(Not) Gun Shy: Training Your Dog Around Guns

The deafening boom of a shotgun would startle anyone, let alone the sensitive ears of an unaccustomed dog. Whether you are training a hunting dog or want to go target shooting without your dog cowering, conditioning for loud noises is an important part of your dog’s education. After all, fireworks, backfiring cars, and thunderstorms are unavoidable parts of life.

The human ear is in a fixed position, whereas your dog’s ears not only lift and rotate but locate sounds independently of one another.  Thanks to the rotational funnel-like function of a dog’s ears, they hear and translate sound, which is measured in hertz (Hz), far differently than you. Humans are capable of hearing up to about 23,000 Hz while your dog’s finer-tuned hearing spans from 40,000 Hz to as high as 100,000 Hz. In fact, not only can your dog pick up various frequencies at more than twice the range you can but they can also distinguish sounds with exceptional accuracy, literally four times that of humans. If you stop and consider how sensitive you are to loud noises when you’re suffering from a migraine, then you can begin to understand just how sensitive your dog’s hearing really is.

First, a few big no’s:

  • Don’t fire a gun to find out if your dog’s gun shy. They will be then!
  • Don’t introduce your dog to gunshots by dumping them at the range; work up to it.
  • Don’t fire a gun near your dog while he’s eating. Frankly, it’s just plain mean.
  • Don’t take your dog hunting until he’s properly trained around gunshots.

Positive reinforcement is considered the pinnacle of dog training for a simple reason: it works. Dogs trained through positive reinforcement are more confident, more predictable, and there’s that one little detail: they trust you. Trust built through positive training is far better than control gained through intimidation. Remember, your dog isn’t fluent in English, and he can’t read your mind, but he does want to please you. You can work with that.

Noise Training

Starting noise training young simplifies things quite a bit. It’s fantastic when the breeder began the process right away, and if you have a litter, you should do just that. But most of us take puppies home around 8 weeks, so starting then make some noise. At feeding time, bang their dishes on the sink, shut cabinets noisily, and use the can opener wantonly. Granted, the can opener isn’t the most frightening sound ever, but you might be surprised what makes a puppy nervous. Rather than softening everyday sounds such as closing doors, make a racket. Although this is certainly not a guarantee of successful gun dog training, it’s part of laying a strong foundation.

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Don’t Startle

When making noise, keep in mind the goal is not to startle them. You’re making noise a part of their daily life simply by doing things loudly, so as they go about their day, be loud. You’re not at the point of gun use yet, and so, for example, absolutely do not fire your gun when your dog is trying to eat or play with his favorite ball. Regardless of what some people may tell you, you’re risking a fear association between the report of the gun and participation in whatever activity is going on at the time. Do you really want to risk ruining your chances of having a dog that is calm under fire?

Getting Fido Used to the Gun

As anyone who has been ferociously barked at for the sin of wearing a baseball hat knows, dogs are visual creatures. Because of that, it’s wise to accustom your dog to your gun prior to firing it. Firing your gun for the first time in front of your dog moments after he sees it can cause panic regardless of the care you’ve taken training, and if he’s just seen the gun for the first time, he’s going to associate it with his fear. You’re conditioning your dog to consider a firearm as a normal part of life, not just a boom stick. With that in mind, carry your unloaded shotgun or handgun during feeding time. If you usually conceal carry, open carrying around the house is also a good idea. Make it natural, and nothing to worry about, by doing activities like taking your dog running in a field while you carry your unloaded gun so they become used to seeing it. Let them see you handle guns without firing them yet; it will help more than you might think. Even cleaning your guns in front of them can help them relax around firearms. (Sadly, the same methods do not work for desensitizing liberals to the sight of guns.)

If your dog’s future is as a bird dog, this is typically when you want to introduce birds, before the gunshots start, not after. So for you duck and pheasant hunters out there, insert your birding introduction here.

