The NAVHDA Youth Program focuses on fostering meaningful relationships and events to inspire the future of hunting.
The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) youth program originated about six years ago as shared ideas and aspirations between Terry Wilson and Nancy Anisfield of Ugly Dog Hunting, Patti and Blaine Carter of Merrymeeting Kennels and other NAVHDA members at an annual meeting. With the hunting and shooting sports under constant political scrutiny, plummeting license sales and declining hunter numbers, the launch of the NAVHDA youth program was a concept to replenish and revitalize our hunting community at a time of utmost importance. The simple notion that hunters directly contribute to conservation efforts through license, ammunition and firearms sales and through their activities in conservation non-profits, it’s easy to understand why the more hunters we have, the further our conservation efforts can go.
Those involved in NAVHDA have observed firsthand how bird dogs create bird hunters which create conservationists, and just how essential the dogs and the hunting lifestyle become to a family unit. Youngsters would attend NAVHDA dog training and tests with their families, start training their own dogs as teenagers, and later develop into successful handlers and hunters in their adult lives — and everything started and ended with the dogs.
After establishing a framework and core values, the Carters volunteered to host the first NAVHDA youth program at their property in Maine, and Terry created an endowment package to get the program off the ground. Since the first youth event in 2013, the program has expanded to 13 events in the 2018 (not including several events funded entirely by an individual chapter) across North America, from Alaska to Texas to Nova Scotia.
What Are the Goals of the NAVHDA Youth Program?
The goal of the NAVHDA youth program is “to financially support local programs that encourage young members to experience the outdoors, particularly hunting. This, in turn, will foster a lifelong love of the outdoor heritage and lifestyle as well as the values that NAVHDA represents.” From a conservation standpoint, the program aims to generate a passion for hunting and the outdoors at a young age and either retain youth participation via ongoing mentorship or reactivate kids as adult onset hunters when they develop their own means to remain active in hunting and ideally pass down these traditions to their own children and bring the cycle full circle.
The youth program was designed to establish a format to effectively expose young people to the outdoors in a fun and attractive manner, and that driving mechanism is the dogs.
One of the main advantages of the NAVHDA youth program is that the spotlight is on the dogs rather than hunting, firearms, and shooting. The dogs offer a more welcoming invitation to those individuals who have never been around firearms than a straightforward hunting or shooting event. NAVHDA President Dave Trahan mentions, “The biggest benefit is our members having a fun time introducing kids to the outdoors and showing them that it’s not so much about the hunting of game, it’s the enjoyment of watching the dogs work.” He goes on to comment about how inviting the entire family to attend a youth event is a great opportunity to change some of the stigma that surrounds hunters and works to show our culture in a more positive light.
What Does a NAVHDA Youth Program Entail?
As a broadly encompassing term, the NAVHDA youth program operates on a chapter-based platform, whereby individual chapters create events based on their own means and resources. Event funding requests are initiated through an application and review process managed by the NAVHDA Youth Development Committee.
Each chapter offers its own type of event; there is not one kind of shoot or hunt or camp the chapter is obligated to follow. NAVHDA youth program events range from short training workshops to single day events to entire weekend retreats. A few of the fundamental topics of any youth function include at least one of the following: training and care of the versatile hunting dog, firearm safety and shooting sports, hunting ethics, wilderness survival training, outdoor skills, hunting activities or even NAVHDA-based youth training/mock testing. Events are organized and hosted by individual chapters, with volunteer handlers and mentors coming from the chapter or potentially from the community through partnering organizations such as wildlife agencies, youth clubs, shooting ranges, trapping clubs, and other non-profits such as the Ruffed Grouse Society, Pheasants Forever, or Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, to name a few.
Youth participants (age 19 years and under) are recruited by the individual chapters through various means, including print media, social media, newsletters, press releases and often though partnering groups. Chapters will lean on their specific set of resources and outlets to obtain participants (Scout groups, churches, schools, affiliate kennels/dog trainers, etc). The average attendance at a youth event is 20-30 participants with some demonstrations reaching numbers of 300-3,000 attendees.
Parents and family members are commonly invited to attend these events and experience them with their children. Without a parent, family member or mentor, it can be difficult or impossible for young people to remain engaged in hunting activities. The NAVHDA youth program aims to break down those barriers by encouraging parents and families to attend these events and consider adopting the hunting lifestyle as an entire family unit.
