At what age should you introduce a puppy to gunfire?
What's best to avoid a dog becoming gun-shy?
The most important thing to remember about when you introduce a puppy to gunfire noise is that you should take it gently and not rush anything.
If your gundog puppy is confident you should be able to start at about seven to eight months of age. If she is timid then leave things until she is a year old. (You might also like to read: When should I start training my puppy to be a gundog?)
Hearing and gunshot
Gundog trainers usually wait until the dog is eight months old when hearing has developed properly. If you have any doubts at all then get in touch with a professional gundog trainer who will assess your puppy. Far better to do this than end up with a dog that has a lifelong problem with hearing gunshot. (Read is a gun-shy dog a lost cause?)
Ways to introduce gunfire noises
Start the process off by dropping metal food bowls near the youngster. Clap your hands nearby. Make a lot of background noise. This will help to desensitise the puppy.
Some trainers fire an old airgun without pellets at a distance from the puppy to give a realistic ‘crack’. Over a period of weeks they move closer to the pup.
Try and associate loud sounds with something pleasurable, such as being walked or fed.
Over time (and be very gentle and patient here) you can work up to introducing the sound of a shotgun, again starting at a distance with maybe a starting pistol, then a .410 with short cartridges.
Things to remember when you introduce a puppy to gunfire
- Don’t fire a gun near or close to a puppy to gauge its reaction to sudden noise
- Do things gradually
- Don’t introduce puppy to gunfire until at least seven months old
- If the puppy shows any nervousness, back off
- Help a puppy to accept the sight of a gun by carrying an un-cocked air rifle over your arm during training lessons so that when the time does come to fire it without a pellet – at a distance – he probably won’t show the slightest alarm
Tricks that gundog trainers use
- Some trainers use party poppers to introduce a puppy to gunfire and bangs: 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 spaniel was spooked badly by a dummy launcher early in her training and was frightened of the sound for the rest of her life.
- The Single Shot is 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.
Desensitising a puppy
Q: I have bought a well-bred German short-haired pointer puppy. She is just four months old and I have noticed that she reacts by shivering when she hears a loud or sharp noise. I am worried that this may get worse and she may be gun-shy. What can I do to introduce this puppy to gunfire?
A: The way to overcome any fear of noise is to gradually desensitise the puppy. The cause for this sensitivity may be hereditary, but more likely being reared in quiet surroundings has kept it isolated from any sounds associated with a busy environment. If you also live in very peaceful surroundings then this has extended the quiet life when she came to live with you.
She needs now to be gradually exposed to as many new noises and experiences as possible. Begin by having a radio playing at all times, first on a low volume and then when she shows no signs of concern increase the volume gradually. Then use a sound desensitisation CD, first at feed times so she will learn to associate noise with food, and once desensitised she will have no concern even when on her own. Once this has been achieved then clay shoots and country fairs are the next step, but do not take her too close — let her gradually get used to the noise at a distance first. Done correctly, you should soon have a much bolder puppy that is not afraid of anything.
Scared by a starting pistol
Q: When I fired the starting pistol during training recently, my gundog ran back to my van and tried getting into it, presumably to get out of the way. Is she a lost cause and, if not, what do you advise to try and overcome this problem of a scared gundog?
A: Try and convert the scared gundog’s perception of loud noises and bangs from an unpleasant experience to a pleasant experience.
- Gundogs enjoy feed times, so as she starts to eat, clap at the front of the kennel and watch her reaction.
- If the dog leaves the food and retreats to her box, take her into the garden (a more open space) and once again encourage the dog to her food.
- Increase the distance and clap again, assessing the reaction every time and reassuring her with lots of praise. Make the scared gundog aware that noise is not something to be frightened of.
- Providing there is no sign of nervousness, work your way closer so you can eventually stand over her and clap without visible signs of fright.
- Repeat this exercise with the starting pistol once again at a good distance to start with and then work your way closer, assessing her reaction at each stage.
- If there is a reaction you are not happy with try again until you are sure the scared gundog is totally confident with the situation.
- Now to take this exercise to the training pen.
- Set the scared gundog off hunting and when she comes into contact with a rabbit fire the starting pistol, inside your game bag to start with, and watch for her reaction.
- If she stops hunting and looks disturbed give her lots of reassurance and encouragement to carry on hunting and after a few minutes repeat this exercise.
- Only reduce the distance from her if she doesn’t react to the loud noise or bang negatively.
- As her confidence grows and she is hunting freely continue firing shots outside of the game bag and reintroduce the stop whistle and give her lots of praise and reassurance.
The end product will be a dog hunting freely with confidence and no concerns about shots and loud noises. This will take time, lots of patience and understanding but will be well worth it in the end.
You might find it useful to read our guide to gundog vocabulary.
This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.