Preparation for the Natural Ability Test (NAT)
Updated 11 March, 2008, Jake Overton
The NAT is designed to test natural ability of dogs in some basic skills required of the versatile hunting dog. Dogs from 6 months to 16 months are eligible for this test. A higher standard is expected of dogs on the older end of this range than the pups on the early end.
Formal training is not really required for this test. This is because the test is designed to test the natural ability of the dog, rather than training that you have given it.
However, no dog (no matter how well bred) can be expected to do well if they have not been given positive exposure to different experiences of the outdoors and to game to develop their talents. Positive exposure is important because negative experiences, especially young in life, will inhibit the development of talents. In addition, some exposure to the types of events they will be doing is very helpful. Your dog also has to be used to having other dogs and people around. All of the events will have dogs and people watching or nearby.
The most important preparation for this test is plenty of positive exposure to outdoor situations and game to develop the dog’s confidence, use of nose, hunting desire, etc. Basic obedience training is also important.
The importance of exposure can be considered with a rugby analogy. If you put Christian Cullen across Carla Hohepa, you might expect a boy offspring would have the heritage to be a blistering fullback or winger. But if he had never played rugby, or even played with a ball or ran around, how much could you expect from him? The same applies to hunting dogs. Pups need time in the field to learn 100 things — how to use their nose, how to swim, how to read the wind, to build up their confidence, etc., etc.. And a walk in the park (especially on a leash) isn’t going to give them all they need.
The handler for the test should be the person that the dog is used to hunting or training with. Overall, the handler should approach the test as a hunting situation. Relax and have fun with your dog. The tests are a great way to learn more about dog handling and maybe get an idea what you need to work on with your dog.
The Natural Ability Test (NAT) has three events. These are described below. After every event, some suggested preparatory exposure is given. There are also characteristics that are judged during all events (when they apply), and these are also described below.
- Retrieve from water
Event: This event is run on the edge of a lake or river with a sloping water entry (no banks to jump off) and water deep enough so the dog needs to swim. The handler brings the dog’s favorite toy to the test and throws the bird/toy far enough into the water for the dog to have to swim. The dog has to swim out, get the object and bring it back. The dog is not expected to retrieve to hand. The judges are looking for retrieving desire and willingness to enter water and swim. This is also an indication of confidence. The coat is checked after the retrieve for water repellancy.
Some mistakes to avoid:
- Don’t expect your dog to retrieve a strange object, especially a dead animal. Bring along something that your dog is familiar with and likes to retrieve.
- Don’t get mad at your dog, or give it too many commands. Give it some encouragement if needed.
- Don’t show up at the test with a dog that has not had ample opportunity to swim and had plenty of exposure to retrieving.
Suggested preparatory training: In short: swimming and retrieving. You need to get the dog retrieving something with enthusiasm, preferably from the water. The ‘toy’ mentioned above can be anything that the dog retrieves with enthusiasm. Bring it along with you to the test!
- Search in the field
This event is a simulated upland hunt. The handler and dog work thru some cover as if hunting pheasants. It is important to act as if you were hunting. The judges will follow you if you need to go with your dog that is working a bird. At some stage a blank shot will be fired to judge for any signs of being gun shy. The dog is expected to show:
- good search enthusiasm and ability,
- confidence to range from the handler,
- cooperation to stay in contact with the handler, and
- obedience and responsiveness to commands
- no signs of gunshyness
Some mistakes to avoid:
- Don’t overcommand your dog. Let him/her hunt. If they run a little wild, it is not the end of the world, especially in the NAT.
- Again, don’t expect your dog to do well if they have not been out for walks and hunts
- Don’t talk to the judges, except as needed. Instead, act as if you are hunting. If you talk to the judges, the dog will often think that you are not hunting and just muck around instead of hunting.
It is best to just approach this event as a hunt. You will be given a general hunt direction and plan, but it is up to you to adjust depending on what your dog does. If your dog gets onto some game, go with the dog, as you would if you were hunting. The judges and everyone else will follow. Set your own pace: speed up if the dog is ranging widely and not finding any game, or has found game and is working it away from you. Slow down if the dog seems to have something they are figuring out and need some time to work it out. Again, act as if you were hunting. Don’t talk to the judges, except to get directions.
You will probably be asked to run your dog in the search more than once.
One problem with this test: One of the main difficulties with this test is getting reliable opportunities for the dog to point. It is difficult to always get into some sort of game when on a short hunt. Because of this, sometimes caged birds are used for dogs that have not had an opportunity to hunt. This is problematic for various reasons, in particular that some dogs ignore or will not point caged birds. However, this is a known problem and there is little that you as a handler can do except work your dogs on the ground that you are asked to run.
Preparation: The best training for this is pheasant or other upland hunting. Simulated hunts/walks in game areas with the dog off lead are also very good. The dog must have had some positive exposure to gunfire.
