A nearly infinite array of ingredients, inherited and learned, go into the mix that results in a hunting dog. Some components are fundamental to a dog’s performance in the field: drive, bird desire, quality of nose, intensity of pointing or flushing, and retrieving skill. In many breeds, the piece of this mix most likely to break down involves bird-handling on retrieves.
Often, what’s called a retrieving problem is, in reality, a delivery issue. There are different forms of improper deliveries, but “bad-mouthing” birds tops all other faults. In the rush to develop gun dogs, many sportsmen either don’t recognize “mouth” issues for what they are or let them slide until they become serious problems. And once rough bird handling is in place, the behavior can be difficult to extinguish, even career ending.
Experts that correct mouth problems usually recognize three major types. The best known is “hard mouth,” when dogs chew, crush or otherwise mutilate game to the point where it’s unfit for human consumption. “Freezing” is a complete refusal by dogs to give up birds. Such dogs might not damage game (though many do); they lock their jaws and hold on. “Sticking” differs from freezing only in degree and is less unyielding; it describes dogs that give up birds reluctantly or a little at a time.
Quite a few professional trainers believe true hard mouth isn’t as common as many hunters think and that the term is over-used. Roughed-up birds don’t always qualify the dogs that deliver them as hard-mouthed, particularly if we don’t know what happened. Retrieved game might have been damaged in mishaps such as badly shot-up birds, too hard a grip by an overly revved-up dog, or occasional self-defense head-crunching of aggressive roosters or geese (don’t allow that to become a habit). Only when dogs persist in mangling game they’ve retrieved— especially throughout efforts to correct this behavior—should they be labeled as hard-mouthed.
Although some dogs seem hardwired for mouth issues, the overwhelming majority of bird-handling problems are caused by trainers. For example, freezing on game is a serious fault widely considered brought on by excessive pressure or force. In an aggressive program to correct mouth concerns, a dog might come to think of any retrieving object as its “security blanket”—as long as it grips the bird or dummy it’s safe from punishment.
Some years ago, I “inherited” a young springer spaniel from a friend who’d imported the dog from England. The springer was a fine marker and retriever, but he froze on every delivery. It turned out he had spent his first year with a heavy-handed trainer—to cope with the resulting confusion and fear, the youngster likely began sticking on game for security, which quickly escalated into hard-core freezing. Despite my efforts over years, he froze or stuck to some degree until his last retrieve. That’s what I meant about the difficulty of extinguishing embedded mouth problems.
WHAT YOU DON’T WANT TO DO
Benjamin Franklin’s adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is a rule of thumb when developing retrieving/delivery skills. By using common sense tactics, particularly during a dog’s critical formative stages, you can usually avoid creating bird-handling problems. First, let’s consider what you should not do.
Don’t yank a dummy or a bird from a dog’s mouth, especially a pup. When a youngster retrieves an object, let it keep it for a short time while you gently hold and praise it, then roll it from its mouth.
Don’t give a pup too many retrieves; more than three to five risks boring it, and a bored dog means trouble, such as dropping or playing with a dummy.
Don’t use a large dummy with a small pup; inappropriate size could cause it to mouth or bite the item in its efforts to pick it up.
Don’t play tug-of-war—ever— with a dog.
Don’t allow dogs to grab for birds or dummies they’ve given up or to pick up already retrieved game or other objects from a pile.
Don’t train with bedraggled or torn-up birds, especially with flesh or entrails showing; when using dead birds for retrieving, opt for those that are fresh or frozen and in good condition.
Don’t push a pup too hard and too fast, and don’t rush through retrieving drills, especially as they become more challenging. You might stress a dog to where it sees birds as the source of its troubles and roughs them up as an outlet for pent up emotions, or sticks/ freezes on them for a sense of security.
Don’t allow a dog to dawdle on a return with a dummy or bird; that invites a variety of behaviors that can open the door to mouth problems.
WHAT YOU WANT TO DO
Here are a few things that you should do if you think mouth issues are on the horizon. If you see warning signs such as mouthing birds or dummies, dropping them, constantly readjusting holds, or even slight reluctance to give them up, don’t fool yourself into thinking the problem will disappear— it won’t. You should stop all retrieving work until you know what’s happening and deal with it. If improper bird handling occurs while hunting, consider a dog’s season to be over, at least until the trouble has been addressed.
When you suspect a beginning mouth issue, you can’t go wrong by revisiting yard work and reinforcing immediate compliance with all commands, particularly “Come.” Obedience work corrects minor infractions and refocuses a dog’s attention on the commands and on you as the giver of commands. When you reintroduce retrieving, insist that your dog picks up a dummy or bird cleanly without pausing to mouth it, then returns to you rapidly for proper delivery.
If, in spite of all of your efforts to avoid trouble, your dog develops a mouth problem, step back and evaluate what has occurred, then honestly appraise your ability to provide a solution. Hard mouth, freezing and all but mild sticking are frustrating and difficult to treat. Rehabilitation beyond obedience work often requires the advice or services of an experienced professional— incomplete or inappropriate programs can worsen existing faults.
The across-the-board method of stopping bad-mouthing of birds is force-fetching—not a simple, fun procedure. Unless you have time, patience and an understanding of what the process requires, a good bet might be to turn the chore over to a professional. Although even a pro might not be able to permanently eliminate bird-handling issues, a competent force-fetch program is often the best—perhaps the only—means of minimizing mouth problems.