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It’s 6 AM on the second Saturday in March.  It’s dark, and there is a slight chill in the air.  Not cold, but cool enough for a jacket.  I found myself driving south toward Moyock, North Carolina as a guest of the Albemarle Retriever Club where a two-day UKC/HRC sanctioned hunt test was to be administered.

This event was to be held on a vast tract of rural land in Camden County, NC, which is home of the U.S. Training Center, formerly known as Blackwater.  The company provides tactical training experiences for military, security and law enforcement professionals.  Special permission had to be obtained from the security-minded company to allow me to enter the center with my camera equipment.  Although they were very friendly and professional, I was advised to make sure I limited my photography to the event.  Images of their facilities or any training activities were strictly forbidden.

Truth is, I really didn’t need that admonishment.  I spent the better part of two days focused on a group of energetic and active retrievers with their owners/handlers.  I didn’t have the time or energy to do much of anything else.

The Hunting Retriever Club is a non-profit volunteer organization conceived by hunters for hunters.  Affiliated with the United Kennel Club, it strives to create a closer relationship and encourage cooperation between breeders, owners, trainers, and fanciers of hunting retrievers by improving the breeds. It also provides hunters and hunting enthusiasts a method to experience controlled situations very close to actual hunting where they can test their training techniques, provide experience for other hunters, and participate in a sporting competition.

The first difference you notice when attending one of these events is that unlike a field trial, the dogs do not compete against each other, and there are no competitive 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishes.  Rather the dogs are judged pass/fail against a “Hunting Standard.” These are events that are great fun where everyone can root for the other person’s dog and help each other with their training.  The goal is to successfully progress through a series of tests earning titles from “Started Hunting Retriever” to “Grand Hunting Retriever Champion.”

I chose to spend my time with the “started dogs.”  Typically, these are the younger dogs or those just starting the process of obtaining points to gain a title.  The tests were pretty straightforward.  A total of four marked retrieves were required, two on land and two over water each day.

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The “participants” were mostly Labrador Retrievers (black, chocolate and yellow) with a few Chesapeake Bay Retrievers and one Golden Retriever.  Over the two-day period, the judges put the dogs and their handlers through their paces over land and water.  For the most part, they all did well.  Did they all pass and gain those coveted points toward a title?  No, some dogs came up a little short.  Once or twice, the owner came up a little short.   But what they may have lacked in experience, they more than made up for in enthusiasm and the pure joy of being together in the field.  It was obvious that every dog wanted to please his owner.  Unfortunately, there were times when the dog just wasn’t sure what the owner wanted and times when the owner wasn’t quite sure how to effectively communicate his desire to the dog.  For me, it was those occasions that made the event special.  When it was obvious that a dog or handler was struggling and was not going to pass a particular test, the judges would stop and turn the test into a training moment.  They would talk with the owner and offer suggestions.  Sometimes they would call the dog back in and start all over just for practice.  And, when the dog left the line, there were other competitors there to offer help and encouragement.

All in all, it was a fun and relaxed atmosphere where owner and dog could work together as a team.  If you own a retrieving dog, even if you are a non-hunter, I encourage you get to know one of these clubs.  The members of the Albemarle Retriever Club were friendly, knowledgeable, and encouraging.  If you want to make you and your pup a better team…give them a try.

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