Curing hard mouth: is it possible in a gundog?
David Tomlinson finds it is almost impossible to 'cure' a gundog that picks up with a hard mouth, one of the most serious field trial faults
Whatever fault a retrieving dog may have, be it running-in, whining or not listening to the whistle, there’s only really one that’s serious enough to end a dog’s career and that’s hard mouth. (Read how to stop your dog from being hard-mouthed.)
The essential requirement of all dogs that pick-up game, be they spaniel, retriever or pointer, is that they collect dead or injured birds gently and without damaging them. Field trial judges are taught to examine every bird retrieved to check for hard mouth. With practice it isn’t difficult, but feeling a bird’s ribs only tells part of the story.
The real test is to dress out game retrieved by a dog. Most dogs won’t leave a mark, except under difficult conditions, such as pulling a bird out of a dense bramble bush. Some, however, will leave tooth marks, even if they don’t crush the bird’s ribs, which is the damage that a trial judge will feel for. I believe that anyone who works a dog on game should pluck and dress birds retrieved by their own dog, so that they can check how gentle it is.
I had a friend with a collection of ornamental wildfowl. He used to employ his black labrador bitch, appropriately called Eider, to catch his birds. She had, as you might guess, a mouth as soft as crushed velvet and she could be trusted implicitly to catch a duck without causing it any damage. As she might be picking-up a valuable bird, such as a Barrow’s goldeneye or a Baikal teal, this was vital. This was probably the ultimate test of a retrieving dog’s skill.
When you consider that a dog has a mouthful of sharp teeth that have evolved for killing quickly and efficiently, it’s remarkable that such an animal can pick-up a bird or animal without damaging it.
The fact that they can do so almost certainly stems from the fact that carnivores, from lions and leopards to wolves and weasels, have the ability to pick up their own young to move them from one den to another. They can gauge exactly the amount of pressure needed to pick up a small creature without damaging it. By selective breeding, we have managed to produce dogs that can do exactly the same when retrieving game.
Hard mouth is generally assumed to be hereditary, which is why it’s not good practice to breed from a bitch that has a tendency to a hard mouth, or use a similarly unreliable sire.
I don’t believe that anyone has ever done any serious research into whether this is true, but there are enough soft-mouthed bitches (and dogs) around for it to be not worth the risk of breeding from them. However, I have come across the offspring of hard-mouthed dogs that were reliably gentle, which doesn’t prove anything other than all dogs are different.
The trouble with a hard mouth is that there’s little, if anything, you can do about it. I have never heard of a cure for a hard-mouthed dog. It’s something that the animal does instinctively. There are some dogs that rarely damage game, but occasionally they will give the bird they are retrieving a bite or a squeeze. Many get away with such crimes as they are not repeat offenders and some have even been made up to FTChs, but most get caught in the end.
I have known spaniels and HPRs that never, ever bit feathered game, but wouldn’t hesitate to sink their teeth into anything with fur. This isn’t so surprising with some of the continental breeds. In Germany, for example, wirehaired pointers are expected to be able to tackle a wounded fox, or even a boar — situations where it doesn’t repay a dog to be gentle. This explains why hard mouths have long been connected with some breeds of HPRs. It takes a long time to breed out such a trait.
Most experienced pickers-up will tell you of old, experienced dogs that will never bring back runners, but always return with a dead bird, though the latter appear undamaged. Some canny individuals certainly acquire the knack of killing runners, probably a skill they acquired after being spurred by an old cock pheasant. I have also known handlers who were quite happy with this, as it saved them from using their priest. (Read what is the most humane way to despatch a pricked bird.)
A challenge for a judge in a trial is to determine whether damage to a retrieved bird was caused by the dog or other circumstances. I once saw a leading handler put out of the HPR Championship because his German shorthaired pointer had allegedly damaged a bird. The latter, a grouse, had been shot far too close and I was convinced, as was the handler, that this was why the bird was in such a poor state. I can only think that the judge had been looking the other way when the bird was shot. The handler was livid, but in these situations the judge’s decision is always final.
Legendary spaniel trainer Keith Erlandson reckoned that “without any doubt, hard mouth is the worst fault of all as, even when it is improved through selective breeding, it still lurks in the background”. He wrote that nearly 50 years ago and it’s as true today.