The United Kennel Club has sponsored hunting trials almost since its inception in 1898, often in conjunction with hunting clubs. Of the more than 15,000 UKC-licensed events that take place each year, more than 60 percent test dogs’ hunting abilities, training and instinct.

The registry’s hunting programs feature separate trials for Beagles, Coonhounds, Curs and Feists, Hunting Retrievers and Pointing Dogs.

During hunting events, which vary from the nighttime treeing of raccoons to the “running” of a rabbit, “we try to simulate actual hunting conditions,” says Todd Kellam, UKC vice president of hunting programs. Although no wild animals are shot during the events, the UKC supports the right of Americans to bear arms and hunt game.

Beagles, Coonhounds and many other breeds participate in UKC hunting programs. Photo courtesy of United Kennel Club.

Kellam, a longtime hunter, has lived with and trialed most all of the hunting dog types. Although he grew up with retrievers, he moved to pointing dogs as an adult. He’s also hunted with Coonhounds and Beagles. “I’ve had them all,” he says.

Numerous factors attract hunting dog lovers to UKC trials, Kellam says. A big one is the “opportunity to evaluate their dog against others – see how their dog stacks up.” Also, competitors get to spend time with people who have similar interests. Putting hunting titles on their dogs can benefit those who breed. Another big draw, Kellam believes, is that a high percentage of dogs are handled by their owners.

Hunting, whether in a trial or for live game, is very much a family tradition, he adds. “It’s part of their heritage and the things they do with their family, like golf or anything else a family might do together.” It is “very typical” to see a whole family at a hunting event, Kellam says. “We try to keep everything very family-oriented,” he says, so no drinking or betting on trial outcomes is allowed. The UKC has an educational program for kids, events designed just for them, and “you’ll see children participating amongst the adults,” he says. “You’ll see a 12- or 13-year-old-girl out there showing her dog.”

Though no statistics are available, Kellam estimates that close to 100 percent of people who test their dogs at UKC trials, also hunt with their dogs.

For example, he says, every person who enters a dog in a Coonhound “nite hunt” also hunts that dog during the raccoon season. “As many Coonhounds as there are around the U.S., the general public is not very aware of the sport. People have no idea how prevalent it is,” he says.

Beagles on the Scent of a Hare

One of the oldest UKC hunting programs is for Beagles. It tests dogs’ ability to find a wild rabbit then “bring it around” to the handler. Performance Pack trials see up to five dogs, and Large Pack sometimes more than 10, work as a team to locate a rabbit’s trail, find it, then chase it back to their handler and the judge, who scores each dog based on its performance. Hunting Beagle format uses a pointed scorecard system. Each dog works with its own handler for one to two hours, working in a “cast” of three other handlers and dogs. Each dog gets points for identifying a rabbit, for its speed and drive, and for its losses and recoveries. “Some dogs are more suited to one format or other, depending on their speed,” Kellam says.

Hunting Beagle rules are specific and include many offenses for which a dog is eliminated from the test, including going after any animal other than a rabbit.

Hunting events take a variety of forms, including dogs working together and separately. Photo courtesy of United Kennel Club.

The highlights of the trial year for Beagle handlers are the Hunting Beagle National Championships, happening this weekend in Coshocton, Ohio, and the Beagle World Championship in the fall. In 2009 the UKC started a Beagle Youth Series for kids ages 5 to 12 and 13 to 17.

In addition to testing hunting skills, many events include bench shows where dogs are judged based on their conformation to the UKC breed standard. Dogs are gaited, then “presented to the judge while standing on a bench,” Kellam explains, thus the term “bench” show.

Coonhounds Put ‘Em Up a Tree

The Coonhound program is also one of the oldest and the largest by far, Kellam says, with about 4,500 nite hunts per year. That’s almost a third of the UKC’s total hunting events. Seven breeds participate in Coonhound trials: the American Black and Tan Coonhound, American Leopard Hound, Bluetick Coonhound, English Coonhound, Plott Hound, Redbone Coonhound and Treeing Walker Coonhound. To see UKC’s rules for Coonhound events, click here.

Seven Coonhound breeds can participate in nite hunts, searching for raccoons after dark. Photo courtesy of United Kennel Club.

Nite hunts involve four handlers and four dogs going out in the dark of night to see if the dogs can tree a raccoon. As with Beagle Hunts, dogs get points for identifying a raccoon, moving it toward a tree, and once the animal is “treed.”

In a field trial, each dog follows a scent trail laid by spraying a “leather drag” with raccoon, cat or bear scent, then dragging the track. A real animal hide can also be used in conjunction with a leather drag. A live raccoon in a cage or a hide is placed about 25 feet up a pole or tree. Dogs have 15 minutes to follow the track and cross a line 150 feet from the animal or hide. Dogs must then enter a 40-foot diameter circle around the quarry and bark to the judges’ satisfaction. The first dogs to cross the line, move into the circle and bark are awarded points.

