A gun-shy puppy is a trainer’s worst nightmare, says David Tomlinson
There’s probably no greater disaster that can befall the gundog trainer than to discover that their talented new puppy is gun-shy.
Is being gun-shy inherited?
Many breeders maintain that gun-shyness is hereditary, which I’m not convinced about, but I certainly wouldn’t take the risk of breeding from a seriously gun-shy bitch. The more highly strung a dog’s temperament, then the more likely it is to be gun-shy, and it is probably this nervousness that a bitch will pass on to her puppies, which might well also become gun-shy.
I have heard claims that some breeds tend to be more gun-shy than others, but I’ve never come across any proof that this is so. There’s also a subtle but vital difference between a dog that is gun-shy, which is incurable, and one that is gun-nervous. With sensitive handling the latter can be overcome, but it is easy to turn a gun-nervous puppy into a gun-shy adult.
I have had springers that were profoundly gun-nervous, but not really gun-shy — on a shooting day they would work happily with no apparent fear of guns being fired around them. Indeed, they would look toward the sound of the shot in the hope of spotting a falling bird, and thus a possible retrieve. Take the same dogs to the Game Fair, however, and they would become distressed by the constant barrage of shots from the clay lines. It’s worth adding that these spaniels disliked thunderstorms and were spooked by fireworks.
In contrast, I have had other springers from the same line that were unconcerned by gunfire or fireworks, such was their relaxed approach to life. It’s a reminder that each dog is different. I have also had dogs that became nervous about thunderstorms as they got older, having been unconcerned in their younger years.
Be gentle with gun-shy puppies
With experience I’m sure it’s possible to anticipate with a fair degree of accuracy whether a puppy is going to be gun-nervous and possibly gun-shy, but it’s wise to treat every puppy alike, and make sure that their introduction to gunfire is both gentle and gradual. Many breeders make a point of banging feed bowls and clapping hands at feed time to ensure that young puppies associate noise with pleasure, and it usually works. However, I have heard of puppies that became increasingly scared of such actions, so it’s essential to be sensitive to an individual puppy’s reactions.
One of the most effective introductions to bangs that I have come across is the party popper. Cheap to buy and widely available (Tesco offers a pack of 20 for £2), the party popper produces a soft muffled bang that is perfect for introducing puppies to gunfire in the most gentle way possible.
You can also use party poppers when a puppy makes its first retrieves with very little risk of spooking the youngster. Some puppies are so confident and unfazed by bangs that you will probably stop using poppers after a couple of days, but for others they make a useful training aid.
Some trainers recommend taking a puppy to a clay shoot, starting a long way back and gradually getting closer, but I would hesitate to do so. The safest thing to assume is that every dog is potentially gun-shy, so avoid anything that might make it so. It may sound strange, but when introducing a puppy to shotgun fire make sure that atmospheric conditions are in your favour. Wet, windy days are much better than cold or frosty ones.
Avoid black powder bangs
I would also avoid using a 12-bore to begin with and start with a .410, possibly loaded with blanks. Avoid anything to do with blackpowder, as the bang is much louder. A few years ago, I was watching a gundog display at a local fair when a blackpowder gun was discharged in the ring, close to where I was sitting. I had a spaniel with me, sitting happily on her lead, but at the sound of the explosion she bolted, pulling me off my seat. This was a bold dog that I had never regarded as gun-shy.
One device I would avoid at all costs is the dummy launcher. Again, most dogs will be completely unfazed by the launcher, but it makes a high-frequency bang that is completely unlike that of a shotgun. I have heard of dogs that became gun-shy after having a dummy launcher fired over their head, while a spaniel of mine hated dummy launchers with a vengeance, though she wasn’t too bothered by shotguns. I came to share her dislike of dummy launchers, with their unpleasant recoil and ear-cracking bangs, and haven’t used one since.
Introducing puppies to gunfire
Starting pistols have long been used to introduce puppies to gunfire and they do have their uses. Many trainers use one, firing it initially inside a game bag to muffle the bang.
The trouble with starting pistols, even the latest ones that are painted bright colours, is that they do look like real pistols, so it’s best not to carry one, let alone use it, in a public place. If you do, there’s always the risk of an interview with the local constabulary.
A good alternative to the starting pistol is the six-shot DTT6 blank firer, marketed by Sporting Saint. Easy to use and lightweight, its only drawback is its high price — £160.