Thankfully, as training methods have improved over the years, completely gun-shy dogs are now a rarity. Field trials and sensible breeding have also been responsible for its eradication, and if the condition does arise, it is usually the result of incomplete preparation during training. It may not only be a fear of the noise as the sight or smell of a firearm is enough to cause apprehension with some dogs.

Several years ago, I bought a very well-bred Labrador puppy, Elga. At that time, I was trialling spaniels but needed another Lab to join my picking-up team. Elga’s obedience and dummy work went well and she reached a high standard during training before I took her into the formal shooting field. I had not shot over her myself, so her introduction to the real thing was gradual, but by the end of the first season she was fully established in my retrieving team.

No signs of nervousness to the barrage of gunfire had been noticed during the whole of the season and she had functioned in her retrieving role well after every drive, picking-up lots of dead and wounded game. I must stress that she had never sat in close proximity to any of the Guns at the peg, but had always been well back in the distance, as picking-up dogs on open ground usually are.

After the end of the season I was invited to go roostshooting for pigeon, which was an ideal opportunity to take Elga for her first taste of retrieving birds shot by myself. We arrived at the wood an hour or two before dusk and set off across the field towards the roost. After 100 yards, I glanced down to find that Elga was not at heel but lagging well behind with her tail tucked between her legs. Despite coaxing she eventually stopped completely and refused to budge. She was used to following me with the rest of the team, so what had suddenly changed? I was not sure what was causing her anxiety and apparent disobedience, so a lead quickly resolved the immediate problem. We were soon settled under the tall trees in a shelter belt used as a flightline into the main woods. The first pigeon that presented a shot swung fast over me in the wind. As I raised my gun and clicked off the safety catch I felt Elga’s head thrust up under the bottom of my Barbour jacket between my legs, which knocked me off balance and resulted in a miss.

I was more prepared next time — the pigeon folded on my second shot and collapsed out on the open field outside the wood. To my amazement, on the sound of the shot Elga’s head was immediately removed from its comfort zone under my jacket and she had time to watch the fall of the pigeon as it came down. A good marked retrieve was her reward. I subsequently could not stop her diving for cover every time I moved the gun, in fact the click of the safety catch soon became the cue for her to hide her head. During the previous few months in the shooting field she had become conditioned to associate the sound of shooting with retrieving, but she had never been close to the guns. She was now showing fear of the shotgun itself.

Since that time I have seen several young gundogs of various breeds show fear of the actual firearm. The sight or even the smell of the gun might be the cause. The danger is that if the gun, which the youngster is already nervous of, is also fired and makes a loud frightening noise, it reinforces the fear response to the firearm.

Over the summer, I put Elga through a carefully planned desensitization course. I began with an old airgun that I would hang in the kennels in various places where she ate, drank or exercised. At first it was avoided with suspicion but gradually it was fully accepted and held no interest to her whatsoever. It then was carried, cocked and fired during those same periods until she lost all interest in it wherever it appeared.

I then progressed to using a shotgun in the same way, to make sure the smell of spent gunpowder was also familiar to her. In hindsight I knew that this familiarisation process to the sight, smell and sound of the firearm should have been started when she was a puppy, which is what I did with all my subsequent trainees. By the end of that summer she went everywhere quite happily with me carrying a gun or a replica, such as a walking stick, under my arm or pretending to shoot, while dummy work added distraction and reward.

Fear of the gun’s bang can be treated using the same desensitization process, and using modern technology takes much of the effort out of this training. A radio playing relieves isolation and gets puppies used to everyday sounds as soon as they can hear, so why not extend that same process to desensitize them to scary noises?

My latest cocker puppy and its sibling were reared in a kennel where a CD of scary noises was playing on a regular basis. The volume was gradually increased, but only when the puppies displayed no signs of fear of the initial level. It got to the stage where the neighbours might have been concerned about the noise of trains, gunfire and thunder coming from next door! I can see no reason why this method should not be used to desensitize a dog that is already displaying fear of loud noises. Not only gunfire, but also other common phobias such as fireworks and thunder may be cured. The knack lies in the trainer not moving on too quickly, so that the level of noise is enough to cause fear again. Each level of volume must be fully accepted before moving on to the next one.

More of Paul Rawlings’ training advice can be found in Gundog Training for the Home and Field (price £17.96) and the accompanying DVD Training Gundogs: Techniques in Action (price £19.99) both available from