Gunshyness: Fact and fiction

Proper introduction to gunfire will ensure your dog doesn't become gun shy. 

Meadow is a well-bred Labrador with superior hunting genetics behind her, a proven gundog line, so there was not doubt we had the proper material to hunt on our hands. The problem, though, was immediately apparent when she arrived for training. At six months she was wild, uncontrollable and sadly she had experienced no opportunities for proper socialization or pre-training from her owner.

From the start Meadow learned slowly … she had heart, just no focus. No learning chain had been established prior to her arrival … opportunities lost. She experienced trouble comprehending base skills such as in-line doubles, back casts, marking and certainly hand signals.

After several months of patient training and showing progress, the day arrived for the introduction to gunfire … I should have known … yet another issue to address.

To introduce gunfire to our dogs, we do so in a group setting. It is a confidence issue, more or less, so Meadow found herself in line with two other youngsters also in training, all about nine months old.

An assistant was placed with a retriever launcher out 40 yards with instructions to fire the bumper toward the line as to distract the dogs' attention away from the shot while focusing on the mark.

With the shot, Meadow jumped and turned away. The others in line were staunch. Meadow was moved 10 yards behind the line. Another shot and another more definite reaction. Again, we moved further away and got the same reaction. We had the makings of a gun-shy dog on our hands.

A common fear

Many gundog owners harbor this very fear with their new pups, despite the breed. I receive many questions on this subject at seminars and by e-mail and now Meadow is with us. So, a timely topic for a discussion presents itself … gunshyness prevention.

Meadow was not gunshy at that point, not yet. So with the third shot and subsequent reactions, we stopped and I began a remedial course to attempt to relieve Meadow's fear of gunshots. To continue would have been foolhardy. With care and a progressive training plan, I began the tedious task of reducing Meadow's fear of "the shot" before the fear became entrenched (gunshyness).

Potential causes

The causes of gunshyness may vary but are usually man made. There is genetic gunshyness. My Jack Russell terriers are gunshy through no fault of my own. Most likely dogs in their lineage are as well.

In past years I have attempted to get dogs over their shyness of the gun whose parents were known to throw the fault. I had some success but many of the dogs were always on the edge of regression. It's best to find pups from strong hunting bloodlines of at least three generations, proven field stock. Remember, like produces like.

Older dogs with a long history of gunshyness are best enlisted as the family pet. Cut your losses and begin again if the situation is genetic related. The odds are simply against getting such a dog to stand up under intensive gunfire in the field.

The most common causes of gunshyness are man made and usually completely avoidable.

  • Someone other than the owner does something stupid to the pup making them fearful of the "bang" such as a neighborhood kid tossing fireworks close to the pup.

  • The owner does something stupid to the pup. A new Wildrose training law now takes shape. I've given you several over the years and I hope you are keeping up … add this one to your list: "Stupid hurts."

    Commit a stupid act with your pup/dog and it will come back to haunt you. Here is a list of "stupid" or shall I be more politically correct by saying "avoidable" considerations concerning gunfire introduction.

  • Test firing: firing a shot over an unsuspecting pup or even started dog to see if the younger shows signs of fear. I know where I'll put my money.

  • Associating potential gunshyness with a dog's fear of thunder, mowers or weed eaters. There is no correlation. Many fine hunting dogs fear thunderstorms.

  • Taking a young pup on a hunt for "experience." This has the makings for real trouble.

  • Discharging a shot behind an unsuspecting pup as they eat. Logical? Try shooting behind a 3-year old kid as they partake in a breakfast of Cocoa Puffs … bet the kid (and his mom, too) won't give you a desirable response. Likely the pup won't either. Gunfire should be associated with birds, not eating … no surprises.

  • Opening up over a young dog on their first hunt with several 3-inch magnums at dawn. Even if introduced to the shotgun, this loud shot intensity may be too much.

  • Taking a young pup to a sport shooting or rifle range for introductory purposes.

  • The list can continue but the point remains, use common sense when introducing pups to gunfire and make haste slowly. There is no rush.

    I had a call from an individual a few years back who was about to pick up his new pup from us. Given his profession, he should have knows better than to ask if I had shot over the pup yet. The litter was 5 weeks old.

    Stupid hurts.

    Another case … a young man picked up an 11-month old starter, went straight home to an open field with the dog not even knowing him yet. As the pup sat gazing across the open field, the new owner pulled his trusty 12 gauge from the truck and without warning discharged a round over the dog's head.

    Why? He said he wanted to see if the youngster was gunshy!

    Stupid hurts.

    Problem avoidance

    To introduce gunfire, I wait for the pup to gain in maturity and confidence. There is no rush. We want our prospect to boldly blast out for retrieves, hit the water with enthusiasm and be totally comfortable in the field so the pup is usually 8 to 10 months old by the time I start.

    We use the dog's retrieving desire as an attraction, reducing the dog's attention toward the shot. The shot means bird in the air and a possible forthcoming retrieve. It is necessary to have our dog retrieving well before introduction to gunfire.

    Choose open ground initially to reduce the reflecting intensity of the shot's sound. Start with a .22 (short) blank gun, never .22 rifle ammo. A cap gun will work fine.

    Have an assistant with bumpers do the shooting out about 40 yards. The bumper comes toward the dog to catch and hold his attention. Just at the peak of the arch, shoot. Watch the dog, not the mark. Look for any reaction.

    Gradually work the shooter closer denying every other retrieve to reinforce steadiness. Move the shooter closer with each shot. Keep the process going until the shooter is standing next to you. This may take a couple of days but no matter, proceed slowly initially.

    It's wise to use a second dog in line with the starter. The latter will gain confidence from the older dog's enthusiasm and lack of fear.

    If nervousness or a reaction occurs from the shot at any point, stop. Skip a few days and begin again. Do not force the issue.

    Once the dog is accustomed to your shooting the cap gun or .22 blanks in several different locations, progress as follows using the same ritual:

  • .12 gauge primers start at 40 yards

  • retriever launcher start at 50 yards

  • .410 or 20 gauge start at 75 yards plus

  • .12 gauge light loads start at 100 yards

  • Use only single shots at first with the muzzle facing away from the area of the dog further reducing the impact of the sound. Multiple shots come later. Incorporate all types of environments at each level. Remember that sound reflects and intensifies with tight environments such as woodlands, over water, in flooded timber and inside enclosed blinds.

    Meadow's outcome

    As for Meadow, she was a borderline case initially and continued to react to shots for some time but within 25 days she was standing under gunfire quite well. She will make a hunter.

    To avoid gunfire sensitivity, prevention is the best approach. Protect your pup from early gunfire. Introduce the sight of the actual gun well before the first shot. Take it to the field during training. We don't want the pup to fear the gun itself. Introduce gunfire progressively when your pup shows maturity and confidence in the field.

    When introducing gunfire to a new prospect, use a progressive approach with your maturing young dog, which gradually increases the intensity of the shot and associates that shot with your dog's ultimate reward (the retrieve), gunshyness should be of little worry. Just take your time, there is no rush.