PREVENTING HARD MOUTH
Training advice: by Howard Meyer
Hardmouth is a very difficult bad habit to correct, mostly because it occurs in the midst of a dog’s desired behavior (retrieving). Scolding during a retrieve is often perceived by the dog as punishment for retrieving, and we may end up with two problems instead of one. Accordingly, I put much effort into preventing the problem, because I’m not confident I can correct it (and I’m suspicious of any author who has a pat remedy to the problem!).
- Prevent chewing from becoming a habit - dogs should chew only on things that are edible or really not very interesting to them. Unyielding bones are good for puppies, and I have found that pine cones work very nicely - they are chewable but my young dogs get tired of them after a while and chew nothing. I believe a tennis ball is about the worst possible toy for a pup;
- Puppies should carry something (preferably their retrieving dummy) whenever they are going for a walk at heel. This makes the dummy a whole lot less interesting for chewing when it comes time to retrieve, and it also gets pups in the habit of carrying things in their mouth without any particular temptation to chew.
- Teach a pup to take things on command - my command is ‘Take’ - this allows you to put things into the pup’s mouth and control any ‘crunch’ temptation. Start with things the dog likes (pheasant or goose wings work well for me) and gradually work to things it really doesn’t like; also increase the temptation - I use live baby quail chicks;
- Introduce pups to game using cold dead birds (less tempting); when it is time to advance to shooting live birds for retrieving, be careful not to damage the bird too badly - better to risk missing a bird at moderate range than to mangle it at close range and have your pup wrap its tongue around all those tempting juices;
- At the first sign of any hard mouth, put the bird in the dog’s mouth and heel the dog for a good march under tight control. Then toss the bird a time or two for very short retrieves;
- I find the birds most likely to start the problem are lightly wounded cock pheasants or wounded ducks that keep diving - when the dog finally catches the bird, the desired firm grip may get a little too strong, and the dog learns that a really good bite quiets things quickly;
- Contrary to some trainer views, I would always prefer to kill a wounded bird with my own hands than to ever have the dog take the initiative.
Most retrieving ‘rules’ use a phrase such as the bird must not be ‘unfit for the table’; I would personally much prefer a dog who was not completely steady to shot, fall of the bird, etc. but brought back an unmarked bird to any dog, no matter how flawless its form, who delivered mangled birds.