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September 24, 2008

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Bourjaily: Dog-Gone Gunshyness

My shorthair, Jed, is now five and a half months old and has outgrown two collars. As of Sunday, he is a puppy kindergarten graduate.  In school, he learned his name, how to sit, stay, lie down, heel, and how to play well with others. Now it’s time to start thinking about guns and birds.

Conventional wisdom for avoiding gunshyness says you start by making lots of noise at dinner time. As a kid, I remember shooting a cap pistol over my dad’s springers while he fed them. I have been dutifully making noise, whacking the measuring cup against Jed’s dogfood bowl at dinner time, but honestly, I don’t know how much it helps.

What I really believe is, if dogs hear gunfire in the field while they’re excited and having fun, it doesn’t bother them. My setter Ike hates fireworks, thunderclaps and other loud noises but gun shots in the field don’t faze him, because he associates them with a warm, dead bird on the ground. So, on Monday I took the dogs on afternoon run at the local marsh, knowing that early duck season is in and we would hear some guns going off.  As Jed ran around enjoying himself he heard several gunshots, including a couple that were fairly close. He looked up, noticed that neither Ike nor I reacted, and went back to what he was doing, which was sniffing a catfish carcass.

We have a way to go before I try shooting a shotgun over his head at a bird, but so far, so good. I am certainly open for suggestions, advice and cautionary gunshyness tales as I proceed. Any ideas?


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My Britney pup spooks at sudden loud noises and thunder. She doesn't like gunfire at a gun club...at a distance from her. She doesn't even like the sight of a shotgun/rifle.

However, once she's working the uplands for birds, the sight of a shotgun or shooting at birds over her doesn't seem a bother.

Go figure.


Mr. Bourjaily,
I'm with you on this one. I've adopted two hounds from shelters over the past couple of years who had one thing in common, and that was not liking loud things that went boom. (I did not find out by firing over their heads) I cured this by spending time out chasing rabbits where other hunters were firing in the not so immediate area, but not firing over the dogs for a period of weeks. After the second week distance shots brought no notice, though nearby ones still brought a flinch, by week three there was clearly no aversion to gunshots, it was a side affect of being allowed to run free.

Joe C.

Teak Phillips


I gun-broke my Springer the old "loud noise at dinner" way. Specifically, it was the crash of a cupboard door. He'd startle a bit, I'd praise him, he'd wag his stubby tail and keep eating.

In the field, I did the same thing you did. He didn't care about loud noises, as long as he was having fun.

We've hunted quail, pheasant, and ducks. Now, when he sees me shoulder my shotgun, his little stump wiggles and he starts looking around for a bird to mark.

He just gets upset when I miss, which is often.

However, Cowboy hate thunder. I suspect it's more of some barometric-pressure, odd decibel thing that critters have.

Maybe Jed is more ready than you think. How about taking him and Ike out on a hunt, let Ike do his thing and teach Jed by example?

Chad Love

Mark my male chessie is the exact same way. As long as he can associate the sound of a gun or a bumper boy with the retrieve then he's fine. But loud noises when he's not hunting or retrieving terrify him, and I don't know why. He's always been that way. Pretty embarrassing for a dog that's pushing 90 pounds and looks like he'd eat your leg for a snack.
My little female on the other hand, could have a howitzer go off next to her and she'd never even blink. Go figure.

Phillip, if you know a retriever guy with a bumper boy or a winger that sets off 209 primers on the release that's a great way to associate gunfire with fun. Or you could have one person hold the dog on lead while another out in a field throws a dummy and shoots off a shotgun popper. Pup sees the dummy, hears the shot and starts making the connection.
I also started taking my chessies dove hunting with me when they were young, not to retrieve, just to get them used to gunfire. I'd tie them off to an old post or a windmill leg a hundred yards or so away from where I was. The birds, the shots and the noise were far away enough to do no harm but close enough to really get them fired up.
Of course I'm mainly a retriever guy now so I don't know how practical that is for a shorthair.
I haven't messed with pointers since my old female died a few years back.
Wish Bill Tarrant was still alive. He'd know what to do...


