Hunt Test is a popular activity for hunters and their dogs
Conway Hill falls gently northward, toward the Skagit delta, almost emerald Irish in its lush greenness this time of year. A small stream feeds a series of diked ponds, where the brown spikes of last year’s bullrushes poke defiantly through new growth, home to a pair of red-winged blackbirds.
On one of the dikes a small knot of people gathers, watching intently the scene in front of them. A smallish woman stands on the edge of the dike, facing down-slope, with her arm raised. Sitting at her left side, rigidly at heel, a chocolate Labrador waits for his turn at bat — quivering, leaning far forward, front paws dancing in place, completely oblivious of everything except the spot down the hill where the Very Important Thing is going to happen.
He’s a large dog. Heavy head and massive brown shoulders narrowing to a sprinter’s hips. The eerie yellow eyes of the breed focus narrowly, unwavering, unblinking.
Elizabeth Cousineau, satisfied the big guy is ready, waves her arm.
Seventy-five yards away a shotgun cracks and a bird falls, and Cousineau pulls the pin on her chocolate grenade.
The dog explodes down the hill, running flat-out, ears laid back and tail streaming, in a ruler-straight line toward his "mark." He skids to a stop, nose in the air, turns left once, twice, and finds his prize. Triumphantly, he completes his retrieve, preening, making sure everyone is watching as he returns smartly to heel. Whitney is a bit of a ham.
All of this dog stuff for dog folks plays out under the watchful eyes of Gary Abbott, an Oregon expatriate and now trainer for Brooke and Charlotte Van De Brake, owners of Conway Kennels, west of I-5 and north of Stanwood. The event is one of the two days per week when retriever owners can get together at the kennel’s acreage to run through Hunt Test marks and see if training — either their own or Abbott’s — has improved their dog’s performance.
Hunt Test is a relatively new but rapidly growing recreational retriever discipline, affiliated with the American Kennel Club in most cases, which has moved into the vacuum left by the gentrification of field trialing.
"Formal AKC field trials have been in place since about 1935," Abbott says, "and are perhaps now out of touch with the reality of an average hunter wanting to work his dog. They have become so sophisticated that they keep getting farther away from a realistic hunting scenario. And, it can cost anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 to pay for the full gamut — top pup, professional training, and professional campaigning to a reasonably high level of competition."
Hunt Test, by comparison, attempts to stay blue collar and to more closely approximate real hunting skills and conditions. Dogs are certified Junior, Senior or Master, as judged by proficiency in four or five increasingly difficult levels of retrieves: land, water, live and "blind," including whistle and hand control and other factors. On the local, state and regional level, the discipline is noncompetitive. Dogs don’t compete against other dogs, as in Field Trial, but only against themselves to raise their certification level. There is a national event each year open to Master dogs, however, where places are awarded.
Hunt Test is usually organized through retriever and/or hunting clubs. Cousineau is president of Whistling Wings Hunting Retriever Club, and her husband is president of the older Rainier Hunting Club, affiliated with the AKC. Both are happy to field inquiries about their clubs or the sport, at 206-522-9998.
"The majority of members of both clubs, but not all, are hunters," Elizabeth Cousineau says, "and the majority of retrievers are used in the field. Members are in it for fun, to enjoy watching their dogs work, to train for the hunting season, to keep their dogs trim and disciplined, to mix with others of the same mind, and for a lot of other reasons. It’s a chance to travel and to meet people from the whole spectrum of society, with a common interest."
At the Conway Kennels get-together a week ago, for instance, retired meat cutter Pete Palmus of Marysville, a lifelong hunter and fisherman, worked his black Lab, Millie, toward a Senior designation, while attorney Cindy Bailey of Arlington handled her black Lab, Dinah. Many outdoor-oriented people in this area know Larry Carpenter, owner of Master Marine in Mount Vernon, a salmon fisherman of some renown and a recreational fishing volunteer at the North of Falcon season-setting process. Carpenter is also a hunter, and his Lab, Mattie, was there last week as well, with four legs up on a Master dog designation.
"That’s a hot dog," Cousineau said, admiringly.
"It’s supposed to be noncompetitive, but it’s a tremendous ego-booster when other owners tell you how well your dog is doing, no doubt about it," Palmus added.
The majority of dogs in local clubs are Labradors — yellows, blacks, chocolates — Cousineau said, but there are also golden retrievers, Chesapeakes, and the occasional Irish Water Spaniel. All retriever breeds are welcome, she said.
The club membership gender split is probably approaching 50-50, Abbott said, and the majority of the women also hunt.
"That’s a big change from 15 years ago," he said. "At that point, probably only 10 percent of club members were female."
Abbott is a very intense and very competitive young man, and not afraid to say so.
"My dogs will hunt better, perform better, and command better than somebody else’s, or I’ll know why not," he says, matter-of-factly.
He grew up an avid hunter who wanted better dogs and finally got interested in Hunt Test in Oregon. "I moved up here when the opportunity came along to work with Brooke, who is known as one of the very top field trial trainers in the country," he says, "and I’ll probably try to work toward field trialing myself."
Conway Kennels can accommodate a wide range of retriever-oriented interests, Abbott says, from hunting dog training, obedience, and specific problem dogs, through Hunt Test and on to Field Trialing. They will handle the whole thing, or train the owner to train his or her own dog completely, or almost any combination of the two extremes.
"Probably the most popular arrangement," Abbott says, "is to take a dog for two or more months, and then have the owner come up once or twice a week for a while to work on the rest."
Many dog owners start out wanting a trained hunting dog, Abbott says, which can be basically accomplished in about two months at the kennel. "But what a lot of them find out when they reach that point," he says, "is that they’re almost to a Junior Hunt Test designation, and that Hunt Test can be enjoyed for the seven months of the year that hunting season isn’t open."
The basic cost of training and boarding is $465 per month, Abbott says, and a hunting dog can be turned out for about $1,200. The fee for working with a dog and owner not in the full program, on an occasional basis, is $30 per day.
Contact Conway Kennels at 23846 Haugen Road, Stanwood 98292; phone 360-445-6901.