Working Through Gun Sensitivity
September 23, 2010
Fostering excitement is the key.
Playing on the pup's natural prey drive, we introduce the gun sound as a cue to fun exciting stuff, rewarded by the retrieve. Tom is set with a blank pistol, catching the pup's attention by tossing the Dead Fowl dummy, while Tim holds our student ready for the chase and retrieve.
It's not uncommon to hear of a young dog being concerned, apprehensive, or even frightened of gunfire during its first hunting season. Thankfully most good dogs can be helped through this and learn to associate the "BANG" with the fun and excitement of a productive hunt rather than something bad.
Even though we all try very hard to avert problems through early conditioning, three gunners working a covey of quail or a pair of roosters puts a whole new spin on the overwhelming power and noise of gunfire. While training, there's one bird up in plain sight, one gunner and one shot'¦a very controlled situation, in other words. Most importantly, during training sessions the dog sees the bird. But that's not always the case when we're out hunting.
Possible scenario...On her first pheasant hunt, a young Lab we'll call Betty was working heavy briars, unaware of two roosters flushing 20 yards out. Subsequent gun blasts from the two hunters caught her off guard at the same time she was hurt pulling herself free from the briars. Now we have a problem--Betty associates the loud, harsh gun blasts with the pain caused from freeing herself from ripping thorns.
Put yourself in the dog's place, not privileged to logic, but only aware of a sudden commotion, pressure, and intense noise, again and again. Anyone who's experienced even the slightest muzzle blast knows what I mean and can understand how problems could develop, even though the dog was properly introduced to gunfire during early training.
Granted, some individuals are predisposed to problems simply because they're not mentally strong. Still, if we do everything right, most dogs understand the gun, and I feel we have to admit, gunshyness or gun sensitivity is manmade. It usually results from poor socialization, improper introduction to gun noise, or shortcuts during the training process.
The good news is, if we have a little boggle during the first season, it can usually be corrected, especially if the dog was started right and only shows "sensitivity" (as opposed to outright fear or panic) to gunfire.
We generally use "sensitive" to describe some level of concern or fear the dog shows of something, yet in the absence of those particular stimuli the dog recovers relatively quickly and goes on with the job at hand. In contrast, "shy" is used to describe indications of a much stronger, overpowering and lasting fear.
My best results in either case, whether starting a pup or working through severe problems, involve engaging the dog's innate desire, prey drive, and mental strengths. No magic; we simply help Fido associate gun noise with "good stuff," and progress depends on the dog and the severity of the problem.
Keeping everything positive and our pup's focus on the training dummy, we take note of the pup's awareness or concern with the gun sound. Based on his reaction, we decide to hold the gun sound or fire it sooner on the next retrieve.
High-drive, mentally strong dogs usually have no problem and can be steadied early, but others who lack punch and confidence should be allowed to chase birds and enjoy themselves for a good while.
I recommend you use a 22-caliber black powder blank or cap gun in the beginning; you'll also need a lead or check rope, a few game birds or pigeons and a friend who understands your objective and will help throw birds for your dog.
First reassure yourself that the dog is comfortable with birds and handles them correctly, as we don't want to create or reinforce an associated problem.
I like to use a clipped-wing live pigeon and start by letting the dog hold and carry it around a little bit. Doing this gives me an idea of the dog's manner and confidence.
Next, tease the dog by flipping his nose and face with the wings; if the dog seems to back off, toss the bird out a foot or so and encourage the dog to chase. We're trying to excite prey drive, divert attention and build confidence--all at the same time.
Now hold your dog and toss the bird a few feet so it flutters and lands in open cover, then again encourage the dog to chase, catch and retrieve. Use plenty of praise and don't grab the bird when he returns, but allow him some time to enjoy.
Next, throw the pigeon farther; you might ask a friend to help and extend the retrieves to 15 or 20 yards during this first session, depending on the dog's response. Don't get in a hurry, and be sure to quit while the dog is still in high drive and excited about the chase.
Notice, no gun yet! We're building drive while clearing any chance of subtle bird-shy problems before the noise comes in. Often dogs associate birds, guns and the discomfort of gun noise, so we have to reverse that notion, one element at a time.
Our next session may be a repeat of the first, especially if we're working through an existing problem. We want our dog driving with his full attention on birds. Keep a check rope attached to guide the dog back. Pet him, fuss over him and praise him to pump him up, then gently take the bird and toss it for another retrieve.
At this point we call on our helper again to walk out 10 or 15 yards and toss a bird while we hold our dog in position to watch. Depending on the dog we may release him while the bird is high and flopping or wait until it's on the ground. The point is to release the dog when his excitement peaks; steadiness comes later and is of no concern at this point.
Continue to extend these retrieves out a good ways, maybe 25 or 30 yards. By now we're sure of our dog's confidence, drive and comfort with birds and can move to the next step, introducing or reintroducing gun noise.
Notice that I've not suggested time parameters or length and frequency of sessions. You alone can make that call, again based on your dog's level of enthusiasm. Just remember to keep it fun as you build!
A 22-caliber black powder blank works well, providing more of a shotgun-like bang. I don't use stud driver blanks; their report is way too sharp.
Okay, now we'll bring in the gun sound while our dog's in high drive and less likely to notice.
Set up once more with your helper out around 30 yards with a few wing-clipped pigeons and the blank gun ready. Toss a couple for him to retrieve and to get him revved. Then on the next retrieve send your dog while the bird is still in the air and cue your helper to shoot when the dog's a good way off but in full pursuit. Most dogs won't even notice the noise, but be ready with another bird in case.
This may be good enough for one session or you might mix a couple more retrieves, some without any shots.
From here, use similar scenarios but shoot earlier in the sequence so the gun noise becomes more evident in a positive way, as the dog realizes the gun noise is actually a signal to downed birds and the fun and excitement of the chase.
As you progress, hold the dog and ask your helper to shoot, then pause before throwing the bird. By now your dog should key off gun noise and dig in to retrieve; it's even a good idea to pop a blank as the dog drives to the fall to get him more excited and reinforce his confidence.
The next step is to have your helper walk closer to your position, shoot and throw the bird at an angle so Fido sees it go'¦you'll eventually be able to stand off and pop blanks yourself as the helper throws birds. Once you've reached this point, steadying the dog shouldn't cause any confusion.
You can also plan to bring in real shotguns, once again with your helper out 30 or 40 yards or so and set up as you did while first introducing blanks. Work through each step as before.
If you have seasoned dogs around, put the one you're conditioning on a chain gang or stake him out near them while working others...their enthusiasm is contagious and will help overcome any fear.
Although this article was intended to help those with existing problems, the same program can be very helpful in conditioning/socializing young prospects as you build the "foundation" for future training and hunting.