One of the key steps in hunting dog training is to condition the dog to gunfire. It is not a difficult step in hunting dog training, but it is a vital step.
The Old Way
Not too long ago the accepted hunting dog training technique to condition a dog to gunfire was to take the dog to the shooting range and subject the dog to the sounds of the range. Thousands of dogs were successfully trained in this way. One dog I eventually trained was trained this way. The conventional wisdom of the time was that if a dog showed any fear of the gun with this training, the owner was advised to get rid of the pup and start over with a different dog.
The downside of this "method" is that thousands of otherwise good dogs have been ruined this way. Those dogs that were discarded for hunting may have been just fine, but they were ruined. The sharp unexpected noises and lack of an escape for the dog can turn an otherwise normal dog into a Velcro dog securely attached to the hunter's ankles or, just as bad, to the underside of your vehicle. A dog that never leaves the truck and never leaves your side is better suited for sitting on Aunt Martha's lap and eating bonbons.
Conditioning a dog to gunfire is such a simple task. There is really no reason to risk ruining your dog at a range, when proper conditioning is so easy and works so well.
Here is a tip for people who have a puppy. Do not coddle the dog when something scary happens. A lot of dogs get frighetened my loud noises. Maybe by thunder. We all love our dogs, so our instinct is to let our dogs into our laps to look for cover. By doing this, we have taught our dogs that the scary thing is indeed a thing to be scared of. Dogs are masters of observational learning. They learn what is good and bad and scary by looking to others.
When my dog was a puppy, I would don a raincoat and head out in a thunderstorm with the pup. What I wanted to do was scream and run and duck and head for cover. What I actually did was play games and sing-song to the pup. I wanted to demonstrate to the pup that my attitude does not change in a storm. The dog is not afraid of storms today.
So, if you are reading this and will be conditioning your pup to the gun, the number one rule is this: if he acts afraid, do not subject him to more, but do not coddle that fear.
The Technique I Use
The process I use is a simple one: You need two people, one to handle the gun and one to handle the dog. The dog handler takes a bird and toss it into the air. The gunner is 100 yards away and he shoots a shotgun. Not at the bird...what we are going for is the loud sound. In fact, the gunner points the gun away from the bird. This is because the muzzle end of the gun is much louder. The dog, too engrossed in chasing the bird to care about anything, will pretty much ignore the gunfire. With each successive toss of a bird, the gunner takes 10 steps closer.
Two things happen. 1) after 10 tosses, the gunner is standing next to the dog. 2) The dog begins to equate the sound of gunfire with birds. My dog, Shiloh, who is now three years old, will search the skies and run in the direction of gunfire because he has learned that gunfire means birds fall from the sky. Frequently, when I am hunting with my dog, I have to call him back to me when he hears gunfire in a distant field. It is all very Pavlovian and a very easy and quick method to teach a dog to love the sound of the gun.
For you training geeks out there, this is very similar to the process of teaching a dog that a clicker means a good thing. Except, in this instance, from the dog's point of view, gunfire means the best thing in the world.
What If The Dog Still Freaks Out
Some dogs are exceptionally high strung. They will still freak out at a shotgun blast, 100 yards away. If this is the case, you need to call it a day and schedule another outing. On that outing, the gun should be a starter pistol which is shooting .22 blanks. At 100 yards, these are barely noticeable. The technique is the same: 100 yards, then 90, 80, 70, etc. This is easier for a high strung dog. Next time out, toss a few birds and shoot the cap gun again. Then go to the shotgun, but start 200 yards away. The idea is to slow down and take baby steps with a high strung dog.
As I have said here many times, this blog is firstly about the training of Zeke, a young Llewellyn Setter that a friend of mine has purchased. Zeke is nearly 6 months old now, and it is high time that he be conditioned to the gun.
Anytime we need access to large open spaces and need to pull a trigger on a gun, we head north of the cheddar curtain. That means Wisconsin for those of you reading who are not from around here. The rules and regulations concerning dog training and gunfire on public land are more reasonable in Wisconsin (and Indiana, and Michigan and every other state that has a vowel in its name), so we head to Bong Recreational Area near Burlington, Wisconsin.
I did not take any video, as I was the gunner and my friend had his hands full with his dog and the birds. Here is a similar video though. The dog is engrossed with doing something he loves (chasing the fetch object) as the gun is fired. The only difference I do is that I start with the gun 100 yards away and slowly bring it in.
Zeke did great. He never blinked as the gun was fired. I started him with the shotgun, but I carried a starter pistol in the event that there was a problem. With each shot, I walked closer. Pup was having a blast chasing the birds. For the last shot of the day, I shot the bird out of the sky over the dog. 15 minutes and we now have a gun broke dog.
Where Do We Go From Here
It is still possible to frighten Zeke with gunfire. The way this would happen is if a group of people were out hunting over Zeke and every hunter started firing his gun all at once. Zeke has had exposure to a single gunshot per bird. This cacophony could freak out a dog. For safety's sake, in the first hunting season, the hunters are to limit their shots to one or two shots per bird.
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