By Gary Koehler
Experienced retriever trainers recognize gun-shyness as one of the most difficult behavioral problems to correct. They will also tell you that in most cases it can be avoided by using common sense.
Proper introduction to the gun is essential. There is much more to it than simply taking an unsuspecting pup into the field and emptying your shotgun into the air. Yet, that’s exactly what some people do.
Gun-shyness, which is a dog’s fear of gunfire (and in extreme cases the sight of a gun), can ruin a retriever. If a dog turns tail and heads for the hills as soon as it hears a gunshot, it’s unlikely to have any interest in returning to retrieve a downed bird.
“Guys think that because they have a retriever, the dog is automatically going to be birdy, that it’s going to be a great swimmer, and that it’s not going to be afraid of gunfire. In the real world, that’s not always the case,” says Butch Goodwin, who for nearly 30 years trained all manner of hunting dogs at his Idaho kennel before retiring last summer.
Avoiding the Problem
“I feel gun-shyness is man-made,” Goodwin says. “Some dogs have a propensity toward gun-shyness, toward nervousness, really. And it doesn’t take much—even exposure to firecrackers—to cause a nervous dog to become gun-shy. I don’t believe dogs are born gun-shy, but some seem to be more susceptible to it than others.
“Lots of things can cause a dog to become gun-shy, but to be honest, it’s usually the fault of the person handling the dog. Some retriever owners will take a young dog, sit it down next to them, and fire a gun over the dog’s head to see what it will do. The dog decides to go in the opposite direction and head for home, and the trainer wonders what happened.”
What happened was that the dog, even though it may have been born and bred to be a hunter, became frightened by the sudden loud noise. And once a dog is afraid of gunfire, it is difficult to change its mind. “Sometimes you can save them; sometimes the dog is lost,” Goodwin says. “It’s a lot easier to avoid gun-shyness than trying to cure it.”