The Gun Shy Dog
By Ryan Eder
I can see how having a hunting dog that is afraid of gunfire is a problem, can you? It would be difficult to hunt with your dog if gunfire scared them away, or caused them to demonstrate anxiety or confusion. The issue of gun shyness in our hunting dogs is really something we need to look at from two possible angles:
• Proper socialization and introduction to noise
• How to alter a negative perception of gunfire in a gun shy dog
Our first goal is to socialize and condition our dogs properly so that this does not become an issue. We will discuss this in more detail simply because it is the best defense against a gun shy dog. Assuming your dog is already demonstrating gun shyness, we will also look at how to tackle the problem and begin working towards improving the situation.
Gun-shyness is man-made.
It all comes down to how we socialize our dogs, and introduce them to all things (including noises). Simply put, dogs are associative learners; this means that they quickly associate their experiences with their reactions and perceptions. Sound familiar? Yes, we as people can be very similar. As dog trainers, we need to make sure that a dog has a positive association and experience when they are introduced to critical elements that make up the environment a hunting dog needs to thrive in. Of course, gun fire is part of this. This is also the case with birds, cover, terrain, people, traveling in the truck and water (to name a few).
In previous articles I have broken down the gun introduction process in great detail, but to recap: Try to introduce gunfire in a controlled environment that can allow the dog to have a positive association with the experience. I have introduced gunfire with 209 primer pistols at a distance while I throw the dog a favorite toy, or even feed them. The logic is that at a distance, the noise has limited negative effects. Even if the dog notices it and shows concern, it is minute and easy to let go. Meanwhile the dog enjoys their food or game of fetch. After a few sessions, the gunfire is simply background noise associated with food or retrieving, which is exactly what we are after. Incorporate praise and affection and the dog ideally enjoys the experience.
Most people get the dog out in the field and start shooting guns at close range and hope it does not scare them. They assume that holding the pup in their lap, or petting them to reassure them that it’s OK while guns are firing is quite risky. Some pups do fine, most do not. As a breeder, I begin sound conditioning long before pups go to their forever homes. I have a field trial CD recording that has the sounds of the gunshots and gallery at a field trial event and it plays on repeat in the whelping area. From 3 weeks of age, these pups are hearing these sounds as they are fed and handled by kennel staff. I do not have hard data to prove this helps, but we do not see our pups scared of guns either. By doing this, my hope is that the pups have had a small exposure to something before their owners take it further.
For the dogs that do not show favorable responses to gunfire, we need to take these concepts to another level.
If you notice your dog tucking their tails and heading for the truck when they hear gunfire, we need to break things down and simplify the experience. Clearly the dog has had a negative association, experience or is not conditioned enough or properly. I almost go back to all the steps I mentioned previously as if the dog is a 6-8 week old puppy. We need to find what makes this dog happy, and incorporate it into the gun conditioning process. As I mentioned, mealtime tends to work well. Put down the bowl of food for the dog and have a gunner 100 yards away. Fire off a few shots while the dog eats and observe. An apprehensive dog means to stay 100 yards away for a few days, or even back up further. See if the dog gets more comfortable with experience. If so, move closer, if not, we need to keep seeking positive association experiences.
Other items that have worked for us in the past is to have a gunner 100 yards away while we run our dogs for exercise time. During this time, I like to run a gun-concerned dog with a few dogs that are not shy of the gun. While they run around and play, I signal for the gunner to shoot a shot and I observe the dog. Sometimes the excitement of running with other dogs and playing masks the sound. The other dogs can also serve as a confidence booster. Same as before, read the dog and act accordingly.
Birds have also been a great tool in gunfire introduction. Even dogs shy to the gun can show tremendous bird drive. Get some pigeons or quail and pull the flight feathers. Let the dog chase the birds, whether you put them in a bird pen or let them loose in a larger area where they can chase birds and enjoy it. Similarly, have a gunner 100 yards away and signal for shots while the dog chases birds. Again, the idea is to use the fun and excitement of the chase to mask the gun. Over time, these experiences allow the dog to associate gunfire with birds, food or play which get them excited.
Gun shy dogs are almost always a result of improper socialization and exposure to the gun. The dog needs to associate gunfire with something positive and ultimately enjoy themselves during the conditioning process. The result is a stylish and enthusiastic dog in hunting scenarios where gunfire is a regular occurrence.
For any further questions please contact Southfork Retrievers through our website at www.southforkretrievers.com