Expert gun dog trainer Mark Davis provides a bit of after-sales service to Jim Godden from South Australia, who has a young black labrador, bred by the Davis', that he's readying for the 2017 season.
My pup is five months old and has the basic obedience training. How and when would you introduce gun/noise conditioning given there are a couple of fear phases dogs go through as they mature?
This should start with the breeder. We expose our puppies to clanging dinner bowls from about five weeks of age, gradually increasing the volume and introducing a clapper board while they are fervently feeding.
By the time they are eight weeks, they relate loud noises to a pleasant experience. If you bang loudly on their iron fence, they come running to you at a million miles an hour.
However, if your pup hasn't had some conditioning by the breeder, then it is important to introduce this training gradually. Feed time is, of course, a great time to do this, but make sure you observe the reaction of the dog and adjust accordingly.
Your gun club can be the next step but again exercise caution; do not take the dog out of the car and straight up to the first stand. This a completely new experience, with lots of people and probably other dogs, so ease him in to it gently.
Approach from a distance allowing him to absorb everything that is going on, especially the shooting, and again observe his reactions. If he is showing no sign of concern, great, but if he is a little reluctant then stay at the car and have a cup of tea. Take your time — he will come around.
Dogs do go through various phases, fear being one of them. They may have moments of uncertainty and may be slightly apprehensive when confronted with a new experience, particularly young dogs. It goes right back to their wild dog origins when their very survival depended on being cautious.
They grow out of it as they learn more about the world. It is important to be positive and upbeat when it happens, that way the pup will gain confidence from you — provide plenty of exposure to different situations and lots of socialisation.
How and when would you introduce the dog to retrieving game after training with a dummy?
Make sure your dog is reliably retrieving dummies to hand before moving onto game. I know how difficult this is for some people to understand, but if you follow the correct process, you will eliminate problems before they occur. Hard mouth is one example!
Once your dog is confident with dummies, move onto frozen game: sit your dog beside you and hand throw a bird.
Make sure you have control of him and wait a short time before sending him. Some may have a sniff first before picking it up, but personally I have never had a dog refuse to pick up a frozen bird and, of course, there is no chance of the dog damaging the bird.
Repeat with frozen birds for a few nights, but do not overdo it. The next step is cold game: thaw the bird overnight and repeat the exercise, encouraging the dog back into you as soon as he picks it up. Remain calm, you do not want to overexcite the dog. I have used this method for 40 years and never had a hard-mouthed dog.
Hard mouth exists in gundogs for a variety of reasons: the most common cause is introducing young dogs to warm game too early. Similarly, wounded game can almost guarantee hard mouth in a young dog that has not had dummy and cold-game training.
Too much pressure on dogs can result in anxiety and that can manifest as hard mouth. There is also a school of thought that certain breeds of gundog are predisposed to hard mouth because of their development over the centuries; an example may be the continental breeds that were expected to hunt wild boar one day and retrieve waterfowl the next.
However, I take the view that hard mouth is almost always caused by poor or insufficient training.
Barmera Moorook FGA President Daniel Haines says his dog gets excited as soon as he throws or shoots a bird and she has to retrieve it, which leads to her chewing the bird.
Much of this question is covered in the previous answer, but there is indeed another trigger for hard mouth, and that is excitement and adrenalin.
A dog that is immediately sent to retrieve as the bird hits the deck or breaks as soon as the shot goes off has a lot of adrenalin coursing through its body and that will still be the case when she gets to the bird. This can lead to an overreaction when the dog grabs the bird — yep, hard mouth.
The cure for this particular variation of hard mouth is patience: wait before sending the dog for the retrieve, it will take four or five minutes for the adrenalin to subside.
When hunting, this means training your dog not to break or (if you are the impatient type) tying her up. If there are many birds around, wait until things quieten down or the shoot is over before sending her to retrieve, or best of all, just shoot a single bird at a time, in other words, shoot for your dog.
You should still wait until the dog quietens down, at least five minutes; this method definitely helps with super-keen dogs.
If you employ this method over a full season or couple of seasons, you will end up with a fine retriever who will be steady and rarely miss a bird.
Jim also asks a general question about neutering; whether to succumb to vet pressure or wait until 15–18 months and allow the dog a cycle to help her fully develop.
We are now hearing that neutering dogs too early may cause health issues for your dog, and there is growing opposition to neutering at a young age, or any age for that matter.
My advice is, if you have to neuter, wait until the dog has reached 18 to 24 months of age, which allows for a level of physical maturity.
Learning to manage the behaviours of the unneutered dog is obviously the best decision for the dog's development and health, but this is not always the best outcome for the dog's owners.
I'm sure our resident vet, Dr Karen Davies, can provide us with more information on this matter.
ED: We will ask Karen to look at this issue for the November issue.