My Labrador, Noah, though a fairly sensitive dog, has always been a fairly gung-ho, enthusiastic retriever. He never fails to hit water like a cannonball, he has intensity, speed and undeniable drive on sighted ground retrieves, and he has an uncanny tenacity to find lost birds — I can’t count how many times he’s come running up with a bird in his mouth long after we’d aborted the search for a downed quail or a crippled pheasant in thick CRP grass. Though I never finished his blind work, let alone set him on a course for a field-trial title, over the years he’s garnered much praise from many hunting companions and more than proved his worth as a truly capable working gun dog.
Only one thing has bothered me over the years. As he got older and the seasons wore on, Noah began to get a little rough with his birds. And it eventually turned from just an errant tooth puncture in a duck or pheasant to an all-out crushing of doves and quail. I’d actually had some dove hunts where half my limit looked like hamburger, and it wasn’t because they’d been pulverized by a load of No. 7 1/2s at close range. I hated to admit it, but Noah had become hardmouthed.
I haven’t actually tried to do much about it over the years. Up until the last couple of seasons, we’d mostly hunt pheasant, quail and geese, and with the exception of the quail, I could live with a tooth hole or two on the bigger birds. It wasn’t like I wasn’t picking shot out anyway. When quail were involved I learned to take them from him immediately and stuff them in my game pouch before he could spend too much time running around with one in his mouth. And as for the last two years, with a divorce and a couple of cross-country moves severely cutting into time afield, I was down to just fun bumpers to alleviate the boredom. So, admittedly, it’s been easy to ignore the problem completely. Besides, Noah had attained the grand old age of 10 — no spring chicken. What could I do?
As it turns out, there was a lot I could do. I contacted George Hickox, one of the country’s preeminent gundog trainers, for some insight. If nothing else, I figured I’d at least learn how Noah got hardmouthed, even if I couldn’t correct it at this stage. Hickox’s answers to my questions proved to be more than instructive, but also corrective.
Jennifer Pearsall: Just what is hardmouth?
George Hickox: I would say a dog is hardmouthed if he brings back the bird and it’s unsuitable for table fare. Like when you tell me the doves that Noah brings back to you are hamburger. That’s a sure indication of a hardmouthed dog in practical field application.
JP: Okay, but say it didn’t happen all the time. Is there another reason I don’t want a hardmouthed dog?
GH: Surely, no one wants birds for their dinner table that have been treated like chew toys, but hardmouth has another costlier aspect, and that’s on the training side.
From a training perspective, particularly with flushing dogs, where the birds used in the exercises are often clipped-wing pigeons, if the dog crushes the bird and kills it and you need four birds to get that day’s training session completed, that’s a $16 dollar training session. And that’s just pigeons. The cost rises exponentially with pheasants, ducks and any other pen-raised bird you need to make part of your training regimen. On the other hand, if the dog doesn’t kill its training birds, you get to use those birds over and over again. And since you have to get through the training before you get to the field, it’s easy to see where a hardmouthed dog will make the process that much more expensive.
JP: So I don’t want a hardmouthed dog from the get-go, but what causes it? Noah didn’t start out that way. Are some dogs more predisposed to the flaw?
GH: There are two causes rooted in nature. There is either genetic propensity for overt predaciousness, or sometimes you just get an overly enthusiastic or hyper dog, one of high nervous excitement that increases the occurrence of hardmouth behavior. Now that second one is pretty self-explanatory, but I think the first, the propensity for predaciousness, needs some further explanation.
First you need to understand that all our bird dogs are predators — otherwise they wouldn’t work for us in the capacity they do. But some show a tendency to behave in a distinctly more predator-like mode than others. It’s those that tend to be more hardmouthed.
JP: Are you talking breed specifics here?
GH: No, and I know you’re thinking about wirehairs and some of the other continental breeds, the versatiles, that are used on wild pigs and tracking other big game in addition to upland or waterfowl work. But that’s not the case. All other environmental things being equal — i.e., you’ve avoided the pitfalls of playing tug-of-war when the dog was a puppy, you don’t use the same bird from one dog to the next when you’re working multiple dogs in a training session, you don’t shoot birds too soon during training and turn them into hamburger for the dog, etc. — I can find myself with a Lab or a golden or a springer that’s hardmouthed just as easily as I can a drahthaar. Some individual dogs just have a higher degree, a higher desire, for predacious behavior.
What most of this boils down to is that, yes, we’ve bred these various dogs to be excellent retrievers (kind of a turning off of the predacious behavior), but you as the handler have to remember that the delivery of the bird back to hand is every bit a part of the retrieve as the actual retrieve itself. We enhance that by force-fetching, and that, by the way, is the also how you prevent hardmouth.
JP: Prevent it? I’d actually heard some people say that force-fetching caused hardmouth.
GH: Not if force-fetching is done with all the steps included and performed in the right order. And you do have to force-fetch if you want a finished retriever. No matter how natural a retriever is genetically, there is no dog made by Mother Nature that wouldn’t be outperformed in retrieving and presentation by a dog that’s been correctly force-fetched. So not only does force-fetching produce a finished, reliable and stylish retrieving dog, if you teach it the right way, force-fetching prevents both hardmouth and buttermouth. And by the way, buttermouth is as much a flaw in the finished dog as hardmouth is. Not only is a buttermouthed dog (one that drags a bird back by a wing or tail or head) unstylish, but you run a greater risk of losing a crippled bird with a dog exhibiting this kind of behavior.
Stay tuned for Part Two!