The Hard-Mouthed Gundog

Thistle 4According to history, Labradors Retrievers got their start in the 1500s and 1600s with the British Cod-fishing fleets that spent summers harvesting cod off the coast of Newfoundland. Back in those days a dog had to have great economic value in order to earn his keep. With fishing-fleet Labradors, that value lay in the dog’s talent at fetching. The sailing vessels brought with them small dories which were offloaded at Newfoundland and used for the Cod fishing. Two fishermen would man a dory and fish with handlines, hauling up cod that bit on the baited hooks. Since hooks were fairly primitive back then, one can guess that a significant number of cod would flop off the hook at the surface. Usually a fish that has been hauled up from a depth and flops off of a hook will be dazed and immobile for a few seconds, giving ample time for a dog to jump from the boat and grab the fish. A dog that delivered that fish to the fisherman’s hand was valuable. Thus the Labrador got an early start on delivery to hand with fish. Logic would indicate that those early English fishermen bred the more talented fish- catching dogs to the more talented fish- catching bitches and gave an early start to the selection of the breed’s signature behavior of gentle delivery to hand.
The advent of the percussion cap firearm in the 1800s brought on the age of sporting firearms and drove the rise of wingshooting, also driving the development of retrievers for finding and delivering shot game to hand. These events further accentuated the custom of breeding selection of dogs of soft mouth. The following 200 years of breeding selection for soft mouthed delivery to hand, brought us the soft mouthed Labrador we imported from the UK in the 1920s and 1930s. Today in the US, that Labrador has slid backwards toward become generally more prone to mouth problems due to poor breeding selection practices. A major factor is the widespread practice in the field-retriever sector of force fetch training.
Force fetch training is the commonly accepted solution for a hard mouth dog. If you have a dog that has mouth problems and put him through a proper force fetch training program, then his hard mouth issues will be suppressed and he won’t exhibit them. The next problem comes with his offspring. Because hard mouth is to a great degree genetically transmitted, the hard mouth dog who has been force fetched may deliver softly to hand like a gentleman, while his progeny will have a large propensity toward being hard mouthed like their sire was before his force fetch program. When you are selecting breeding candidates from a pool of force fetched dogs, you cannot tell which ones are naturally soft mouthed deliverers to hand, and which ones are soft mouthed only from the force fetch training.
The practice of force fetch training started proliferating in the sporting retriever community in the US in the 1960s and 1970s. Today nearly every retriever trainer practices force fetch as an integral part of his training program. The force fetch phenomenon appears to be confined to the U.S. The practice is rarely encountered in the working retriever communities in the UK or the rest of Europe. The Europeans deal with hard mouth with breeding selection instead of training.
All the above having been said, if you have a dog with hard mouth what can be done? First define the depth of the problem. In many cases where the dog has merely a slight tendency to be rough on birds, the issue can be solved with a few months of work restricted to dummies. All work with birds should be reserved until after the dog’s trained behaviors of coming, delivering to hand, and performing blind retrieves are very proficient. This means all retrieves are with dummies until the dog is “bullet proof” on all behaviors including blind retrieves. This should be coupled with much reinforcement of the behavior of coming to you with speed and focus. It is difficult for a dog to rough up a bird when he is coming to you with alacrity.

For the more extreme cases of hard mouth, a thorough force fetch program will generally solve the problem.

Don’t confuse hard mouth with eating a bird by invitation. When you leave pup in the car alone with the day’s take of mallards, don’t be surprised if you return and find yourself one or two ducks short. You have invited him to eat it by leaving him alone with it. Eating a bird or two under such circumstances will not make him hard mouthed.
In the early 70s when I was running field trials I had a dog on the truck who was a bit weak on water blinds. I had been a little too hard on him in the water and when he ran blinds he was very slow on his entry into the water. This was very embarrassing at field trials, so I decided to try a radical solution. One Sunday, when he had made it to the water blind and had good work,. I decided to try feeding him a duck before the water blind. I had a crate a mallards on the truck, so 15 minutes before Ace was due to run the water blind, I took a live Mallard and tossed it into Ace’s crate. I returned 10 minutes later and got Ace. All that remained of the duck was a pair of feet. When Ace ran the water blind, he hit the water like a bullet. Subsequently at field trials, eating a Mallard became part of his pre-water- blind prepartation sequence. At field trials he continued to get his pre-water blind “starter” and he continued hitting the water hard. He never offered even a hint of roughing up bird he was retrieving in training or in field trials.

One physiologic condition which will promote hard mouth is low blood sugar and/or hunger. I stumbled into this bit of information when I had Wildrose Kennels back in the 1970s and 1980s. The first 10 years I fed the dogs in the evenings. During that period I had a fair number of dogs with mouth problems. I think that is what made me a great supporter of force fetch training back then.

In the early 1980s I switched to feeding in the mornings and my incidence of mouth problems went to practically zero. I deduced that the mouth problems had been due to hunger and low blood sugar. The morning feeding regimen took care of it.

If you have a retriever puppy, and you want to maximize the probability that he will grow up to deliver ducks softly to hand, the program is fairly simple. You should:
1. Feed in mornings
2. Develop his retrieving behaviors to a high level of proficiency with work on dummies; then add the birds.

Last but not least, if you have a dog with a propensity for hard mouth, don’t breed him if you want your children and grandchildren to be able to find retrievers that genetically deliver softly to hand.

Robert Milner

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