One thing I have always wanted since I was a kid, was a ranch and hunting dog. You know, the loyal and faithful pup that doesn’t need a leash, loves the water, field and is somehow relentlessly obedient. In 2003 I purchased my first Labrador Retriever and as luck would have it, she loved the water, retrieving and most of all, she was loyal and obedient. Eventually, I started hunting with her and found how she had a pretty big flaw – she was gun shy.
In the Beginning
I’m not what you might consider a “big time” hunter. I grew up near East Texas with an entire family of hunters but somehow failed to seriously become interested in the sport until about 7 years ago.
I purchased Penny, my Labrador, in 2003. She was an early Christmas present for my girlfriend at the time (when things eventually went bad, Penny was commandeered as mine). She wasn’t your typical pup from the onset, other than a chewing problem which all dogs seem to possess, she was very well natured and easy going.
At about 6 months I introduced her to the lake and she went nuts. Immediately she was swimming, retrieving and even diving to grab half sunk plastic bottles that I had thrown out. I was super excited and I worked with her for the next couple of years on basic training and retrieving skills in the water.
In late 2005 I started getting back into hunting and I wondered if she would make a good duck pup. It’s important to note that I had (and still have) no professional dog training skills nor do I know a lot about duck hunting, retrieving and other related matters even somewhat nebulous in nature.
One afternoon I took her out to the ranch and started slinging clays, I noticed after a couple of shots Penny was nowhere to be immediately found.
After about 10 minutes I finally located her under my truck, she wouldn’t come out from underneath and I didn’t make the connection as quickly as I should have.
My dog was gun shy.
She just didn’t like loud noises and gunshots were especially rough for her.
I started to research the issue and the results were turning out grim. Everywhere I looked opinions were the same “A gun shy dog will always be gun shy”. Naturally, I didn’t believe it and thought to myself “Penny can break this, she’s different”.
It wasn’t looking good for a long while and I started to accept my dud of a dog, but then…
This was the month I first started working with Penny in a farm tank. We had a dokken training duck and I would shoot .22 blanks to get her used to the sound. She would retrieve the duck, but wasn’t happy about it. She would shy to the side of the tank after each shot eventually giving up on the retrieve. I spent a few months doing this with results never really getting any better.
Brought Penny out to a hunting get-together where we decided to shoot clays over a large pond. Penny walks down a hill with me to the area we were going to shoot. After the first BANG, Penny high tails it right back up the hill and crawls under my truck. Everyone makes fun of her (and me).
I start using a cap gun during food time in hopes that Penny will make a good association with the loud noise. She does not. She hides and doesn’t eat. I stop using the cap gun.
I take Penny dove hunting. After about an hour of nothing, a good group comes over, shots are fired, dog runs back to truck and hides underneath.
On the upside, when all is calm, she loves coming out and looking for birds…. not that she is very good at finding them.
I start working with Penny more and more at the tank. I am really trying to reinforce the association of retrieving and gunshots. She shows a small bit of life for the first time and doesn’t immediately run away from the shots, but she still isn’t happy about them. She (as usual) retrieves her bumpers and training ducks very well though.
One of my buddies pops a duck and it folds up landing in the middle of a ranch tank. Penny is inside the cabin as I am still out deer hunting at another spot. My friend attempts to get Penny out of the cabin to retrieve the duck, but after years of him making fun of her for being gun shy, she decides not to follow him to the tank and stays inside the cabin instead. When I come back to the cabin, me and Penny head down to the tank and she retrieves her first duck. She is super happy, especially as it was crippled and gave her a little fight.
I’ve injected dog training dove birds with dove scent (which smells awful by the way). I start working with her by the lake. She really enjoys searching for them but there are no gunshots going off, so it’s pure fun-time for her.
We go dove hunting and she stays with me for the first few groups of birds. Unfortunately, I can’t hit the broadside of a barn, so she really doesn’t get a lot of chances to retrieve. I feel bad. She gives up and finally goes to lie back under the truck. I can’t tell if the shots or the heat bothering her.
We do a little duck hunting with her. Shots are fired and she shivers in fright a little bit but quickly forgets all about the shots when she is able to retrieve her trophy, a duck!
On opening weekend of dove, Penny rides along and has no problems out in the field with me. She retrieves about 5 dove before another dog comes along. I get a little worried and put Penny up to avoid confrontation. She still doesn’t retrieve on gunshot and I have to use rocks to get her to find the birds.
A couple of weeks later we head to the tank during Early Teal Season. Pop a few teal, Penny grabs her bird and comes back to me for a good drop. Is she starting to get it?
December and January 2011/2012
We hunted our small tank about 5 different occasions, each time with Penny. She really enjoys it when we can hit them, she has nice retrieves on multiple occasions. I finally have a duck dog!
This is the breakthrough – over 6 years later. It came when I wasn’t even paying attention.
A few of us are out at the ranch hanging out by an old picnic table and decide to shoot some clays. We load up the thrower and start shooting (and missing). About the third clay, I notice something, after every shot Penny is running out into the field. She’s actually keying off the shots to look for birds. Once I realize this, I start to worry a bit because I know there’s nothing out there for her to retrieve. I ask a friend to preoccupy her and hide a few bumpers out in the tall grass and we start shooting clays again.
Now she is keying off the shots and retrieving her training bumpers. No coaxing needed… This, my friends, marks a very happy day in our journey. It only goes to show that a good dog’s willingness to retrieve will eventually overcome fear, you just have to have make the associations and have patience and most importantly, don’t forget, it’s all fun in the end.
March 2014 – Update
Penny passed away on March 16th, 2014. She was undergoing heartworm treatment due to a recall on the preventative she was on. While the treatment was covered because of the recall, she, unfortunately, had a stroke about a month after treatment. I tried my best to get her to the emergency clinic, but she died on the way – in her favorite place, the floor of the cab of the back seat of my truck. It was a terrible day for me and many who knew her, however, I’m so glad I got to duck hunt with her during the latter part of her life. She became a true duck dog, and she was awesome at it. You can see our tribute in the attached video.
Thanks for taking the time to hear my story.