Preparing a Pup for a Natural Ability Test
VHD Magazine Article
This month’s questions arrived from Richard B. Rich asked, “Should you train yourself and/or your dog for the NA test? Simply put, yes! I believe you should prepare both yourself and your dog for the Natural Ability Test. In the February 2008 edition (blue) of NAVHDA’s Aims, Programs and Test Rules book on page 11, the following paragraph is included under the heading Preparing for the Test. “Owners should not fall into the trap of telling themselves that because the Natural Ability Test emphasizes inherited abilities, preparation of the dog is not necessary because it will stand or fall on doing what comes naturally. Such a mistake would be grossly unfair to the dog. It would indeed be a most unusual specimen that could make the transition from whelping box to an acceptable performance in the Natural Ability Test without proper exposure. At a very minimum, it is desirable that the dog should already have been exposed to water and to game in the field. In an effort to nurture/reinforce the pup’s natural instincts and build self-confidence.”
How can a new owner go about educating him or herself on the various aspects of the Natural Ability Test? First, I would suggest visiting NAVHDA’s website, www.navhda.org and finding the nearest local chapter of NAVHDA. One of NAVHDA’s founding principles is to educate all interested persons in the techniques of training versatile hunting dogs. Each local chapter sponsors training days. Here there are many members willing to share their knowledge and help new members learn how to expose, train, condition or prepare their dogs for all levels of NAVHDA testing. Dedicated, volunteer chapter members are the strength of NAVHDA. These people willingly spend their time and energy helping new handlers develop skill sets necessary to train their own hunting dogs.
Second, I would suggest attending a Handler Clinic. Here participants will learn what judges are looking for at each level of NAVHDA Testing. Attendees will learn how the score cards work and then get the opportunity to evaluate dogs in the various aspects of each test. This is an excellent opportunity to learn about the NAVHDA Natural Ability Test, the three events comprising the test, what dog behaviors are expected in each event, and guidelines on handling your dog in each segment.
Third, I would suggest reading. Start with The Training and Care of the Versatile Hunting Dog by Sigbot Winterhelt and Edward Bailey (AKA the “Green Book”). Basic Gun Dog Training by Bob West, How to Help Gun Dogs Train Themselves by Joan Bailey and Best Way to Train your Gun Dog – The Delmar Smith Method by Bill Tarrant are all fine choices to add to your collection and offer a wealth of information. The final booklet I would recommend is the NAVHDA Aims, Programs and Test Rules. The Aims booklet will give you an overview of the common areas of evaluation in all levels of tests and the specific sections of each individual test, Natural Ability, Utility Prep, Utility or Invitational.
A final thought on educating yourself: you will meet many excellent trainers and read many fine books. Learn as much as you can from each source. Take this knowledge, incorporate the ideas and techniques within your personality and plan an approach for how you can best prepare your dog to become the hunting companion you want.
Now what about the NA test and your pup! There are basically three phases to the Natural Ability Test: the field, water and track. In addition, the evaluation of the dog’s physical characteristics (a courtesy service that does not effect the dog’s score) usually occurs while the dog is on lead, after the dog has completed the water test and while the coat is still wet.
Soon after the start of the 20 minute field portion of the NA test, at two random points a judge will call for one round of twelve gauge blank ammunition to be fired. The dog will be evaluated for its reaction to gunfire. To think that this is the first time a NA dog has been exposed to gunfire is unbelievable to me…but it happens! Handlers should follow a plan of gradually increasing a dog’s exposure to loud noises, blank pistols, and shotguns.
A pup should display enthusiasm and enough independence to move away from the handler and search for game. The dog should demonstrate a willingness to investigate likely cover to find game. The search should be purposeful. How can a pup exhibit these types of behaviors if it has not been repeatedly exposed to various field conditions?
The dog, when it finds game as a result of its field search, is expected to point game! Yes, pointing is an inherited trait. If a dog has never seen or smelled a quail or chukar prior to the NA Test, is a fair evaluation of the dog’s pointing abilities possible? I believe it is the owner/handler’s job to help nurture and display the inherited traits by repeatedly exposing the dog to birds in the field prior to the NA Test.
The dog’s ability to use its nose and concentrate on a track permits it to recover crippled game capable of running long distances. Usually pheasants are used to lay the track although chukar may be substituted. The primary flight feathers of one wing are pulled rendering the bird flightless. A pile of soft breast feathers marks the starting spot of the track. The bird is released and permitted to run off downwind. The NA dog is then shown the feather pile by the handler and after a few steps down the track the handler releases the dog to follow the track. A dog that has never been exposed to a tracking situation before is at a great disadvantage. It would be an exceptional animal that shown a feather pile for the first time, knew that it was to use its nose and concentrate and follow the scent trail left by the bird. I believe it is in the dog’s best interest to be exposed to sets of scenarios (training opportunities) that will allow the dog to develop the skills necessary to complete a track successfully.
A truly versatile hunting dog must possess the desire and confidence to swim. During the Natural Ability Test the dog is expected to make a forward moving entry into the water and swim two times. A selection of dummies is provided by the host chapter. The handler selects a dummy and throws it out to a distance indicated by the judging team that would allow the dog to demonstrate that it is swimming. Retrieving is not scored. The dog must demonstrate that it has the desire and self confidence to swim twice. In the September 2008 issue of the Versatile Hunting Magazine, Richard Biby interviewed two NAVHDA members, Tracy Harmeyer and Al Burkhart, detailing their techniques on introducing puppies to water. It would be unfair to a pup to arrive at a NA Test and not have had prior exposure to swimming depth water or dummies.
Should you train yourself and/or your dog for the Natural Ability Test? Yes, definitely both! When you bring your new puppy home at seven to ten weeks of age you have accepted the responsibility to nurture that pup as it grows and develops into a mature hunting dog. These responsibilities include not only providing food, shelter and medical care but exposure to, training for and experience with birds, fields, guns and water. Enjoy the journey.