Hunting test holds dogs to high standards

To say that Sam is excited would be a gross understatement, and anyone who says Sam would rather be curled up on the couch or lying in the shade is out of touch with reality.

Like a well-trained athlete assuming the starting position for the 100-meter dash, Sam leans forward at the line. With muscles in her powerful legs quivering with anticipation, it is all Sam can do to restrain herself. She scans once more the water and flooded brush before her. Then, with eager eyes, Sam steals a glance at the man standing next to her and breaks the quiet with a sharp, high-pitched bark, almost as if to say, “Let’s go! I can’t take this waiting much longer!”

Suddenly a gun barks. And then another. Each shot is followed by the splash of a duck as it falls into the water, one far to the left and the other to the right. Sam’s quivering intensifies. The man leans down and quietly calls Sam’s name. Like a sprinter exploding from the blocks, she drives forward and powers her way into the water, following an undeviating course to the first bird. With no wasted steps, she covers the ground quickly and returns with the bird. After delivering it to the man’s hand, she repeats the process with the second bird.

Sam is a 6-year-old Labrador retriever and one of 70 dogs to participate in an American Kennel Club-licensed hunting test Saturday and Sunday at Overton Wildlife Management Area and sponsored by the Las Vegas Hunting Retriever Club. She went on to retrieve two more birds on “blind retrieves,” which means she didn’t see the birds fall and couldn’t mark, or remember, where they had fallen. Sam found the birds by following directions provided through a combination of whistle blasts and hand commands.

The man at her side and the one providing those commands is Lance Sennette of Phoenix, Sam’s owner and handler. He began training retrievers in 1968, and though I am impressed with Sam’s performance, the disappointment on Sennette’s face is easy to see.

“The field work is fantastic. She’s a fantastic marking retriever, but the line work … you know, she crept at the line about 8 or 10 feet,” Sennette says. “That is a little discouraging.”

Sam and the other dogs are supposed to sit beside their handlers while the birds go down and wait until the handlers release them. Sam “moved out 8 feet in front of me,” Sennette says. Those extra steps and the high-pitched barks that evidenced her enthusiasm and first caught my attention cost Sam in the end. She was one of 12 dogs testing in her category that failed to pass. But I still am impressed, not only with her ability to find and retrieve birds in the field but also with the love she exhibited for the field work.

There are no first-, second- or third-place finishers in the A.K.C. hunting test, only dogs that pass and ones that don’t. According to the A.K.C. procedure manual, “Hunting tests provide owners with the means to have the hunting abilities of their dogs evaluated and graded against written hunting standards, without competition, under simulated but near-natural hunting conditions.”

A panel of judges scores the dogs on their natural abilities, such as marking downed birds, style, perseverance, courage, hunting and trainability. The latter is evidenced by their steadiness, control, response to commands and delivery of the bird. The dogs test at Junior, Senior and Master levels.

During last weekend’s test, 23 dogs passed at the Master level, 11 at the Senior level and 13 at the Junior level.

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Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at

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