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Overcoming a Fear of Gunfire

Gun-shyness is best avoided through common-sense training
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Positive Reinforcement

“I always began introducing pups to gunfire before they went to their homes,” Goodwin continues. “I’d put a bowl of food down for the pups, walk off 20 or 25 yards, and shoot a low-volume blank pistol two or three times. I believe in positive reinforcement, so hearing the blank gun going off at a distance was something the dogs liked—food. It was a means of conditioning.”

Goodwin often used puppy playtime as another conditioning exercise. “We’d let the pups loose in a field and let them run around and play,” Goodwin says. “I’d have a helper 30 or 35 yards away fire off a shot or two. The pups grew up listening to that. They became used to it.”

Goodwin also used live birds as training aids for those dogs showing signs of gun-shyness. “If a dog is birdy, you can cure just about anything,” he says. “So I would send a helper out into a field with pigeons, have him dizzy the birds, then let the dog discover the birds and flush them. When the dog was 20 yards away or so and chasing a bird, I’d fire a couple of shots into the air. But to do that, a dog has to like birds first.

“If a young dog ducked away, I’d take it into a bird pen,” Goodwin adds. “While it was running around after the birds and getting all excited, I’d have somebody stand outside the pen and shoot off a few rounds with a low-power blank pistol. Again, this was positive reinforcement—introducing the noise of the gun while they were doing something they enjoyed.”

Do’s and Don’ts

There is logic to Goodwin’s approach. And some simple keys. First, don’t surprise a young dog by shooting a firearm over its head if it has never heard a gunshot. Second, get the dog involved in an enjoyable activity (such as eating, playing, or chasing birds), step back 35 yards, and shoot low-volume rounds (as opposed to 3-inch magnum shotshells) to introduce gunfire. Third, go slow. Do not try to introduce a dog to the gun in a single morning by burning up a couple of boxes of ammo; start with low-volume loads and work your way up over time.

So what’s a trainer to do if his dog shows signs that it might be gun-shy? “Be prepared to send your dog to a professional trainer, where it will probably spend a lot of time,” Goodwin says. “And it’s probably going to cost you a lot of money. Some dogs never get over it. As I said, it’s a lot easier to avoid than correct.”
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