Gun-Shy Gun Dogs

October 01, 2017

--By Pete and Julie Morrill

No dog should be taken directly from a quiet, peaceful environment straight into the hunting field with loud gunfire to startle him. Even a dog bred for hunting is apt to become so frightened by the sudden loud noise that he will lose all interest in hunting and forever associate gunfire with fear.

Because we raise hunting Labrador Retrievers, we try to acclimate our young puppies to loud noises from the time they're born. Our kennel personnel wash metal food bowls, banging and clanging them within in a few feet of young pups. Usually, this is enough to get puppies conditioned to loud noises so that they will not develop a shyness around loud noises, but it is probably not enough to prepare them for gunfire. We recommend slowly and gradually introducing louder and louder noises around your dog while he's doing his favorite things so that he will eventually associate gunfire with good things.

First, if your dog is a Labrador Retriever, he probably loves to eat, so I recommend making loud noises around your dog while he's eating. Start with loud hand clapping. When he's used to that, try banging on a pot or pan. He will be startled at first, but he needs to get scared a few times before he'll get used to the noise and associates it with eating. When he is comfortable with these loud noises, introduce the sound of cap gunfire while eating and, after that, increase the noise level to that of a 22-gauge shotgun.

After your dog is very accustomed to loud noises while eating, have someone make the same loud noises nearby while you're petting and loving him. Start with hand clapping and gradually increase the decibals to a 22 gauge shotgun. Comfort him if he acts nervous and afraid.

Finally, make loud noises around your dog while he is retrieving in the field. Launch some bumpers for him. (You might try using a dummy launcher that shoots bumpers out to around 100 yards.) While the bumpers are in the air, shoot your cap gun. After he gets used to a cap gun, shoot a 22 gauge shotgun for a gradual increase in noise level. He should eventually associate gunfire with the fun of retrieving.

You may have made the error of introducing gunfire to your dog too suddenly--especially if he is a naturally cautious or timid dog. If he has associated loud noises with something frightening, you will need to go through the above steps with great patience and consistency to reintroduce him to gunfire. This may take many weeks or months, but our hope is that he will gradually associate gunfire with his three favorite things: eating, petting, and retrieving. In fact, be prepared for Pavlov's test results to come into play. When our dogs hear gunfire, they will often salivate for food, run to us for affectionate petting, jump and bark around excitedly in anticipation of retrieving, or exhibit all three behaviors. It can take time and patience, but conditioning your dog to associate gunfire with his favorite things really does work in most cases.

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