Sep 10, 2016

Gun shy dogs. Can it be fixed? 

Can a dog that is “gun shy” be fixed? I can tell you that answer solely depends on the dog. I have had dogs come in because of being gun shy and the owners asking me for help on fixing the problem.

The first question that must be asked is, “Why do dogs become gun shy in the first place?” The fear of guns and/or loud noises comes from that initial blast they hear the very first time. It might be a 12 gauge shot gun shot over their head, a thunder and lightning storm, nail guns when putting a roof on, or what I dread, fireworks. Fireworks are the number one reason a dog becomes fearful and they can make a dog shy of guns for life. I have had many people tell me stories about their dog that ran away because of fireworks. They will hide under you or they will sometimes run for the house- anywhere they might feel safe.    

Fireworks can just scare the heck out of dogs. I have had people tell me all about their experiences with fireworks. One that I remember is a guy that had his dog at a party and it started to get late in the evening when unexpected fireworks were shot off. The dog went under the chair and was shaking with his tail tucked under him. I’m sure the dog was thinking, “What in the world is that! We are under attack! The sky is falling- we must hide!”

Some of these occurrences can happen to any of us; unexpected weather, being unaware of fireworks that are about to go off, or nail guns going off on the neighbor’s house when you are not around. Anywhere you go there might be loud noises. And of course, it usually happens to dogs at a young age. But, it can happen to dogs at an older age as well.  

I have heard many different stories: some of which are that they (owners) took their dog out and just wanted to know if the dog was gun shy or not. So, they took the dog to a trap range or the worst- a rifle range.

When I would ask them, “Why?”

They often respond, “… to see if the dog is gun shy.”

With that I usually think to myself, “Well, if he isn’t gun shy now, you may have just made him gun shy.”

To make it worse, I have had people tell me when they go to these places they sometimes leave their dog in the truck or crate. Now, the dog hears all those gun shots and frantically wonders, “What's going on out there?!” And of course, he/she gets scared of the gun shots. Really a lot of what is happening is that there are multiple gun shots that go off at one time and the poor dog cannot relate them to anything. But, let me add taking the dog out of the crate and getting close to the gun fire is also not a good thing to do.

Another story I hear is, “I took my dog out to see if she is gun shy so we went out in the field for the first time, a bird got up and I shot it along with my buddies (multiple shots not a good thing). And when I looked around, my dog was gone.” So, when they went back to the truck, there she is hiding underneath it.  

I had a guy here at the Highlands Hunt Club do that and he followed up by putting the frightened dog in the truck. He then went and finished the hunt with his buddies, while he was very disappointed in his dog’s performance to say the least. When the hunt was over, they came into the clubhouse and, of course, the dog had his head down and tail tucked under him. He was not a happy camper. I was called in by the owner, TJ, to talk to this gentleman and he told me the story of what happened.

I told the man, “Look, I have had dogs come in for being gun shy before and I am batting about a .500 avg. Which means only 50% of the time, the dog comes out of this.” I asked this fellow to leave the dog with me for a couple weeks if he could and he said, “Yes, I can do that.”

I had the dog doing ok for two weeks. I told him to give me another two weeks and he did. So, after a month the dog was doing really well, so I told him my report. I told him to leave me with the dog for another month and he did. When he came to see his dog, he was impressed with the dog and how much he had changed.

We went out to that same field and shot some birds with multiple shots- no problem. The dog did great work.   He (the owner) was very happy to say the least.

The question now is, “How do we prevent all of this from happening to your dog?” I would say the best thing to do as far as fireworks and thunderstorms is to keep your young dog confined in the basement of the house, or in the garage.   Put some music on fairly loud to help drown out the noise. If you take your dog to a clay course, take them there at a safe distance, which is 300 yards plus. You want to play with your dog like you normally do. You want to let them hear the shot, but not as loud as if you were up close. As time goes on, you can ease in closer. Depending on the dog, this could take as much time as three to four weeks. Remember, one very important thing in training dogs is repetition, repetition, repetition.

As a gun dog trainer, I like to see the dog going after birds. I want them to associate the gun fire with the birds. Once I am convinced that the dog likes the birds enough, I am then ready to add the gun fire. You do not want to start with a 12 gauge over their head. I like to start with a starter blank pistol at a safe distance. This is a two person presentation, one person gets the dog’s attention and throws the bird. The other person shoots the pistol at a far distance. I like to start with the guy throwing the bird and sending the dog in the same area with the other person at a safe distance with a shot. I start with just a retrieve from the dog then start with a shot as the dog is going after the bird. The dog is now focused and thinking more about the bird not and not as much about the shot. I like to do 5 to 10 of those at a time. After I feel that the dog had some success with it we move on. It’s very important not to do too much at once.

After a week or two of this, I will move on to doing some nice easy short grass marks where the dog will have success and easily find the birds. I have the assistant shoot the gun and then throw the bird as I hold the dog. I then release the dog for the bird. This is called a mark bird that is thrown so the dog can see where the dead bird fell. I shorten the distance between me the handler of the dog and the size of the gun is determined after the reaction to the first week or two of the first step. I will again do this 5 to 10 times depending on the reaction of the dog. I will work the gunner in closer with time and repetition. Then repeat after time with a .410, 20 gauge, and finally a 12 gauge.

Each dog is different with becoming comfortable and confident around gun fire. So there is not a set formula or time to put on this. Like I said, this slow and methodical practice is what to do and determines what the dog will give you. The key to this training and any dog training is to be patient and don't expect a lot all at once. Remember to use repetition, have patience, and make sure it is fun for the dog. If the session seems to be getting too long or you get frustrated, it is time to stop.