Why can some gundogs be averse to retrieving woodcock?
Most gundogs will happily pick these elusive waders, but there are some that find the task not to their liking. David Tomlinson asks why
Have you ever stuffed your nose into the breast of a freshly killed woodcock? I doubt if you have, but if you did so you would almost certainly find the bird has a distinctive scent, quite unlike that of a pheasant or partridge.
It’s a smell that many gundogs either dislike or find distasteful, with the result that some dogs, encountering a woodcock for the first time, refuse to pick it up. They may spend some time sniffing around it, even nudging it with their nose, but they flatly refuse to put it into their mouth. Quite why is debatable, but it does seem to be because the dog doesn’t like the smell.
You have to remember that a dog’s sense of smell is very different from our own. A dog has around 300million olfactory receptors in its nose, while we have a mere six million. In addition, that section of the dog’s brain that specialises in sorting out scents is, proportionately, many times greater than ours. It’s quite logical that some dogs refuse to pick-up a bird that they don’t like the smell of.
My very first sighting of a woodcock was one flushed by my cocker more than half a century ago and I have encountered hundreds since, many put up by my spaniels. All my dogs have hunted them with every bit as much enthusiasm as pheasants or partridges, but they have rarely charged with retrieving woodcock.
I stopped shooting woodcock a long time ago, as I never enjoyed eating them. At the same time, the majority of shoots on which I have picked-up don’t shoot woodcock, so my dogs have rarely had the opportunity to retrieve one. However, on the infrequent occasions when they have been asked to retrieve a ’cock, they have done so without hesitation. That’s quite usual, as the number of dogs that refuse to pick one are in a small though significant minority.
Dogs and woodcock
I have an extensive reference library of gundog books, but few discuss dogs and woodcock. One that does is Peter Moxon’s Gundogs: Training and Field Trials. He writes that retrievers quite commonly refuse woodcock and snipe, though adding that the proportion of dogs that he has known to do so is remarkably small.
Moxon mentions the usual theory that “the nature of the birds’ food is supposed to impart a scent disagreeable to dogs”. According to the standard reference book, The Birds of the Western Palearctic, the woodcock’s diet is predominately animal material, notably earthworms, and larvae of various insects, particularly beetles. Woodcock have also been recorded probing animal dung, even carrion, in search of food. Snipe enjoy a similar diet, but with a higher proportion of insects. They also consume leeches and even molluscs, along with spiders and the occasional small frog. How much a bird’s diet affects its smell is something that doesn’t seem to have been researched.
Moxon believed that the small size of a woodcock or snipe, along with the loose feathers compared with pheasants and partridges, also had something to do with the canine aversion to these birds. He also points out that few dogs get opportunities for experience “with these two rather elusive small birds”. I’m sure he is right there. The great majority of gundogs must go through their entire lives without ever encountering snipe, while many are unlikely to have much experience of woodcock, either.
Moxon’s training tip is to attach the wings of a snipe or woodcock to a dummy, so the dog gets used to the scent of the strange bird in an easy and managed way. He adds that if you are out shooting or working your dog and it refuses to retrieve a woodcock, you should pick it up, throw it and then send the dog to retrieve it immediately. This is often successful, but don’t forget to make a big fuss of the dog on its return and don’t throw the bird repeatedly if the dog continues to refuse to pick it.
Guy Wallace, in The Specialist Gundog, acknowledges that the woodcock is “one of the recognised ‘nasties’ of the retrieving world”. He recommends giving dogs plenty of experience of dead birds from the deep freeze before they encounter the real thing. He also notes that many inexperienced dogs will run straight past a live or dead woodcock without acknowledging it as a potential quarry. This can be frustrating for, as Wallace points out, woodcock are difficult enough to retrieve by scent but, because of their exquisite camouflage, nearly impossible by eye.
Preening oil Keith Sykes is a sporting artist with a fascination for woodcock. In his chapter in The Woodcock: Artists’ Impressions, he acknowledges that many dogs have a great reluctance to pick-up woodcock, adding that “at times a fallen woodcock seems to mask its scent so the dogs find it impossible to find, even when in clear view. Various explanations have been suggested for this inconsistent behaviour, one being that it is the odour of the preening oil that provides such an effective deterrent.” He adds that this is unproven, but it’s an intriguing possibility. Woodcock are mysterious birds and the more we learn about them the more mysterious they become.
The American woodcock is a close cousin of our own bird and a popular sporting quarry in the US. Many American hunters report that their dogs don’t like woodcock. Some dogs will point them with enthusiasm — pointers are popular with American sportsmen who walk-up their game — but flatly refuse to retrieve them, while others ignore them altogether.
I was amused to learn of an English setter that would only retrieve a woodcock if it fell in thick cover. If the bird fell in the open, the dog expected its master to pick the bird and would have nothing to do with it. The approach of another American hunter to accustoming his dogs to retrieving woodcock is interesting. He salutes the first woodcock his young dogs flush with a shot but with no intention of killing the bird. He then throws a cold woodcock from his game bag for the dog to pick-up. Apparently this gentle introduction to woodcock retrieving usually works.
As a woodcock enthusiast I dislike the practice of shooting woodcock for no other reason than to provide retrieving experience for a dog. It is such a special bird that it seems an unnecessary waste to use one as if it was a training dummy. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of woodcock are shot to prepare dogs for field trials. I have heard it suggested that if the Kennel Club ruled out the shooting of woodcock in trials, it would be a major contribution to woodcock conservation. It’s an idea that is certainly worthy of discussion. If your dog is likely to encounter woodcock regularly, then of course it is important to accustom it to these birds. If it’s not, why worry?