Retrievers are gun dogs with a history of being selectively bred to retrieve game for their hunters. One of the main qualities retrievers were required to have in order to be effective hunting partners was what is known as a"soft mouth." Along with a soft mouth, retriever dogs are known for being equipped with a strong predisposition for learning and carrying out a variety of tasks, qualities that make them particularly adept for disability assistance work. Popular retrieving dog breeds include Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Chesapeake bay retrievers and the Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers.
Hunter's Best Friend
As the name implies, retrievers were responsible for retrieving downed birds and returning them to the hunter. This may sound easier said than done.
In order to retrieve, a good retriever must look upwards for incoming birds and memorize exactly where each bird falls once shot. Some very well trained retrievers are even capable of following the direction of the gun barrel so they can gain a better insight of where to expect the birds to fall.
Not always retrievers are capable of seeing where the downed birds fall. In such cases, they are required to perform a "blind retrieve." This means that, in order to find the downed birds, the dogs will have to follow their handler's directions given through hand, voice or whistle commands with precision from a distance.
Once the retriever finds the downed bird, he can deliver the bird by dropping it at the hunter's feet or he may "retrieve to hand" which means he'll drop the bird directly into the hunter's hand. Training a retriever to retrieve to hand offers the advantage of minimizing the chances that an injured bird may escape.
Understanding the Soft Mouth
When a dog is carrying a bird, there are high chances that his teeth may ruin the meat. Retrievers are known for having the distinct feature of picking up the bird gently and delivering the bird without damage, something that could only be accomplished by carrying it with a soft mouth, without biting into it.
Dogs who bite into the meat are known for having a "hard mouth." A dog who carries the bird with a hard mouth means the meat risks being inedible and not fit for the table. For this reason, having a "hard mouth" is considered a serious fault in a retrieving dog, almost to the extent of a gun dog being fearful of the noises of gunshots.
While a hard-mouthed dog can be trained to develop a softer mouth, having a naturally inclined soft-mouthed retriever is certainly a great advantage that hunters eagerly look for in their prospective retrieving dogs.
"A wooden obedience dumbbell will last years when used with a soft-mouthed dog." ~M. Christine Zink DVM
Nature or Nurture?
There are many claims of goldens and Labs having such a soft mouth that they can carry a raw egg in their mouth without cracking the shell, but not all retrievers are blessed with such a talent.
So is having a soft mouth something that's inherited or is it a learned behavior? As with many other behaviors, there's likely a learned component at play mixed in with inherited tendencies toward bite inhibition. It's ultimately a mix of many factors such as the age the pup leaves the litter, its upbringing and the genes he is born with.
We know that the normal predatory motor pattern sequence in wolves entails orienting, eye stalking, chasing, grab biting, kill biting, dissecting and eating. In our domesticated dogs (who shouldn't be really compared to wolves due to the many differences between wolves and dogs), this pattern has substantially changed with some parts being enhanced and others remaining dormant.
A border collie, for instance, eye stalks and the sequences stop short (hopefully!) after chasing, considering that, grab biting sheep legs would be a big problem! In retrievers, the pattern as well stops short at grab biting (hopefully!), considering that, consuming the bird would mean big trouble for a prospective retrieving dog!
"On one hand, we have the wolf whose predatory motor patterns have never changed because they need them intact in order to survive. On the other hand we have our domestic dogs of different breeds with dormant or hyperthrophied motor patterns that have been influenced by breeders whether of pet companion dogs or working dogs."~ Barry Eaton
ixing a Hard Mouth
Sadly, there are many suggestions to train a soft mouth using aversion-based training methods. Some of the most horrid and even dangerous entail placing barbed wire or nails into dummies so the dog feels discomfort or pain when he bites hard.
This is meant to teach the dog to think that a dead bird might hurt if they bite down on it, but these methods along with the use of shock collars, risk causing dogs to be become reluctant to pick up anything with their mouths and their natural mouthing and retrieving instincts may be suppressed due to fear.
Teaching a dog to develop a soft mouth is something that should ideally take place when the dog is a puppy (prior to 5 months old!) by providing feedback when they bite too hard.
Bite inhibition training teaches the puppies to be gentle with human skin, but for a gun dog, it's also important to learn how to carry things gently, yet firmly in the mouth.
There are several ways to train soft mouths using gentle methods as an alternative to the gruesome practice of forced-fetching.
Force-Free Methods For Softer Mouths
- Gun dogs (and really any dog!) should never be punished for picking up items nor should items be pulled out of their mouths. Doing so, will cause a dog to bite harder on the object and want to play "keep away," or perhaps. the dog may even become possessive or reluctant to pick up anything with the mouth. It's best to teach how to drop and trade instead.
- Several trainers of retrievers suggest avoiding squeaky toys as dogs may develop a hard mouth due to the reward of hearing the squeaky sound upon biting hard.
- Some trainers also discourage rough tugging games, but some others claim that the dogs can be taught the difference between working on birds and playing with toys.
- Some dogs (especially the younger ones) may become hard-mouthed initially when they are mostly excited. Letting these dogs burn off some steam and excitement with some bumper retrieving before being sent to retrieve real birds may help.
- Some dogs may become slightly more hard-mouthed when they retrieve too many bigger and tougher birds (eg. ducks) too often, and then after a while, are sent to retrieve smaller birds (like quails.) It's a good idea to switch types of birds every now and then.
- Practice having your retriever retrieve raw eggs or tomatoes, lavishly praising when delivered with no teeth marks!
Did you know? While many retrievers are no longer being used to retrieve downed birds, a soft mouth tendency comes handy when training service dogs. Just imagine the advantage of a person in a wheelchair dropping a credit card and having the dog retrieve it gently without scratching it or adding any teeth marks!
- Peak Performance EBook: Coaching the Canine Athlete, By Canine Sports Productions, First published: Nov 15, 1997
- Dominance in Dogs, By Barry Eaton, Dogwise Publishing (January 3, 2011)
- A Golden Retriever Marlies Kloet- Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
- Labrador Retriever with pheasant, by Flickr user Blaine Hansel - Flickr here, CC BY 2.0