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Successfully introducing your pup to gunfire is one of the most foundational parts of developing a good bird dog.
Many hunters skip ahead to other areas of training, and just assume a young pup can handle a shotgun sound. Wrong they are!
Of course, some dogs take to the sound of gunfire relatively easily and quickly, but going off that assumption can create a load of issues that are very difficult to repair.
For this reason, I summarized the exact steps I used to train my two GSP's, while also outlining a few key pieces of information that helped me along the way. Enjoy and good luck with the training!
Single event learning means that dogs are impressionable, and that "One negative or traumatic experience may induce fear or phobic response".
I bring this up because when you first start gunfire training your hunting dog, you might want to take things slow. If your dogs begins to associate negativity with your gun or gunfire, you're going to have a very long road ahead of you.
For this reason, make sure to read all the information below, and watch as many videos as possible before introducing gunfire to your new pup.
And to not scare you off... if you do this correctly, you can easily associate positive emotions to a gun going off - increasing the drive of your dog and heightening his level of enjoyment!
Follow the steps below if you're looking for a full step-by-step guide to gunfire introduction:
As soon as you bring your dog home, and before you even start training with a hunting collar, it's best to get your dog accustomed to loud noises... while trying your best to associate them with something good.
For instance, when feeding my puppy, I would drop a few forks and spoons in a metal pot. It sounds a little far-fetched, but this a baby step to introducing your dog to a gun. You're wanting the dog to focus on something good (i.e. the food), while something loud and disturbing is happening in the background.
Once you bring your dog out to field, properly introducing them to birds is going to be a must-have for anything related to gunfire.
If you can get your dog excited about birds, willing to do anything to go after one, that increased drive will make it much easier once a gun is introduced.
For me, I preferred using a wing-clipped bird, or a bird tied to a string to entice the dog to go after it. Using a bird that can easily fly away makes the game a little too hard for the puppy. You want something he/she can chase around and get excited with.
After your dog is excited about birds, the next steps are relatively easy. The key thing here is to watch your dog for any reactions to the gun. If you notice your dog reacting, especially negatively, you'll want to take a few steps back.
The first introduction of a gun should be done from a very far distance, preferably 50-100 yards away. In a perfect scenario, you're able to handle your dog while a friend controls the gun from a distance.
This sentence above is even more important to remember if you're using a shotgun.
Of course, if possible, I would recommend starting with a .22 blank, but not all hunters have something like this available.
When first firing off a gun at a distance, you want to properly time the shot.
Your goal in this exercise is for the dog to not react to or recognize the shot. And the best time to do that is when he/she is completely and totally focused on the bird. I've found that the dog is most honed in while chasing the bird, no matter if your using a fly-away bird or a wing-clipped one.
To quickly summarize, you want your gunner to fire off that shot right before your dog gets the bird or when it's in full sprint after a fly-away. I would not recommend shooting while the dog is on point, as they are retrieving, or after the bird is long gone.
While this isn't necessarily a step, I wanted to point out the fact that progress should be satisfying enough - you're not out there to fully train a dog in one day.
If your dog isn't reacting to their first day of gunshots, look at this as a positive thing and move onto something else.
You can always come back in a few days or a week and progress to a closer distance without losing any ground.
As your dog continues to point and chase down birds with no reaction to gunfire, continue to close the distance at around 10 yards or so each time.
Again, the goal is to not see any reaction, and in fact, to associate this gunfire with birds - something your dog breed is naturally excited to go after. If you can connect "gunfire" and "birds" for the dog, you're going down the right path!
After the long process of introducing your dogs to loud noises, birds, and gunfire from a distance, it's now time to shoot over your dog.
By this time, if everything is done properly, you should start to see a dog so focused on the bird that it ignores pretty much anything else! The best part of this process is when dogs start to recognize the need for the hunter and their gun, and that a solid point and good shot equals an opportunity for them to retrieve their most prized item - the bird!
Remember to avoid these all-too-common training mistakes when introducing your hunting dog to gunfire:
After you've successfully completed some of the initial steps, it's time to break out your gun. And when doing so, you need to make sure you have plenty of room!
As outlined above, to minimize the volume of the gun (especially if you're first utilizing a shotgun) you need to be far away from the pup.
I would recommend having at least 50-100 yards between you and the dog when first introducing any gunfire.
Shooting too closely, especially if there's objects around you that might create an echo, increases the chances of your dog focusing on the gun and not the bird. And also gives them the chance to associate worry and fear with the sound of a gun.
Before you ask your gunner to step away, make sure you have a clear signal to show him/her when to fire. Doing so too early or too late can be somewhat problematic.
A perfectly timed shot is one that takes places when the bird is released and the dog is fully captivated by the chase and catching that bird. You want to avoid shooting when the puppy is on point or right when he breaks. And you also want to avoid shooting after the dog begins loosing attention, or the bird is too far away.
Like everything else in training, doing too much can backfire on you real quick!
If you're successfully able to fire off a few shots each training session with no problems, take the progress and move onto something else. From there, remember where you left off, and start at the next level in a week or so.
Always remember, it's easier to speed up your training session, rather than to go back and fix a mistake - especially when you're talking about gunfire!
If you've just started introducing your dog to gunfire, and you're trying to gauge their comfort level, I would recommend taking a look at the following behavioural categories.
If your dog is showcasing any of these actions, then your dog might be somewhat afraid of gunfire.
- Aggressive Actions - Raised hairs on the back (hackles), growling, snarling, snapping, or biting.
- Avoiding Actions - Cowering, looking away, tucking its tail, and perhaps trembling or panting.
- Nervous Movements - Backing up, hiding behind your legs, or lip licking.
Now, I'm not an expert on fixing a gun shy dog. I've only trained two GSP's, and fortunately for me, I've had experienced individuals around to help in order to make sure this doesn't happen.
If you feel as though you made some mistakes when training your dog, or you've moved through these steps too quickly, I would recommend watching the video below first.
From there, reach out to your local NAVHDA chapter, or a hunting dog kennel in the area, to see if they can provide any assistance.
And if you want to read some similar info, checkout our blog summarizing the Best Hunting Dog Kennels!