Gun Shy Dogs
Hunting with beagles
Training the Gun Shy Dog
The first thing to know about gun shy dogs is that it can be avoided. Once a dog is already deemed gun shy it is a very difficult trait to break. I get asked all the time on my website "how do I fix a gun shy dog?". Truthfully I have tried to use some methods that seem to calm this reflex to loud noises, but rarely is it successful. The key to never having a gun shy dog is early stimulation at key times in the puppies development. After the dog develops this trait it is hard to reverse.
A gun shy hunting dog is a dog that will run and perform the act of pursuing game until a shot is fired and then the fear of the noise causes them to leave their pursuit and retreat from the chase. A dog that is gun shy is essentially afraid of noises. Several factors can determine whether a dog will be gun shy. Some dogs are genetically predisposed to be shy in nature;coupled with being subjected to loud noises at the wrong moment can cause a dog to become gun shy. So genetics play a factor in gun shy dogs. Some dogs have the potential to be gun shy, yet are trained in a manner that avoids this behavior. One popular method is to subject them to noises early and avoid starting this process in between the ages of 6-8 months old (dogs go through a naturally shy period in this stage of development).
One popular method I like to use is to take trash can lids out when I feed them (I use automatic feeders because fighting between siblings can cause shyness as well --this type may result in "pack shyness"). But I put the feed out and make sure they are on the task of feasting and not fighting, then beat the lids together and reassure the pups. In this manner we associate noise with a good thing, food. As mentioned previously I start this early when the pups are in their bold exploratory stage (8-24 weeks). If a dog is extremely shy at this stage they may need additional training, but it can be found early enough to cull the pup if need be.
I try to bring my dog in the house (yes hunting dogs in the house) for a brief time as a pup. This seems to build an additional layer of trust with humans and the pup and create a certain boldness in pups that lasts a lifetime. Just doing these two things I have never raised a gun shy dog.
The equation that equals a gun shy dog is a dog that is lacking confidence in the handler and is frightened by sounds and especially from sounds created by the handler. Some small steps at a young age can almost certainly eliminate shy traits in pups--but not always.
The only chance of reversing this shyness is for the dog to associate loud noises with a positive result. I would recommend using this method if the dog is older then two years old. The dog has to make the conscious decision to not be afraid, so do not try to hold the dog in a confined space or on a short lead to "break" them of being gun shy. These efforts would almost certainly intensify shy traits. It is not a matter of breaking a dog, or willing them to see things the handlers way. Dogs must be allowed to be able to flee if they feel the urge to do so --this is how they have learned to deal with their fear--they must learn a new way to handle their fear or to erase it altogether. The only way to accomplish this is to teach the dog to associate something it held as a fear as a positive.
In Pavlovian fashion the only way to accomplish this task is to subject the dog to noises and to give it positive reinforcement "if" it acts in the correct manner. Do not reassure the dog for running away from a noise stimulus. The dog should be allowed to run free or to be on a check cord when the stimulus is given. The bolder the dog gets the more the noise is intensified until it can be around a shotgun blast and still associate it with something positive.
Prevention still stands as the best guard against gun shy dogs. If dogs become gun shy they should be retrained. If the dog continues to fear the blast of a firearm discontinue hunting the dog. If the handler continues to hunt the dog he/she stands the chance of turning a trait or noise response into an acceptable behavior for the dog. The dog will begin to think gun shyness is an "okay" response because it continues to be hunted and is not being trained otherwise. After all means are exhausted and the dog is hopelessly gun shy, they should be withheld from hunting and reproducing hunting dogs.
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