By Mike Ryan, OCJ field reporter
The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) is a unique and valuable organization for gun dog owners, trainers, and breeders.
“The organization is in part driven by breeders as a means to improve breeds and bloodlines. NAVHDA has four levels of tests that apply to every breed of gun dog in all of their training and development stages,” said Steve Spangler, of Sugar Grove, who has bred, trained, and hunted over bird dogs for 15 years. “The first level test is the Natural Ability Test, which is done before the dog is 16 months old. This tests the dog’s natural instincts by exposing the dog to certain situations and scenarios where they are graded on search, use of nose, cooperation, sensitivity, and bird finding. Actual training begins for the Utility Test. The Utility Test mimics everything I want a dog to do in the field, specifically where I hunt in southeastern Ohio. It tests obedience and steadiness, and evaluates how the dog retrieves in water and on land, how the dog searches on both water and land, and how it works before and after the shot.”
According to the Association, it is a “non profit corporation whose purpose is to foster, promote, and improve the versatile hunting dog breeds in North America; to conserve game by using well-trained reliable hunting dogs on both land and water…we provide a proven, standard method of evaluating performance of all versatile hunting dogs, consistent with North American hunting practices, regardless of breed.”
Spangler has raised NAVHDA Versatile Champion gun dogs and appreciates the insights into his dogs that the group’s training meetings and tests offer him. As a member of the organization he enjoys the welcoming environment at NAVHDA field tests and the measurable standards on which his dogs are judged.
“What I like about the tests is that you know what the judge is looking for when you go out into the field. More than one dog can be rewarded in one day, because they are ‘tests’ and not ‘trials.’ This creates a more collegial rather than competitive atmosphere, with guys cheering for each other’s dogs to score well. I have never come across a person who was in it for the wrong reasons. It’s all about the dogs and supporting their handlers,” Spangler said. “The testing is a good measurement stick — dogs that have the ability for NAVHDA tests and can handle the training and have good breed characteristics. I raise German Shorthairs and the tests and NAVHDA training give me insight into what I should keep around for breeding purposes. Having testing goals and expectations gives you and the dog something to work for in the offseason, which in Ohio, can be pretty long.”
These field tests are given by local groups once or twice per year and National Tests are conducted each year for dogs who score well enough on the Utility Test. Dogs who score highly enough at the National Invitational are awarded the title of Versatile Champion.
Beyond the tests, NAVHDA groups hold regular gatherings. Spangler’s mid-Ohio NAVHDA group meets monthly at Delaware State Park; these monthly training sessions and group outings are for the dogs to work on test preparation and basic obedience.
“These monthly meetings offer different training scenarios for the dogs and opportunities for members to train with advanced handlers,” Spangler said. “The group is good at making connections for people new to the sport and those who train alone. One major obstacle in bird dog training is a lack of birds. With NAVHDA, guys can get together, order large numbers of birds, and get out on the land.”
Once a dog has completed the rigors of NAVHDA tests, Spangler can be confident that he has a loyal, adept, and reliable hunting companion.
“Once I have a dog trained for the Utility Test, I can feel at ease taking it to hunt public lands, encountering other hunters in the field, public roadways, and a mixed bag of bird species,” Spangler said. “The dog can be trusted to deal with those issues and not cause the handler stress. This makes the hunt more enjoyable.”
And Spangler is passionate about chasing woodcock, grouse, ducks, and geese across the southeastern Ohio countryside with his canine companions.
“I love the athleticism of German shorthairs and their ability to move about in the grouse woods. I like a dog that has an edginess, as well as the self control to turn that intensity on and off and be an enjoyable companion. I want a dog that has composure and poise when we get into birds. The last thing you want after 4 hours of hunting and you finally get that grouse encounter is for the dog to blow it because it is too excited and amped up,” Spangler said. “Bird hunting is an obsession and what draws me to grouse and woodcock hunting is the obscurity of the birds; they are not well known or often seen. I try to take advantage of the hunting opportunities that Ohio affords. The birds can sometimes be few and the limits are small, and some might say it is a waste of time and effort. But, a lot of guys who haven’t experienced woodcock hunting don’t know what they’re missing. Jump shooting river ducks can be a ton of fun and can be a great experience for the dogs, too.”
For Spangler, it is the ultimately the dogs that fuel his interest in this sport.
“I like getting outside and I like hunting birds, but it is not all about killing birds or getting my daily limit. What really draws me to bird hunting apart from other hunting is the partnership with the dog,” he said. “Even though field hunting for geese or duck hunting can be easily done without a dog, I would not go if one was not by my side. I like to experience the hunt with the dog and it is rewarding to see the fruits of our NAVHDA training out in the field.”
Steve Spangler and the NAVHDA organization are aligned with what author Guy de la Valdene says of bird dogs in his essay, Dog Days: “A half century after my first dog, I still marvel at how quickly they recognize cover, the manner in which they point and retrieve birds, the indolence of males marking territory…I love the every day quirks of a dog’s character, its habits, its independence, the insouciance of its sprawling slumber, and the accepting drop of a dog’s ears at the approach of a trusted hand.”