Labrador retrievers are special gun dogs whose abilities are best proven in an AKC hunt test or in an AKC field trial. However, many dog owners, hunting enthusiasts, and Labrador fans have never been to a hunt test or a field trial and have only a vague notion of how they work.

Let’s explain hunt tests and field trials so that the layman can understand what retrievers can do in the field, and how they compete against one another. Field trials were first developed in America in the 19___’s, as Labrador enthusiasts sought to prove who had the better working retriever. The trialers put together a series of tests that sought to replicate the conditions that a well-trained retriever might encounter in the field. While we might envision a couple of hunters in a duck blind shooting ducks for 50-yard retrieves, the typical field trial has much more complicated situations, with retired gunners, 400-yard double blind retrieves, memory birds, diversion birds, and long marked retrieves.

There are several different classifications of field trial stakes, including Derby, Qualifying, Open All-Age, Limited All-Age, Special All-Age, Restricted All-Age, Amateur All-Age and Owner-Handler Amateur All-Age. Derby stakes are for dogs under two years old, and are for marked retrieves only. The classifications are more than we want to go into here, but suffice it to say, if a dog is running in any of these classes, he’s running with the big dogs.

To win a field championship, a dog must win one field trial (worth 5 points), and amass a total of 10 points. Second place at a field trial is worth 3 points, third is worth 1 point, and fourth place is worth ½ point. Amateur field champions must be handled by an amateur handler, not a professional trainer. In order to win an amateur field championship, a dog must win first place in a field trial, and amass 15 points in various trials, including amateur trials, at which the competition is not as fierce as in the open trials.

In case you’re wondering, this is a very competitive environment. Several big names in field trial training make very large incomes, and a national field championship win can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in stud fees for the owner of the dog. A typical trial will be attended by at least 60 and as many as 100 dogs, and there is only one winner in each two-day trial. It’s a huge accomplishment to make a field champion, and only the best of the best dogs are represented there. To play the field trial game is rather like racing thoroughbred horses—it’s very expensive, only a few horses win, and there’s a lot of glory if you do win. There are perhaps 200 new field champions made each year. Therefore, a breeding from a field champion or national field champion with quality conformation and disposition is worth quite a lot.
Field trial dogs are judged on natural attributes:
Accurate marking, or memory of “falls”
Attention—eagerness and general attitude
Good nose

And acquired attributes (training):
Response to direction
Delivery of the bird

Field trial retrievers are marked down with faults for, among other things:

Freezing—clutching birds in mouth
Reluctance to enter rough cover, water, mud, or ice
Poor style
Popping—looking back to the handler for direction on a marked retrieve
Whining barking
Hard mouth
Out of control
Retrieving decoys
Failure to go on a blind retrieve


There was some fairly strong sentiment in the 1980’s that the field trial game had gotten out of control, and that it was a “rich man’s game” that few hunters could afford to participate in. The tests, said some hunters, were unrealistic and far more convoluted than you’d ever see in the field. It was not an accurate test of the true working dog’s abilities in the field, they said. So a group of concerned hunters got together and designed their own series of tests, and called it the National Hunting Retriever Association (NHRA). The American Kennel Club finally got the message and started their own Hunting Test program, awarding Junior Hunter, Senior Hunter, and Master Hunter titles.

Hunt tests are not limited to one winner, such as in a field trial. Dogs are not judged against other dogs in the trial, but rather against a standard test. If there are 20 dogs entered into a Master Hunter test and they all pass the test, then they all pass the test! However, it’s a rare occasion when more than half the dogs pass a test. According to the AKC,

Dogs are judged in three divisions: Junior, Senior, and Master. The Junior dog is judged only on marked retrieves, no blinds and the dog need not be steady, but may be held. This is generally the beginning level for most people. Senior is the next step and here the dog in addition to marked retrieves must also be able to deal with relatively easy blind retrieves, honoring another dog's retrieve, and be steady. Master is the top level and here the dog is required to retrieve difficult marking situations such as three or more birds down prior to being sent to retrieve and be able to honor another dog's retrieve. The dog in general must exhibit those qualities which must be expected in a truly finished and experienced hunting retriever.
     All test levels should be designed to simulate, as nearly as possible, true hunting situations and natural hazards, obstacles, numerous decoys. Hunting equipment and implements should be used to help with this effort. While at the same time the judges must keep in mind that in a hunting "test," we are testing dogs, not "hunting." This is quite important as everything that happens while hunting does not necessarily make for a good Hunting Test. Hunting tests shall be open to dogs six months of age or over in all eligible breeds: Chesapeake Retriever, Curly-Coated Retriever, Flat-Coated Retriever, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Irish Water Spaniel, Standard Poodle and the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, except that a specialty club formed for any one of the eligible breeds may be approved to hold a Hunting Test in which only that breed may participate.”

Make no mistake about it, even a Junior Hunter title is an achievement. Most Junior Hunters would be the best dog in the kennel for a group of dedicated waterfowl or upland bird hunters. If the dog has been well started at home before he goes to the trainer (see ARTICLE, Labrador retriever training tips), it normally takes 2-3 months of professional training to develop a pup into a Junior Hunter.
A Junior Hunter has:

  • Reasonable steadiness (doesn’t bolt when a mark is thrown or a bird is shot. The handler may use light restraint, such as a finger under the dog’s collar, while the dog watches marks fall.)
  • Force fetch—if the handler calls for a retrieve, the dog retrieves, period, end of story.
  • Responds to the whistle.
  • Accomplishes two marked retrieves on land and two on water.

A dog must pass four separate hunt tests, or “passes”, before the dog is awarded a Junior Hunter title.

