A lot of hunters expect all hunting dogs to be comfortable with gunshots, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case. It takes a lot of patience and time to get gun-shy dogs to feel safe around gunshot noises.
But what causes gun-shyness? There are a lot of reasons that can be the underlying cause, but experts believe that the biggest is mishandling. Many hunters fire a gun in front of a young dog, startling the creature and thus, instilling a fear of loud sounds in them.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to cure gun-shy dogs and make them comfortable while hunting.
Take it Step by Step
Pavlov’s conditioning model applies here. A dog that is rewarded each time it hears a loud noise will grow accustomed to it and maybe even begin to look forward to it. However, as opposed to scaring it with a gunshot, a trainer must start slow and steady. Begin with a small sound, such as banging your hand on a solid surface or clapping to see how your dog reacts. Offer the dog a treat as soon as you make the sound, in order to link the stimulus to a positive response. Start reinforcing the same idea, only with louder sounds like a blank pistol from afar. Once you feel that the dog is comfortable with these sounds, only then shoot a pistol or handgun.
For this to work, always leave your dog hungry before conducting the experiment - otherwise, if the dog is full, it will not respond to the treats being offered. This, of course, cancels out positive reinforcement. You can also substitute food with another reward such as a bone or toy that the dog loves.
Bring Out Multiple Dogs
If you own or have access to other dogs, there is a great trick that can come in handy. Send the gun-shy dog out into the field in a herd of dogs and then fire a gun. When the gun-shy dog notices that the other dogs don’t react or are comfortable with the sound, it will realize the same and begin to feel okay around loud sounds.
Try Silent Hunting
As well as getting your dog used to loud sounds, it is important to make it comfortable with the process of hunting. Use a silenced gun to shoot birds that your dog can catch, or simply let your dog chase rabbits and hunt them down. This coupled with the practice of positive reinforcement of loud sounds will ensure that your dog is ready to hunt when the time comes.
Hire a Trainer
It is important to understand that every dog is unique and some may be more afraid of loud sounds than others. If nothing else works or you feel that your dog has an extreme phobia of loud sounds, it is always a good idea to hire a trainer. They have experience with dogs and know better about how to handle each situation. Professional help also ensures a positive outcome rather than risking scaring the dog further due to an amateur mistake. Gun-shy dogs need to be handled with care and a trainer helps to take this burden off your shoulders.
Start Working with Birds
If your dog is already familiar with birds, it will react well to this phase of hunting. However, even now it is important to work in phases. Let your dog chase after a bird and shoot when it is at least 150 feet away. If the dog reacts positively or does not show signs of fear, only then can you move to the next step i.e. shooting when the dog is a bit nearer, say 120 feet. Continue this until the dog is only 10 feet away from you and remains comfortable with the gunshot sounds.
If you are dealing with a dog that faces extreme anxiety near gunshots, you cannot start this process directly. Try using a blank pistol for a quieter shot and then repeat the entire process with a loaded gun. The level of fear in your dog will determine how slow you should go, as more anxiety will require more time and a longer process to make the dog comfortable. Going too fast can have extremely negative consequences because it can result in the dog’s fear increasing, making it even harder to train it near gunshots. Thus, prevention is better than cure and patience is the key to success.
How to Train a Dog Before it Becomes Gun-Shy
If you’re raising puppies, you can take some steps to get them accustomed to gunshots and other loud noises at an early stage. According to professional trainers, you can start training with them as early as 9 weeks, but only from a distance of 150 feet in order to slowly phase them into it. Along with this, it is important to use .22 blanks in your gun for a softer noise. Gradually move on to a pistol and then eventually a .410 gauge shotgun. Proper training entails moving the puppy away from the sound as it gets louder and only bring it closer if it does not show signs of fear.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that dogs which are well-kept by owners are more trusting. Make sure to invest in your dog’s grooming because it goes a long way in making it feel at ease.