The good thing about gun dogs is that they will forgive you for most of your training mistakes. You can flub your way through handling duties and eventually use a few mulligans to do things the right way—except when it comes to gunfire introduction. If you screw up this step, the odds are not in your favor for ever getting the dog back to a state where it ignores a gun shot. Or thunder. Or fireworks.
There is no better way to squander the potential of a sporting pup than to take it too fast or haphazardly when you expose him to loud noises.
The key to all successful dog training is to understand that new skills take time to develop and they won’t blossom in one weekly turn-and-burn marathon session. Regardless of age, a dog that is tasked with being comfortable and proficient at something new has to be able to develop at his own pace. This necessitates baby steps throughout the training process—each designed with an eye toward developing confidence and ensuring success.
When it comes to this style of training, it’s hard to find someone more qualified than Tom Dokken. He owns Oak Ridge Kennels and the Dokken Dog Supply empire, and has over four decades of gun dog training under his belt. His strategy for taking a young dog and ensuring it becomes 100% comfortable with gunshots and other loud noises is a long one, but it works. He starts when a puppy reaches about five months in age.
“My first step with gunfire introduction is to simply figure out what a dog really loves to do,” Dokken said. “This is pretty easy when it comes to retrievers, because it usually involves a relaxed game of fetch; sometimes with a dummy, sometimes with a frozen pigeon.”
Dokken starts his training when a puppy reaches 5-months-old. Once he’s keyed in on an activity that the dog likes to do, he’ll use a training partner to help implement sharp, unexpected noises.
“I’ll stand 20 yards in front of the puppy so he can watch me. At the same time that I toss the dummy or the pigeon, I’ll clap. My partner then releases the dog.”
Dokken and his training associate go through this process a few times, each time ending well before the dog has a chance to lose interest in the drill. It will only take a couple of sessions before the pup focuses all of his attention on the thrower, and starts to associate the fun game with a loud noise. This, Dokken says, is when it’s time to add in the .22 blanks.
“I then back out to 40 yards, and just before tossing the dummy or pigeon, I will shoot while watching the puppy. If he drops his ears or flinches at all, the gun goes away and we go back to clapping. If his body language shows he’s unfazed and he charges out to do the retrieve, then I know he’s good.”
Dokken will end that session with a couple more 40-yard drills, and then start the following day at the same distance. If the progress has stuck and the puppy is relaxed during the initial shot, he’ll move 5 yards closer while watching for any change in the pup’s body language. If all goes well, he’ll keep moving 5 yards at a time until he’s only 10 yards from the pup. If there’s any hesitation, he backs up and resets. This will be accomplished through multiple sessions over multiple days, with every shot occurring where the dog can clearly see the shooter.
At this point, if your dog isn’t fazed by gunfire, Dokken notes that it’s time to change the drill.
“When the pup is ready, stand next to him and throw the dummy and shoot. This is the precursor to shooting when the pup is out on a retrieve or out in front of you hunting. You want to see 100% confidence in your dog in every drill. If you do, you’re close to having a gunfire broken dog.”
Next, Dokken advises you to start the drills over using a .410. Eventually, you can move up to a 20-gauge and then a 12-gauge. Repeat the distances as you did with other training, starting at 40 yards and moving 5 yards closer with each session. Over time, you’ll be able to shoot any bird-hunting weapon around your dog while he’s engaged in a retrieve or waiting on a retrieve.
To round out the training, Dokken moves on to a pigeon wing tied to fishing line. He’ll let the puppy chase the wing and catch it, which is one of the most engaging drills you can do.
“They love this step, but not as much as when the wing gets replaced by a clipped-wing pigeon. They really love that, and what’s better is that the dog should be so into it he ignores the shooting as you go through the drills, once again, with your various firearms.”
If proper gunfire introduction sounds like a lot of work, it is. You might get away with a simpler process, but the risk you run by taking shortcuts is major. Although this method is layered, it’s a foolproof way to build a dog that revels that first shot of the hunt.
Take the proper steps, go through the stages and your bumbling pup will be ever closer to graduating into a full-fledged bird dog.
Feature image via Tony Bynum.