- Track of dragged game
This event consists of a freshly killed bird dragged for the pup. The handler and dog remain out of sight as the drag is prepared. Some feathers are pulled from the bird at the start, then the bird is dragged about 40 m with a bend. The handler and dog are then called and the handler should indicate the track to the dog and get it into the track. Once the dog gets onto the track the dog can be released. The dog should find the bird. In the NAT, the pup is not expected to bring it back to you, but it is certainly a bonus if it does, especially for dogs in the upper part of the NAT age range.
Preparation: Your dog will benefit from having had some exposure to tracking. When you get a few ducks or pheasants while out hunting, put one or two aside for some tracking training later in the day or the next morning. You can also use a thawed one from the freezer (make sure it is completely thawed!), but a fresh one is better. Have the dog sit or down (or tie them or have someone hold them), and go out of sight from the dog. Always lay the track down or across wind (otherwise the dog will naturally quarter into the wind). Start with some short tracks that are just long enough that the dog will not find the bird by casting around. Pull a dozen or so feathers at the beginning of the track and drag the bird on a rope down or across wind and make a bend at some stage. Mark your route by some small landmarks, like thistles or clumps of grass. Go back to the dog by a roundabout route and take it to the start of the track. Loop your leash thru the collar so that you can let one end go and release the dog. Calm the dog and get it to smell the feathers and then direct it down the track. I use the command “track it, track it”, given in calm, easy voice. If the dog gets too excited and leaves the track, then calmly bring the dog back onto the track and try to get it to concentrate on the track. If you have paid attention to where the track is laid, then you can bring it back onto the track midway along. If the dog rockets off down the track with its nose to the ground, perfect. If not, just perservere. Most fousky pick up tracking very quickly, but they need to be about 6 or seven months old. Once the dog finds the bird and/or retrieves it, then give them plenty of praise. Be sure not to grab the bird off them straight away, but give them plenty of praise with the bird in their mouth.
Furred game can also be used, if you are going to be hunting them with the dog. Dogs/pups that are retrieving well will do better in this event. See BASIC TRACKING TRAINING for more information.
Other preparation required:
- Basic obedience. Your dog should have good overall obedience of basic commands. For young dogs, you should err on the side of not being too strict, but consistent. At this age, get them into the habit of listening to you, rather than ignoring you.
- Exposure to gunfire. It is essential that you expose your dog to gunfire gradually with positive experiences. It is also vital that you avoid bad experiences, such as getting a bad muzzle blast or being thrown into a maimai on opening morning with blazing shotguns as the first exposure to gunfire
- Exposure to other dogs and people. Make sure your dog has had plenty of positive experiences with strange people and strange dogs. Again, make sure to avoid negative experiences.
Characteristics Judged Throughout. A number of characteristics are judged at every event. These include:
Obedience. This just means whether the dog listens to you and obeys. Consistent and positive basic obedience training makes a big difference here. You should aim to teach you dog to obey you on the first, calm command, rather than needing for commands to be repeated or shouted for the dog to listen.
Pointing. Ideally, this happens on the search and the dog finds a bird (or other game) and points it. Here we are looking for the dog to point at some stage in the test when there is a genuine opportunity. It doesn’t matter if it is a pheasant, rabbit, possum, etc., as long as there is game at the point. Even pointing where game has been (and left) is good. If nothing is encountered on the search, then the dog will be given an opportunity to point a bird placed in a cage out in some cover. This latter is problematic, because for whatever reason, we have had very little success with fousky pointing birds in cages.
Nose and use of nose. This is difficult to judge, but judges are looking for evidence that the dog is using its nose well and working scent and that the dog responds when opportunities to scent game are presented.
Cooperation. This means a dog that is hunting for you and is trying to do the right thing. Dogs that are self-hunting are not cooperative dogs.
Temperament. Here the judges are looking for stable dogs with a nice temperament. This means dogs that are calm, hardworking, get along with other dogs without fighting, show confidence and no shyness, show no aggression to humans, are friendly, etc. In short, the sort of dog that you would like to own, hunt with and have around your family.
Coat and Conformation. These will be judged once, at some time in the test. Coat is often judged at the water retrieve. In Fousky, we are looking for a hard, wiry coat that lies flat (not too curly) and is dense, warm, and water repellent. Don’t give your dog a soapy bath before the test. We want to see the natural oils in the coat.
Some final comments
To date, there has been fairly limited feedback from the judges to the handlers and dogs. This is something that I am trying to change. I think that numbers at the end are much less useful for handlers and in making breeding decisions than is more detailed feedback on why the scores were given and what things are being seen in the dog.
It is best not to get too hung up on the score that the dog receives, but rather to see it as an opportunity to get feedback on your dog and dog handling from knowledgeable dog people. Of course, some people differ in philosophy and interpretation, so it is best to take comments and scores as the opinion and view of certain people.
There is a rule that judges cannot judge dogs that you own or have bred. This means that I might not be judging at your test.