Versatile Hunting Dog Federation of Canada (VHDF-Canada) Background Information
This webpage was mounted on January 16, 2016 and last updated on July 14, 2021 by Sheila Schmutz
VHDF-Canada judges provide an evaluation of how a hunting dog in its various stage of development (HAE, AHAE & PE) responds to hunting related stimuli (a field, scent or game bird). The judgement of merit is based on what hunting experience with dogs has shown to be successful in bringing a bird into the bag. This experience that all judges have, is the most powerful tool for judging.
A test protocol is available for each test level. The test descriptions are results oriented, alluding to what typically happens in a hunt. There are very few prescriptions that declare that behaviour x equals score y. The evaluations in the field are provided by experienced and educated judges using their own knowledge as hunters to evaluate behavioural responses. This empowerment of judges to judge instead of merely keeping scores by ticking boxes is fundamental to what we consider VHDF-Canada's successes.
VHDF-Canada provides scores (typically 1-10, with 11 & 12 reserved for extraordinary circumstances) and associated word evaluations such as Excellent, Very Good, etc. There is no pass/fail designation. VHDF-Canada leaves it to breeders and breed clubs to make the best use of these numeric and categorical scales. VHDF-Canada does not presume to know each breed club’s goals. One breed may have its traditional and respected strength in field work, whereas another breed is expected to perform equally well across the entire versatile spectrum. By respecting vive-la-difference within versatile hunting limits, VHDF-Canada feels the North American hunter is best served.
VHDF-Canada and VHDF-USA were created in 2007 to fill a niche that existed in North America despite so many existing trial and testing organizations. An overview can point to the main differences. All of these dog organizations have a proud history and a committed clientele. In VHDF-Canada we believe vive-la-difference and we acknowledge all of these alternatives. This variety offers hunters and dog-sport aficionados a choice. The important part is that hunters should be well informed so they can decide what suits them best.
Field trials: The classic field trials for pointers and retrievers have produced pointing athletes and diligent retrievers. These are working-dog specialists and it is a pure joy to watch them at work.
Hunt-tests: Hunters have recognized that the classic field trials focus on a relatively narrow set of idealized hunting dog traits. To try and return to a broader range of hunting-relevant traits, hunt tests were created for pointers, retrievers and flushers.
The German Jagdgebrauchshundverband (JGHV) was created in 1899 to support German/Austrian breed clubs that created new breeds starting in the 1870s. The goal of the breed clubs was to create a family dog (Hund) that is useful (Gebrauch) for hunting (Jagd) the variety of game available in hunting units (Revier) leased by hunters from municipalities. Other countries on the Continent followed suit, but because of the unit-area (Revier) hunting tradition, the German/Austrian breeds tended to have the greatest breadth in working tasks: before and after the shot, on land and water, for small game, big game and mid-sized predators.
JGHV-affiliated breed clubs have also had a dedicated following and been successful also in North America (e.g. Deutsch Drahthaar, Deutsch Kurzhaar). Their membership is increasing because the breed clubs offer breeders and owners a proven system of testing integrated with breeding. The appeal of JGHV may remain limited because of differences in game species, hunting traditions and laws. For example, for JGHV testing, hunters are asked to train their dogs to retrieve a fox, which they will rarely if ever use in their hunting in North America. Also, especially with declining upland bird populations in Europe, the field portion of testing is difficult to uphold leading to a subtle shift in emphasis toward work after the shot.
In the 1960s, the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) was created to fill the gap between JGHV and the prevailing field trial culture in North America. There was a need to support the newly arriving and increasing use of versatile dogs in North America and to educate hunters on their training and breeding. NAVHDA has become very successful and celebrated after 50-years of testing with 57,374 dogs tested in 2019.
Since 1987 NAVHDA’s orientation has shifted by concentrating on tests heavily laden with obedience, which is a marginally heritable trait and not of primary use for breeders. NAVHDA appeals to hunters and those handling versatile dogs for sport. NAVHDA requires that a dog be registered and also provides registration for puppies but assumes minimal responsibility for breed management or the accuracy of these papers.
VHDF was modeled after JGHV but adapted to North American conditions including: game species and expansive landscape, hunting laws and hunting culture. VHDF is similar to NAVHDA in stressing the importance of an extensive search in the field leading seamlessly into handling game on point, hunting singly or in a brace, and ending with a retrieve of shot birds. VHDF is also similar to NAVHDA and apart from different than JGHV by not including predators in its testing.
VHDF is similar to JGHV by expecting that a dog actually recovers the duck, or comes close to recovering the duck by showing persistent forward progress on the ducks’s track in water or marsh. VHDF, like JGHV, includes blood tracking of big game, but as a separate test. VHDF is furthermore similar to JGHV and unlike NAVHDA by respecting the autonomy of breed clubs who are the authority and in the best position to maintain a breed’s health, working- and conformation standard.
