"A gunshy dog," John said, "reacts fearfully to the sound of a gun. In the early stages, he may cower or hunker down. If this is not dealt with, he will eventually start escaping. This can eventually lead to other problems, like blinking (avoiding birds) and bolting (long-distance running)."
John feels that gunshyness is a man-made problem. However, heredity can also be a factor, in that extremely soft dogs are more inclined to gunshyness than bold ones.
He said that certain home environments can start a puppy on the road to gunshyness. If the puppy is exposed to frequent and unexpected loud noises around the house, he may develop a fear of noise that predisposes him to gunshyness.
"Then, too," he said, "if you take your puppy out and shoot a shotgun over him to see if he's gunshy, I can almost guarantee you that he will be!"
John said that mistakes while hunting can also lead to gunshyness. For example, hunting with a large group of hunters, all shooting at the same birds, can rattle a young bird dog. So can shooting right over him so he gets maximum muzzle blast.
"During his first season or two," John said, "you should hunt your dog alone or with only one dog-wise buddy."
He recommends that you not rush into gun-proofing. In fact, you shouldn't shoot around your puppy until he is four or five months old. During those early months you have plenty of other things to teach him, like obedience and introducing him to cover and birds.
Then gun-proof him with baby steps, starting at meal time. Have an assistant with a .22 blank pistol about 75 yards away when you feed your puppy. As soon as he starts eating, your assistant should fire one shot, just one. If all goes well, your assistant can gradually move in closer in subsequent meals, until he can shoot right next to your pup.
"Actually, I use homing pigeons," he said, "instead of the food bowl. When the bird flushes and the pup gets excited, the distant assistant fires just one shot. And so on."
Later, when the dog is pointing solidly but not steady to flush, John has an assistant with a shotgun standing 100 yards behind the pointing dog. When John flushes the bird and the dog breaks, the assistant fires one shot.
Don't miss part two of our story with tips for your retriever, here, and part three for your spaniel, here.
"My assistant fires as soon as he sees feathers," John said, "for that's when the dog is so excited about the bird that he completely zones out the sound of the gun."
If he ignores the shot, on subsequent birds the assistant moves gradually closer. If the dog reacts negatively at any point, John goes back a couple of steps and starts over.
He said that curing an already gunshy dog is always difficult and sometimes impossible.
He begins, without the gun, by trying to get the dog as bird-crazy as possible.
"I might even let the dog break point and flush, "he said. "Anything to encourage birdiness before reintroducing the gun, even at a distance. It might take 200 to 300 bird contacts over two to three months to cure the dog."
If that doesn't seem to be working, John said you should consult a pro trainer, who can tell you whether to continue this process or start over with a new puppy.
John's closing thought: "The old adage about an ounce of prevention has never been more true than it is in dealing with gunshyness. If you introduce your youngster to the gun properly, you won't have to go through the slower and far less successful cure."
This tip is from John Hayes of Kirby Mountain Sporting Dogs, 240 Locust Ridge Road, East Burke, VT 05832; (802) 626-5282; website www.kirbymountainsportingdogs.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. John has been training professionally for 20 years.
Although he trains all sporting breeds, he trains mostly pointing dogs. He trains dogs primarily for hunting, but trains a few for hunting tests and field trials. He has judged pointing dog trials, but now stays home to train and hunt. He breeds Brittanys, Labradors, English cockers and English springers.