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Don't Give Up On The Gunshy Dog

By Mark and Matthew Duncan

Maybe you've had a string of good luck and acquired a dog with the potential of being a real hunting dog. Then you fire the first shot and the worlds greatest dog turns into a whimpering mass of scared pup. There's even a chance that your new hunting partner cringes at the sight of your gun, cowers when you approach and is generally shy of everything. What to do?
In the past a lot of good dogs have been put down or turned into family pets because they were gun-shy. As we learn more about dogs and training methods, there turns out to be a lot that can be done to cure a "shy" dog.
Some believe that a sensitivity to noise is genetic, however I feel most gun-shy dogs are made, not born. You don't teach a kid to swim by first throwing them in the pool to see what they can do. The same is true with dogs, they should be introduced gradually. One thing is for sure, any type of noise can set a dog off. From fireworks to target shooting, any noise can cause a sensitivity.
We start our pups with a loud clap right before feeding time. This helps the dog associate food with a loud noise. After the pup accepts this, I move on to a 22 low power load or cap gun at a distance. Then move on to a 22 long rifle and then a 410 shotgun, but only when the pup is comfortable with whatever I am shooting.
The key is to go slowly step-by-step using a positive reward right after the gun is fired. Real birdy dogs do better if you replace food with birds or game. Your goal should be a positive association between gunfire and reward.
One of the most important parts of a dog's training is socialization. Let the dog meet everyone and every experience. Try to introduce the dog to lots of people and situations as a pup. The more they see, smell and hear, the more they will accept.
If you buy or acquire and older dog, don't stick a 12 gauge between his ears and pull the trigger to see if he's gun-shy. If he wasn't, he probably will be. Instead have a friend shoot from several hundred yards. If the dog cowers you have problems, if not have the shooter move closer before assuming the dog isn't gun-shy.
Some dogs will show a fear of gunfire alone. However, they are usually afraid of the sight of a gun or even a hunter. A gun-shy pup will usually turn out to be bird-shy, man-shy, horse-shy and dog-shy, sometimes afraid of his own shadow. Although it seems like a daunting task, this problem can sometimes be corrected.
First you should decide how important the dog is to your hunting activity. If you would be just as happy with the dog as a pet, and the dog seems to be afraid of everything it comes in contact with, you would probably be better off just enjoying the dog as is. But if your dead set on having a working dog, realize it's going to take a lot of training, patience and time, so you may want to look into the services of a professional trainer.
The most important tip is to involve the dog in game. If you get the dog involved in pointing, watching and chasing, he will be less likely to notice the noise of nearby gunfire. But you must start gradually.
Many trainers suggest taking the dog out each day and firing a gun one time from a distance. Just once. And then making sure that as an immediate reward associated with gun fire, the dog has a bird in his mouth or some type of game to bring out his natural instincts.
This, as with all training, takes time and patience. The key is for the pup to be preoccupied with live game to the point of ignoring gunfire. Most well bred dogs should be happy and excited at the prospect of the hunt. So excited that the dog completely forgets that it's afraid of guns, hunters or noise and ends up with a bird since that's what hunting dogs are bred for.
If you aren't willing to work with the dog on a daily basis until you've overcome his fears, then hunting with this dog may not be for you. And in some cases it may come down to the pup just having the wrong owner or the owner having the wrong pup.
A horse trainer once told me, "they ain't no bad horses, just bad owners." I wonder if that applies to man's best friend? It has in my case. Most mistakes made by my dogs over the years always go back to a basic mistake I made somewhere along the line when the pup was in training.

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).