Paul Fuller is the gun dog columnist for Northwoods Sporting Journal. The Journal has granted permission to re-print Paul’s articles. Thank you Northwoods Sporting Journal
A dog that retrieves birds must deliver the bird suitable for the dinner table. Crushing or chewing on the bird is unacceptable behavior. This is referred to as “hard mouth”.
Dog breeds that are historically known for retrieving may never have a problem with hard mouth. They may be genetically inclined, over hundreds of years of training and breeding, to deliver the evening meal in edible form. That was their original purpose. Retrievers are an example.
For pointing dogs, the versatile breeds may naturally retrieve more often than the pure pointing breeds such as the English Pointer or English setter. The versatile breeds, such as the German Shorthair, Brittany, Viszla, Griffon, etc., were developed by the working class of old Europe to handle all facets of the hunt. These breeds were truly responsible for delivering the evening meal. Hard mouth was unacceptable then as it is today.
As with all training, it’s important to start your dog correctly, as a puppy, rather than attempting to correct the problem at a later date.
Here are some methods to prevent hard mouth. When your puppy is three to four months, and before any contact with birds, begin putting your fist in the puppy’s mouth. If his teeth are too sharp, then wear a thin leather glove. Do this once a day initially. If the pup tries to bite down on your fist, then force your fist deeper into his mouth. He’ll let up on the pressure. Do this drill until there is no biting.
Simultaneous to the “fist in the mouth” drill, you should have your pup in a puppy obedience class. If you’re a beginner at training bird dogs, the structure of a class will help you develop your skills and be better for the pup. Any and all further training will be easier with an obedient dog.
The next step is to do yard drills for retrieving. I use a small dummy for pups. Keep them on their lead and start with short throws…five to ten feet to begin. After they pick up the dummy, pull them back to you immediately. Don’t allow them to chew on the dummy. After the dummy, use frozen game birds such as quail. Dogs are hesitant to bite down on a frozen bird.
As your puppy grows and you’ve built a good base for preventing hard mouth, be careful not to ruin your training. One example would be playing tug-of-war. This is a no-no. You’re encouraging hard mouth with this old game. Another mistake made by an inexperienced handler/owner is to jerk a bird from the dog’s mouth. This, to the dog, is a sign of competition and he’ll resist dropping the bird.
With proper obedience training, after locating a downed bird, your dog will not have time to chew or crush. He’ll come to you immediately with the “here” or “come” command. When he is almost to you, back up one step to make him come just a little further. Never walk toward your dog. Give him the command to “drop”. You should have a bird ready for the table.
One situation in the field, which you’ll need to be cautious about, is running two dogs. If your running two dogs, they should be taught to honor point and then only one dog released for the retrieve. Two dogs fighting over the same bird is a problem. Hard mouth will come fast. Avoid competition among dogs at all times.
If you haven’t done the groundwork to prevent hard mouth from the beginning, how is it cured once developed? There are two cures for serious hard mouth and, if you’re a novice trainer, both require assistance from a professional. The most commonly used method and most successful is to force fetch your dog. Proper force-fetch training will insure a prompt and rapid retrieve with no post-shot damage to the bird. The e-collar can also be used. Many times in this column, however, I’ve warned about the use of the e-collar in untrained or undisciplined hands. If done improperly, both the force-fetch and e-collar can ruin a dog. Check with your local NAVHDA Chapter for a trainer who can assist you with correcting hard mouth.