From Gun Dog to Gun Shy and Back Again

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By Marissa Jensen

My introduction to the gun dog world began many years ago, before I found my passion for the chase of an upland bird. It all started with a pointed-ear dog named Cyrus, a DDR German shepherd that I imported from Czechoslovakia to become my Urban Search and Rescue canine.

DDR translates to Deutsches Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) and many of the DDR dogs’ lineage can be traced back to World War II. Cyrus represented a long and deep history of successful military/law enforcement dogs. However, this did not make him immune to gun shyness.

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Photo credit: Adrian Olivera

My neighborhood celebrates the Fourth of July with immense passion, and this particular year, they were kicking things up a gear. As I was taking a stroll with Cyrus a week before the main event, a neighbor suddenly and without warning, set off a beautiful firework, you know; one of those that always elicits a series of “ohhhhs” and “awwwws.”

As I was lost in my bewilderment, Cyrus was busy losing his mind. A dog that had already been introduced to gunshot noise, successfully, on multiple occasions, was in pure fight-or-flight mode, and I had realized my error.

Fortunately, this story does have a fairy-tale ending, and after a couple of years, Cyrus went on to become a hot shot K-9 with the New York City Police Department.

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Photo credit: Robert McArdle

Fast-forward eight years to the present, and I now find myself with two floppy-eared dogs that, compared to Cyrus, are a different type of gun dog in every sense of the word, but gun dogs all the same.

Every July, I find myself chuckling at different memes circulating across social media, proclaiming someone’s gun dog running around the house searching for birds instead of being alarmed at fireworks.

Recently, however, that amusement turned rapidly to concern when I found myself in a similar predicament to that long-ago moment with Cyrus.

Earlier this month, my next-door neighbor decided to celebrate the holiday a little early, and during the resulting firework explosion, my steadied and seasoned bird dog attempted to climb all 65 pounds of herself onto my shoulders.

A dog that has never so much as flinched at gunshot, except quivering a muscle in anticipation of being released to fetch her favorite quarry, was now reacting negatively to the sound of fireworks.

So now I find myself going back to the basics of behavior, to ensure both bird dog and handler can come out of this holiday unscathed and ready to chase birds in the fall.

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Preventing Firework Anxiety to Gun Shyness

Keep your dog home on the holiday

Sounds simple, right? But this is not the time to take your dogs to the lake with friends or bring them outside for the firework display. Leave the pup at home. This keeps them in a safe place while giving you the freedom to enjoy yourself responsibly.

Provide distraction

Some dogs are too nervous to play or eat during a fireworks show. Try to engage your companion in an indoor game of fetch or provide them a chew toy before things really kick off. Distractions can help to curb the anxiety before it begins.

Leaving the House without the dog?

If you are, try to keep your dog in a room that’s void of windows. The bright light from many fireworks can be equally frightening to a dog that is confused by the commotion. A closed-off room will minimize sound and eliminate the bright lights of fireworks. If there isn’t a room without windows, draw the curtains and blinds to help block out as much of the light as possible.

Drown out the noise

Play music or turn your TV on when you are away. Any white noise that can help cancel out fireworks can help keep your friend at ease.

Leaving the house with the dog?

Keep your dog on a leash and/or the back gate secure. Ask any veterinary hospital or humane society when the largest influx of stray dogs arrives, and the Fourth of July is at the top of that list. Ensure your bird dog is safe and secure before heading into the outdoors. Try to pick a time where the fireworks are at a minimum. A grand finale is probably not your best bet.

Project a calm demeanor

Have you ever noticed how animals feed off our emotions? If your dog is expressing anxiety over noise, remain calm and relaxed, which will in turn help your companion realize there’s nothing to be worried about. Never force a dog to be around fireworks, or you will quickly find yourself without a willing and eager hunting companion next season.

With a little preparedness and thoughtfulness, both you and your bird dog can celebrate the holiday and continue planning for the fall. After all, shorter days and cooler nights are only a few months away, and your bird dog can continue to correlate the sound of your shotgun to that collection of feathers they so eagerly desire to carry in their mouths.

Marissa Jensen is PF/QF’s Education and Outreach Program Manager