Who came up with the idea that a gun-shy dog can’t be cured? It’s astonishing that so many perfectly intelligent dog trainers swallow this myth hook, line, and sinker. The truth is, this is one of the easier fear problems to overcome.
Many dog trainers harbor the notion of the unsolvable problem, while most animal behaviorists or human psychologists would simply start training. I specialize in dog aggression and fear problems, and am often surprised at people’s false perceptions. Clients will present me with a genetically nervous dog that trembles at his own shadow, jumps out of his skin at every sudden noise, and flees at the sight of strangers; and they expect an easy answer. Perhaps a Magic Pill? Yet these same clients will point to their other dog and say “I have to keep him locked up during the hunting season, because the gunshots scare him so much that he runs away. But hey, there’s nothing that can be done about that.”
Curing a gun phobia is very simple because you have one specific, easily controlled stimulus (the gunshot) to desensitize the dog to. I don’t care how frightened your dog is. Even if he has been shot or otherwise traumatized by gunfire in the past, you can help him get over this problem if you work on it patiently and consistently.
I would rather deal with a gun-shy dog than a pet dog who’s “just a little leery of strangers,” or “doesn’t really like sudden movements.” Why? You only have one problem to work with. Keep in mind, though, that you can use the training plan outlined below to get your dog used to any scary stimulus, provided that you can identify the one movement, sound, or object that frightens the dog.
All you need to conquer gun-shyness is a basic understanding of counterconditioning and desensitization. Counterconditioning involves exposing the animal to a low level of whatever bothers it, and simultaneously presenting something positive. When done correctly, this causes the animal to like whatever nasty thing you started out with, such as a gunshot. You might not like getting rained on, but if whenever it started raining, $20 bills started piling up in your hand, I’ll bet you’d be looking for cloud bursts in short order! Desensitization basically involves doing that same nasty thing over and over again until the animal gets used to it. You’ll be using a combination of these two techniques.
The training process is as follows: Have an accomplice fire the gun so far away from the dog that you can barely hear it. The moment you hear the shot, shower the dog with good things, then ignore him until the next shot is fired. A couple of minutes later your accomplice will fire again, and you repeat the process. It won’t take long for your dog to start getting excited when he hears a distant gunshot.
The next step is to gradually bring the gunfire closer and closer while still providing positive consequences every time a shot is fired. Always practice with your dog on a secure collar and leash to prevent him from escaping if he panics.
The detailed training plan looks like this:
Go out into the wilderness, sans dog, and figure out how far away your helper has to be in order to make the sound of the shot almost imperceptible. Procure an escape-proof collar and lead.
Go back out into the wilderness. Bring the dog with you this time. Have your helper station himself at the appropriate distance, armed with a blank pistol, and fire three times at two-minute intervals. This ratio is only a suggestion that you can modify if you wish, but I find that firing more than three times at the start of training can overstress the dog if he has a true gun phobia. Signs of stress include unwillingness to eat, trying to get away, increased panting, lowering the ears or tail, or not wanting to play.The two-minute intervals allow you to reinforce the dog after the shot, then give him time to get bored by the time the next shot comes. You want to set the exercise up so that the dog begins to consider the muffled shot something to look forward to. Your job is to listen carefully for the sound of the shot (remember, you should barely be able to hear it). When it’s fired, do whatever it takes to make the dog think something wonderful just happened. You can use anything that the dog truly loves, including food, toys, praise, or even a bite on the sleeve if your dog is protection trained. For more information on appropriate reinforcers, see my Dog Treats 101 article. Keep in mind that the dog should be hungry if you’re using food! Before a meal is a great time to practice.
Your second session should be exactly like the first if the dog showed any stress reaction to the gunshots. However, if you did things right in step 1, the dog should have barely noticed the shots, if he paid attention to them at all. Providing your dog didn’t react adversely in the first session, up the ante this time by having your helper come a tiny bit closer, and this time firing four shots. Shower the dog with food and toys after each shot, and make the situation boring for the dog between shots.
Gradually increase the number of shots fired, bringing the helper a little closer in each training session. If the dog shows a stress reaction to the shots, move the helper away and decrease the number of shots fired until Rover shows that he is comfortable with the situation by either:Ignoring the sound of the gunshots, or
Turning to you expecting a reinforcement each time a shot is fired.
Work your dog up to the point where he can tolerate or even enjoy having a small caliber blank pistol fired near him several times in a row. Depending on how intense a fear your dog has of gunfire, this could take a couple of weeks to several months.
Different types of firearms will sound different to the dog, and he may show a fear reaction to an unfamiliar shot (i.e. one fired from a rifle). Even if he’s been perfectly willing to have you leap over his back like a maniac firing the blank pistol used in training, you still have some work to do. To ensure that the dog is truly desensitized to gunfire, introduce him to different types and calibers of weapons. Do this by backing your helper off to an almost imperceptible distance again. Then bring the shots closer in a brief re-creation of your initial desensitization program. Getting your dog used to the sound of different gunshots should not take nearly as long as the initial training process did.
Expose the dog to gunshots in many different situations, at unpredictable times. This will help ensure that the dog is truly over his fear.
Maintain your training periodically by exposing your dog to gunshots and then reinforcing him with wonderful things. Make sure that this remains a positive event for the dog, and expose him to gunfire occasionally throughout his life to make sure that he never forgets his newfound love of gunshots.
Congratulations! You did it.