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Gun Shy Dogs

by Bill Tarrant

From Problem Gun Dogs - Chapter on Gun Shy Dogs, By Bill Tarrant
Reprinted by permission of Stackpole Books

ProblemThat chunk of chain you’ve got staked under the shade trees so Pup won’t get too hot - well, leave it there. That chain will also help us cure gun shy, bird shy, man-shy, and cover-shy dog.

But first let’s make sure what we’re talking about. Through selective breeding and culling, the average gun dog is not gun shy. Consequently, the only way he can become shy is through an accident afield. I’ll give you an example. Pup’s on point. As the handler brushes past, he takes a thorn bush with him that releases to snap back and slap Pup in the face just as the bird flushes and the gun goes off. Now we’ve got a gun shy, bird shy, man shy, cover shy pup, and it all came about in one second. But this is an accident. We can cure accidents. They’re man-made. But what if the accident is God-made?

What I speak of here is the true gun shy dog that comes from the womb a trembling mess. He leaps at the sound of thunder, a slammed door, a dropped shoe-he’s so frightened of his world and so uncertain of himself he won’t even eat if you put his food bowl in a different place. Now this dog was wired wrong in the womb, and there is nothing we can do to cure him.

So we’ll concentrate only on accident-shy dogs, okay?

What we must do is bold the errant pooch up-and thus, once again, we use the chain gang. And we use it exactly as we used it to cure the trailer. In other words, what we’re doing is positioning Pup so he’ll be trained by other dogs. There is no other technique in dog training so effective. For you must know that nothing bad can ever happen to a dog that he can associate with man. If he’s to be put in stress, then let him work it out with others of his own kind. Never a man. And by the same token, you should know that if something does go wrong, Pup will associate the pain or the displeasure with the place it occurred. Pup should never be taken to that spot again.

Okay, as an amateur you’re hard-pressed to find all those dogs to make that chain gang shake, rattle, and roll. So you must do one of three things: join a gun dog club and go train with others of like mind; offer your assistance to a professional dog trainer who will help you for the work you do for him; or make friends with a guy who has several dogs and (as the pro) needs someone to help him train. In return, he’ll work your dog into his string. I’ve done all three, plus, I’ve gathered up the neighborhood pack and snapped them on the chain gang-everything from Pomeranians to pit bulls.

Once again, you work all-age dogs on live birds in front of Pup and make him eventually agonize to get into the game. But let’s say you just can’t find the dogs to help you. Okay, then let’s go to the walking chain gang (which is where we were headed anyway).

What we have here is a golden triangle: three dogs. We need one all-age dog (sure and steady) and another partially broke dog to couple with Pup. And when I say couple, that’s exactly what I mean. You can either walk Pup and his bracemate on two ropes or you can use one rope with a "power take off:" (This is a Y-shaped device sold at gun dog supply stores. Made of leather, chain, or nylon, you clip each dog to one arm of the Y.)

I’ve said before there’s not a problem with dogs that can’t be solved with birds. What I might not have emphasized is I’m talking about lots of birds. And the bird of choice is the common barnyard pigeon. Choose a bird field of mowed grass in which you’ve left tufts of high grass or have stacked brush up to form a haven for the planted bird. Now you plant birds by dizzying them. (You could work the birds out of catapult launchers, but given the number of birds we need, you’d have to buy a lot of bird launchers, and that would prove expensive.)

To dizzy a bird, take the pigeon and tuck his head under one wing. Keep that wing up and hold it in your hand, which you rotate like you were turning an old ice cream churn. When the bird’s released, place him on the ground with the head, wing down. You can tell if the bird’s relaxed by stretching his legs. If they stay elongated with no contraction, then the bird is sufficiently dizzied.

Okay, plant all the birds you’ve got. Now, work the all-age dog into the scent cone of each bird, whoa him, walk around him, kick out the planted bird - but don’t fire a gun. Never fire. Let the golden triangle of bird dogs watch the launched bird flyaway. Now go to the next planted bird. Tour the field. Also, keep watching the gun shy dog. He’ll tell you by his actions what progress he’s making.

Remember, you can’t train a dog unless you can read him. And a dog is constantly sending you messages. But you may not catch them, for the messages, to you, are foreign language. Well, there’s no way around it, you spend enough years in the field and you’ll start to see and decode the signs. In the beginning of all this, the gun shy dog will either sulk and be dragged along or he’ll flat go zany. If he goes berserk, he’ll leap, squeal, squirm, flip, and dodge. Just have the helper keep a tight rope on the tandem and keep up.

Later, you’ll begin to see the gun shy dog settling. He’ll be more attentive to the working dog, he’ll watch you, plus he’ll be sensing and responding to the co-dog hooked in tandem. What’s more, he’ll become entranced with the fly-away bird. After you’ve gone afield several days with no gun-go several more.

Now you put the all-age dog in tandem with Pup and release the nearly broke dog to work the birds. Repeat the sequence. Remember, don’t fire the blank gun. Create a lot of hoopla, dance about, shout, kick the bird up with great flair. Point the gun, but don’t shoot it. Let the bird fly away so three dogs have a long, lingering look - except the working dog: he’s permitted to give full chase if he wants to.
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