Saturday, March 23, 2013

Helping A Gun Shy Bird Dog

Shaping a pup into a confident dog around guns is not difficult at all, if you carefully follow a few recommendations.  However, it is very easy to create a gun shy dog if you don't have a plan to follow.

Dogs are watching other dogs work birds and hearing gunfire from a distance.  They are staked out and feeding on each other's energy.  Putting your dog on a "chain gang" at an early age will help build excitement and condition her to gunfire

Keep It In Context

I remember as a little kid how my grandpa thought it was funny to set off a bunch of  firecrackers after Thanksgiving dinner.  He would do it without warning in order to startle everyone as much as possible and to hear the gasps, shrieks and cries of the adults, children and babies.  No one was really afraid of the concussion sound, but because it was a complete surprise and completely out of context, everyone jumped.

It is very important to remember that  you should always keep gunfire in context with your gun dog, from tiny puppy age to seasoned adult.  Keeping the sound in context is to always associate it with fun activities, such as retrieving a bird, playing with a bird, or watching a bird fly off.  With a young pup, or with an older dog who is just being introduced to birds and gunfire, it is important to make sure your dog really loves birds and retrieving before introducing gunfire. 

Leave 'Em Hungry

An important part of building the retrieving desire is to remember to put the dog up before she gets "enough" retrieves.  If you keep working your dog until she quits, you have over done it.  Always put your dog up before she is tired or bored with the birds or the retrieves.  Always put the dog back on the truck hungry for more.  You should have to drag your pup away from the excitement.  She will think and dream about coming back to finish the job next time.  When first introducing gunfire, use a starter pistol with a very low pop or .22 at a considerable distance (75 to 100 yards off or more) in conjunction with birds.  (You will need a helper to walk out with the starter pistol while you engage your dog with playing with birds. )

Use A Chain Gang

Find a group of trainers or a professional who has a number of dogs in training where you can take advantage of tying your dog out  with a large group of other dogs while individual dogs are being worked with birds and guns at a distance.  Your dog will catch the excitement and energy of the other dogs who are staked out.  The far-off gunfire will be associated with excitement.  Many trainers refer to this training method as a chain gang.

This 13 week old pup is staked out with older dogs watching a dog work birds in the field
She is not only not bothered by gunfire, she wants nothing so much as to be released to go get the bird!
Whoa!  Take It Slow!

Do not be impatient or in a hurry.  It should take months to introduce gunfire properly.  Use incremental baby steps to move closer and closer to your dog while shooting.  When moving from a starter pistol to a shot gun, start off using very light target loads and make sure you start at a distance away.  You should be training with or releasing live birds, but do not even try to shoot the bird at first.  Your first priority is to be watching the dog, making sure she is fully engaged in the bird flying off and either your dog has moved away from you sufficiently or you have moved away from the dog enough that it is safe to create gunfire in her proximity. 

Gun Shy Dogs Are Made--Not Born

Dogs are not born gun shy.  That being said, there are all different temperaments of dogs, from very bold and naturally confident to very soft and unsure.  Any dog along the spectrum of temperaments can be made into a gun shy dog.  And any dog, at any level of training can be made into a gun shy dog given the right circumstances.

An Ounce Of Prevention

Some things never to do with your dog if you want to prevent gun shyness:

Do not ever take your dog to a gun range!  Your dog does not belong at a gun range.  The sound of gunfire at the gun range is out of context.  You are not trying to "get your dog accustomed to gunfire!'  You are aiming to have your dog thrill to the sound of gunfire.  The best outcome you can possibly have taking your dog to a gun range is to satisfy yourself that your dog does not mind guns.  The worst outcome is that you will frighten your dog and create gun shyness.

Do not take your dog with you if you are going out to shoot snakes or small game, unless your dog is going to be helping you with that game and she is totally conditioned to the game and gunfire. 

Do not target-shoot from your covered front porch with your dog next to you.  Even a dog that has had months of introduction to guns out in the field on birds can be frightened by a sudden random gun blast at close range. 

If your dog ever startles or seems nervous about gunfire, NEVER, EVER tell the dog that "it;s OK, you're fine, don't worry!"  Do not try to reassure the dog or pet the dog.  This is a classic human response to a child and it has the exact opposite effect on a dog.  It tells the dog that you approve of their fearful behavior.  Touching and petting the dog reinforces the behavior with a reward.  Instead, have no reaction.  Just go on with your normal routine and ignore the behavior. 

Even if you have carefully introduced your dog to gunfire around the excitement of birds and she has become a highly trained, seasoned dog doing multiple retrieves and cold blinds, do not expect to take your dog to a covered duck blind for the first time with three or four other shooters and expect your dog to be fine when you all unload at the first bunch of birds flying in.  Take your dog to the blind ahead of time, throw something and shoot out of the blind, making sure she is happy and excited about that.  Then cover the blind and repeat.  Then, as long as your dog is fine, add one other shooter.  Little baby steps, checking to make sure your dog is doing fine is the way to go. 

Introducing your dog to guns is a long, careful process.  Impatience and haste on the handler's part can result in unpleasant consequences. 

If you already have a gun shy dog: 

Start over, as if the dog is a totally green dog.  Get her excited about birds and retrieving.  Go slowly.  Never cave in to the temptation to jump ahead and just "see" if the dog is cured. Someone created this problem in your dog.  Do not repeat and reinforce the original problem.  If you think you are the one who caused the problem in the first place, consider getting help from someone more experienced, perhaps a professional.  They say that history repeats itself.

One of the best ways to get a dog bird crazy is to stake them out with other bird crazy dogs.  Staking a bunch of dogs is also called a chain gang, because sometimes a long length of chain is used between stakes and dogs are tied off in intervals far enough apart that they can not get to each other, but close enough to each other to pick up on the energy of the other dogs.

Once your dog is really excited about birds, give her LOTS of them in a row, before adding a blank pistol or .22 shot way off in the distance.  Do not reassure her if she startles, but ramp up your excitement about the birds and put the gun away.  Ignore the reaction of the dog. 

If you are getting frustrated with the process or can't help trying to comfort her, you need professional help.  You are a big part of the problem and you need to get the dog away from your situation.

There are fixes that can work, some require many other dogs and access to many birds.  Some more extreme fixes involve complete isolation of the dog, removal from their familiar situation and a few days of deprivation from food.  Once this treatment is started it is imperative that someone emotionally detached from the dog and very sure-footed and experienced administer the cure.  Most people are not emotionally equipped to administer the solution, so it is important to seek professional help and be willing to give up your dog for a month or two for the better good.  Otherwise, you are faced with simply retiring the dog as a pet for the rest of her life. 

See Bill Tarant's post on curing shyness in dogs 

See Coondawgs library for more information about administering the isolation cure