Overcoming a Fear of Gunfire

Gun-shyness is best avoided through common-sense training
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.”

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.”