"Frankly," Jeff said, "I think the term hardmouth is way over-used. Any retriever might rough up a bird now and then, for a number of reasons, but I won't call a dog hardmouthed until he has persisted in this behavior through all efforts to correct it. I've seen very few dogs that couldn't be cured with proper training and patience."
Jeff said that some dogs are inclined by heredity to rough birds up. He added that such dogs are usually extremely birdy and make excellent workers once they're convinced that they should handle birds more gently.
He pointed out that certain hunting mishaps can lead to roughing birds up. For example, if a lively crippled duck or pheasant injures the dog, he will naturally bite down in self-defense and might mangle the bird. Or if two dogs try to retrieve the same bird, they'll almost certainly end up in a very serious tug-of-war struggle for it. This can cause both dogs to start damaging birds they retrieve.
Training errors and omissions can lead to the mishandling of birds. For example, you shouldn't start your dog into serious retrieving until after he's had enough obedience training to insure a quick pick-up and reliable return.
"The timing of obedience training is critical," Jeff stressed. "You shouldn't start it until your dog is comfortable in cover, is birdy, and has been introduced to the gun. Whether you plan to force-fetch him or just let him retrieve naturally, proper obedience training is essential."
After obedience training, if your dog starts roughing up retrieved birds, you can usually correct the problem by reinforcing his obedience, especially regarding his return and his delivery, using whatever mixture of encouragement and pressure your particular dog requires.
"If you've used the e-collar to reinforce the 'come' command," Jeff said, "it will serve you well while curing this mouth problem. If you haven't used the e-collar, you'll have to rely on other methods of correction, like a slingshot and marbles, thrown objects, or perhaps even running out to correct the dog. But the e-collar is the slickest way."
When curing this problem, you need to insist on three things. First, that your dog pick the bird up quickly, not stand there mouthing it. Second, that he return directly and immediately to you. And third, that he stand or sit still by you to deliver. When he fails to do any of these, you should correct him. When he does them properly, you should praise him.
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"If he drops the bird at delivery," Jeff said, "don't let him grab for it. Insist that he remain sitting or standing."
If your dog has a strong retrieving instinct, and if you use the right mixture of encouragement and correction, he will sail through this reinforcement process. If he doesn't respond correctly, he'll do one of two things. He may start hammering and abandoning birds, or he may stop retrieving altogether. If he does either, Jeff said you have no choice but to force-fetch him. If you've never done this before, you should seek professional assistance.
"Force-fetch," he said, "will give you all the tools you need to deal with any mouth problem, whether hardmouth, stickiness, or sloppy-mouth."
As a final thought, Jeff added this: "As I said earlier, true hardmouth is not as common as many seem to think. In 99 percent of the cases, a dog that begins to rough birds up can be cured and will never become truly hardmouthed."
This tip is from Jeff Weber of Fetch This Kennels, 10465 Stone Quarry Road, Payette, ID 83661; (208) 642-4245; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeff has been training professionally for 30 years. He trains retrievers and pointing breeds for hunting. He trains all breeds in obedience and starts a few retrievers for field trials and hunting tests. He runs his own dogs in retriever field trials. He breeds an occasional litter of Labradors.