Gunshyness in Gun Dogs: Retrievers

Mark Henry

"Gunshyness," Mark said, "is mostly a man-made problem. It can be caused in many ways, usually involving unexpected loud noises, like Fourth of July fireworks or thunderstorms. It isn't hereditary, although unusually soft dogs are more inclined to it and so require special care to prevent it from starting."

Mark especially remembers one gunshy female retriever a client brought to him years ago. The owner had taken this dog, with no previous exposure to gunfire, out in his canoe, had the dog lie down in front of him, and shot ducks over her. The muzzle blast, which was very close to her ears, absolutely terrified her. Mark said it took him a full year of work to get this youngster over her gunshyness.

He stressed that it's much easier to avoid gunshyness than it is to cure it. He said that to avoid gunshyness you should introduce your puppy or youngster to gunfire properly, that is, slowly, gradually, and with positive motivation. One way to start is to have someone fire a .22 blank pistol at a distance when the puppy is eating. The pup learns to associate the noise with the pleasure of eating. If he ignores the noise, in subsequent meals, have the shot fired closer and closer to your puppy.

Then, too, in later field work, distant helpers fire .22 blank pistols as they throw dummies and birds for the youngster to retrieve. The pooch comes to associate gunfire with the joy every well-bred retriever experiences in retrieving. As long as he reacts positively, you can move the shot closer and closer to your dog. These early pleasant associations give the dog a good attitude toward mild shots, which predisposes him to react positively to shotguns, when introduced gradually.

If a client brings him a gunshy retriever, Mark goes back to square one to begin the cure.

He takes the dog off all by himself to a place from which the dog cannot bolt. He uses clip-wing pigeons, which can fly for a short distance before landing. He tosses a bird and lets the dog break to chase it. Just as the dog starts to grab the bird on the ground, Mark fires a .22 blank pistol. If the youngster's undisturbed, great!

More Tips

Don't miss part one of this story with tips for your pointer, here, and part three for your spaniel, here.


However, if the youngster refuses to pick the bird up, Mark commands "Fetch" to get him to pick it up.

"The dog should first be force-fetched," Mark said, "for otherwise, you have no way of making him pick up a bird he has refused."

Next, he tosses another bird and lets the dog retrieve it without firing a shot. It may take more than one shot-less retrieve to restore the dog's confidence. But eventually Mark again fires a shot as the dog starts to grab the bird. If the pup ignores the noise, Mark starts firing the shot earlier and earlier until he can safely shoot with the dog quite close to him.

Mark's closing thoughts: "For this cure to work, the dog must be very birdy and must love to retrieve. Lacking these qualities, a gunshy dog will probably never be really cured. However, a birdy, retrieve-crazy dog can be cured in two or three weeks, but it takes a lot of birds!"

This tip is from Mark Henry of South of Bellevue Kennels, 182 Gannet Road, Bellevue, ID 83313; (208) 788-2820; e-mail Mark has been training retrievers professionally for 29 years. He specializes in training young retrievers in the basics for hunting tests and field trials. He has participated in retriever hunting tests, but now participates mostly in retriever field trials. He does not breed dogs.

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