My feeling is that in almost all cases gun sensitivity or gun shyness is man- made. Most often the pup’s training program is lacking the proper exposure or introduction to each facet of his new world, and this includes gunfire.
The good news is, if we take precautions and follow some sort of sensible process we can help our pup understand the gun noise as a cue to downed game and the excitement of a retrieve.
Whether starting a pup or working through gun sensitivity problems, my best results involve engaging the dog’s innate desire, prey drive and mental strengths. There’s no magic involved; we simply help Fido associate gun noise with “good stuff.” Progress depends on the dog’s temperament, drive, level of training and previous exposure to birds.
Let me give you some ideas on how I work a young dog through gun introduction. For starters, I recommend you use a .22 black powder blank or cap gun. You’ll also need a lead or check rope, a few gamebirds or pigeons and a friend who understands your objective and will help throw the birds.
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 gamebird and start by letting the dog hold and carry it around a little while; doing so 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 him to chase. We’re trying to excite prey drive, divert attention and build confidence.
Now hold your dog and toss the bird a few feet so it flutters and lands in open cover and again encourage the dog to chase, catch and retrieve. Use plenty of praise and don’t grab the bird when he returns; allow him some time to enjoy. Then throw the bird farther; you might ask a friend to help and extend the retrieves to 15 or 20 yards during this first session. But don’t get in a hurry and remember to quit while the dog is still excited about the chase.
Notice, there’s 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 with guns and the discomfort of gun noise, so we must reverse that notion, one element at a time.
Our next session may be a repeat, especially if we’re working through an existing problem. We want our dog fired up and with full his attention on birds. Keep a check rope attached to guide him back on retrieves, then pet and praise him to pump him up, after which you can gently take the bird and toss it for another retrieve.
At this point, we ask 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 him when his excitement peaks; steadiness comes later and is of no concern at this point.
Continue to extend the retrieves out to 25 or even 50 yards if you have room. By now we should be sure of our dog’s confidence, drive and comfort with birds and can move to the next step, which is introducing gun noise.
Notice I’ve not suggested specific time parameters or length and frequency of these sessions. You alone can make that call; just remember to keep it fun as you evaluate and build your dog’s confidence.
A .22 blank works well, as do 209 primers. Either of these produce a more “shotgun like” bang. I don’t use stud driver blanks, as their report is way too sharp.
Now it’s time to bring in the gun sound while our dog is in high drive and less likely to notice. Set up once more with your helper out at least 40 yards with a few wing-clipped birds and the blank gun ready. Toss a couple of birds for your dog to retrieve and get him revved up. Then bring in the gun noise on the next retrieve. Have your helper throw the bird and pop a blank after the bird hits the ground and the dog is on the way. You should release your dog while the bird is still in the air—this way the dog is in full drive before the shot goes off.
If you feel the need to build more drive, have you helper throw a second bird immediately after the shot
As soon as the dog picks the bird up, try to keep the excitement up by calling him back with, “Good job! Good boy!” If the dog shows any apprehension, quickly toss another bird with no shot. But providing all went well, repeat the drill with only one bird thrown.
This may be good enough for one session, or you might mix a couple more retrieves, one without a shot, one with.
Next session, repeat the above drill first to be sure all is going well, then, using the same setup, have your helper shoot while the bird is in the air and you release the dog after the bird is on the ground.
Each step in the plan brings the gunfire sooner in the scenario, and in turn, more into the dog’s conscious awareness as a positive cue to downed game and the excitement of a retrieve. To check your dog’s progress, have your helper shoot then pause a second or two before throwing the bird. If your dog is excited on hearing the shot in anticipation of the retrieve, you are on track!
From here, you must be the judge of how the scenario is set up, depending on the dog’s reactions to the gunfire during drills, and always watching for any signs of sensitivity or uneasiness. Eventually you will have to bring a shotgun into the drills, and for this I suggest you go back to step one and extend the initial distance.
Remember, your goal is to introduce the gun noise in such a way that your dog will associate and understand the sound as a positive cue. The process may take a couple days or maybe a week or more, depending on the dog. Don’t rush it; let the dog set the pace.