By Gary Koehler
Most waterfowl hunters do not mind if their retriever brings to hand birds that are a bit rumpled or missing a few feathers. But no one likes being presented with a duck that has been mauled by his dog. If the bird is not fit for use as table fare, the retriever is not doing its job properly. This habitual proclivity to mangle waterfowl or upland birds is commonly called hard mouth.
Many professional trainers believe that hard mouth can be a hereditary affliction. When selecting a puppy, by all means check out the parents first. Still, there is really no surefire way to tell if a dog is going to be predisposed to damaging birds once it grows up. That part likely falls in the luck-of-the-draw department. There are, however, precautions you can take while training your retriever puppy that may help prevent the dog from developing hard mouth. Common sense applies in most cases.
Last summer, while walking in a local park, I watched as a youngster played towel tug of war with a gorgeous golden retriever pup. After back-and-forth yanking and jerking, the boy elevated the game by quickly spinning in circles, thus lifting the dog off the ground and sending it airborne. The puppy, hanging on for dear life, had its jaws locked in a death grip on its end of the towel. The point here is that you should resist the temptation to play tug of war with bones, chew toys, leashes, bumpers, or towels. Games of tug of war only teach your dog to bite down hard on whatever is in its mouth, which is not a good thing for a dog that makes its living picking up birds.
On a hunt several years ago, one of my companions had a young Labrador retriever just beginning its first season afield. This was an extremely well-mannered dog and it was obvious that the guy had dedicated many hours to training his treasured Lab. Shooting commenced early. A wing-tipped mallard drake fell just outside the decoys and the pup was sent to retrieve the duck, which put up an incredible fuss. Every time the dog picked up the duck, it would wiggle free and the pup had to start over, not sure how to handle this wing-flapping, foot-kicking, neck-stretching greenhead. What the dog learned that day was that it had to clamp down extremely hard to keep the duck in its mouth. This was not a positive lesson. The pup simply was not yet ready for that type of confrontation.
Introducing your retriever to real birds prior to actual hunting is an important training component. Think about it: if all you use during training sessions are bumpers, what's a young dog going to do when he finally gets hold of an actual duck, goose, or pheasant? The smells and the feathers are going to be all new to the dog. He's probably going to get extremely excited, perhaps overzealous. And a hard-mouth habit can be the result. Even bird wings taped to a bumper are better than nothing. But real birds are best because they help condition your dog to the texture, smell, and taste common to wild game.
What do you do when you are convinced your dog has hard mouth? Some trainers are of the opinion that all retrieving should be stopped until the problem is addressed. One camp suggests using an electronic collar to correct the problem. Another insists that a structured force-fetch program be introduced. Either can work. But be careful on both counts, because if not done properly these methods can lead to other issues. There are no snap-of-the-finger fixes. When in doubt, contact a professional trainer, discuss the problem at hand, and proceed accordingly. In many cases, hard mouth can be cured, but only if you go about it the right way.
DOUBLE TROUBLE Want to witness a spirited exercise in developing hard mouth? Send two retrievers after a single downed bird. When hunting with multiple dogs, be smart and have them take turns.