How to Introduce Your Hunting Dog to Gunfire

Scott Linden • July 12, 2023

Never, ever take your bird dog puppy to the trap club or on a hunting trip to introduce it to gunfire. Stop. Re-read that first sentence, and then we’ll go on. Thanks.

We’re here to turn a squirming, mewling ball of fluff into a gung-ho hunting dog – performing at his peak – eager to find, hold, and retrieve birds for you for a decade or more. So, let’s start on the right paw.

In my experience and judging from the number of calls and emails I get, more hunting dogs have been sent to shelters or “rehomed” due to gun shyness than all other problems combined. But unlike most reasons dogs are exiled, gun sensitivity is preventable. You just have to be strategic.

See the world through your pup’s eyes (and ears), tottering around, everything new, from the humans poking him to the harrowing time away from mommy. Add hearing acuity ten times as sensitive as our own, and you see it’s kind of like your first kid in a way – and when did you introduce them to gunfire? It was likely preceded by snacks and video games. You know where I’m going, right?

Gunfire = fun

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Put simply, gunshots should be an accompaniment to the fun. A young dog should associate “bang!” with the most positive experiences of its young life. And a hunting dog spells fun B-I-R-D. So why do we expect a hunting dog to naturally, intrinsically, genetically tolerate what to him sounds like a nuclear bomb going off in his crate?

We shouldn’t. Like every other aspect of puppy development and training, the reaction to gunfire is a learned, conditioned response. In this case, the response should be “Where’s the bird, huh boss?” But it doesn’t happen the day you bring home your pup, nor a month later. It’s a long, gradual process that can be done right once or repaired later (if you’re lucky) in a long, grueling, and often unsuccessful process. The fact is, most gunshy dogs are unredeemable, destined to a life outside the bird field, in a chain-link cell, or worse.

So please, as someone who’s rescued and re-homed gunshy dogs, I beg you to introduce gunfire the right way. You’ll then have a loyal, confident companion that will walk on his lips for you to find and retrieve a bird.

[There are several schools of thought on introducing more mundane noises as a prelude to gunfire or the timing and type of rewards. All are worth considering. One suggests exposure to everyday sounds from pans banging to doors slamming as a pup is eating – which to this point has been the most positive experience in its life. I think most of this will happen in the course of living in a home, but it certainly can’t hurt to employ the same strategy outlined below with blenders, TV, and kids being ordered to go to bed. In my kennel, very young dogs meet up with bird parts and pieces, frozen and thawed, soon after they arrive, but no harm in doing both. Jon and Jessica Hann of Perfection Kennels like to offer the “reward” after a gunshot and use food treats as well as bird exposure … another strategy to consider from these well-respected experts on pups and gunfire.]

Whichever curriculum you employ, here are some general thoughts you can take to the bank:

Start without guns

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Put the shotgun back in its case. Now, start thinking about your dog and his relationship to birds. Has he been exposed to a wing, maybe “on a string” and play-pointing? Does he get positive yard time with a dead bird? Live bird? Has he proudly carried birds around in the yard? By positive, I mean no flapping wings, scratching feet, cackling or screeching, no scary bird launchers yet … and no fighting with humans about possession (what’s the harm in a torn-up bird?). Has he had a chance to spot, puppy-point, and chase a live one? In other words, has he had entirely, completely positive encounters? A lot of them?

That’s when you introduce “boom!” But the first ones should be more like “bip,” then “bop,” eventually “bang” and ultimately BOOM. The drill goes like this: 1) every noise-maker is always popped off while your young bird dog is enjoying birds: view, smell, track, taste, chase. 2) Every “gunshot” is first delivered by a helper from a distance (dozens to a hundred yards away), so you can be near your dog and gauge its reaction. Looking toward the noise is a good thing, but if there’s any sensitivity (not resuming play with the bird, running away, hiding behind your legs), the noise was too close. Give it a rest, finish with a positive experience of some sort, and start again, farther away, in a day or two.

Move closer when he’s steady

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So far, so good? Then 3) is moving closer and closer with your “gun” as the pup continues to interact with bird parts, whole birds, and live birds. You won’t shoot over your dog’s head on a hunt, so don’t go quite that far! 4) Your arsenal of noise makers can include packing pillows, hand claps, two boards slapped together, cap pistols, blank pistols, .22 pistols, .410 shotguns, and up to 12 ga. (For safety, there are blank cartridges available except for the hands and boards!) At each swap of noisemakers, send your assistant back out 100 yards and watch your dog carefully for signs of distress as it interacts with birds. Rinse and repeat, stepping back as needed. The whole process could take a few weeks to months, so be patient and go one step at a time. Remember, the goal is a dog eager to find birds when it hears a gun, not cowering under your truck.

Dogs aren’t born gunshy, they’re made. By us. You only have one chance to do it right. If you’re careful, strategic and employ a regiment of birds, your hunting dog will conflate loud noises with fun, birds, and you. And that means more enjoyable, productive bird hunting. Not so bad, eh?

I started by begging you to stay away from the range, but now you’re ready to go there. Not with the dog, but to work on your wingshooting. After all, he’s ready, willing, and able, but you gotta hit the darn things.

--Scott Linden