Gun shy dogs are created, NOT born
While I was the Education Director for the Council For Purebred Labrador Retrievers, I got to do a lot of fun educational flyers about various problem spots in the dog world. This is one we cover often with the dogs we raise as a majority of them go to hunt families.
It amazes me how often I am asked if an 8 week old puppy is "gun shy?"
Ummm.....well, this is a two part answer.
1) Gun shy dogs are created, not born.
2) We do not introduce our puppy to gunfire until they are retrieving to hand well and hungry for it!
"Gun shy dogs are created, not born."
What does this mean? It means that if done right, there is no reason that a dog should be gun shy. Don't get me wrong, there are some dogs that you couldn't make gun shy if you tried. We own a few of them. These dogs are high drive, focused, and a rocket in the field. They live for the hunt. Dogs with a little less confidence or social skill may have to be fostered along the way. The bad part about that is in most cases, owners don't know which dog they have until the damage is done. They didnt properly introduce the dog to gunfire, but instead exposed them by chance, in a non hunting scenario, or in a situation that does not set the dog up to succeed.
One of our clients took a 6 month old pup out opening day at a hunting lodge with a dozen amateur Upland hunters. They tend not to be the best shots in the world unfortunately. This makes for a lot of noise for a young dog when a bird gets up. Needless to say, this did not end well. We got the dog back in exchange for a started dog. It took all summer to work through her issues. This could have been totally prevented if the dog would have been started properly. She loved the birds and love to retrieve. All the keys to success were there.
So where do you start?
Start with the retrieve. Build that drive and desire first. Keep sessions short and sweet! Just a handful of retrieves, end on a good note, and you stop the sessions, not the dog. Letting the dog stop the sessions will create bad habits so you need to read the dog and stop them while still going strong. Keep the dog wanting it! Once the dog is retrieving regularly and enthusiastically to the handler, then and only then do we start gunfire. This process will take two people: the handler and the shooter. The shooter should be about 30 yards away when you start with a .22 or starter pistol. The handler should throw or launch the mark depending on what the pup is familiar with. The dog will be most excited as the bumper or bird hits the ground. This is when the shooter should fire the gun. How you progress depends on the dog. If the pup does not flinch, go ahead and get a few steps closer. If the dogs stays focused on the bumper, continue in small increments until the shooter is on the line with the dog. Best to keep the handler between the dog and the shooter. This progress may take a couple of sessions. If the dog does react, go back to the basics and redirect. If you are using bumpers, up the excitement level with birds, or even live pigeons. You may even have to dial it back a bit and take baby steps. Each dog is different. Focus on the drive! Once you are firing from the line with the .22 or starter pistol go ahead and start over again with a shotgun and poppers. This is much louder and a different sound, so dont skip this step.
The bottom line is dont rush it. This important lesson can make or break your hunting dog. Best of luck, and happy training!