Moving to Gunfire

Once your dog is used to the sight of your gun, move on to gunfire. It’s understandable to want to rush, but the element of trust is one too many dog owners undervalue, and by being patient, you allow for a far stronger bond. It’s best to use a .22-cal Blank pistol with something like Walther’s .22 cal crimped blanks, which are even quieter than average. In order to work up to full-volume shots, you can go from there to something like CCI’s .22 Short Noise Blanks, which are a step up from crimp or acorn blanks, sound-wise, and from there Winchester has .22 Extra-Loud Black Powder Blanks. At that point, you can begin your dog’s training with a .22 caliber handgun or rifle before moving on to larger caliber guns. Many hunters take a similar approach with shotguns, moving from a .410 to a 20 gauge to a 12 gauge. If this seems like an awful lot of steps, well, it is. Sometimes it’s worth taking your time to ensure something is done right. Of course, not everyone has access to multiple gauge shotguns, so once you leave the realm of .22’s, stop and think how to best handle the coming big sounds with what’s available to you. That said, put some effort into getting your hands on a .410 before moving on to something larger.

Getting Started

Take your dog to an open area where you’ll have privacy and can fire guns, remembering many people can’t tell the difference between blanks and live rounds. If at any time you plan to simply fire into the air, please remember the laws of gravity. Although bullets don’t maintain the same lethal velocity as they fall back to earth they can still do serious damage, and your dog just might be a little scared for life if he watches your head get split open by a falling bullet. Using a helper, agree on a signal such as waving your hat or a bandanna over your head to alert them to fire a round. Your helper should start around 100 yards away, slowly moving closer, 10 to 15 yards at a time. Don’t rush; spend at least 3 or 4 sessions on this. Use treats to reward calm behavior during the gun’s report.  Speak to your dog in your normal voice, neither excitedly nor overly soft. Your dog needs to perceive the crack of a gun as just another part of their day – and part of having a good time. The good time part comes in this way: during these sessions you’re either going to be playing fetch for non-bird dogs, using a training bird for bird dogs, or finding some way to keep them busy and entertained while shots are being fired. If your dog shows fear, have your helper back off. Hunting dogs will quickly learn to associate the sight of your shotgun with the excitement of game birds, and service dogs and pets will learn to consider it nothing to worry about in the course of their day.

Raising the Stakes

Once you have closed the distance and your dog remains calm, you can try raising the noise quotient, first with the aforementioned varying blanks and then with larger calibers. When you change to a louder round, have your helper back up yet again and work their way closer just as they did before. And if your dog is extra sensitive or has a bad day, start farther back or change calibers. It is absolutely vital to continue to reinforce good behavior, first through treats (you know, the ones you’re keeping in your pocket during training sessions) and verbal praise and, finally, just with the kind words. Treats aren’t meant to be permanent, just used as a training aid in the beginning.

Trial By Fire Doesn’t Work

There are certain people who will tell you the best way to desensitize a dog to gunshots is to either lock them in the car with the windows cracked at the range or take them into the range itself and leave them in the waiting area or lobby (yes, some ranges actually allow that). Leaving your dog to panic uncontrollably in blind terror because they don’t understand what’s going on isn’t just irresponsible, it’s cruel. Proper training takes time. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a well-trained dog who listens to you out of love and trust rather than one who rushes to obey out of fear? Frightened dogs may seem fine – although not truly happy – for some time before the day they act out unpredictably and, all too often, aggressively. Such behavior isn’t their fault; it’s the fault of their owners. Take your time, and your reward will be a happy, well-trained dog that trusts you, and there really isn’t any better gift than that.

Finally, a word about gun safety. Be positive you, and those helping you, are well-versed in gun safety. A dog hit by a shotgun blast doesn’t survive, and neither will you, at least not with all your limbs intact. Remember these basic rules: 1) Do not point your gun at anything you are not willing to destroy, 2) Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot, 3) Treat every gun as though it is loaded, 4) Know your target and what is beyond it. Odds are you will somehow be involved in or nearby during an accidental discharge at some point. If these rules are followed, the damage will be minimal, and you and your dog will be safe.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.


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