“Conceived By Hunters, For Hunters,” the Hunting Retriever Club (HRC) is one of North America’s most realistic and respected testing venues for retrievers and the families who hunt them. Though the HRC is a non-profit and volunteer-led organization, it’s affiliated with the United Kennel Club, who carry the registry for the HRC.

Hunt tests are a great way to return to the field after a long off season with a better trained and conditioned dog. For those who want to learn more about HRC specifically, we talked to Jordan Graves, a local here in Nashville and brother to Gunner CEO, Joe. He’s a self-professed amateur involved with the Music City Hunting Retriever Club with his two Boykin Spaniels, HR South Georgia’s Sadie (call name “Sadie”) and Ol Hickory’s Leave the Tag On (call name “Pearl”). This season, Sadie got her Hunting Retriever (HR) title, and Pearl needs two more passes to get her seasoned title.

He’s a good source for those just looking to learn more and get started with HRC:

What is HRC?

HRC stands for Hunting Retriever Club, and it was created to provide a way for owners to prove the skill level of their retriever. The tests are directly related to hunting the retriever in the field for waterfowl and upland game.

Are there different skill levels or categories in HRC?

There are several levels of HRC tests: “Started” at the entry level, followed by “Seasoned,” “Finished” and the “Grand.” There’s also an “Upland” category.

What is a HRC title? 

There are 5 official titles to the HRC program:

  • Started = Started Hunting Retriever (SHR)
  • Seasoned = Hunting Retriever (HR)
  • Finished = Hunting Retriever Champion (HRCH)
  • Grand = Grand Hunting Retriever Champion (GRHRCH)
  • Upland = Upland Hunter (UH).

In keeping with the philosophy of HRC, titles earned are awarded as a prefix to the dog’s name on its pedigree as opposed to a suffix to the name. So if you have an UKC-registered dog, who also completed the requirements at a given level of testing, a title is placed at the front of your dog’s registered name. Example: HRCH South Georgia’s “Sadie.”

How long does it take to earn a HRC title? 

This really depends on the abilities of both the dog and the trainer. A started level dog is only being tested on its desire to retrieve and its ability to mark a single bird fall. It’s not uncommon for Labs, Goldens, or Boykins to obtain a started title before their first birthday. The Hunting Retriever title earned at the seasoned level is more likely to be achieved in the 1-to-3 year-old range for most dogs that are being trained consistently. A Finished title, from what I’ve seen, is often not achieved until a dog is 2-3 years of age or older. 

How much money does HRC really cost?

Boykins in a Gunner Kennel
Photo by Morgan Ulrich

Professional trainers cost anywhere from $600-1,000/month. Can be more, can be less. Someone may have a dog in training for 3-6 months in order to get a started title, or 9-12 months to achieve a seasoned level title. Most finished dogs will be with a trainer 12 months or longer. 

Many folks will send dogs to trainers for 3, 6, or 9 months at a time. This can add up to $10,000 or more in training costs to achieve that Finished title. 

I don’t use a trainer myself, but have gotten advice from several and trained alongside some other experienced dog folks. There are several good training series videos. I’ve used Chris Akins’ DVDs and Evan Graham’s training video series. Blaine Tarnecki and Dakota Mealer are two experienced trainers I have also sought advice from, or been able to train with and watch train. But even for an amateur, I probably have invested well over $3,000 in training equipment over 8 years.

What’s something you wish you would have known early on about HRC?

Focus on obedience more than anything early on. Also, get your dog(s) used to testing environments early and often, so that all the surrounding stimulating activity doesn’t affect them as much. If you only train by yourself and on your own land, your dog will likely be overwhelmed when you get to a test and run with 20+ other dogs and with other whistles and guns sounding all around you. Take young dogs to test that they are not competing in and seek out HRC groups in your area to train with prior to running a test. It’s a great way to get to know people and create community.

I have a Labrador retriever, SHR Ol Hickory’s Dark Horse (call name: “Jax”), who is trained to a Finished level. However, after finishing his started title he developed a dislike for other male dogs – and for that reason, I’ve kept him from running at any higher levels at HRC competitions. Aggressiveness is not tolerated in hunt tests.

Is it hard to earn a HRC title?

Loaded question. Training takes time and commitment. When it comes to the tests, handlers at every level will feel their nerves when they walk to the line. Every dog has its day and at any point they may not perform to their full potential. That said, it’s definitely more of a team sport at the seasoned and finished level.

In the three upper levels, the Handler handles the shotgun (firing blanks), and works his/her dog from a blind or perhaps a boat, and may be required to quarter the dog in a pheasant or quail field. Seasoned, Finished and Grand dog Handlers must direct their dogs to birds the dog did not see fall (a blind). HRC stresses actual ‘Hunting realism’ and ‘gun safety’ in the hunting tests.

At those levels, since the handler has to safely operate a shotgun loaded with popper rounds, and has to handle the dog on blind retrieves, a handler could occasionally be the cause for a failed test.

What do you need to wear at HRC event?

HRC focuses on emulating hunting scenarios, and thus they require handlers to wear camouflage shirts and shorts/pants or appropriate hunting attire.

Why should someone get involved with HRC?

It’s a great organization that will allow you to meet folks that can become lifelong friends. It also gives you a reason to more consistently train your dog, especially in off season, and an opportunity to spend more time building a working relationship with your dog. Plus you can spend more time outside with your family, as many parents will encourage young kids to handle their own dogs.

Overall, it’s one more way to spend time with good folks and good dogs in the outdoors outside of hunting season.

Ok, all sounds great. Now how do I get started in HRC?

Find a club to join. You can look up the closest chapter in your area. Good Luck!

Read more: Which Gunner Size Do I Need?

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