Get your dog ready to hunt, without making him/her gun shy.
As hunters, we ask a lot of our dogs. They must have a strong desire to retrieve and able to adjust quickly to changing situations. We expect them to want to please us, be patient, obedient and willing to work at a moment notice. In addition, they must learn to pay no notice to rocking boats, noisy duck calls, and gunfire. It is a lot! And most retrievers do it with a wagging tail.
But none of this happens by chance. It happens through a lot of hard work, training, and socialization. And it happens by properly teaching your dog about all the elements of hunting, before the actual hunt. Today we will discuss how to properly introduce your Labrador retrieve to gunfire. This is an important element, and it is vital that you do it correctly.
What age to introduce a puppy or dog to gunfire?
Many retriever owners want to rush into shooting over their retriever. I am not exactly sure why, but I suspect it has to do with the thinking, if I can shoot over my dog, he can hunt! As if that is the only training your retriever needs to hunt! I assure you; it isn’t. Learn more about training a retriever to hunt.
What you do not want to do is rush your dog into introduction of gunfire. Doing so can cause problems that are irreparable.
So, what age can I introduce my dog to gunfire? The truth is that age is not really the element you should consider for introducing your dog to gunfire. There is not no magical age where your retriever is ready for gunfire. What you need to consider is the temperament of the puppy, his/her desire to retrieve and how he/she handles new situations.
If your puppy has a strong personality, adjusts quickly to new situations and loves to retrieve, you will likely be able to move more quickly through gunfire introduction. But even so, remember, this is not a process you want to rush.
How to train your dog for gunfire or gun shot
While the age of dog is not all that important, what is vitally important is how the introduction is done.
Puppies we raise here at Otter Tail Kennels as trained dogs are often introduced to gunfire very early on, when they are only four or five months old. But we do the introduction in a way that the dog barely recognizes the gun fire. Our puppies first introduction to gunfire is while they are surrounded by other dogs in our dog truck. We place the puppies in one of the dog boxes while the older dogs are getting trained. While they are in their dog box, they are hearing gun fire in the field, but it is far away (50 to 100 yards) and buffered by the truck.
You can do something similar, but you will need to have someone help you with the introduction.
Equipment needed for proper gun introduction for retriever
There is some preparation and equipment you will need to properly introduce your dog to gunfire.
A starter pistol or shot gun and low power loads.
If using a starter pistol, you can buy low power loads.
If using a shot gun, you can buy primer only loads often called poppers or blank loads from websites that sell dog training equipment and supplies like gundogsupply.com.
Another person to help you. One person should be responsible for handling the dog and the other person should be responsible for the gunfire.
Step by step process for introducing your Labrador or retriever breed to gunfire
Step 1 – Noise at a distance introduction
Put your dog on a lead and find an area where you can walk your dog around. At the same time have someone go away from you 100 yards or more and occasionally shoot a cap gun, a starter pistol or a popper load. Do not start with a fully loaded shotgun shell!
As you walk around and the shots are occurring, do not make a big deal if your dog shows any startle at the sound. Simply act like everything is normal. Do not coddle the puppy or say, “its okay” and stroke or pet them. If you act like the noise is a big deal, your dog will think that it is a big deal. The goal here is to show no reaction to the noise.
Do this several times over a couple weeks. Observe your dog. After a few sessions like this your pup should show little to no reaction to the shot in the distance.
Step 2 – Connecting gunfire and retrieving
Once your dog is used to hearing gunfire in the distance, you are ready to start introducing gunfire with a retrieve. This is assuming that your puppy has a strong desire to retrieve. If desire is lacking, wait on gunfire introduction and instead work hard to improve your dog’s retrieving desire.
If your puppy’s retrieving desire is strong, you can start using a starter pistol or a shotgun with a primer only load when doing retrieves with the pup. This does not mean that you can shoot a gun with the dog by your side! The gunner (shot) should still be out in the field at least 40-50 yards from the person handling the puppy. From this point on, you should always tie the shot with a retrieve for the pup. This means that you have someone out in the field throw a bumper or dummy and then shoot a primer load or starter pistol. Never shoot next to the puppy at this stage. All shots should still be out in the field.
Your goal is to make the gunshot a positive experience for your dog, so at this point in training every time your puppy hears a gunshot it should be accompanied by a retrieve.
