Gunshy,The mere mention of the word makes hunters cringe. The big question on the minds of many new puppy owners is whether or not their puppy will be afraid of the sound of the shotgun. How many dogs have been turned into just pets and no longer hunted because they are “gunshy”, and how many more have simply been put down?
First of all, we’re going to go out on a limb here: No dog has ever been born gunshy. It is not a genetic problem. There are no dogs that are ever born with an innate fear of guns. It just isn’t possible for a dog to have that kind of genetic programming.
Now that we’ve clarified that, we’d like to state that some dogs are born bold and others are born less bold, and occasionally – rarely – one is born timid and spooky. That doesn’t mean the pup was born gunshy, rather it has a defect that makes it timid. This kind of dog is the easiest to frighten, and any loud noise can do it, from Fourth of July fireworks to a door slamming unexpectedly. Fortunately these pups are rare, thanks to good breeders who cull stock like this from their programs. Since we’ve now eliminated that excuse, let’s talk about real gunshyness – the manmade kind.
Without exception, every dog that someone calls gunshy has a reason to be. Somewhere in its life, someone has startled it with a load noise, usually not realizing they’ve done it. The first step is to try to find the reason. In talking with folks about curing their gunshy dogs, we’ve heard a lot of causes, the majority of which were completely unintentional. Here are a few (and thanks to those who shared these with us): One person confessed to using an air nail gun in a partially finished basement with the pup right there (imagine the echoes!); another told of going out to shoot a snake in the backyard, not realizing his pup was right behind him when he pulled the trigger. We’ve also heard stories of neighbor kids shooting a tied dog with a pellet gun when the owner wasn’t home – this would truly qualify as gunshy, since it wasn’t the noise as much as seeing the instrument of torture that frightened the dog. The list could go on and on. Our point is this: Gunshy dogs are made, not born.
"There are no dogs that are ever born with an innate fear of guns. It just isn’t possible for a dog to have that kind of genetic programming."
The very worst thing we hear of, and more often than you’d hope to, is of someone blasting a shotgun right next to a puppy “because I wanted to find out if he’s gunshy.” In one brief moment, that person made a gunshy dog. Think about it: We wear ear protection when we shoot, and as anyone who’s ever been muzzle-blasted can attest, it hurts! Why would we inflict that upon our dogs?
So what do we do about it? Obviously, the best way is to properly introduce dogs to gunfire and loud noises the first time around, but that’s not the point of our column at this time. We’re looking to repair damage that’s already been done.
Let’s say we’ve got a great dog in every respect except one: he crawls under the truck every time he sees a shotgun. For now, we’ll forget about guns and other noises completely. At a later point, the gun will be carefully introduced.
The first step in eliminating a dog’s fear of gunfire is to gain complete compliance and control on the stakeout chain. The dog needs to be totally relaxed, confident and comfortable being restricted in that spot. (For the complete process on the chain, refer to our May/June 2001 column.)
An important consideration in the retraining process is knowing with absolute certainty that the dog is gunshy not birdshy. Confusing the two with a dog that has been hunted over is a definite possibility, so be sure it is the gun that frightens the dog, not birds.
Begin the retraining process by preparing yourself mentally. This is not a project to be accomplished in a weekend. Understand that this will be a long process, and the more you try to rush it, the more you will make the dog worse and reinforce the fear. You cannot make a mistake by going too slowly! It takes as longs as it takes, and this means you shouldn’t expect to correct this in a weekend, or a week or even a month. Allow your dog to accept the conditioning at its own pace, and resist the temptation to hurry.
When working your dog, always start from the chain. If you can train with friends and have their dogs on the chain as well, it will help to “bold up” your dog and increase the enthusiasm, The more the other dogs get fired up about seeing a bird, the more your will go along with them. Either way, your dog should look forward to being on the chain because it means attention – and it means working birds comes next. Building your dog’s desire for birds is a critical part of retraining a gunshy dog, Let your dog run and chase and just generally have a good time around birds. They will serve as a major distraction once guns are introduced. Ultimately, you’ll want your dog to be so excited about birds that it won’t even notice the gunfire.
