Making the Gun Part of the Fun
Secrets for preventing gun shyness in the hunting dog before it can become a problem. The best way to prevent gun shyness in your hunting dog is to carefully condition the dog to loud noises before they become a source of fear. There are no doubt other ways to do this, but here is a system that has worked well for us with the young dogs we train.
Start when they are still puppies, by making loud noises around the puppy and immediately following up with something good, a treat, for instance. Then, generally progress to louder and louder noises, always followed by something good. What we do with little puppies is clap our hands loudly right before they begin feeding. We make it a habit to create a loud noise right before feeding them, as they get older. When we think a puppy is ready to hear the sound of a gunshot, we start with a starter’s pistol, sometimes called a blank pistol. We separate the dog from the direct noise by allowing them to stay inside while we fire the blank pistol outside. This works best with two people so that someone can stay inside and reward the dog right away when the gun goes off. If there are no signs of fear or sensitivity we progress to louder guns ending with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Once we see no signs that the gun bothers the pup we would move everything outside. Once you have moved outside you should start again with the blank pistol. These gun reports should be fired at a distance from the pup at first. Make sure something good follows the shot (treats or praise are good choices). Gradually, move closer to the pup until you can shoot standing right next to him and it doesn’t bother him. If the pup starts to show signs of fear as the loud noise gets closer, back off, and maybe try a quieter noise for a few sessions. It helps to have an assistant fire the gun at a certain distance (you’ll learn how close is too close for your particular puppy), so you can instantly give the reward when the pup hears the bang.
If your pup is excited about the gunfire and shows no fear of it, you can progress to the louder sound of a shotgun. With the shotgun, do the same progression as what worked best for your puppy with the starter’s pistol. Begin further away, so the sound is relatively quieter to the pup. Have your helper move closer and 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 pup 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 yardsaway and concentrating on the bird, shoot the gun. (Don’t shoot the bird; just fire the gun.) 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.)
The most important thing to remember is this: If your dog shows any fear of the gunfire, stop using it. Switch to a quieter noise, and try the progression again. If your dog is showing fear, you are moving too fast. This entire process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on your individual dog.
It may seem like a lot of trouble to go to. A lot of people simply take their dog on its first hunting trip, let the birds start flying, and fire away, hoping that they don’t have any problems. That works out sometimes, and sometimes at the first volley, their dog slips away and ends up cowered under the truck.
At that point, they would give anything to have introduced their dog to gunfire the right way. There are ways to solve the problem of gun shyness, but that’s a story for a different day.