E327: Jennifer Henion - "R+ Training for Retriever Hunt Tests"

Jennifer Henion joins me on the podcast today for a conversation about hunt tests — what they are, how she wound up focused on them, and managing the culture that comes with them.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Jennifer Henion here with me to talk about hunt tests and hunting bred dogs. Hi Jennifer! Welcome to the podcast.

Jennifer Henion: Hey Melissa, thanks so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: Super excited to talk about this stuff today. So to start us out, do you wanna just share a little bit about you and your current canine crew?

Jennifer Henion: Sure, yeah. So I live in Oregon, which is kind of a mecca for retriever sports. Lots of amazing ranches and fields and ponds to train on. Lots of events happen here and frankly that's why I chose to move here a couple years ago because my mission in life is to create a better and better training program for succeeding at retriever sports. So being here really facilitates that. And yeah, so my day job is at Field Puppy Nation, and that's an online school that I created and run where I teach my positive training program for retriever sports and about my canine crew, my dog, Reggie, a golden retriever, he's actually the star of that positive program. He's in all the videos. We filmed him starting at eight weeks old, raising up through the program. He's six years old now. He's got a master hunter pass. And just last weekend he won a ribbon and a field trial at the qualifying stakes. So…

Melissa Breau: That's awesome! Congratulations.

Jennifer Henion: Thank you. He's super fun. And then I've got my, my new pup Harry, who's also a field golden, and he's eight months old. So I'm super excited with him to come through the program as well.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. How did you kind of get into the world of dogs and dog training?

Jennifer Henion: So, that's an interesting question. I have to think about that. I think, you know, it all started, I was seven years old, we moved to a brand new town. I had in my previous neighborhood, tons of friends in my neighborhood, so I was feeling lonely. The second day we moved in, I started exploring the neighborhood and this red golden retriever arrived to greet me and her name was Candy.

And I'll never forget, we just had an instant love connection, like deep, deep love connection. And she just made me feel so excited to be there. She was fun and you know, got me over my loneliness and I think that really planted a seed for me for the rest of my life that just took me on this journey.

Melissa Breau: And you're still in goldens today.

Jennifer Henion: It's kind of crazy how much our early years can make a difference, you know?

Melissa Breau: I know it is. So I know you kind of mentioned positive training there in the first question, but can you just talk a little bit about your approach to training?

Jennifer Henion: Yeah, it's definitely all about positive reinforcement for me. And you know, candy, the Golden Retriever really made me realize the connection and relationship that we can have with the dog. That was the first time I had ever experienced that being, you know, a seven year old. And I've always been after that feeling since then. So for me, training the relationship is the priority. So everything I do with training is about making the relationship a priority.

And yeah, so positive reinforcement and I like to use games to make it fun, make it fun for not only the dog, but for me because, you know, why would it be worthwhile otherwise? So choice, I like to use choice games where the dog gets to make the choices and I get to control the reinforcement. And so that way if an incorrect choice is made and incorrect, meaning it wouldn't succeed in a competition, then I can reset. I can control the reinforcement so the dog knows that only the correct choice gets to be rewarded with, you know, treat or toy or whatever. So that's how I, that's how I approach things.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. So you kind of mentioned Candy obviously got you into hunting breeds, right? But what kind of led you to be interested in hunt tests specifically? Oh my goodness, my tongue didn't wanna say that word. Can you kind share that story? Tell us about that.

Jennifer Henion: So after striking out on my own as an adult, I had two dogs and they were retriever breeds. And you know, they lived their entire lives with me. And when the second one passed away, I was ready to get a new dog and I thought, I'm ready to take dog ownership to the next level. And I know I love golden retrievers. So how, you know, what would that look like? One of my employees at the time had worked with people who trained for hunt tests and she, you know, I was just sort of spitballing with her about my new golden puppy and what I could do to next level, you know, and she goes, what about hunt tests? So I was like, what are those? And exploring it, I realized that's, you know, really what goldens were, not only how they, their natural inclination, but that's how they were shaped by breeders to become excellent at that. So I thought, oh, that would be so fulfilling for the dog and in turn, fulfilling for me because it's fulfilling for the dog. So that's, I just started down that road and here it is, 12, 13 years later.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Down a rabbit hole, huh? Yeah. So what does a typical hunt test look like? Can you kind of describe that for us?

Jennifer Henion: Yeah, so if you've ever been hiking or like to a wildlife area, you can sort of imagine the scene with wild fields, with, you know, open, fairly open, but taller grass ponds with tall grass around it. So that, that's kind of a scene setter, if you can imagine. So what clubs, hunt test clubs will hire a couple of judges. The judges will look at this beautiful wildlife area or ranch, and they will set up tests to match the requirements. And usually the requirements would be having hidden stations in the field between two or four. And what happens is those stations will then throw a bird, shoot a gun, and you're at the line with the judges about between 30 and a hundred yards away from these stations. The dog will watch the birds, and then you work as a team with your dog to retrieve those birds, basically how it works. And so it's land. And then they also do a test on water. So yeah.

Jennifer Henion: Do you have to do both the land and the water for that initial title? Is it both? Yeah, so every single, you have to pass four tests to get a title, and each, each of the four tests will have a land series and a water series.

Melissa Breau: Very cool. Obviously you're into goldens and you mentioned field goldens a couple of times. So how much is of like, the ability to do those things, those kind of falls into genetics. How much of that is really like about the training and about training the specific behaviors? What kind of, where's that balance in your mind?

Jennifer Henion: Yeah, you know, at the entry level, the junior hunt test level, it's not, it doesn't make a huge difference, but I mean, if you think about anything else, like herding, you know, are you gonna get a beagle to go herd cheap? Probably not. Yeah.

