When pup associates a gunshot with a retrieve, he becomes excited and looks forward to it. Introducing noise to pup progressively in positive, fun situations will pay off when the two of you head afield.
The first gunshy dog I ever saw was a mixed-breed belonging to a gentleman farmer for whom I did groundhog control over three decades ago. Seeing his dog's reaction to my arrival on Saturday mornings was actually sad; the dog raced from the driveway to the kitchen door, barked until admitted and, according to the landowner, ran upstairs and cowered under the bed until after my departure.
The sound of my .22-250 drove that dog nearly to the brink, and even if I arrived without the rifle the dog would not approach me. The farmer's missus was unhappy with my activity and, truth be told, she would have rather had the groundhog population grow out of control than have her pet scared witless.
I was there at her husband's request, however, and he told me repeatedly, "Come as often as you can and kill every d*** groundhog possible. I'm tired of feeding them, and of damaging my equipment on their dirt mounds and risking my livestock's legs with their holes."
I vowed then to never risk scaring one of my gun dogs into the unwelcome state known as gunshyness. Fact is, it is not difficult to introduce a pup properly to gunfire and avoid the disabling malady — disabling as far as being a gun dog is concerned.
As is key to most things related to good gun dogs, obtaining a well-bred pup is important in avoiding gunshyness. Deal only with reputable breeders and check their references before buying a pup.
Carefully watch the behavior of the sire and dam when you visit breeders to look at pups when selecting your future gun dog. You should see adult dogs that are calm, confident and friendly.
Timid, excessively shy or aggressive parents should be a red flag. The adult dogs should not pull back from your touch and should relish being petted and spoken to -- ditto for the pups. The pup you select will be with you for 12 to 14 years, so if you have any doubts about the quality, health or temperament of the adults or pups, continue your search.
Most puppies are chow hounds. Put their food down and get out of the way; they are generally as ravenous as wolves. (Reminder: Feeding pup is the job of the trainer; it assists with the bonding process.)
That ravenous eating behavior will help when you first introduce pup to noise after he has been home and settled in for three or four weeks. It is important to ensure that pup knows he is accepted, loved and knows that he is "home" before starting basic training.
Preparing a gun dog pup for later gunfire is a basic as it gets, and in the initial stage requires no equipment. When pup is eating, clap your hands several times from halfway across the room. Pup might or might not react; you definitely should not react. Ignore pup, remove his food bowl when he is finished and take him for a short walk, giving him the usual affection and petting that should accompany your time together.
After two or three weeks of clapping during meals with pup ignoring you and the clapping noise, bang two metal feed bowls together a few times from a short distance away while pup is feeding. Pup will likely turn to take a look, but you will (as usual) not react and pup will likely do likewise. Do not try to make enough noise to compete with the giant drum used by the Texas marching band -- pup is not deaf.
After several weeks you should be able to judge pup's progress and behavior. If pup is progressing, take a .22 blank handgun when you walk pup in the woods or field. This is not a back yard or suburban park drill, not unless you want to do a lot of explaining to your neighbors€¦and likely to your local law enforcement agency, as well.
While you are walking and pup is busy smelling everything imaginable -- and pup is some distance away, say about 20 yards -- hold the blank gun behind your back and fire one shot while pup is especially interested in something. Check pup's reaction to the shot without being too obvious or showing any concern.
If you have been progressing properly you will see nothing more than a short pause and a look in your direction. Pup is learning and having fun, and he has no time to be bothered by a simple noise.
So far loud noises have accompanied things that pup loves, i.e., food and time afield together. As time passes you have undoubtedly started pup retrieving and he loves it, just as all keen spaniels do. In fact, pup loves retrieving so much we must remember to toss only a few dummies per day to keep pup looking for more rather than getting bored by too many retrieves.
Take pup afield, joined by a friend/assistant with the blank gun, to continue pup's progress. With pup running freely and your assistant 40-50 yards from you and pup, toss a dummy for pup to retrieve. Your assistant must be attentive and fire the blank gun when pup is halfway to the dummy.
Neither you nor your assistant should react in any way, and you will almost assuredly see that pup does the same, continuing toward the thrown dummy to complete his retrieve.
Praise pup when he returns with the dummy, as you do every time. Repeat the drill twice more during the same outing and call it a day -- a fun, successful day.
Take a clip-wing pigeon afield with pup and have an assistant carry the blank gun. Do the retrieving drill using a clip-wing, having your assistant fire the blank gun when pup is racing for the bird. Again, no negative reaction on your part should accompany pup's behavior as he runs the clip-wing down and retrieves it.
Using a clip-wing pigeon and blank gun once or twice should prepare pup (and you) for the next step of using a small gauge shotgun during the clip-wing retrieving drill.
Have your friend maintain a distance of 40 yards and fire the small gauge (.410 if available) shotgun in a safe direction away from pup when he is racing for the pigeon.
Primer-only shells or poppers work well to start. When everything goes as planned, move your friend to 20 yards and repeat the drill. Do this drill several times and you are pretty much home free.
Pup is happily running afield and retrieving -- two things he loves -- and the noise from the shotgun proves not to be disruptive or distracting. Fact is, pup has learned that gunfire means something good, and he looks forward to it. Further, pup becom
es excited because he associates the gunshot with a retrieve.
The only thing pup loves more than finding birds is retrieving birds. Having a bird in his mouth while his olfactory nerves are nearly in overload is the ultimate reward for pup.
Gunfire provided the bird for pup to retrieve, and pup certainly makes the connection by now.
Having pup sit at your side while you toss a dummy or wing-clip is the next move, with your shooter fairly close to you and pup. At the right time down the road that scenario will change by having a live, flying pigeon shot while pup learns to remain seated and steady. Shortly thereafter pup will be hunting and retrieving the shot birds he flushed while training or hunting.
Introducing noise to pup progressively in positive, fun situations will provide you with a bold gun dog that learns and appreciates the connection between the gun and his being able to retrieve birds.
Do not be surprised if you miss a second or third bird and pup gives you a dirty look for not dropping the birds. You are partners and he is, after all, not shy.