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True dog days of summer

A pile of feathers is evidence of a successful dog, as judges and the handler move on down the field during the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association Red River Valley chapter's spring test this weekend at Stiklestad Lodge near Fort Ransom. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer1 / 3
Parker Stone drives an ATV and his dad, Brandon, holds on as they prepare to plant birds for the Natural Ability dog test: the judges aren't far behind. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer2 / 3
Apprentice judge Dan Pforr moves in to check a dog on point. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer3 / 3

On Saturday, it was 95 degrees as gusting winds blew heat like a hairdryer set on "inferno."

By Sunday morning, people donned light jackets to brace against the 30-degree temperature swing, and scraped mud off their boots after late-night rains transformed the rolling prairie landscape into a soggy mess.

And so it went, as participants and onlookers experienced the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association's Red River Valley chapter spring test last weekend at Stiklestad Lodge near Fort Ransom, N.D.

The lodge, which was graciously granted full use to NAVHDA by Titan Machinery of West Fargo, was a sight to behold in and of itself. Sporting multiple outbuildings, several dog runs, and trap and rifle ranges, Stiklestad may be one of eastern North Dakota's best kept secrets. The main lodge itself, which boasts a gigantic central fireplace, multiple trophy animal mounts, and the grandest of amenities, is worth the 90-mile drive from Fargo just to take a look.

But aside from the accommodations, the real draw for the dozens of people were the tests and, ultimately, the dogs.

Roughly 20 of man's best friends and their handlers hit the fields and waterways during the two-day stretch, each competing not against one other, but against the NAVHDA standard. There would be no winners or losers; only dogs who performed worse or better than expected, and then were evaluated accordingly.

At this particular round of tests, known as Natural Ability or simply NA, all dogs were younger than 16 months. While other, more rigorous tests are geared toward older, seasoned canines, Natural Ability is set up to examine just as its name suggests: the natural ability of a versatile dog (dogs that point game and then retrieve it across every form of habitat, from grassland to forests to sloughs and ponds).

People on hand for last weekend's test enjoyed watching the work of a wide array of hunting dogs, such German wirehair pointers, German shorthair pointers, and small munsterlanders.

These young dogs, while hopefully already exposed to some elements of hunting such as birds and gunshots, are still relatively undeveloped and far from finished. Thus, NA is the ideal way to assess the inherent, genetic, and bred-in abilities of an individual dog.

Each dog participated in a 20-minute mock hunt, in which it had to show the judges how well it listened to commands, found game and pointed game. Later on, the dogs then proved their willingness to get wet by retrieving a few bumpers from a pond.

Finally, a pheasant was plucked of its flight feathers and released in a field. The dogs then had to show their tracking ability, by being led to the pile of feathers and commanded to follow the bird's path.

NA can be a fun time for dog lovers of all kinds. It's also usually one of the initial tastes of testing for many first-time handlers. And while many will never go further than NA regardless of outcome, in the end, those who decide to travel the testing path may just be rewarded with a truly amazing hunting dog.