Writing for Shooting Times, David Tomlinson investigates the art of the gentle retrieve and asks whether it is possible to ‘cure’ a gundog with a hard mouth

Not many of us give a second thought to retrieving, as it’s simply what gundogs do. However, it’s not quite as natural as it may seem — though a dog that undertakes a retrieve is performing instinctively, if behaving unnaturally. For a predator to pick up warm prey, resist the opportunity to eat it, then carry it some distance to give it to another species, is hardly natural.

Dogs are, of course, descended from wolves and an adult wolf will carry prey back to its cubs. By a combination of selective breeding and training, we have managed to modify this behaviour so they bring game — the equivalent of prey — to us.

To complicate things, we also expect our dogs to retrieve gently with a soft mouth and not bite whatever they are retrieving. It must be hugely tempting for a dog retrieving a lively runner to give it a quick squeeze to stop it struggling. Some experienced picking-up dogs do acquire the knack of effectively killing runners without damaging them — not behaviour that will be rewarded in a field trial, but arguably quite useful when working.

Hard mouth faults

A so-called hard mouth is one of the worst faults a gundog can have. According to the Kennel Club’s J-regulations, the rules that govern trialling, “there should be no hesitation or sentiment with hard mouth. The dog must be eliminated”. The rules go on to insist that all game should be examined for signs of hard mouth, emphasising that a hard-mouthed dog seldom gives visible evidence of hardness as it will simply crush in one or both sides of the ribs.

Judges must undertake “digital examination”, using the fingers and thumb to feel that the ribs are intact.

German wirehaired pointer

German hunting dogs, like this GWP, are expected to tackle wounded foxes or boar

Curing hard mouth

Hard mouth is one of the hardest faults to cure in a gundog and whether it’s actually possible is debatable. I’ve known dogs that were naturally gentle with feathered game, but wouldn’t hesitate to bite furred game, possibly because of experience of animals that could bite.

The Germans expect their hunting dogs to be able to tackle a wounded fox or even a wild boar, so it’s hardly surprising that many of their working dogs are what we would classify as hard-mouthed. They have to be, for obvious reasons. As a result, hard mouth has always been a problem with some of the HPR breeds and can take several generations to breed out.

I once belonged to a shooting syndicate in which there were a small number of hard-mouthed dogs. Our bags were generally small — usually sufficient for a brace of birds each — but it was extremely irritating to take home birds that had been bitten or crushed by someone else’s dog. A simple rule was introduced, ensuring that you took home the birds you had shot and your dog had retrieved. Perhaps surprisingly, it worked well.

Though Kennel Club judges may be taught how to check for a hard mouth, it’s plucking or dressing a bird that reveals all. It’s not uncommon to find birds that have tooth-marks in the breast, even though the ribs may not have been crushed.

I believe that all gundog owners should make a point of regularly dressing-out birds their dogs have retrieved, as they will then discover exactly how soft their dog’s mouth is.

Some dogs tend to become harder-mouthed as they get older, possibly because they have been spurred by an old cock pheasant, or because they are slower and less careful. It’s something to be aware of and to watch out for. It could be an indication that the dog is approaching retirement.

Getting a grip

A dog retrieving game will often put it down to get a better grip. As it picks it up again, it may well appear to be biting or mouthing it, but my experience suggests that a dog that seems to mouth its retrieve often has the softest of mouths and is trying to get a balanced and comfortable grip.

A real irritation is the dog that brings back a retrieve, but then for some reason refuses to give it to its handler. This probably stems back to poor training in the first place, but it’s curious how a dog that will happily give up a training dummy is reluctant to release a pheasant or partridge.

Offering the dog an edible bribe might help, but there’s the risk that the dog will simply spit out the bird in its eagerness to get its reward. My first spaniel never minded parting with birds, but she was always reluctant to give up squirrels, even if offered a biscuit in exchange. She would walk around proudly with the squirrel in her mouth for 10 minutes or more. It was embarrassing and I never worked out why she did it.

The worst crime a gundog can commit is eating a bird that it is meant to be retrieving. (Read ‘how can I stop my gundog from eating game?‘) I once watched a labrador swallow a whole partridge in a couple of gulps. I was convinced that the dog’s owner didn’t feed his dogs sufficiently, as they always looked thin. However, the dog in question was a good worker and usually soft-mouthed, so I guessed he was simply hungry. (Read how to feed your dog on a shoot day.)