A gun-shy dog is not born, it is created, and once the damage is done, gun-shyness can prove virtually impossible to completely "cure." In an earlier column I spoke briefly about my distress at how many dog trainers bring a young dog to the clays course or gun range to introduce gunfire. This is definitely not the way to introduce your pup to gunfire.
The topic of when and how to introduce a dog to gunfire comes from an email I received from Ted Lagala, a reader from Long Island, NY. Ted is both excited at the prospect of shooting live rounds over his dog, and somewhat nervous about the potential for doing so before the dog is ready.
Having seen hundreds (if not thousands) of dogs move smoothly through an introduction to gunfire, I can confidently say that if the correct steps are followed at the correct pace, and the trainer is attentive to the signals the dog is giving (instead of focusing on the trainer's personal agenda or timeline), then the process is quite painless. The primary tools required for success are patience and awareness, and of course a training pistol and shotgun.
ASSESS YOUR DOG'S CONFIDENCE
In general terms, the dog's progress and maturity dictate when the gun can be introduced. A dog that is well-socialized, with foundation training positively reinforced and boundaries firmly but thoughtfully established, should be a confident dog. This confidence should be evident in the dog's engagement in training and play.
Does the dog retrieve enthusiastically with a high tail and ears? Does he skulk or tuck his tail when receiving light correction? Does he seem timid around new people, objects, or experiences? A basic assessment of confidence is a good indicator of when the dog is ready for gun introduction. That said, the first stages do not require a gun.
When the dog is showing confidence in normal tasks, be it at 3 months or 9 months or a year, it is time to introduce dead pigeons/birds as a high-value retrieving target. The presence of a dead bird should stimulate some of those genetic juices that good breeding implanted in the dog, and the level of intensity around all tasks and focus should grow substantially. (This foreshadows the end result of having a dead bird be the ultimate reward for a job done correctly.)
GO SLOW AND EASY
Introduce dead birds for training and play, and up the level of praise and reward following a desired task, retrieve or otherwise. Across the board, the early stages of gun conditioning require an incredibly stimulating positive environment is created for the dog, and few motivators should be as effective at this point as a dead bird.
That said, caution must be exercised; if for some reason the dead bird proves undesirable to the dog, or if the dog shies away, move back to encouraging, praising and treating the dog. Slow and steady wins out, but it is the rare flusher that does not exhibit a burst of excitement when the dead bird is introduced.
INTRODUCING WING-CLIPPED BIRDS
After a few sessions of retrieving/play with the dead bird, again assess the dog's confidence. If the tail and ears are high, eye contact with the trainer is focused and the drive to retrieve is strong, it is time to introduce wing-clipped birds.
To wing-clip a pigeon, extend a wing and clip off the ends of the longer flight feathers, which are the biggest feathers extending back. Clipping feathers on one wing should suffice and will enable the pigeon to fly, albeit not terribly effectively.
Using the wing-clipped pigeon as you did the dead pigeon, throw it out and away in such a manner that the dog is compelled to chase. At this point, the prey drive instincts should overpower the young dog's thought process, so allow it to chase. The dog will eventually get outpaced by the pigeon and return.
Throw another, until the dog is chasing with intensity and confidence, with no let-off in speed. Once this degree of intensity is present, it is time to introduce the gun.
I generally encourage trainers to start with a .22 blank pistol, 209 primer this stage to have an assistant, who can be positioned 10 or so feet behind the pigeon thrower. When the bird is thrown and the dog takes its first steps to chase, the assistant can fire the blank pistol in the opposite direction of the dog. The reality is that this sound will be fairly insignificant, and if the progression has been followed properly, the drive to chase should keep the dog from even noticing the gun.
Repeat a few times over a period of days, using homers where possible, or a source of live-trapped barn pigeons if you have them in ready supply. (Pigeons can, after all, get expensive.)
As days pass and the dog shows no notice of the gun, move the assistant steadily closer to the chasing dog. Eventually, the assistant can move up to firing a true shot shell, though initially it is best if the crimp and shot is removed, as the impact/sound is less.
Provided that the indicators of confidence remain strong (watch ears, tail, eye focus, and general attitude around the retrieve), a trainer should be able to finish gun conditioning in a couple weeks, and then begin to incorporate gunshots into the training drills intended to teach other skills.
BE PREPARED TO BACK UP
If at any point an issue arises, however, or timidity creeps in, Immediately go back a few steps. It is critical that the gun conditioning process not push any boundaries of comfort. If the trainer needs to move back to dead birds or wing-clipped birds and no gun, then they should do so confidently.
If the matter is pressed, or if an unforeseen negative affects a marginally confident dog during conditioning (imagine a timid dog running into a fence, or getting bee-stung, during the initiation of a shot) the dog and trainer run the risk of encountering an obstacle that is nearly impossible to recover from.
Watch the dog's response, move slowly and thoughtfully, and do the work correctly the first time. If a bit of extra motivation is required, it can help to create a bit of added incentive by running the timid dog with a more confident bracemate.
If two dogs are competing to chase one pigeon, either dead or wing-clipped, the competitive element often re-invigorates focus on the task, further distracting the dog from the gun, or at least cementing that drive for the reward. Following a few sessions of "competitive retrieving," a timid dog will typically show greater intensity when run alone.
USE A COMMONSENSE APPROACH
I fully understand what motivates the question that Ted Lagala asks; after all, we've all heard sad stories of dogs with all the potential in the world who, due to gun-shyness, simply never make it into the field. We've also all likely heard the old wives tale that staking out a puppy at the range and blazing away is the best way to accustom a young dog to gunfire.
In the end, I'm a firm believer that gun conditioning, like all dog training, requires common sense, awareness of the dog, and a learning environment that builds enthusiasm and confidence.
A dog that associates gunfire with a positive, or a dog that barely notices gunfire at all, is a dog that will hunt confidently for its handler for years.