But, if you are hoping to train your dog as a working gundog you will probably have read, and been given, advice on avoiding any kind of ‘tug of war’ game with your gundog.
Grabbing the end of a rope toy and hanging on for dear life whilst your dog pulls at the other end making all sorts of playful noises, is a source of great pleasure to both dogs and their owners.
So why should gundogs be denied this seemingly harmless game.
The priniciple reason is that it has long been believed, that tug games can make dogs hard mouthed.
Why is soft mouth so important?
One of the most important attributes of our gundog breeds is the gentle way that they carry a retrieve.[wp_ad_camp_1]This is very important because the objective of killing birds and rabbits is so that we can eat them.
The last thing we want is the animal all ‘mashed up’ and unfit for the table.
Discovering that a gundog is hard-mouthed spells the end of his career as a retriever.
And as ‘hard mouth’ cannot be diagnosed until the dog is working on game, a great many months of training will have come to nothing. For a professional trainer this is a financial loss as well as a huge disappointment.
Do ‘tug’ games cause hard mouth?
There are two schools of thought on this one. Traditional trainers say yes. And for many years no-one questioned this advice.
More recently, trainers from other dog disciplines have begun to get involved in gundog training, some using different methods, and it is not unusual now to hear people claim that their dog is allowed to play tug and that this has not affected his mouth.
Until recently, in the cases that I had come across, the claims that tug does not cause hard mouth were based on the owners observations of their dog working on dummies.
Unfortunately, hard mouth can only be properly diagnosed when a dog is working on game. A hard mouthed dog may not rip or puncture a bird, but will often inflict crushing damage which can be felt by an experienced person as they examine the bird.
I have now seen statements made by a couple of reputable trainers, that work their dogs on game, and play tug with those same dogs. These trainers claim that this activity has not caused any problems with their dogs’ mouths. And I have no reason to doubt them
I cannot personally vouch for the effects of tug games on a dog’s mouth because I have no experience of playing tug with gundogs. Hard mouth is a complete disaster in a gun dog, and so I probably won’t be putting the theory to the test. You, however, might feel differently.
A personal choice
If you do play tug with your gundog, and want to attend training sessions with a traditional trainer, bear in mind that they are unlikely to approve.
How much that will matter to you will depend on your own temperament. But, it is probably also worth bearing in mind, that you don’t need to play tug with your dog to keep him happy.
It is a personal choice, but with so few trainers actually claiming any experience with using tug games in gundog training, and such widespread negativity towards it in the working gundog community, you might want to give it a miss for the time being.
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We have a working goldie. I’m a trainer but my husband has a rough shoot. I never use rag games as reinforcement for behaviours outside but my dog certainly plays rag games. She knows which toys she can play rag (ropes) which she plays chase with and which she fetches. She has been on warm game and hunted down a few runners never any damage done to them.
David Murray says
Having only worked my boy on cold game the issue of bite reflex has not come up. Thanks for reminding me that this may manifest itself in a live shooting situation. I can see why one would choose not to use tug as a reinforcement if one suspects that it may require significant rehabilitation. I agree that the dog is probably no poorer for the lack of this reinforcer. Thanks for keeping me on my toes. Can I really identify the behavior being reinforced, and in fact , is it a behaviour that should be punished,or allowed to extinguish, for greater success in the long run. Since we run all our CKC Working and Hunt Tests in Canada on cold game, I may be at less risk, than if I was also hunting, or trialing with shot game. I’m sure at this stage there is likely to be no controlled data to draw on. Your caution seems wise in the light of the varied circumstances in which your dogs are likely to work.
Thanks for your insights.
To be continued…David.
David Murray says
So nice to hear back from you, and engage in a little “intercontinental” give and take on gundogs. I am neither a shooter nor a hunter, but just a guy who’s connected with Labradors since my father brought one home for me when I was 10 yrs. old.(1958!) When I got my new pup, my 5th, I set a goal. I would participate in field-sport training towards at least the entry-level WC title, and my dog would percieve his training as niether painful, threatening, nor agressive. In keeping with this promise to him I have begged, borowed, or stolen:), any methodology that keeps us securely in what I call the positive/operant zone. It has been a slow, sucessful, and rewarding journey. I’ve liberally taken and modified techniques usually employed by the agility, and freestyle folks. As you can imagine, this approach can leave one a little out in the cold when it comes to group training, especially here in North America, and our line work and steadiness in group settings ( 99.9% of which are governed by force-trainers) has been steady, but slow. Your points on his reliability in a live shooting situation are well taken, and will remain an unknown quantity until we need to meet that criteria. Is ” real ” retrieving a matter of degree or kind? As it stands now, I’m exploring the landscape at the intersections of technique, and marvelling at the esthetic qualities of my dogs instinct, as I try to guide it’s ongoing revelation.
I’ll close with a bit of cheek! If dogs generalise behaviour so poorly, why would we assume they would generalise a bit of Tug to chewing up a retrieve?
“why would we assume they would generalise a bit of Tug to chewing up a retrieve?”
My concern is that the wriggling of a wounded animal in the dog’s mouth triggers a biting reflex in many dogs. This reflex has been suppressed in gundog breeds, though we do know that it can be re-awakened if a young inexperienced dog is allowed to retrieve wounded birds too soon. The worry is that the movement of the tug in the dog’s mouth and the biting that is necessary to hold the tug there as the handler pulls on it, may re-awaken or trigger that biting reflex in response to the movement in the mouth of a bird.
I have no evidence to support this concern and am very happy to be proven wrong. But until I am convinced that this is not an issue, it is too big a risk for me personally. Especially as I have never used tug as a reward and therefore have learned to manage without. I am however always interested to hear of other’s experiences and I hope more people will post their views on this one. 🙂
Hi David, thanks very much for your interesting information. There are so few people using ‘tug’ for gundogs that it is very helpful to have your feedback.
If you are intending to work your dog under shoot conditions it would be great to hear how he gets on with ‘runners’. I would be interested to know if a bird wriggling in his mouth might cause a change in behaviour?
But so far, it sounds promising 🙂
David Murray says
Pippa. Can I weigh in on Tug. I have a young ( 2.75 yr. ) Labrador. We passed our Working Certificate CKC test 6 mos. ago. 2 back to back land singles on cold pigeons and 2 back to back water singles on cold ducks. I train with Tug as part of my packge of reinforcements. I understand that this is all anecdotal, but I find that the dog fully understands context. We Tug with a loop hand braided from 3 strands of woven nylon rope with a short wrapped handle. ( Homemade ). It is the only object we tug with, and the session lasts only 3-5 seconds immediately following a successful behavior. On any other instance where the dog has an object in his mouth, whether it be dummies, canvas or plastic, artificial training birds, cold game freshly euthanized or thawed, or even tennis balls, he is expected to and indeed does, deliver softly to hand and hold till given the release. Cold game is wet with saliva, but otherwise undamaged. No torn out feathers, skin punctures, or obvious signs of crushing.He holds and delivers in a manner indistinguishable from dummies or balls of foam birds. Again, this is one dog and one handler out of millions, but I have found it fairly simple to compartmentalize this little fun game, and actually use it to reinforce the behaviours I want, particularly my release cue. Handlers and pet owners, who get that Tug does not mean Tug of War, and who work the dog patiently and early into a conditioned release may find this game a powerful reinforcer, and another tool to maintain the desire and arousal level which may help keep the dog eager to learn and work. Thanks for listening