Here's what can be done
Q: I took my 18-month old Labrador out shooting for the first time this season, allowing him to pick up no more than two birds on each of the three outings. He did really well, but had a tendency to mouth the pheasants briefly before bringing them to hand. I couldn’t find any sign of damage to the birds but I’m worried by this behaviour. How can I stop my gundog mouthing game?
Inexperience in fieldwork
If there was no damage to the carcasses, then don’t worry too much. It is more than likely down to nothing other than the dog’s obvious inexperience of fieldwork.
Think of it from the dog’s point of view. For the last few months he’s done nothing else but retrieve dummies in various forms and, latterly, cold game. Then he’s suddenly thrust into an exciting new world full of people, other dogs, and freshly shot pheasants.
Retrieving cold game with a tight covering of feathers is totally different to bringing back a bird that’s still warm and has lots of loose feathers to contend with.
Taking hold of such a bird by the mouth is going to be a completely new sensation, one that will quite naturally prove a little bit of a challenge.
A dog’s gentle mouthing as it tries to work out how best to pick this retrieve is a very different to the dog picking it up and giving it a good shake. If that were the case then you really would have a problem on your hands.
It’s probably worth laying off the retrieving work for a week or two. Then reintroduce the dog to dummies again and, eventually, cold game, stiff pigeons and rabbits. The retrieves should be kept close and dropped in short cover.
As soon as the dog finds the retrieve, give it all the encouragement it needs to pick the package smartly, and bring it back.
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Reintroducing warm game
Once matters are going well you could put a freshly shot woodpigeon into a stocking and start getting him used to the sensation of picking something warm again. Follow this up with a retrieve or two with a warm rabbit.
When you eventually go back out into the field choose your dog’s retrieves carefully and keep them minimal. Make sure the bird is dead and still, not flapping.
If possible start with a partridge, which is small enough to pick easily, and slowly progress from there.