Is there anything you can do to stop a dog eating game?

Q:  My gundog eats game instead of returning and leaving it. Twice last season my Labrador ate 
a brace of partridges laid to cool in the back of the pickup. The dog, a six-year-old, had never done this before. Would it help if I gave him a good feed after the shoot to last him 
on the trip back home?

Graham Watkins says: My advice is to avoid leaving the birds in the pickup with your dog, or put them in a container so that he can’t get to them. If you think he ate them out of hunger then, yes, once he is settled, give him half of his dinner to take the edge off his appetite for the trip home. To feed him a large meal after strenuous exercise isn’t 
a good idea, so give him the 
rest when you get home.

rules for picking-up

A dog’s natural desire by David Tomlinson

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: “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.”

dog retrieving pheasant

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.

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.

The story of a trialling dog

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.

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 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.  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.

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.