By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs
Gunfire should be introduced to pups in a way that is so gradual that the pups never have a chance to become concerned about it. We like to start by firing a blank pistol during the pup's feeding time, and when he is enjoying a run in the field. The idea behind introducing gunfire in this manner is that a pup can't feel pleasure and displeasure at the same time. Both eating and running in the field are pleasurable events for a pup. This makes it easy for him to ignore the noise from the gun.
Loud gunfire too close to a pup can be startling enough to override the pleasure the pup gets from eating or running in the field. So be sure to introduce the gunfire when the pup is far enough away that the sound isn't "loud" to him. Over a period of time, the pup will become accustomed to gunfire, and you can increase the loudness by gradually shortening the distance between you and the pup when you fire the blank pistol.
Watch your pup. Remember that "loud" is in the ear of the beholder. What doesn't bother one pup can be upsetting to another. So watch your pup during and right after each shot. Losing attitude, dropping his ears or tail, or starting to look concerned or upset are all cues that you've overdone the gunfire, and it was "too loud" for that individual dog. If so, back off.
Also remember that repeating something that frightens a dog is not a good idea. Contrary to some beliefs, this process doesn't "help him get used to it." In fact, you can cause a pup to go from a mild and temporary apprehension to full-blown gun-shyness by forcing the issue in this way. The trick to introducing gunfire is to build up so gradually that the pup is never concerned about it.
Is Gun-Shyness Really a Man-Made Fault?
This is something you hear repeated a lot. Most of the time what people really mean is that someone didn't take the time to introduce a pup to gunfire properly, and he has become frightened by the noise.
However, some dogs are extremely sound sensitive by nature, and are therefore born predisposed to gun-shyness. They find loud noises of any kind very unpleasant. Even gunfire muffled by distance is upsetting to them. Forcing a sound sensitive dog to endure even a gradual progression of noise just makes him worse.
If the sound sensitive dog is birdy and likes to hunt, you may be able to eventually get him to tolerate the gunfire that is associated with hunting, but he's only tolerating it, he isn't really acclimated to the point that he's ignoring it. If you shoot too close over him, he'll tuck tail and cower, losing interest in hunting. This isn't man-made gun-shyness. This dog was born sound sensitive.
Remember, we said that the trick to habituating a dog to gunfire is to start with gunfire that the dog can barely hear and readily ignores. Gun-shy dogs are already traumatized, so to speak, so anything that sounds like a gun is enough to get them upset, and it's hard to break the cycle.
Two professional bird dog trainers we know have developed techniques to interrupt the cycle of apprehension in dogs that are already gun-shy.
Using a Flight Pen
Terry Holzinger of Holzinger Kennels in Prior Lake, Minnesota, makes use of a large flight pen to turn around the gun-shy dog. For several days, the dog is taken into the flight pen and allowed to chase a bird and catch it. He starts with quail, as they are easier to catch and then progresses to pigeons. Terry is careful not to let the dog become bored chasing the birds, removing him from the pen before he is completely satisfied. After several of these sessions, the dog becomes highly excited about his run in the flight pen.
Once the dog is chasing the pigeon and catching it with great enthusiasm he takes the dog outside the pen and lets him chase a wing clipped pigeon. Terry then re-introduces gunfire, muffling the blank gun in a folded piece of carpet. He is relying on the fact that the dog is in a highly excited state so that the noise that would otherwise be upsetting to him isn't even noticeable.
If the sound of gunfire bothers the dog so that he starts to lose some interest in the bird, Terry quickly takes him back to the flight pen where he lets him chase and catch birds. He keeps the flight pen as his "ace in the hole" to keep the dog's drive up.
Terry very gradually increases the loudness of the gunfire until the dog disregards the firing of a blank pistol. In fact, the dog starts to associate the sound of gunfire with the fun of chasing a bird.
Using "Force Fetch"
Sheldon Twer of Twer Kennels in Oakdale, California uses the following method on dogs that are already force fetched to retrieve. A helper re-introduces gunfire using a 12 gauge (from about 50 feet). The person holding the dog on lead tosses the bird in front of the dog and gives the command "Fetch". The gun is fired as soon as the bird is in the air. It is important that the dog see the bird! You may have to toss it very close to the dog at first because he may be greatly distracted by the sound. If the dog doesn't retrieve the bird, and he won't at first, use the e-collar to enforce your second command to fetch. The dog must retrieve the bird instead of trying to run away from the noise!
With a dog that has been thoroughly force trained to retrieve, the "Fetch" command puts him in a focused mental state. He is thinking about complying promptly with the command to retrieve because other options were removed during his force training lessons. Sheldon discovered that under these conditions a dog does not react to the sound of gunfire that would otherwise bother him. Consequently, Sheldon is able to successfully combine gunfire and "Fetch" to break the cycle of gun-shyness in the dog.
Dobbs Training Center