Mouth Problems

Plus, More On Adjusting Range


My field-bred springer spaniel was disqualified from a test because she trapped and killed the planted birds before delivering them to my hand. What she did was grab the bird, bite down a few times to squeeze it to death, then promptly deliver it to me.

She has, as one person gingerly described, a nervous mouth. The judges called it hardmouth. I drove home from the hunt test heartbroken and devastated, as everything I've read indicates this may be a genetic condition.

A few days later, a friend sent me your article from Gun Dog on how to handle this problem. I don't have the title of the article or the issue in which it appeared, but it was your response to a question about an 11-year-old Labrador named Danny Boy who started to munch his birds.

For one year I have followed your article to the letter, starting with having my dog hold my gloved hand in her mouth, palm up, to no glove, to other objects (brushes, dowels, plastic bottles) first with, then without my hand, to a frozen bird, freshly dead bird, a live bird, first with my hand, then without my hand. There is no doubt in my mind that she knows what "fetch," "hold" and "no bite" mean.

She can carry a hot dog at heel without putting a mark in it. She can carry a live bird at heel without crushing it. But I am finding it impossible to make the transition for her to fetch a bird, dummy or a Dokken dummy even as close as six inches from me without lunging at it--with my hand underneath! Then she tries to crush it.

Regardless of the distance of the bird (or object) from me, she will retrieve by grabbing the bird, and then clamp down multiple times until the bird ceases to move. She does this very quickly. When returning from a long retrieve, she will stop about two feet in front of me and give the bird a few more crunches as if to make sure it is really dead before giving it to me.

She is quick to retrieve, has never hesitated to bring the bird back to me, and she doesn't shred or chew the bird. It's as if she just wants to make sure it's dead before she gives it up.

I need also to mention that after she "hups" in front of me and delivers the bird to hand, she does this little dance, twirling two to three times before she stands still and rivets her eyes on me waiting for my direction.

She is a very enthusiastic, energetic and fearless dog. She "demands" exercise, so I take her for a 30-minute run in a field every day and try to vary her daily training drills so she won't become bored. She has been difficult to train because she is so enthusiastic, but these past few months she seems to have put all of her training together, except for her mouth problems.

I won't give up on her. Can you suggest anything I might have done wrong? Or is there a step that I missed or went too fast with? I drill with her every day on this problem for about 10 minutes. I just can't get to the next level.


A while back I wrote an article for Gun Dog called "Hello Wired Dog, Goodbye Cooperation." That article describes your dog's problem. Often, dogs bred for trial work, referred to as field-bred, have been selectively bred for speed, enthusiasm, and generally over-the-top temperament mistakenly called desire--but cooperative they are not.

On that basis, yes, it is genetic. But the specific behavior is learned and it is usually a self-rewarding behavior. I have not heard the expression "nervous mouth" as a description of it, but that might be some new politically correct expression for chomping down on a bird. I don't think the judges are correct, either, in calling it hardmouth.

What she is doing to a bird is at the low end of the continuum going from a bite or two, to mutilating, to outright eating it or burying it. The reasons for doing it vary depending on the individual dog, but all are doing it to keep from bringing the bird back. There is always an ambivalence involved in that the dog knows the thing to do is bring the bird and present it nicely to you but also strongly wants to keep it, and thus performs the displaced behavior.

Her little twirling dance, another type of displaced behavior, might have started because of her hyper approach to things but now it's become a superstitious behavior. It is meaningless as far as getting the job done but she would feel uncomfortable not doing it.

I suspected she might have something like that going on and that is why I suggested things to "break up the rhythm" and change her way of delivering to you. When she gets control of her temperament, she will be a super dog for you.

Superstitious behavior is something we all do to a greater or lesser extent--things like always putting on one sock and then the shoe for that foot followed by the other and never varying the order of the process. Her "twirling" is just another form of the same superstitious behavior. Your job is to get her into a new habit which will not include two or three revolutions.

There are ways to fix it which will differ depending on the individual dog's temperament.

From what you tell me about your dog, I think you will have to work it so she thinks the whole thing was her idea. That is the only part I think you missed when you took her through the retrieving training steps.

Try this: When she is carrying a live bird on leash at heel, walk very fast or trot, then stop suddenly and make her sit or hup at your left knee. Quickly reach for the bird with your right hand commanding her to "give." Then praise her lavishly with lots of "gooood girl" stuff.

If you can work this a few times and she enjoys it, you might be able to break her rhythm of the last-second chomping. Vary the distance she has to carry and have her go over some low hurdles.

Something else you can try is having her sit on a long line, 30-50 feet. Drop a live hobbled bird 20 or 30 feet in front of her, go to the end of the long line and facing her, tell her to fetch. Haul in the line as she trots toward you, picks up the bird and continues toward you. Using the line to guide her, lead her around your right side, behind your back and to your left side, have her sit, command "give" and with your right hand take the bird.

Again, this is to break up the sequence, the rhythm she has gotten into. Try both things several times and let me know how she is doing.



I have a 2 1/2-year-old female springer that tends to work just out of gun range, especially with lots of scent around when we hunt the Dakotas or when she's working with the wind. I can stop her by whistle but don't know if that is the correct approach and

I don't want to be

constantly correcting when the birds are spooky. Any suggestions?


When working with the wind it is normal for dogs to go out and work back toward the handler. The dog is using the wind to best advantage. With wild pheasants, this is actually the most productive way to hunt them. Therefore I would say not to worry about it if she works out of gun range going with the wind. She will accidentally flush birds now and then by simply bumping into them, but she will push a lot more back toward you than she chases away.

At 2 1/2, she is just starting to feel her oats. The "terrible twos" is as true in dogs as it is in children. It is especially true in a two-year-old dog when there are birds running all over the place in front of her. She will change as she matures and figures out that birds in here are shot and birds chased up out there are lost. She will be happier with a bird in her mouth than one in the air as soon as she gets her head straight.

Meanwhile there are some things you can do. The easiest thing is to teach her to quarter; you do this by changing direction frequently, like every minute or so. Start straight for a few steps, take a sharp left and wave her in that direction. As soon as she is as far left as you are, do a 180 and go back to your right, again waving her to your right.

Turn again when she is about to pass you and so on, zigzagging back and forth with not a whole lot of forward progress. If she lines to the front, turn completely around and again wave to her to come along. Start the zigzag as before. You are better off doing these training sessions where there are no birds.

Another thing to watch in yourself is your speed of walking. Slow down so she is not feeling pushed. She is not a field trial pointer. You want her for a hunting dog so you want her inside 30 yards most of the time.

Another thing to watch out for is planting birds for her after you have her quartering well.

Don't always plant them way out there. With normal smarts, she will figure this out by the second time and streak right out to where she thinks the birds are hidden. So to keep her in, plant birds close so she knows you are directing her to birds and it is not a contest to see who gets there first.

For solutions to your dog's behavior problems or behavior related training problems, you can contact Ed Bailey at

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