You will need a friend to help you by being the gunner. Let y our friend handle the gun, and you handle your dog. Be sure to talk the plan through so your friend knows exactly what you want him to do.
Start with a .22 blank pistol at a distance of 50-75 yards or more. You can’t start too far away with the gun, but you can start too close. Farther is always better than closer.
Our initial goal is to have the dog associate the sound of the gun with birds flying. Again, this only works if the dog already likes birds. Your job will be to have birds and a launcher, or it that’s not available, a hobbled pigeon to use in exciting the dog. Launch a bird or flush the hobbled pigeon, get the dogs fired up, and while they are excited, your helper will fire a single shot. The shot should happen just after the bird is released. Repeat this a few times at the same distance.
Once this has been done several times successfully, we can move on to the checkcord and work planted birds in the field. Do not worry about the dog being steady at this point. If you correct it for wanted to break, the correction will negatively related to the bird and the gun. Keep the primary goal in mind, which is curing the fear of gunfire. The rest can be done later. Again, a single .22 blank shot will be fired at a distance just after each bird flushes.
When this is working well, go back to the chain and at the same distance, have your helper use a small-gauge shotgun with lows brass loads to keep the noise down. A 20-guage works well, certainly nothing larger. You’ll follow the same routine as with the blank pistol, going from the chain to working birds, and always using a single shot as the bird flushes.
What if the dog shows some fear? Go back to working on enthusiasm around birds, and move the gun farther out. One important caution: Many people react to a dog’s fear by petting talking to them, but this will give us the opposite result. The verbal and physical comfort rewards the dog for showing fear. If your dog learns that cowering will give it affection and comfort, it will continue to cower. However, if you stand confidently and show no reaction, eventually your dog will follow your leadership and gain confidence from you. As the gun is being fired, just stand calmly and quietly next to your dog. If your dog is on a lead and starts to show fear, do not jerk or pull on the lead. Hold it steady and quietly restrict the movement of the dog.
The gun should be fired from distance of at least 50-75 yards away at first, only moving closer when the dog doesn’t acknowledge the sound at all. It’s always better to start farther away and move closer as the dog accepts or, better yet, ignores the sound. If you have some training birds and another friend with a dog that is not gunshy, have the confident dog go out to retrieve as each shot happens, whether it’s a bumper or a bird. This develops a bit of competition between the dogs and can serve as a distraction from the sound of the gun, as can birds flying.
As the process continues, do not be tempted to “test” your dog to see if it’s over the fear of gunfire! This can erase everything you’ve done so far and really shake your dog’s faith in you. Instead, watch the reactions your dog gives you. Move the gunner farther away if needed, gradually moving closer as the dog accepts and ignores the noise. If the dog acts fearful, back up a step until the comfort level increases again.
Offering the dog a drink of water is good idea, and it will be very helpful if the water comes from the direction of the gunfire. Any association your dog can make between guns and good thinks – like a cool drink of water or retrieving or birds flying – are positives and should be encouraged and repeated. The more diversions you can create, the less attention your dog will give to the gunfire, and it will gradually lose it’s importance.
One the dog is ignoring the sound of gunfire at reasonably close range; you can start shooting birds for it. When hunting, pay close attention to where you are shooting in relation to where your dog is standing so you don’t shoot directly over its head. Try to always walk out in front of the dog before shooting, and beware of the position of your gun so your dog doesn’t get muzzle-blasted. And try to limit your shooting – three people shooting twice each over the dog is definitely not a good idea. Consideration for your dog should be equal to the consideration you give your human hunting companions. Be conscious of the effect that gunfire can have, whether you’re retraining a dog that was gunshy or hunting with a dog that have never feared the sound. It’s not just gunshyness that this prevents; it also helps stem the loss of your dog’s hearing.
Take care your dog by being conscious of your gun handling; and you’ll have a hunting companion who loves the sport as much as you do for many years.