I love hunting with dogs, but, like all animals, loud noises can spook them. This makes adapting your dog to the sound of gunfire one of the most important parts of training a performance hunting animal.
Start them young
The best way to prevent gun shyness in your hunting dog is to condition the dog to loud noises before they become a source of fear. At Willow Creek we use a system that has worked well for us on hundreds of young dogs trained over the years. Start when they are still puppies by making loud noises around them and immediately following up with something good such as a treat. Then progress to louder and louder noises and always follow the noise with something good. With small puppies it is often enough to simply clap your hands loudly right before they begin feeding on their mother’s milk.
When you think your puppy is ready to hear the sound of a gunshot, it is best to start with a toy cap gun. A cap gun produces a sharp noise but is much quieter than other options and less likely to cause fear. When you’re comfortable that your pup isn’t spooked by the cap gun, it’s time to progress to something a little louder. We generally move next to a starter or blank pistol.
Time for the big guns
With a starter pistol, you should start by firing some distance from the pup. As always, continue to make sure something good follows the shot such as treats or praise. 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, back off, and try a quieter noise for a few sessions. It helps to have an assistant fire the gun at a distance so you can instantly give the reward when the pup hears the bang.
Once your pup is excited about gunfire and shows no fear of it, you can progress to the louder sound of a shotgun. With the shotgun, use the same progression as 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.
Bring on the birds
Now, you’re ready to associate the gunfire with live birds. Your pup should already have been introduced to birds and be excited about them. Release a pigeon or pheasant and let your dog chase the bird. Wait until your dog is fifty yards away and concentrating on the bird and then fire 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 forty 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 can’t fly away.
Better safe than sorry
The most important thing to remember is to stop using gunfire if your dog shows fear of it. Switch to a quieter noise and try the progression again. If your dog shows fear you are moving too fast. This may seem like a lot of trouble versus just taking your dog on its first hunting trip and firing away. That works out sometimes but it can also result in your dog cowering under the truck. There are ways to solve the problem of gun shyness, but it’s not nearly as easy as doing it right the first time
Chad & Jodi Hines- Willow Creek Kennels and Native Dog Food