When it comes to gun-proofing, retrieverites have it easier than pointing breed and spaniel owners. Why? First, the nature of our retrievers' waterfowling work requires stable temperaments, whereas upland gamebird hunting necessitates more tightly wound canines.
Second, basic retriever training for marking does about 80 percent of the gun-proofing job automatically.
In short, retrieverites have the best of it. In fact, a person must do something really dumb to make a well-bred retriever gunshy. Unfortunately, doing something really dumb is common. I confess I accomplished that feat many years ago with my first golden, Duffy (Duncan Dell's MacDuff** CD VC).
Consequently, before explaining how to gun-proof your retriever, let me list the most common mistakes I and others have made so you can avoid them.
The underlying cause of all these brainless goof-ups is impatience — the desire to finish gun-proofing quickly and get on with more advanced training. Here are four such gun-proofing pitfalls you should avoid like you would leaky waders.
1) An impatient soul decides to save time by first "testing Blackie for gunshyness." To test him, he fires a 12-gauge shotgun directly over him. If Blackie isn't stone-deaf, this test makes him gun-shy.
2) Another impatient soul decides to gun-proof young Dead-Grass the easy, effortless way. He takes him to a trap, skeet or sporting clays range to accustom him to shotgun noise. The shooters wear ear-protection, but Dead-Grass doesn't.
3) Still another impatient soul decides to gun-proof Curly by association. While Curly is enjoying his evening meal, this guy fires a 12-gauge blank over his head. At his next feeding, Curly's more apt to flee from his food bowl than to show undying affection for that deafening boom. (I should add that a .22 blank pistol at a distance would be OK, but unnecessary with the following gun-proofing procedure.)
4) After partially gun-proofing Goldilocks, yet another impatient soul jumps ahead as if the job were finished. This is the dumb mistake I made with Duffy. More later on this and the cure of his resulting gunshyness.
Clearly, gun-proofing Rule No. 1 should be, "Don't do anything dumb." That said, here's a sure process for gun-proofing your retriever. Note that I did not say "fast."
Enlist a Thrower
You need an assistant, someone to throw marks and shoot blanks for your retriever. Happily, you also need the assistant for marked retrieve training to allow you to lengthen your dog's marks beyond the distance you can throw a dummy. Retrieve rites normally train in groups so they can take turns throwing for one another.
"Making a retriever comfortable with shotgun blasts takes several sessions of methodical training."
If you're a beginner training your first dog, you should join a nearby retriever club — they're everywhere — and hook up with a club training group. If that's not possible, press your spouse, child or a hunting buddy into service as your training assistant.
As soon as your dog consistently delivers the dummies you toss back to you, have your assistant do the throwing. To get your dog's attention just before each throw, he should holler, "Hey! Hey! Hey!"
Initially, to prevent your dog from delivering to your assistant, position the assistant where your dog cannot get to him, such as on the other side of a chainlink fence or in the bed of a pickup. After a few retrieves, your pooch will abandon all thought of delivering to the thrower, so you can then move your assistant out into the open, where you can gradually lengthen the retrieves.
Throughout the gun-proofing process, you should work in a coverless area, using white dummies. That way, your dog always succeeds in finding the dummy immediately. But you shouldn't bring a gun into the process until you have lengthened the dog's marks out to your desired maximum distance, say 100 yards.
Position your assistant, holding several dummies, in a large, flat, coverless area. Now, heel your dog to a spot about 25 yards away, preferably upwind. Signal to your assistant for a throw, preceded by "Hey! Hey! Hey!"
When the dummy lands, send your dog to retrieve it. With a highly visible white dummy lying on coverless ground, the retrieve will be easy. As your dog races toward it, you should run 10 to 15 yards farther from your assistant. That way, when your dog delivers to you, you can set him up for a longer retrieve. If you were to have your assistant move farther from you for the second retrieve, the area from this first throw would still have dummy scent in it, which would confuse your youngster on the longer second retrieve.
Thus, your assistant should stay put, while you move farther away from him.
Repeat the retrieve three or four times, each time making it a little longer. Of course, don't overwork your dog in any one session. Within a few sessions, you will have lengthened retrieves out to the full 100 yards.
Start With .22 Blanks
In your next session, start with your assistant 100 yards out in the field. In addition to several dummies, he should have a loaded .22 blank pistol. Just before he throws, he should fire this pistol once, instead of hollering, "Hey! Hey! Hey!"
At that distance, your dog will hardly hear the sound. After a few retrieves, the dog will realize that the mild pistol report means a retrieve, which is the greatest joy in his life.
Thus, the retriever will learn to look forward to the pistol's quiet "Pop!"
When you are sure your pooch has made the connection between the pistol shot and a retrieve, shorten up the retrieves. Do so by moving closer to your assistant as your dog runs to each retrieve. It'll take a few sessions, but in time, you will stand right beside your assistant as he shoots and throws. At this point, you should do some of the shooting yourself.
When Duffy was this far along, teal season opened, so I took him hunting. Really dumb. I sat him beside my farm pond pit blind. It was a slow day, and we both fell asleep. I awoke to see a greenwing buzzing the dekes. Boom! Boom! Boom! Nothing fell. At the first shot, Duffy jumped. At the second, he jumped again. At the third, he froze, terrified.
If all has gone well through the shortening process, and you haven't done anything dumb like I did, your pooch is now ready for shotgun fire. You should introduce this louder noise with the same shortening process. Ideally, you should start with a .410 or 28-gauge, but if that's impossible, you can start with a 20-gauge.
At a distance of 100 yards, and still in a coverless area, have your assistant shoot the shotgun and throw a dummy. Send your dog. If all goes well — it should with the previous preliminary work completed — shorten up on subsequent retrieves. Shorten gradually, only 5 yards per retrieve.
When your pooch is comfortable sitting beside you while you shoot the 20-gauge when your assistant throws, you can start over with the 12-gauge. Start again at 100 yards and shorten gradually, until your dog has no problem with the big boom right beside him.
That's it. Your retriever is as gun-proofed as you can make him. You've conditioned him to interpret gunfire as a most welcome signal: He's about to make a retrieve.
I cured Duffy's gunshyness by going back a few steps in the gun-proofing process and taking him through all the rest of it, very steadily, with no sudden brainstorms, no shortcuts. Fortunately, it worked quite well, and he went on to become a memorable hunting buddy that lived more than 16 years. He also did reasonably well in field trials, obedience trials and conformation shows, thereby becoming a three-sport letterman.
However, had I delayed the cure and continued shooting over him, he would have very quickly become incurable. Curing gunshyness has one all-important prerequisite: You must catch it early and stop shooting over your dog until he's cured. Like so many other serious problems, such as hardmouth and stickiness, gunshyness can be cured only if it is caught and addressed as quickly as possible.
The good news about curing gunshyness is you employ the same process you used, or should have used, for prevention, but very gradually.