By Linda Lane
It’s the classic American dream: Follow your passion and it will fuel your success. Ken Youngs followed his love for hunting and dogs. Thanks to his supportive wife, Kristin, he has parlayed that love into serious success in breeding and training retrievers with his Vicksburg-area business, Michigander Retrievers.
Youngs recently brought back two retrievers who were awarded the Hunting Retriever Champion “Grand Pass” from a hunt test in McClausland, Iowa sponsored by the Hunting and Retriever Club (HRC). They’re among the latest in a long list of awards and designations for this self-trained breeder, trainer and handler.
Blake, Youngs’ personal black lab, had competed in the AKC (American Kennel Club) Master National last fall, winning the highest level hunt test. This September, Blake competed in the United Kennel Club’s International Grand Hunt, to win the Hunting Retriever Champion designation. The second dog, which Youngs trained and handled during the hunt test, was a retriever named Jook, owned by client Scott Krueger of Saginaw.
Competitive? A total of 113 out of 450 dogs entered in the International Grand Hunt Tests achieved the “Grand Pass” for the Hunting Retriever Champion titles. “To be able to make it through to the final test is really a major achievement,” Youngs said.
Youngs took four black labs to the competition. Blake and Jook passed all five levels. Ivy and Layla, with Ivy challenged by a blind eye from a previous hunting accident which impacts depth perception, achieved four.
Designations and awards have value, increasing the price of pups from the high achievers. The desirable traits of a hunting retriever as defined by the HRC are marking ability and memory, nose, hunting desire, control and hunting style.
Dogs and handlers must pass two land tests, two water tests, and an “upland” pass-or-fail test. The dogs are retrieving pen-raised mallard ducks, simulating a true-to-life hunting experience to test competency of the dogs in retrieving. Three birds are distributed up to 200 yards away. The dogs must “memory mark” where the birds go; handlers are allowed to assist the dogs with a whistle or hand signal only once out of the 12 birds the dogs must find and retrieve.
In the first four tests, the dogs are graded as fail, marginal or solid pass and a retriever can receive a marginal score only once from any combined set of judges throughout the event. In the upland test, a retriever can be failed for not delivering the bird to the handler, failing to return promptly to the line with the bird, or excessive dropping or mouthing of the bird. In every test it is a “blind retrieve” where the handler must guide the retriever with whistles and hand signals to find the bird.
“There are a lot of things which can impact the outcome of these tests out in the field,” Youngs said. “Weather conditions can change, varying winds, other dogs creating scents, or even dog runs developing, similar to deer runs, may change how a dog competes. The weather can definitely throw a monkey wrench into the entire test. I’ve seen the wind change 180 degrees during the course of a day. But when your number comes up, you have to run your dog.”
The hardest part of it all according to Youngs? “Probably the nerves when you’re in the field. The level of the competition is really intense. You know the dog has the tools to be able to achieve it and do it successfully, but you never know what will happen in the field. It’s a game for the dogs – but the handlers live and die by the moments. If your dog is getting into trouble, you’ve got to make quick decisions about the timing. The dogs just go out and do their job, but they can sense your stress.”
Youngs will head back with several dogs to compete in the Grand Hunt in Texas in late April, with the intent to bring home two Grand Hunting Retriever Champions.