Introducing the Gun in Training
By Joe Law
19 May 2010

Every gundog, no matter which breed, is required to be steady to gunfire, but so many handlers introduce gunfire into their training program way too fast and seem to expect the dog’s genetics to cope.

It is a natural reaction for a dog to display a startle response when they first hear gunfire, in fact if they didn’t you’d probably get its hearing checked. That having been said, the dog should settle back to normal very quickly and it is this rate of recovery that is far more important than the initial reaction to a shot. Putting it very simply a dog needs to be systematically desensitised to the sound of gunfire.

It should be noted that when introducing a gun into your dog training, please practice gun safety at all times. Regardless of if you are using blanks or caps, get into the habit of treating every firearm with respect.

So what is the best way to start?  With the dog on lead beside the handler and a second person some 50m away from the dog with either a gun or a starters pistol (available from sports stores) have the dog in a sit position. Then have the assistant throw a dummy and fire a shot. If the dogs startle response is strong and it wants to get out of there, simply put the dog back into the sit position and do not attempt the retrieve but have the assistant pick up the dummy. Repeat the exercise until the dog is not showing an adverse reaction to the sound of the shot and happily goes out to complete the retrieve. If you can’t get past this stage then unfortunately your gundog just doesn’t have correct gundog character.

When you can have the gun fired at 50m without the dog showing any reaction and the dog is happily going out for the retrieve its time to bring the gun a little closer. Please note it’s a little closer no more than about 10m and go through the whole process again. If at anytime the dog begins to show a startle response hold your training at that distance until you are getting no reaction and a successful retrieve before trying to bring the gun closer. Keep moving the gun 10m closer as the dog becomes steadier until the assistant is standing on the right hand side of the handler.

So by now the sound of the gun means to the dog that it’s about to retrieve and thus nothing to worry about. But there’s a bit more to it than that. The process of closing the breach and shooting with a shotgun is a fair bit of movement and unusual sounds, which the dog needs to get used to. Some dogs show a startle response when they first see the movement and hear the sound of the breach being closed, so practice this with the dog next to you and an EMPTY gun, praising the dog when its steady and rewarding with a retrieve. Any unsteadiness should mean no retrieve. This is the simplest way of getting a dog to understand that it has to be steady.

Only when the dog is steady to the breach being closed should you attempt to shoulder the gun and fire. The action of raising the gun to the shoulder may again give the dog cause for concern. If this should be the case do not fire the gun until the dog is steady to this movement, we want to work on each part individually before we try to put it all together.

With repartition the dog soon learns that a gun in the handlers hands means exciting things are about to happen. Then it will be the excitement you’ll have to contain to retain your dog’s steadiness.

If you stay with simple chained behaviours steadiness to shot is easily achieved. The problems occur when a handler tries to rush through it, expecting the dog will be fine. A very sobering thought is the fact that gun shyness is more likely to be caused by the handler than it is to be an actual fault with the dog. So when introducing the gun, make haste slowly.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Dogs NSW magazine.

This page is provided by Working Gundog Club Inc. (Affiliated with Dogs NSW)