When a gundog consumes shot game rather than returning it to its handler it's important to work out why it might be doing so, writes David Tomlinson

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We often talk about dogs being natural retrievers, but the truth is that there can frequently be a tension between the dog’s instinct to return the shot game to its handler, and its natural desire to devour the bird on the spot.

In his excellent book, Dogwatching, zoologist Desmond Morris explains the behaviour succinctly: “Retrievers that rush after shot prey and bring them back to their human companions are borrowing an element from lupine hunting. Wild wolves will return to the den with food offerings for she-wolves that are whelping, or for cubs that are too young to take part in the hunt. This helpful food-sharing tendency is the one that has been exploited by generations of dog-breeders to produce the selfless retrieving of the modern gundog.”

Eating on the job

Anyone who has been around working gundogs for some time will have stories of dogs that snacked rather than retrieved. I recall picking-up with a handler who kept his dogs very lean. On one occasion, one of his dogs failed to reappear after being sent for a retrieve. A quick search revealed it to be munching merrily on a pheasant. We kept this quiet from the keeper, but I’m sure the dog was simply hungry and temptation overcame it.

Most of us keep our dogs sufficiently well fed to make incidents like this rare, but occasionally things go wrong with even the best dogs. I heard recently about an outstanding trialling dog called Zara that started to show more interest in eating birds than in retrieving them.

I don’t go to many trials, but I had witnessed Zara being put out of a trial after being sent to retrieve a bird that had been shot too close. Zara had apparently been eliminated because she had put down the bits of the bird that she was meant to be retrieving: unsurprising behaviour by the bitch. But according to the handler: “Zara was actually eating the bird!” I gathered that in a trial the week before, Zara had done exactly the same thing under similar circumstances.

Worried about what was happening, Zara’s handler undertook detailed research into what might have gone wrong. Apparently the sequence of bird-munching events started after Zara had had an implant by a veterinary geneticist to induce her coming into season. This meant she would be available to run in an important open trial. Coincidentally, before this trial her food had been changed (because of a disagreement with the long-term supplier) to a top- of-the-range diet of slightly increased protein. This caused the dog to become hyperactive, due, according to popular consensus in the field-trial circuit, to the high protein level in this food. It transpired that there were other additives, which the gut did not digest and subsequently turned into unanalysed protein. The diet was immediately switched to a low-protein food, but no notice was taken of the nine per cent fat content.

Along came the trial and the bird-eating incident. Zara’s handler then set up a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, listing every factor that might affect Zara’s performance, including ground, weather, run number, game, blind or marked retrieve, mouth result, date of season and food provided. From this it was clear that the change in diet was the culprit.

“Anyone who has been around working gundogs will have stories of gundogs that snacked rather than retrieved”

The initial stages of the research commenced with the geneticist. He stated that a bitch requires 10-15 per cent more food for the eight weeks following her season, just as she would if she was in season. When the geneticist heard that Zara was a gundog, he determined that the balance had been unwittingly tipped to eating the shot game, rather than retrieving it. He concluded that Zara was unintentionally being starved, and suggested her handler consult a dietician.

This, Zara’s owner duly did. Analysis showed that not only was the fat content too low, but there was no omega-3 in the food either. Omega-3 feeds a dog’s brain just as it does the human brain, and is essential where biddability and intelligence in a working dog is required. Zara was given a new diet of salmon and rice fed at a rate of 120 per cent normal rations. Precisely eight weeks after the finish of her season, and three weeks after a change of diet, she won her second open with a live runner and another sound retrieve. This made her a FTCh.

Gundog after shot game

Howard Kirby with his HPR champion Tashi, who ate the first bird she was asked to retrieve

A problem solved

Zara is clearly a talented dog, but I wonder whether she would have gone on to become a FTCh if her problems hadn’t been so carefully investigated by her handler. Intriguingly, the current HPR champion, Howard Kirby’s German longhaired pointer bitch, Tashi, ate the first bird she was asked to retrieve. In Tashi’s case this may have been because she didn’t know what she was meant to do, as Howard had rehomed her and she hadn’t had the usual gundog education. However, it does prove that such behaviour isn’t a reason to give up on a dog, but an incentive to work out what has gone wrong and put it right.

Incidentally, hard mouth and eating birds are two different problems. I’m not sure that a dog with hard mouth can ever be corrected, but I’d like to hear from anyone with views on the subject.