How to Cure the Gun Shy Hunting Dog
It’s easier to methodically condition a dog to gunfire than to cure a case of gun shyness. But if you have patience, there is hope for the gun-shy dog.
By Chad Hines
We call them hunting dogs, bird dogs, and ‘gun’ dogs interchangeably. Whatever you call them, the dog you take hunting needs to be comfortable with the sound of gunfire. The best dogs get excited when they hear the report of the gun, and it makes them hunt harder, concentrate more, look to you for instructions.
But what if your hunting dog develops a fear of gunfire? I’ve seen potentially good hunting dogs with such a fear of loud noises that they would shake like a leaf and hide under the couch in a thunderstorm.
Gun shyness is sad to see, because it’s normally preventable. But there will always be those who just take their dogs out hunting, and the first gunshot they hear is in the heat of a hunt, and at that point it’s a matter of luck as to whether the dog reacts favorably.
There are many people who believe that once a dog is gun shy, it’s a lost cause, a condition that can never be reversed. It certainly takes a lot of work, and it will always be simpler to prevent gun shyness than fix it.
There are things you can try, but bring your patience.
CURING THE GUN-SHY DOG
Let’s say your dog is already fearful of gunfire. The first thing to try––prepare yourself to have patience––is the same progression you should have used before the puppy was ever exposed to gunfire. But now, expect the process to take a long time, and make sure the gun-shy dog is completely comfortable before advancing.
Start by making a fairly loud noise, such as clapping your hands, and immediately following up with something good. A treat, for instance. Progress to louder and louder noises, always followed by something good.
When you think the dog is ready to hear the sound of a gunshot, start with a ‘starters pistol,’ which shoots blanks. Fire the first shots at a distance, and make sure something good follows the shot (treats or praise are good choices). Gradually move closer until you can shoot standing right next to the dog. If you notice any signs of fear, back off and try a quieter noise for a few sessions. It helps to have an assistant fire the gun at a distance, so you can instantly give the reward when the dog hears the bang.
Once you’re sure the dog has accepted the sound of the starters pistol, progress to the louder sound of a shotgun. Again, begin further away, and have your helper move closer, until the gunshot can come while the shooter is standing next to the dog.
READY FOR BIRDS
Now, you’re ready to associate the gunfire with live birds. Your gun-shy dog must already have been introduced to birds, and be excited about them. Let a pigeon or pheasant go and let your dog chase the bird. When the dog is about 50 yards away and concentrating on the bird, shoot the blank pistol. If your dog shows no signs of being intimidated by the gun, throw another bird and shoot when the dog is about 40 yards away and concentrating on the bird.
Continue with the progression, shooting when the dog is closer and closer to you, until you can fire the gun when the dog is within five yards of you. After you get to that stage, try teasing the dog with the bird, firing the gun, and throwing the bird for him. (You may want to let him have this bird to retrieve, by clipping some feathers on one wing so the bird cannot fly away.)
When you get all the way through this progression with the blank pistol, start the process over again, substituting the louder report of a shotgun. With a dog that’s shy of gunfire, it’s better to take more steps than to have to go back to the drawing board.
If all goes well, the dog eventually hears the gun and looks for a bird to come down. At that point, your work on the association is complete.
The most important thing to remember is this: If your dog shows any fear of the gunfire, switch to a quieter noise and try the progression again. If your dog is showing fear, you are moving too fast.
OTHER THINGS TO TRY WITH A GUN SHY DOG
Some cases of gun shyness are worse than others. If you try the first program and it doesn’t work, there are some other things you can try.
- Do not feed or water your dog for a day, then give him food and water, and clap your hands. Then, do the other steps in the progression only when it’s feeding time. At this point, you are reintroducing the association of loud noises with something good––food and water. If your dog won’t eat after the noise, leave him alone with his food and water. Give him enough food so he remains healthy, but keep him hungry so you can continue to introduce at least a fairly loud noise before feeding him each time.
- If the ‘feeding routine’ doesn’t work well with your dog, find something else he really likes and begin it by clapping your hands. Things your dog enjoys might be coming out of the kennel, going for a ride in the truck, or playing a fun game of fetch. Just make sure you make the noise first, and follow it immediately with the thing your dog likes. Progress to louder noises until you can, for example, to shoot the gun, then let him out of the kennel. Something good always comes after the noise.
- Also, when you’re working out a case of gun shyness, try letting your dog out to run with other dogs. Your dog should feel comfortable in that type of setting. At some point when they’re all concentrating on playing with each other, fire off the gun. When the noise doesn’t bother the other dogs, your dog may pick up on that. I’ve seen it work.
No matter what route you take to cure the gun-shy dog, start small and work your way up to a gradually closer and louder noise. And remember: don’t shoot around birds if your dog has not been properly introduced to them. If you do, and the dog develops a case of gun shyness, the dog is likely to associate the loud, bad noise with birds––and birds can also become ‘bad’ to them.
Notes: If you’d like help training your dog or correcting specific problems;
Contact – Chad Hines at Willow Creek Kennels in Little Falls, Minnesota,