Bird Dogs & Training  |  08/25/2022


Staff Photo

A primer on what NAVHDA is all about

By Carey Killion

Hunting season, for us, is the reward at the end of many months of training and testing. Some people might wonder why I test when I know my dog hunts?

To answer that question effectively, I think you need a little background about me. I didn’t come to hunting over my dogs via the traditional route. I’d never trained a dog, held a shotgun or gone hunting. Instead, I got a dog as a companion, and all those things followed suit. I’ll never forget finding myself at a NAVHDA training day and seeing my dog point for the first time. I was hooked, and the wheels were set in motion.

Ten years later, I train, test and judge in the NAVHDA system. I firmly believe that I, and my dogs, are better for it. The time spent in the offseason pays dividends come hunting season in more ways than one.


For me, and I think for most who walk through the woods behind a dog, the experience itself is paramount. This simplicity is rooted in cooperation, defined in the NAVHDA Aims, Programs & Test Rules.

Cooperation can be defined as an inherent willingness on the part of the dog to apply its own initiative and special talents while working with the handler in pursuit of a common goal, producing game. When both handler and dog know their tasks, cooperation is an invisible bond cemented with mutual knowledge and trust. Over-dependence on the handler must not be confused with cooperation. The cooperative dog is self-assured, and its work displays a purpose. The intelligent cooperative dog seems to sense his handler’s wishes and movements.

From cooperation comes teamwork, which is judged throughout the NAVHDA Utility Test. It’s as if you and your dog move through the forest or fields like a well-oiled machine, in sync with one another, effortlessly moving forward. The Purpose and Scope of the Utility Test, again from the Aims, Programs & Test Rules.

The Utility Test is designed to test a hunting dog’s usefulness to the on-foot hunter in all phases of hunting both before and after the shot, in field and marsh, and on different species of game. While the dog that is successful in the Natural Ability Test might be likened to a promising young apprentice, the dog that successfully completes the Utility Test will have demonstrated that he is a master, or at the very least a good, solid and reliable journeyman.

This test is a challenging and demanding one, as befits the NAVHDA aim of “fostering, improving, promoting and protecting the versatile hunting dog in North America.” It is not, however, an unreasonable test with unattainable goals. A very large number of fine dogs have already earned prize classifications in NAVHDA Utility Tests. It is interesting to note that the majority of these successful dogs have been owner-trained.

Hunting Dog

A dog trained to the NAVHDA Utility Test elements, including both field and water work, is a pleasure to hunt and live with. In the field, the dog must display the desire and ability to find game for the handler while remaining steady before and after the shot. Field steadiness, first and foremost, is a safety issue. A dog that breaks on the flush and gives chase can spell disaster with a low-flying bird or in the excitement and heat of the moment if multiple gunners are involved. A dog trained in steadiness also provides the hunter the chance to get in position and have a better shot on the bird, which is especially important in thick grouse cover. For those who challenge the concept of steadiness with the argument that the dog should be on the trail of a potentially wounded bird, I would ask which dog has the better mark: the dog busting through cover or the dog standing and focused on the path of the bird?

Retrieves are another focus in both aspects of the test, and with good reason. A dog that can efficiently mark a downed bird, pick it up, and quickly and competently retrieve it to hand ensures that a crippled or wounded bird doesn’t escape. For those of us who also enjoy waterfowl hunting, a Utility dog is an asset, remaining calm and quiet in the blind or in the pursuit of jump-shooting ducks on the water.


When I got my first dogs, I was short on many things. Knowledge, access to land and water to train on, and access to birds topped the list. Joining my local NAVHDA chapter and testing my dogs closed all of those gaps. I met people willing to share their knowledge, and the more effort I put in, the more vested they became in seeing me succeed. Those friendly faces at training days became true friends. We help each other. We hunt together. We share covers. We truly care for one another and our dogs. Some of my closest friends are in my life because I started testing my dogs, and I’ll be hunting with them as soon as the leaves turn.

There’s no doubt that training and test preparation is time-consuming. But the hours spent together, you and your dog, intensifies the bond between you. The dog works for you, and the teamwork becomes evident. At the end of a successful hunt, whether you’re having a drink on the tailgate or relaxing in front of the fire, you can take pride in the work of the day and have memories to keep for a lifetime.

Regardless of the venue you choose, testing your dog provides concrete goals to work toward and a reason to spend more time with your dog. Thanks to the NAVHDA Utility Test, I know I can hunt my dogs alone or with others. They’ll work with me, and for me, and adjust to the cover and terrain. They’ll require minimal handling. I’ll spend my days hunting with great friends, making memories over great dogs. The cooperation and teamwork that we’ve worked on all summer allow me to focus on the sounds of the wind through the trees, the changing colors, and the company I share it with.