“Crunch, crunch, crunch, I could hear bones breaking in the bird!” This is what one of my customers told me over the phone after taking his dog out hunting. I explained to him that I was not surprised since we told him that his dog showed signs of being mouthy and possessive in our “Bird and Gun Introduction” program. I also mentioned the fact that we recommended taking care of this potential problem before it gets worse. However, he was a “do-it-yourselfer” and promised he would do the next level of training himself. Needless to say, he did not address this issue and now has a problem with his dog eating birds.
I will be honest that when a young dog comes to me, and shows us this kind of behavior, I consider it, high desire. What I mean by this is, dogs that have these tendencies, are usually dogs that want the bird (or other retrieving objects) so badly, that they want them for themselves. I would much rather see this, than a dog who does not want anything to do with retrieving. I always explain to gun dog owners that I can make your dog retrieve properly with this desire; however, I cannot make dogs enjoy retrieving. This desire level comes from both genetics, and the training that was done, or not done, prior to the dog coming to me.
This “mouthyness” is commonly referred to as “hard mouth.” I feel that there are different levels of hard mouth, just as there are different levels of desire. These may range from a simple chewing on the bird while making a retrieve, all the way to all out consumption of parts!
I have even heard of dogs swimming out to a duck, then swimming to the nearest muskrat mound, and eating an entire teal before the angry hunter finally got to his dog! Again I say that at least this dog wanted the bird rather than swimming to it, bumping it, and leaving it float while swimming back to the boat.
Now you may be wondering if there is a cure to this so-called problem. The first thing I would recommend is to stop the behavior before it starts. That means, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” Things like not playing tug of war with your dog during early retrieves will help. Use a check cord during retrieves to ensure the puppy is coming directly back to you. Also, try not to use balls. They give the pup a chance to have the entire object in its mouth and can start possessiveness since there is nothing for you to grab onto when your dog comes back to you. If your pup is showing these tendencies at a young age, make sure you can control the dog during your retrieving sessions.
The first thing I would suggest is using a check cord from day one. This light cord can be nothing more than a 1/4-inch rope or even an old clothesline. Most dog owners tell me that they don’t need a cord when there dog is a puppy, but believe me, if you start retrieving with one right away, it will save you a lot of headache as the dog gets older, especially if your pup start showing that possessive attitude! If you wait until your dog starts showing you mouthyness or possessiveness, it can be too late. I have numerous “bird aggressive dogs” that come to me and have never been on a cord. Then I introduce one, and the dog still wants to run the other way with the bird as I struggle to reel the pup back.
If it is too late and we have a dog that is already “hard mouth,” then the only way to cure this would be through force fetching. The force fetching will teach the dog basically three commands: fetch, hold and drop. This will be taught through both positive and negative reinforcement. There are many techniques to doing this, but the ultimate goal is to teach the dog a structured retrieve. What that means is that there are rules on how the retrieve should happen and you the owner are the one setting those rules. And one thing that is not accepted in that list of rules is the chewing on birds or any other object thrown. I would highly recommend getting the help from a professional if you decide to take this on yourself, or better yet, have them do it for you.
Remember, if your dog does start to show signs of possessiveness or aggressiveness with birds, this is not that bad of a problem. It shows desire in the dog and if you can get this under control early enough, you can use this to your advantage. Imagine this, your dog going into a cattail slough after a downed bird and because of this desire, coming out with a crippled bird due to that desire for birds. Is that a good thing or bad? I consider it great!
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Jason Dommeyer has a lifetime of hunting experience and 15 years experience as a dog trainer. He has turned many pets into expert hunting dogs at Cannon River Kennels. In addition to training hundreds of hunting companions, he has trained dogs for premier pheasant hunting lodges in South Dakota along with duck hunting lodges in Mississippi and Mexico. His experience also includes both hunting and guiding for upland and waterfowl game from Canada to South America. If you have any questions, Jason can be reached at 507-663-6143 or visit (http://www.cannonriverkennels.com/) He provides dog training tips twice a month.