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Gun-shy dogs – what you need to know

Trainers believe that gun-shyness cannot be cured, but there are little tricks to accustom a young dog to gunfire

Gun with black Labrador

Amid all the afflictions a working gundog can suffer, there is arguably nothing worse than being gun-shy. Peter Moxon, Shooting Times’s kennel editor for many years, didn’t think that there was 
a cure for a gun-shy dog, though he did believe that there was a big difference between one that was gun-shy and one that was gun-nervous. “The latter can, with understanding on the part 
of the trainer, be completely cured and turned into a useful worker with the gun,” he maintained.

What is a gun-nervous dog?

Moxon defined a gun-nervous dog as one that was afraid of guns — rather than the noise they make — perhaps because a gun had been fired too close to them at too early a stage in their training. Most gundog trainers will advise how to introduce puppies to gunfire for the first time, starting with small bangs at a distance. Moxon believed in banging a metal tray as 
a signal for feeding time, making sure that the puppy would associate loud noises with something pleasurable.

Spaniels out in the field

Some dogs never seem in the least bit worried about the sound of gunfire, while others need a gentle introduction

Lots of trainers have their own little tricks

  • One I thought rather good was using party poppers: you can buy 100 of them for less than £8 from most big supermarkets and the bang they make is loud enough to be effective, but soft enough not to scare a puppy.
  • An old-fashioned cap gun is also a good bet, and you can buy a plastic one, complete with 200 caps, for the same price as the party poppers.
  • Starting pistols are usually used for the next stage in training and many trainers will initially fire the pistol inside their game bag, so that it muffles the shot.
  • Be wary of firing dummy launchers too close to a young dog. One of my spaniels was spooked badly by a dummy launcher early in her training and was frightened of the sound for the rest of her life.
  • One of the best training devices 
I have come across is the Single Shot, an excellent little device for firing .22 blanks that is a great improvement over the starting pistol. It has the considerable advantage of not looking like a pistol, so it is safe to have in your pocket if training away from home, and you can fire it repeatedly without any risk of a misfire.
Young gundog puppy

Utmost care should always be taken when introducing puppies or young dogs to gunfire

Gentle introduction

Some dogs never seem in the least bit worried about the sound of gunfire, while others really do need a gentle introduction. I’ve always introduced my dogs to shotguns on a proper shooting day, but standing a long way from the guns being fired. I’d never recommend working a dog on its first shooting day. Just take it along so that it gets accustomed to the sounds and smells and general excitement.

dogs together

Hearing loss in dogs

Have you ever heard of a gundog going deaf because of the noise of gun shots?

My gun-shy dog

I’ve only owned one spaniel, Suze, who really was gun-shy, but curiously she was never bothered by the sound of shotguns on a shooting day. I’ve always thought that she loved shooting so much that she was prepared to put up with the bangs. But she soon became distressed if she heard shotguns being fired anywhere near her on a non-shooting day. She couldn’t be taken to the Game Fair for this reason as the sound of gunfire from the shooting line, however distant, was enough to upset her.

Dogs and fireworks

I have found that many gundogs that are completely unfazed by shotguns are petrified of fireworks, perhaps because modern fireworks mix hefty explosions with all sorts of weird — and to a dog’s ears, worrying — sounds. I can remember when firework night was celebrated on 
5 November, or a day either side, 
but now the parties seem to go on for days. If you have a nervous dog, this 
is a worrying time of the year.

There are ways to try to prevent dogs becoming stressed by fireworks.

A six-year-old labrador bitch that was terrified of explosions was cured by sound immersion. She was taken to a fireworks display and for an hour she was fed a nugget of food at each bang. Her fear vanished for good!

With Suze I tried a CD of fireworks, playing the recording gently to begin with then letting it get louder. Curiously, this didn’t bother her and it was almost as if she knew that it wasn’t the real thing.

We tried all the recommended remedies with her, such as shutting the curtains, playing soothing music, even using pheromones, but nothing was 100 per cent effective so it was always a great relief when the firework season finally finished.