I probably broke some of the rules, I made plenty of noises during times like feeding, but the first time I took her out in the field for hunting and we didn't find any birds I thought I'd test her so I gave her a treat and fired. She just sort of looked up and went back to running around sniffing. Although I have a suspicion that my first dog will be one of the best dogs I have and if I ever try this sort of thing again I'll ruin the next one.

Jim in Mo.

Phil, My buddy got a Lab pup when we were teens. Luckily we lived in the country so at dinner time we'd feed the dog and shoot a 22 about 50 yds away and gradually move closer day by day. Couple weeks later we switched to shotgun and did the same thing. Dog turned out just fine.


Jed...that's a nice name ;)


I have heard of people taking their dogs to the local skeet range and just letting their dogs hear the bangs slowly from the distance and then only stopping in the parking lot and getting their interest piqued...


I agree. I think the key is introducing the dog to the noise in an environment where the dog ios having funand the surrounding people are relaxed.

I had a dog who absolutley loved loud bangs because he when he was a pup , my younger brother used to put off firecrakers in the evenings, which always involved much running around and laughing.
Later on when ever the dog heard a bang he would start wagging his tail and try to find where is was coming from.


With my lab mix, we started out with airguns, and then went to .22's then to .410, and then up to 20 ga and 12 ga at the range over a period of a few weeks as a pup. also during this time we have a wood enclosed kitchen garbage can we would slam the lid shut on. My dad has used the airgun on up step to cure a couple dogs he has had that were "gunshy" over the years.


Ditto many times over on the as long as they're enjoying and having fun what they're doing theme. My choc Lab isn't real big on thunder, or the surpise pot/pan my 2 year old launches on the tile, but he has a ball when I have the Black Crowes rattling the walls through the stereo (while the wiff is out of course)...shotguns never phased him. Oh the joys of digging through a dead catfish...


Keep a catfish carcass handy? :)


I picked up a cheap starter pistol and fired it on the back porch before feeding. In less than a week my GSP puppy was running to the sound. I'd fire the pistol as he was running away in the field but always when he was at least 25 yards away. You want the dog to stop and look back at you. Be very careful if he runs away or puts his tail down. There is no rush. When in doubt- don't do anything. It's very hard to fix a problem- so go slow.

WA Mtnhunter

If I go out back to test fire a shotgun or rifle and leave the Lab in the house, he will literally claw the walls to get out there with me. If he sees me shoulder a gun, he will wait for the shot and head down range looking for what he didn't see fall unless I call him. You have to be real careful running a chop saw, skilsaw, or chainsaw around him. He is totally undaunted by the noise and will be right underfoot.

He was such a chow hound as a pup, I could fire the starter pistol over him and then moved to the 20 gauge in the yard. Try that now and he comes a running look for a goose.

He loves a good trout carcass as well as the next one..... And don't get around "his" truck when he's in command either.


Stating the obvious, but each dog is so different, you just have to keep a close eye on his personality and modify training from there. With my dad's old boykin spaniel, we had pretty much set ourselves up for failure because we didn't have a set plan, but everything ended up working out anyhow.

The dog came home at 6 weeks (which seemed too early for me, but it was my dad's call not mine), and at 8 weeks we were taking him out to the farm for half-day explorations. During one of these runs, I had a shotgun with me for patterning and figured I shoot it with the pup around. He got tied up about two hundred yards away and started trying to catch grasshoppers while I took aim at the fence-row pallet target. At the shot the puppy went nuts and I figured I'd just ruined him until I realized he wasn't panicing but trying to run towards me. On a completely stupid whim I untied him and fired another shot when he was about 10 yards away, and that little dog just started trucking as fast as his puppy legs could go down to the target and started circling it, nose to the ground. Sounds crazy, I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it, but somehow he just knew what the gun shot meant.

Thunder never excited him, but Fourth of July was always a pain because he'd loose his mind trying to run circles in the back yard when the local fireworks went off. He had so much potential but my dad and I never had the abillity, time, or inclination to really develop him to his fullest. But he and my dad were so close year-round that the hunting was just one more thing they did together.

