a good omen and it was again. The Invitational Judges set up excellent tests to simulate a field goose hunt from a lay-out hide with a poison bird blind (they didn’t use real poison, it’s a simulation ;-).), a pheasant hunt, a trail along a marsh that could have been either duck or pheasant, a tough double water blind, and one of the most fun simulated duck hunts I’ve ever seen.
The set-up for the final water marks was held on a public hunting area and the birds were placed to challenge the talent and training of the teams who made it to the sixth test. There were lots of decoys, a big hide for the handler and a judge, and a dog stand positioned out front. My dog had never worked from one of those stands, so it was extra fun for us! The handler and judge in the hide started blowing their duck calls, and true to public hunting, that prompted a worker at the long bird to stand up and yell an insult about setting up too close and then launch the first bird. Dake was really creative with different remarks including, “You ***holes act like you’re from Pennsylvania (one judge’s home State).”, “Did you step on a cat or are you blowing duck calls?”, “I need to take a dump, do you have any toilet paper?” …
That surprise prompted my dog to jump off the stand into a hole where it was harder for her to see the throws. She didn’t break completely and she’s a solid dog used to recovering from unexpected things while hunting. She picked up all the birds clean, though not as crisp as she might have running off a mat. It was great fun and as I leashed her after the test, I yelled back, “You jerks from Fairfax are always causing trouble. I’m calling the Linn County sheriff.” Dake didn’t hear me because someone started a 4 wheeler just then. Anyway, it was only a simulation because a real Iowa public hunt would have degenerated to a shoot-out at that point. Dake received an award at the closing banquet: some toilet paper folded up with “Best Heckler” written on it.
All the hard work of the organizers and helpers allowed knowledgable judges to set memorable tests. We tested like we hunt! There was also a first. NAHRA opened the Invitational to MHs and HRCHs and one of them completed his NAHRA Master Hunting Retriever title at the Invitational. A nice dog deserving an Invitational ribbon and MHR.
The six challenging tests worthy of a well trained hunting retriever and a little extra fun would have made NAHRA’s founders proud. What they started continues making better hunting retrievers.