Water races are similar to field trials, except that the caged raccoon or hide is suspended over a pond or placed on a float that prevents dogs from coming into contact with the animal or hide.

Autumn Oaks, scheduled in 2012 for Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 in Richmond, Ind., is one of the biggest Coonhound events of the year, Kellam says. Four hundred handlers and 400 dogs will compete in a nite hunt on Friday night, then another 400 on Saturday night. The Winter Classic and Grand American Coonhunt also draw large entries of the seven breeds.

Curs and Feists and Squirrels, Oh, My!

Just last month, in March 2012, UKC-registered dogs of the cur and feist persuasion traveled to Edinburgh, Ind., for the Squirrel Dog World Championship.

A relatively new offering, the 10-year-old Cur/Feist program is similar to that of the Coonhound, with nite hunts that see dogs and handlers out in search of wild raccoons. But these tough little dogs have their own game as well – squirrel. During a daytime squirrel hunt, three dogs and their handlers tree as much wild game as possible in a two-hour timeframe. As with other events, points are awarded based on each dog’s performance. Treeing Contests follow the protocol of Coonhound field trials, with a caged raccoon or hide as the dogs’ target.

All five cur-feist breeds – the Black Mouth Cur, Mountain Cur, Stephens’ Cur, Treeing Cur and the Treeing Feist – and any UKC-registered dog (other than a Coonhound) that loves to follow and corral little critters can enter the events.

Hunting Retrievers on Land and Water

The almost 30-year-old Hunting Retriever Club  partners with the UKC to offer the Hunting Retrievers Program. The HRC is the “dominant force in the hunting-retriever world,” Kellam says. “What makes these events unique is they’re very close to real hunts. Handlers have to handle [their dogs] while handling a firearm,” loaded with blank shells.” The hunters wear camouflage and work out of duck blinds or boats. “They try to exactly simulate a hunt,” he says.

Hunting Retriever trials require dogs to do both land and water retrieves. Photo courtesy of Mark L. Atwater Photography

All breeds in the UKC Gun Dog group, as well as Airedale Terriers, are eligible for the program. Dogs and their handlers can compete in the Started, Seasoned or Finished category. Two types of hunts are simulated: Regular Hunt and Upland Hunt. The dogs “will not compete against each other for placements, but instead will run and be judged against a set test standard,” according to HRC/UKC rules.

In a Started Hunt test, judges look for natural, “rather than trained performance.” It is for “young or inexperienced” dogs. According to the rules, “A Started Hunting Retriever should be able to do a simple dove or waterfowl hunt and retrieve game from land and water.” Each dog must do two land retrieves of no more than 75 yards and two water retrieves of no more than 60 yards.

During a Seasoned Hunt test, judges look for “style and natural ability and evidence that the Seasoned Hunting Retriever exhibits a reasonable degree of control,” according to the rules. The retrieves are longer on both land and water. The five tests include a blind land retrieve and a blind water retrieve, meaning the dog did not see the bird fall. Most dogs in this category have some hunting experience.

For Finished Hunt tests, dogs must “accomplish the tasks required with both style and accuracy. Judges will look for natural ability and a trained performance. The Finished Hunting Retriever must respond promptly to either voice or whistle commands and remain steady and under control at all times.” Land retrieves can be up to 150 yards, and water, 125. Dogs that complete the four tests may qualify for the Hunting Retriever Champion title, or HRCH.

The Spring Grand, scheduled for May 26 to 30, 2012, in Kansasville, Wis., and Fall Grand are the major events of the Hunting Retrievers program.

Pointing Dogs Just Love to Point

The newest UKC hunting program is Pointing Dogs. Its goal is to improve the British pointing breeds – the English Setter, Gordon Setter, English Pointer, Irish Setter and the Irish Red and White Setter – and the Continental pointing breeds – all other pointers accepted by the UKC – by recognizing the breeds’ best representatives.

Pointing breeds sometimes hunt birds released specifically for a trial. Photo courtesy of United Kennel Club.

“It combines the best of both the field trial and the hunt test worlds,” Kellam says.

The Natural Ability Test (TAN) program evaluates under 3-year-old dogs’ natural desire to point, not unlike the Started category in Hunting Retrievers tests.

Pointers’ hunting ability is tested in wild-bird trials (Type W) in which no birds are shot, or liberated-bird trials (Type L), meaning the birds were released specifically for the trial and are shot, and in the Gun Dog or Open Dog divisions. Some trials are run by braces of two dogs. A Champion of the Field title requires placement in both Type W and Type L trials.

To learn more about the Pointing Dogs program, click here.

Kellam wrote this description of a day in the field with Pointers, but because he’s hunted and tested with so many breeds, he’d likely ascribe it to any of the UKC hunting programs: “It’s a day in the sun, in front of friends and family, who may very well have also received credit for good work on the part of their own dogs. For both the novice and the experienced gun dog enthusiast, it just doesn’t get any better than that. And let’s face it, those days don’t come around often enough for most of us to get used to them!”