Additionally, under the umbrella of the NAVHDA youth program are the Kristin Rieser Youth Handler Clinic and the NAVHDA Youth Testing incentive programs. Both programs are designed specifically for youth NAVHDA members, where these youngsters can obtain additional financial support to pursue their individual dog handling careers and learn more about NAVHDA testing.
What Results Has the NAVHDA Youth Program Produced?
As a whole, the NAVHDA organization has experienced an increase in membership since the implementation of the youth program. As the youth program is designed to expose non-members to the outdoors, many of these individuals circle back and join the organization and develop a sincere passion for hunting and versatile hunting dogs. Since its original inception, the youth program has established the NAVHDA International Youth Committee “to bridge the gap between all the local NAVHDA chapters across North America and the International Executive Council. The committee is in place to manage, help organize, and support all of the efforts across the U.S. and Canada with anything related to youth programs.” The committee is comprised of NAVHDA members who strive to promote the organization’s mission with an emphasis on encouraging the importance of increasing the membership of younger members. It has also been reported that some chapter’s events are so popular and successful they are able to completely self-fund their activities through local donations and fundraisers.
Perhaps the greatest achievements of the NAVHDA youth program are the retained relationships between youth participants and their mentors. Many of the kids that attend spring and summer events are now going hunting this fall with their mentor and their dog. This is so often the missing link between a youth’s first exposure to hunting, their interest to pursue future opportunities and their actual ability to get back out into the field, and NAVHDA members are closing that loop.
Another added benefit of the NAVHDA youth program has been the unintentional synergy and collaboration among similar organizations, namely the Ruffed Grouse Society and Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever, where resources are combined to create effects that are much greater than any one party alone might accomplish. We need all hands on deck when it comes to preserving our hunting legacy. There is a little bit of something for everyone. Maybe it’s the dogs and training, maybe it’s the habitat and wildlife management, maybe it’s the shooting sports, or maybe it’s simply spending quality time with family and friends that is your currency. Regardless of your motivating factor, consider taking your part and inviting someone to join you on your next hunt or training session. It just might make a difference in that person’s life and yours.
Having personally attended the Merrimack Valley NAVHDA youth day it was clear to see how such an event offers the perfect venue to thoroughly convey the various aspects of what compels us to bird hunting and our hunting dogs. Our youth day consisted of a safe gun handling instructional, followed by trap shooting, dog handling lessons and a mentored chukar hunt. After reflecting on the day and gathering testimony from our adolescents, it’s apparent that the goal to expose them to a new outdoor experience was a total success.
Kids who had never been around firearms or bird hunting shared their appreciation for trying something new, overcoming challenges and being proud of their accomplishments. Some of the teens expressed direct intentions to pursue upland hunting and bird dogs in their immediate future and several chapter members extended invitations to reconnect with their mentees during the hunting season. Still other kids who hadn’t bagged a bird in the staged hunt or broken a clay target on the range, something some might consider unsuccessful, had expressed pride and gratitude for their attempts, knowing that sometimes things in life don’t end up the way we want them to. It’s these introductory encounters to hunting that can initiate an enduring enthusiasm and lifelong pursuit of the hunting lifestyle. And once an individual develops a passion for our cherished sporting traditions, the game birds we pursue and the habitat they require, they will fight eagerly to preserve that legacy and become ambassadors for our cause.
How to Get Involved
If you are not currently a member of NAVHDA, the organization invites you to view its website, social media streams or attend an upcoming training day or event near you to see what it represents and how it may benefit you in your own life. If you are a local NAVHDA chapter that would like to organize a youth event or you are NAVHDA youth member who would like to be sponsored in your training, visit the website to obtain the proper application forms and a detailed outline of steps to follow.
If you are an individual, local business owner or simply want to contribute in a different way, NAVHDA gladly accepts monetary and product donations and has a host of fundraising opportunities. You are also welcome to sponsor and support a local youth event near you; visit the website to locate your nearest chapter.
Chris Ingram is a freelance outdoor writer and photojournalist where he lives in Vermont with his wife. As an ardent bird hunter and public lands advocate, his motivations are rooted in sharing information, creating opportunity, promoting kinship, and developing inspiring content in the sporting and conservation communities. Chris works in Outreach & Communications for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department where he hopes to utilize his passion and enthusiasm to strengthen and unite the sporting community and conservation movement. To learn more about Chris and his work, check out Featherwind Creative on social media and visit www.featherwindcreative.com