Retrieving of a fox as tested in JGHV demonstrates the highest level of willingness to retrieve. VHDF has chosen instead to evaluate a willingness to retrieve birds in a variety of settings: upland birds and waterfowl, freshly shot and cold, on land and from water, within sight and out of sight of the handler. VHDF-Canada highlights ability tasks for which research has shown a significant degree of heritability. , This emphasis on heritable traits provides a significant tool for breeders, distinct from weakly heritable trained tasks or pure obedience.
VHDF is an asset for hunters as its members teach hunters to train hunting dogs. VHDF is particularly useful for breeders and breed clubs who are interested in producing lines of fully versatile hunting dogs for the variety of hunting that is common in North America. Given the great variety of tasks expected of a VHDF qualified dog, those that excel tend to be capable and intelligent. Intelligent and balanced dogs also make great family companions.
VHDF-Canada has structured its testing to match the stages of development every hunting dog goes through in its life. Some tasks cannot be fully expected of a young dog in HAE and are only examined later, such as hunting in a brace and backing in PE. Other behaviours are expected of a dog in all test stages but the particular behaviour’s expression becomes more mature with age. For example, when a young dog in HAE captures a bird after it had landed exhausted from flight it might fail to bring it cooperatively and rater play keep-away. This can be forgiven in HAE, but not in AHAE or PE.
While desire to hunt satisfies a dog's own primal instinct at some level, cooperation in contrast, is displayed when a dog satisfies the hunter’s interest against the dogs own.
HAE examines still developing, primary hunting behaviours or aptitude in a young dog before extensive training and/or experience can alter these substantially. The test is also a partial measure of the young dog’s promise for breeding.
AHAE While HAE focusses on rudimentary hunting traits (e.g. search on land, tracking and swimming), AHAE examines the extent to which a dog’s instincts can be shaped for the variety hunting tasks that our versatile dogs excel in. Most dogs have also benefitted from some hunting experience at this advanced stage of ability testing. Is the dog on its way to a functional hunter? Has it learned to point cooperatively and to retrieve to hand? Can a dog follow a scent trail on water?
A dog at this stage will show some evidence of shifting on its own from one task smoothly into another and as the hunting situation requires, e.g. from an energetic search to a cautious handling and not flushing a moving game bird.
As with HAE, the advanced evaluation provides advice to the owner. Most importantly, AHAE is a tool for breeders. Dams and sires that consistently produce offspring with high HAE and AHAE scores should be applauded and considered for repeat matings.
PE is a test for the finished versatile hunting dog. The fully trained and experienced PE candidate functions beautifully as a member of the hunting team. At this level, a dog shifts on its own from one behaviour to another as the hunting situation and ethical hunting require.
In the water work example below, dogs progress through HAE, AHAE and PE with increasing water difficulty, ultimately achieving a short-distance blind retrieve. In real life, such a dog can be sent in a chosen direction and it will begin an independent search in that direction until it encounters game. In the VHDF-Canada experience, many versatile dogs have mastered this three-stage progression beautifully.
Owners are encouraged to introduce their dog to water early. The early puppy retrieves would likely involve a floating bumper. As soon as the young dogs are comfortable in water, owners should move beyond the marked retrieve and encourage the young dog to first look for an object. The young dog will begin to enter water using eyesight and shift to using its nose in search of the object. This is the goal of the Waterlove subject in HAE. To provide maximum reward and build desire, an owner might use a frozen bird instead of a bumper.
In AHAE, a dog is expected to enter water with little delay and expand into a water search. By PE, the dog should have learned to execute a medium distance Blind Retrieve that is very useful in hunting waterfowl.
Dogs also undergo stages of development relating to obedience. While a young dog needs to be obedient in daily life for its own safety, VHDF allows the hunting instincts to mature before obedience in hunting is evaluated. In HAE, if a dog is manageable enough to complete test day, it has shown adequate obedience. Even in AHAE the emphasis is on ability and obedience plays a complementary role and enhances function. For example, can a dog’s pointing instinct be coupled with the required obedience to achieve steadiness? Similarly, can a dog’s desire and cooperation to retrieve be moulded sufficiently to achieve delivery to hand? Dogs that lack the mental flexibility to be trainable and obedient, may begin to blink birds instead of becoming steady and damage game or refuse to retrieve altogether.
Finally, VHDF-Canada does not endorse the old adage let the dog have fun and ‘break’ it later. A versatile dog's spirit is best nurtured, not broken. In behaviour-development terms, the notion of canalization suggests that development can take different routes (channels). VHDF-Canada encourages early exposure. Moreover, VHDF-Canada encourages exposure in all of the behavioural patterns a functional hunting dog is expected to exhibit later in life. Therefore, searching for game on land and water, and pointing and tracking are best nurtured together. Dogs can become so entrenched in one pattern or channel (searching with high nose ) that the other behaviour, tracking or searching with a low nose is less well developed. Whether a hunter follows these stages for the purposes of testing and hunting or only hunting, the simultaneous exposures of a young dog in all the facets of HAE is advisable.
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