Familiarization With the Gun
Over the years I have only come across a handful of dogs that were gun shy. In most cases these were not dogs of good working pedigree and the problem had no doubt come through the genes. However I have had dogs brought to me by clients that are gun nervous or gun sensitive dogs. This is by far the most common problem and one that usually has been developed through a misguided introduction to the gun.
I introduce dogs to noise, and especially sharp noises similar to gunfire, at a very early age. Even as pups and still with their mum I clap my hands when I want to attract their attention, and especially at feed times to associate it with a pleasant experience – something they enjoy. And in that lies the secret to developing a dog that will accept the sound of a gun and associate it pleasure. Loud noises can be startling, so introduce them when your dog is doing something that is fun or followed by an activity that he likes. Food and eating is only one activity he derives pleasure from. The other main one is of course hunting and retrieving especially if you have built up enthusiasm for this.
The other way to introduce a dog to gunfire is to make it something that your dog hears regularly and just accepts it. Often in the shooting field we want him to do just this, to hear shooting and just accept it. Regularly when pups are in their kennels, I will be out training other dogs and firing shots. Some will be at a distance and some quite close. In this way pup becomes accepting of these noises as nothing untoward happens which he associates with these bangs.
Feed time is a good moment to get acceptance of loud noises as I have mentioned. As you go to feed clap you hands to gain attention and bring the pup towards you. Also when doing retrieves clap your hands multiple times also to encourage him up with a retrieve and associate this noise with the joys of the work.
If you can get some assistance from a friend introduce your dog to real gunfire from a distance. Start with a blank starting pistol at about 50 yards or more in an open area with the gun being fired in the opposite direction to where you are stood. Watch your dog’s reaction. If it is just an interested look, keep him sat and then throw a dummy. If he looks concerned or goes behind your legs, do not comfort or pull him back to the front, ignore it and quickly give him a short retrieve to settle him again. Move the gun away from you and once more see what happens. At this distance it is rare you get a dog being concerned but if you do then you have to take the stages in introduction to gunfire very easily indeed. It is important to not reinforce the unwanted behavior by comforting because the dog may think that this adverse reaction from him is what you are looking for, and even more important do not punish or be harsh with him for this behavior. He will only become more disturbed and confused.
When he is accepting of the gun at this distance move it closer in gradual easy steps, always associating it with a fun retrieve. Do not do anything too difficult at this time. Once you can see there is no problem with the blank pistol, you can now move onto the shotgun but once more move it out a considerable distance from your dog first. Start at 100 yards and again gradually move closer. Some dogs show no sign of any distress or concern during this introduction but do not be tempted to cut corners.
If you work by yourself, as I do mostly, then the same principles apply but now we have more difficulty getting the dog at a distance before we fire the shot. Once you have a strong sit and stay it can be easy, but the problem may arise that your dog hears the shot and feels insecure because you are not stood next to him. What I find works extremely well after I have accustomed him to the handclap routine is to get him hunting to find a dummy or a ball. When he is furthest from you in his hunting fire the blank pistol with it inside your game bag, ask him to sit (if you have reached that stage) and follow it with a retrieve or a call in where he finds a dummy on his return. The noise of the gun in the game bag is muffled and not so sharp. Gradually take it out of the game bag until you are firing it in the open. Initially, when it is out of the game bag, hide it behind your back, which avoids the potential problem of a dog becoming concerned over a raised hand and a sharp noise from the end of it. It also deadens the noise slightly. At each shot watch closely to see if there is any concern. If he looks alert and ready, randomly call him towards you and praise or give a retrieve. Depending on the stage you are in training these can be marked retrieves, memory retrieves or even simple blind retrieves. But make it fun.
Although some dogs show no concern with the sound of a gun, the sight of a shotgun in the hand can be a little worrying and gun nervousness is not just associated with the sound but can be with the carrying of a shotgun. Regularly in training carry a gun or imitation gun under your arm and get your dog familiar with you moving it around and its smell, if you use a stick to simulate a gun never hit your dog with this stick. Once he is familiar with the sight of the gun and the sound of a shot, you can now put the two together. There are inserts for the shotgun that allows you to put blanks in the gun and fire them. I use empty shells that I put new primers in. So the sound of the shotgun when these are being used is not as loud as a fully loaded shotgun. When the dog is comfortable with this you can then introduce the real thing.
Taking gun introduction in easy steps, it is quite straightforward to familiarise a dog to the gun provided there has not been a history of gun shyness in his parentage. But it does not stop there. So often in the shooting field we come up against situations where the noise is different, such as in a pigeon or duck hide, dense woodland, an echoing valley, or even on a formal shoot where there will be multiple shots in quick succession. One shot may be no problem but when it gets to three or four this can create concern. It is important therefore to introduce him to different situations, which will simulate the shooting that you are doing.
Clay shoots can be great at getting your dog even more familiar with the sound of the gun and also not becoming excited at every shot. They can also be useful at overcoming gun nervousness. Again take the introduction in small stages. Start at half a mile away from the clay shoot on open ground so that you can hear them in the distance and do some simple successful training. Make it fun and enjoyable. If he has no problem with you firing a gun, then use it in these training sessions. If not, just train and play to familiarize him with guns in the background. Gradually move closer to the shoot at time intervals dependent upon how your dog reacts. He will now begin to hear the shooting as background noise that means nothing and recognize looking to you for the shots that mean he is going to work. Once you are close to the clay shoot and can even walk around the stands he will see clay ‘birds’ flying that mean nothing and learn that it is the ‘birds’ you shoot or indicate he has to focus on. I personally have had two gun nervous dogs in for training and overcame their fear in this way. They became so confident with gunfire at the end they would sit next to the clay stands and watch the guns shooting.
Introduction to the gun can create concern in both the trainer and the dog. Like hard mouth we are always afraid we may have a dog with these two very much-unwanted problems. I have found that there are very few dogs from good working backgrounds that have these problems, so take it slow, take it easy, make it fun, and read your dog. Then when you do get out into the field on the real thing your dog will seem so natural with the shots around him, you will wonder why you were ever concerned.