The big difference between a Junior Hunter and Senior Hunter dog is that Senior Hunters must have the ability to “handle”, that is, take hand signals from the handler to be maneuvered into making a blind retrieve, that is, a bird whose location the dog doesn’t know. Teaching a dog to handle can take a long time—a couple of months at least—but it’s integral for the goal of a finished gun dog.

A Senior Hunter dog must be able to handle double marked retrieves, as well as a single blind retrieve. The dog must also be able to “honor” another dog, i.e., watch another dog do its work without interfering. The handler may use only a light verbal restraint to bring a dog in line. If a dog has a Junior Hunter title, he can earn a Senior Hunter title with four passes. Without a JH title, it takes five passes.

Once a dog is handling, or taking hand signal casts from a trainer to make a blind retrieve, the difference between Senior Hunter ability and Master Hunter status is simply one of repetition and mastery. A Master Hunter retriever can make longer, more difficult, and trickier marked retrieves. A Master Hunter is not fooled by diversion birds, memory birds, and other tricks devised by the judges. A Master Hunter is a confident, well-trained, finished gun dog.

The Master Hunter is capable of multiple marked retrieves—doubles, triples, quads. The dog is handled with no restraints, and there are no controlled “breaks” allowed at all. The dog cannot bolt to retrieve before his name is called. A Master Hunter must be able to accomplish a double blind retrieve either on land or water. In one weekend hunt test, a Master Hunter must pass three separate series of tests to earn one “pass”, and it takes five passes to earn a MH title for dogs that already have a Senior Hunter title, and six passes for those who haven’t passed a Senior Hunter test.
No foolin’, there’s a lot of time and energy devoted to making a Master Hunter dog. Each year’s best Master Hunters are invited to the Master Nationals hunt test. Lonny Taylor has qualified 10 dogs for the Master Nationals, and four Master National Finalists. Lonny trained “Black Star Smart Smoke”, a Master National Finalist who was inducted into the Master National Hall of Fame, the highest honor for an AKC hunt test dog.


While some trainers don’t want their hunt test dogs spending time with their owners hunting pheasants, chukar, blue grouse, or waterfowl and messing up all the good training work they’ve done, Lonny Taylor sees it differently. “My philosophy is that all the dogs I train are going to be gun dogs, and 95% of them can have some level of success at the hunt test game. To me, all well-trained gun dogs should be good hunt test dogs. I want their owners to take the dogs hunting. It’s what they live for. They thrive on it. If they learn a few bad habits in the field, fine, I’ll tune them up when I get them back after hunting season.

“In the offseason, that gun dog has a chance to continue his work and keep his skills sharp in a hunt test program where he’s tested against an AKC standard.”


A hunt test is typically staged at a hunting club or other sizeable training ground, a place with varied topographical features such as ridges, marshes, ponds, and sometimes woods. A place of 100-300 acres is ideal.

Hunt tests are usually well organized by people who put them on all the time. There are designated parking areas, hospitality tents, porta-potties, and clearly marked areas for Junior Hunter, Senior Hunter, and Master Hunter tests.

You’ll see everything from amateur handlers with one airline crate holding one dog in the back of their pickups to pro trainers with massive diesel pickups with expensive 16-hole dog boxes on the back. Participants usually come from a 3- or 4-state area to run dogs in hunt tests, though sometimes you’ll see trainers from far away. It takes quite a bit of manpower to run a hunt test, and volunteers are always welcome—gunners, bird boys, organizers. You might think this is a man’s world, but there is significant participation by women. People are generally welcoming and respectful and will answer your questions, but realize that their focus will change if it’s their turn to run a dog. Usually 80-100 people will occupy the grounds over a weekend.
Hunt tests are two-day affairs held on weekends. You ought to go to one sometime to acquaint yourself with the trainers, the dogs, the people, and their methods. It’s pretty interesting. Bring a lawnchair, sunscreen, a hat, and a jacket in case of inclement weather. Wear your field boots and take a camera to photograph the dogs you like. A cooler full of drinks and sandwiches is also a good idea.

A typical Senior Hunter test, for example, might involve a dog being brought to the line in front of the judge. Eighty yards away, across an open field, there is a gunner hidden in a line of trees. There is a thrower farther back and 60 yards to the left. As the dog comes to the line, the thrower launches two dead ducks. The dog must sit and mark the retrieves. When his handler sends him, the dog goes out, finds the first duck, and brings it back. As he’s bringing it back, a live duck is launched into the air. A gunner shoots the duck. The dog must mark the fall. After he brings back the first two marked retrieve ducks, the handler sends him for the shot duck. Upon successful completion of these three retrieves, the dog is placed behind a screen where he can’t see a bird boy setting a dead duck in an open field 80 yards away. Once the bird is set, the handler sends the dog and handles the dog until the dog has found the blind retrieve. Once this series is complete, the dog must watch while another dog accomplishes the same feat—“honoring” without bolting into the field to try to take the other dog’s birds away. That’s one series of a Senior Hunt test.

Master Hunter tests are a two-day challenge whereby the dog must pass three separate series of tests before he’s granted one “pass”. A dog can do well in the first two series and then make a mistake on the last bird of the third series, and he won’t make the cut. No “pass” this weekend.


For those dogs that display remarkable talent—marking, handling, taking casts, biddability, trainability—the field trial circuit may be the appropriate venue for competition.

If a dog has cruised through Master Hunter competitions and displays the right talents, you may have a field trial dog on your hands.

The rewards are great with field trial dogs, but realize you’re entering an entirely different venue. Master Hunter tests are difficult, but field trials can be ridiculous, and there is only one winner out of a field of several dozen very capable, highly trained dogs. However, if a dog is very talented and well bred, the work can come easy to the right dog, and the success can come with the right trainer.