Everyone faces the urge to get that new puppy into the field as quickly as possible. While it is true that early and repeated exposure to birds and the various stimuli that a dog experiences while afield is almost always a net positive for a young dog gun fire is one instance where slow is almost assuredly always better. Some people might argue this point but we believe that no well bred puppy is born gun shy. They are only made that way by man. Over the years we’ve spoken with and even had to personally reverse noise sensitivity caused by somebody who pushed a dog too hard or just didn’t attempt to introduce a dog to loud noises at all during it’s upbringing. Below is a brief outline of how we introduce and “break” dogs into gunfire. This is by no means an all encompassing guide but what you can take from this is a basic game plan for any kind of desensitization really. It’s always best to start a dog young, but these steps have worked on many dogs from very young puppies to fully developed adults.
A lot of people will tell you stories about taking dogs to shooting ranges or firing cap guns in the house while a pup is eating. While it is true a number of dogs have survived these processes they are by and large very aggressive and in my opinion the risks outweigh the rewards. There IS a time and place for these exercises. However, that time is not during the very early introductory period. Our pups all start to experience their first rounds of gunfire while engaged in a very exciting activity. This can be pursuit of a strongly flying flushed bird, or even just in full play with other dogs. It needs to be something that nearly fully engrosses the dogs attention. With the dog off at a quite a distance we then fire .22 crimp or 209 primer ONCE from a starter pistol. This first shot often takes place roughly 50 yards. 99% of the time the pup will not even acknowledge this noise and continue in merry pursuit. We will repeat this for a total of 2-3 shots per session. If at any point the dog shows a negative reaction to this noise, STOP. Back up and go further away. Find a more engrossing and enjoyable activity for the dog. If the dog continues to show no reaction or simply looks and then goes back to his business after 2-3 sessions then you can move in 10-15 yards at a time and repeat the same process. Eventually you will be able to fire a blank round within a few feet of the pup. Once you have achieved this you can step up to a larger round. We often go from blank pistols to a .410 gauge shotgun. We then repeat the process with the shotgun, starting from 40-50 yards and gradually moving closer as the dog shows no reaction to the shots. After that we move up again to a 20 gauge shotgun with target loads. Over time and many sessions you can eventually graduate to multiple shots and hunting loads.
Following a slow and steady process is a big effort on your behalf. But consider the time well spent on having a nearly bulletproof dog in the gunfire game. Training a dog to respond positively to gun fire is infinitely easier than trying to correct behavior in a dog that has been made gun shy by their owner and/or trainer. In coming articles we’ll discuss various other tactics and situations that can be used to help bring your pup along into being fully desensitized to other loud noses and live hunting fire.