So you, you just increase your chances the more that a dog is bred for that inclination or that instinct, right? So yeah, you're increasing your odds, I think if you get dogs with the pedigree that's been bred for that sport, been proven to succeed at that sport. But that said, I think at the entry level especially, it can, it can easily be trained because all of these behaviors are trainable, right? All behaviors are trainable, so it's definitely possible.

Melissa Breau: Speaking of trainable, right? So which aspects of the hunt test kinda what are, what are the skills that we're looking at here, and then which aspects can you work on with food and toys and which aspects do you really need the actual birds to kind of work on and train?

Jennifer Henion: Yeah, so a lot of it, it can be done with food and toys. The part regarding birds. At some point, your dog's gonna have to pick up the bird in their mouth and carry it, right? And they're also gonna have to find the bird in the first place. It's usually thrown in some fairly tall grass or you know, around some cover where the dog's gonna have to do some hunting.

So yeah, you want to have the dog be attracted to find the bird, know the scent, and be able to pick up that scent and find the duck. Then the second they're gonna need to be able to pick up and carry the duck and deliver it to hand or whatever bird they're using. So those elements are important, but a majority of it can be done with food and toys.

Even the professional traditional trainers use bumpers, which, I mean, let's face it, bumpers are a rubber toy, right? Yeah. So you, I think, you know, it's important, they're both important. Bird work is important, but it's a specific part of it, right? That you can separate.

Melissa Breau: If listeners are kind of interested in learning more about this stuff and maybe finding a hunt test in their area, how do you kind of go about that? How can folks find other people who maybe are participating in this sport near them? You know, a super easy way to start that search is number one, where do you live? So I live in Roseburg, Oregon, so I would just basically go to Google or some search engine on the web and go retriever hunt tests or retriever clubs in Oregon or in Roseburg, Oregon and see what comes up. A lot of times regional or local clubs will have a website or there'll be a Facebook page that pops up, and that's an amazing way to get started. They usually have clubs, usually have events to get new members and to help educate new members. So they'll have group training, or they'll have educational things on their website. That's an amazing way to get to know people and to find out where tests are gonna be held and when, so you can go check 'em out.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So I know that a lot of aspects of the culture around hunt tests and hunting dogs in general are, maybe they're taught in more traditional ways, still. Any tips for listeners who maybe tend to lean more towards positive reinforcement based stuff and kind of navigating that aspect of the sport?

Jennifer Henion: So by that, do you mean navigating the fact that a majority of the people are traditional trainers that they'll be running into? Okay. Yeah. Yeah. It's a, that's a thing, you know, and here's the deal, it's kind of a culture of the sport because that's the program that 98% of the people follow because it's been proven successful, right?

So when a new person goes to a group or a test, everyone wants to come and help you succeed, right? So they come and they tell you what you need to do to succeed, which is follow this traditional training force program. And so the intention is really to help you, but the deal is their traditional program is based on science and a behavioral, you know, progression. That's what positive training is too, so that's kind of the response is, thank you for trying to help me thank you for your intention, but I know about this positive side, this positive program that also follows science and is based in, you know, the behavioral sciences. And it also works. So the good news too, everyone is the, over the past five years at least, there's a lot more education about positive training and how it really does work. So it's not a totally foreign concept to the traditional trainers anymore. And there's a lot more tolerance in like, oh, okay, yeah, well if you know what you're doing and you are gonna spend the energy to do that, that's fine. So yeah. But yeah, I don't let it discourage you because people really are just trying to help. And yeah, I think they just believe that because this sport relies on such instinctual drives, like to chase prey, I think most people think you can't train a dog to ignore its instinctual drives and sit steady when a bird's flying by their face, they think you can't train that unless you threaten the dog with a negative consequence. And so it's just, it's an education thing and we know that that is possible. So yeah. So you recently offered a webinar for FDSA, and you're now kind of gearing up for a workshop on hunt tests at FDSA. Can you talk a bit about the workshop, kind of what you'll cover? Who should consider signing up? Is it specifically for Retrievers?

Jennifer Henion: Yeah, so the workshop and all of my work really is based on retriever specific sport. And the reason that that's different from pointing dogs sport is with Retrievers, we really want them to sit and be steady for a lot of the testing. So with pointers, you don't really want that.

So that's the major difference. So when pointer people come in, they get excited about my program, I just want them to know that, you know, that's a major difference you need to be aware of. But yeah, the workshop coming up, it's called the Magic Chain, and it's really about starting smart, like starting your training for retriever sports in a smart, efficient way that you can keep adding to it. So it's a, an amazing foundation. What we're gonna teach in that workshop is the, the core behavior chain that you need for testing for retriever testing and what each of the links of that behavior chain are and how to create them with super fun games. And once you get that behavior chain mastered on the simplest level, you start to see all the ways to start making it more complex, adding distance to it, adding distractions to it, all the great stuff. So yeah, I'm super excited to present it because it really is brilliant. Not that I invented it, but I kind of stole from a bunch of other people to create this, and it really does work.

Melissa Breau: Very cool. Any final kind of thoughts or key points you wanna maybe leave listeners with? I think just that people think this is hard and complicated and it's really not. I just want people, you know, be willing to explore it and relax and believe that it's possible to do with just fun and like 15 minutes twice a day. So yeah, that, I think that, and just that, yeah, positive training really can work for this sport at the master level, so.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Jennifer.

Jennifer Henion: Yeah, thank you, Melissa. I appreciate it.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice for our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. music provided royalty free by bensound.com. The track featured here is called Buddy. Audio Editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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