Again, observe how your dog is handling the shot. If at any point the dog shows any startle or confusion, back up to the previous step. Do not proceed. Your dog needs to become comfortable and well adjusted with the noise before you move on.
Step 3 – Moving gunfire closer to dog
If your dog is retrieving nicely with the shot and showing no startle or confusion at the noise, you can slowly and gradually move the shot closer to the pup. Not closer than 20 or 30 yards and never without a retrieve. Do not try to move all the way to shooting next to the puppy. We are still a long way from shooting next to your dog. This process should take weeks or even months. Slow and steady wins the race when introducing your puppy to gunfire or gun shots.
Step 4 – Moving to louder (real) gunfire
Once your dog is used to the primer shot and showing no signs of confusion or fear at the shot, it is time to move back out into the field, a good distance from the dog (50 – 100 yards) and start using a live shot, a full 12-gauge shotgun shot. Remember that the gunner should throw a dummy, bumper or dead bird and then shoot. All shots must be accompanied by a retrieve. Remember, we are trying to tie these two events together.
If you dog is handling the live shot well, no sign of confusion, jumping at the shot or other distress, and still making a good retrieve and delivery, you can start slowly moving the shot closer to the dog. At any sign of startle, move the gunner back out further away from you. This process can take many days or even weeks depending on your dog and his/her temperament and ability to adjust. Usually, the stronger the dog’s desire to retrieve, the quicker they will adjust to the noise.
Step 5 – Moving the shot next to your dog.
If you have followed the steps above and your dog is showing no signs of fear or confusion at the gunfire, you are now ready to shoot a shotgun next to your dog.
Go back to using a primer load for the first few times. We do not recommend using a starter pistol for this step. Starter pistols have a much sharper tone and are not designed to use in this type of situation. Instead use a shotgun shell with only a primer load.
Have your dog sit by you at HEEL. Have your shotgun loaded with a primer only load and have someone positioned out in the field. The person in the field should throw a bumper, dummy or bird and you, the dog handler, should pretend to aim and shoot at the object. If after several training session your dog is showing no signs of confusion or startle with the primer only shot, you can slowly move to a louder live shot next to him/her.
I know that this is a long-drawn-out process. I realize that it takes a lot of time and work to do gunfire introduction in this way. But if you take your time and do this introduction correctly, you will soon see the rewards. You will know you have been successful when your dog gets excited when you pull out the gun because he/she understands that it means the get to retrieve. When this happens, you will know that your have a hunting dog that will serve you well for years to come.
Can you train a gun-shy dog?
If you have a dog that is already gun-shy, you might wonder if there is any way to fix him/her. The tough answer is, sometimes. We have had retrievers come to our kennel for training that were gun shy and, in some cases, we are able to retrain them. But it is only possible if a retriever has an extraordinarily strong desire to retrieve and is very birdy. The desire to retrieve must be strong enough that the dog will do almost anything to retrieve, including a slow and deliberate reintroduction to gun fire.
Tips for training gun shy dog
If your dog is already gun shy, it may be best to seek out a professional retriever trainer that can help. If you want or need to do the retraining yourself, start with the steps above and go through the process at a slow and deliberate pace. Don’t move forward until you are confident that your dog is comfortable with each step.
Final thoughts on how to introduce your Labrador Retriever to gunfire
Gunfire introduction requires flexibility. You must be willing and prepared to take one step forward and two steps back at any time. It is vital that you proceed slowly and with great care. Introducing your dog to gunfire is one area that you never want to cut corners. Training your dog to be comfortable with gunshot is one of the most vital parts of training a dog to hunt.
This is very good training information. I recently lost my companion retriever after 9 years. I trained her from scratch and although not perfect by any stretch we collected our share of chuckar, pheasant and ducks. Just picked up my new lab and would like to refresh and use your expertise.
Steve and Jody
We would love to help you train your retriever. I will send you an email with more details.
Appreciate the information.
I have a 4 month old chocolate lab and thought she was used to loud noises. 4th of July was no big deal. Retrieves well. Banged pots at feeding time like with other labs I’ve had. Tonight I tried a 20 guague while working on retrieves. Definite negative reaction. I will implement your ideas. Tough doing it alone!
Steve and Jody
Yes, gun introduction is difficult to do alone! Find some help and move that shot out in the field and slowly bring it closer and ALWAYS tie the noise to a retrieve!