Now when I eventually get my own dog, I know I won't be as lucky. So please keep the tips coming because I'll need all the help I can get.

jim in nc

I trained my English setter just by going out in a pasture and sneaking up behind her when she was rooting around in something and shooting off a cap gun. Then I moved up to .22 blanks. And sometimes I took her to the trap range and just sat right behind the shooters with her. She never batted an eye, and was a great hunter. But she was always scared stiff of fireworks and thunder. Go figure.


Should have come up with a better name j/k

Done the .22 thing


My beagle Daisy is REALLY gun shy. I shot a rabbit she was on and as soon as the gun went off she ran for the car. Now when she even see's guns she tries to hide in the house or in the field. We have kept her on a leash to get her used to gunfire but as soon as we let her off its to the car. Any ideas?

I have taken her hunting without guns and she's fine, its definatley the guns/gunfire that bother her

WA Mtnhunter

Devil Dog

Great story. My Lab has similar instincts. He is almost 18 months old and is turning out to be a great gun dog, certainly not due to my skills as a trainer. I think some dogs have great genes and instincts. You just have to wake them up at an early age and not let them get too many bad habits in front of the hunting habits. An old trainer once told me once that you start at 54 days old with retrievers. I thoght that was a bit young, but I started my dog at 9 1/2 weeks cause that's when I got him.

Quiet Loner

I've had 4 gens. of Boykin Spaniels. Each loved fireworks,chased roman candles, had to be restrained from biting mortars. One would bite smoke after firecrackers went off until he looked like he was smoking Camels when he exhaled. I have to lock them up when firing from bench rest (Ilive in the sticks) or they will stand down range.

Best way seems to have pup with adult & playing in water while someone fires at a distance.

Chad Love

Hey Quiet Loner,

I love those little Boykins. One of my landlords in college (he was a prof at OU but owned the house my wife and I rented) loved to duck hunt and would sometimes borrow my chessie when I couldn't go. He ended up getting a Boykin and it was a really neat little dog. Great retriever and a great disposition. If I hadn't already fallen in love with chessies I'd probably have one now...


Better name for what Tyler?


Chad Love: A hearty second to the Bill Tarrant plug. One of my cherished possessions is a book about Delmar Smith's training methods, autographed by the author and the subject.

I don't know how you cure or prevent gun shyness in most breeds, but those of us fortunate to own Brittanies know that you can just explain to the dog that you'll be shooting, say, an Ithaca 16 guage at game birds. Perhaps you will go further and list for the dog which species you will be shooting at. The Britt will make a few notes, possibly offer a suggestion or two about proper lead on a crossing teal, and then all will be fine.

Chad Love

Hey Low Recoil, your post made me laugh. And I thought the setter guys were proud of their dogs...

Speaking of Brittanies, I got to meet Ben Williams and his string of Brittanies last quail season. He comes down to hunt a ranch near here every year. I'm a friend of the ranch owner so I'm going to make it a point to go up there every year and visit with him some more and hopefully go on a hunt with him. Great guy and his dogs are really nice.

Sue B

Birds. You've got to involve birds first, build excitement, then introduce a primer pistol FROM A DISTANCE. I have spent the last nineteen months raising a litter of first-rate German shorthairs. We started taking the dogs on puppy bird-runs when they were about ten weeks old. We would put pen raised pigeons in a bird bag and just go on a walk with the pups. We'd release pigeons along the way, letting the little guys chase and build excitement and prey drive. After doing this several times a week for three or so weeks, then we introduced a shot. I'm not talking a 20 gauge shotgun, just a primer pistol. And not right in front of the dogs, about 75 yards away. Seventy-five yards might seem overly cautious, but remember that those little puppy ears are very acute. You can't be too careful when introducing your dog to gunfire. Gradually, we let the shooter move closer to the pups until it was no problem to shoot next to them.

Now when we are training the pups on pen raised birds, a fire from the pistol is the reward for the dog. We only shoot when the dog has successfully pointed and held steady to wing. This is a proven and very successful method.

I am proud to say my pup will be running in the GSP Nationals in Eureka, KS this October. Then on to pheasant hunting in November. I can't wait. It's been a lot of work, but it pays off in the end.

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