Or, That Time I Drove 900 Miles for a Dog Test
I popped an antacid into my mouth and tossed a second one to Joe. It was indecently early in southeast Idaho and our nerves were already frayed. We’d left home two days ago to drive across the better part of two states to attend a puppy test. Despite years of smugly watching friends drive all over the state for kids’ soccer tournaments while I enjoyed the freedom of making my own plans, I was suddenly doing the same thing – except in my case, it was for my dog.
The decision to enter the pup (Deutsch Langhaar) in this test was borne partially out of commitment and partially out of a desire to keep up on our training goals ahead of her first “real” hunting season. We’d committed to the breeder that we would run the pup through the Verbands-Jugend-Prüfung (VJP), which is the spring puppy test administered by the German Versatile Hunting Dog Association (JGHV). The VJP is very similar to the NAVHDA Natural Ability test. And no, I never thought a dog would teach me a foreign language.
We set out for the rural test grounds in the pre-dawn darkness. We had no idea what to expect, which was exceptionally troubling to two engineers who are used to having a plan. We’d read the test booklet and knew what the young pup would be evaluated on, but without any firsthand experience, it was tough to imagine how the day would go.
The test concept was quite simple. Each puppy was asked to demonstrate a search in a field, an ability to track a live jackrabbit, and an ability to point a planted chukar. They were each given multiple opportunities for a fair evaluation, which also included general topics such as cooperation, desire, and use-of-nose. Aside from some very basic obedience and early exposure to game, there was really no pressure on the handler for this test. This was all about allowing the dogs to demonstrate their natural skills. Furthermore, both NAVHDA and JGHV tests are all about measuring against a standard, rather than a competition between dogs. There’s no need to be better than anyone else – you’re just looking for a score that reflects the assessment of your dog’s abilities. Easy, right? Pass the Tums.
We of course knew our wonderpup was pretty much perfect, so we had high hopes for the day. Her sister had already gotten an impressive score in an earlier test. I indulged in imagining the satisfaction in surpassing that score (again, not a competition). For a highly competitive person with a wide perfectionist streak, how could pinning my hopes on a 10-month-old puppy possibly go wrong?
Oh, it could.
The first big hurdle for us was the landscape. The lush, green forests of western Washington had given way to dry sage desert about 700 miles ago. Snakes lounged in the sun while cacti offered a sharp rebuke to any careless paw placement. This certainly did not look anything like home.
The second hurdle was the pup’s conditioning. She’d been training in the cool, damp environment of the Pacific Northwest. Suddenly it was hot and dry in the desert, and she was quickly out of gas. I felt for her as she slowed her search to a thoughtful meander. She showed deep interest in grasshoppers and flowers. She did point the planted bird, but never would have caught up to a wild bird at that pace.
In the end, the pup got a passing score, but not exceptional results. I was disappointed but certainly not disheartened – after all, I love our sweet pup and still think she’s awfully perfect anyway!
In retrospect – where I do all my best reasoning – it was really nice to have a fair evaluation of what we should work on over the summer. We certainly needed to improve her conditioning (and let’s be honest, ours too) to ensure she can hunt for long days afield. I also gained an appreciation for the importance of exposing dogs to varied terrain. Skills learned on green grass don’t readily transfer to dry desert – and we definitely won’t be hunting on green lawns this fall!
Because we have a relationship with our local NAVHDA chapter, we also entered the pup into the Natural Ability test a few weeks later. We figured it would be a good chance to re-check some of the weak spots and keep us honest in our training goals. Sure enough, the work paid off and the pup achieved a perfect score. I know it’s not a competition but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the redemption felt great! More importantly, I learned how to relax, have fun, and enjoy watching the dogs do what they were meant to do.
The decision to test or compete is obviously a personal one and there’s no right answer for everyone. I found the experience challenging on a personal level because I can be so competitive – and there’s not much you can do when the pup is having an off day. Through the testing, we connected with an amazing community of like-minded people and have genuinely enjoyed the new friendships. More than anything else, I gained an appreciation for how much the training and testing experience strengthens the bond between dog and handler, which for me is kind of the whole point of this crazy hobby.
We’ve committed to run in the next level of testing this fall, so we’ve been busy all summer with training and learning new things. The ultimate goal is a hunt-ready dog for the upcoming bird season.
In the meantime, we’re having a lot of fun growing together along the way.
Jennifer Wapenski is the managing editor of Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine and co-host of the Hunting Dog Confidential podcast. She has a lifelong passion for the outdoors, dogs, and wildlife; as an adult, she discovered that upland bird and waterfowl hunting were natural extensions of these pursuits. Jennifer lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two Deutsch Langhaars.