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Did you know that one of the world’s most popular dog breeds, the Labrador Retriever, is a gundog? In fact, there are many popular breeds of dogs whose history stems from hunting and sporting, and the dogs are still used today out in the field alongside hunters of all kinds.
These types of dogs are frequently around guns and are expected to behave appropriately and be under the direction of their owner at all times. Similarly, many police, military, and other working K9s are also around guns and other weapons on a daily basis.
But with all this training, do the dogs actually even understand what guns are?
Dogs do not understand what guns are. They are more afraid and reactive towards the sound of a gun rather than the sight or smell of a gun, unless they had a negative experience with the gun previously. Gundogs and working K9s can be desensitized to gunshots through extensive training.
Below we’ll discuss the reason why dogs will never really understand what a gun is or what it is capable of, and why they are more afraid of the sound a gun makes rather than anything else.
We’ll also discuss how hunting dogs, sporting dogs, and other working K9s are desensitized through training to be able to work around guns, as well as what risks they still face despite training. Finally, we’ll talk about how trauma can affect a dog’s reaction to a gun, whether it be a real gun, a toy gun, or another type of gun.
Do Dogs Understand Guns?
Guns are an inherently foreign concept to dogs, and even hunting dogs, police dogs, and military K9s must undergo extensive training to become desensitized to the sound of a gun. But even those highly trained dogs will never truly understand guns in the same way a human being would.
While dogs can go through training to learn how to tolerate the sound of a gun firing and not respond to it, they will never understand what a gun is, what it is capable of doing, and what it may be used for.
This also means that a dog, no matter how much training it receives, will never understand the danger of a gun. While there are other things in a dog’s life that they may not understand but will generally avoid (such as looking directly at the sun), a dog will never be able to understand a gun and will likely not try to avoid one if confronted with one, even these top gun dogs in the video below!
How Do You Teach A Dog About Gun Safety?
While you can’t teach a dog about gun safety in the same way that a human can learn about gun safety, you can teach them to safely work in environments where guns are used. This is often the case for hunting and sporting dogs and other working K9s who are utilized for police and military work where guns and other weapons are frequently used.
For hunting and sporting dogs, many professional kennels will begin a lengthy training process to help teach their dogs specific verbal cues, whistles, and other signals to help direct them while they are out in the field. In some instances, the dogs are not even released from their handler’s side until after the gun has already been fired.
In other instances, dogs are trained using eCollars though thankfully there has been a rise in hunting and sporting dog trainers who are ditching the eCollars and focusing on training their dogs using modern positive reinforcement based training methods. For police, military, and other working K9s, the dogs are trained to perform to specific cues and many also wear bulletproof vests.
It is worth repeating, though, that no matter how highly trained a dog is or how often they have been around a gun, they still will never understand what it is and thus the term “gun safety” holds a different meaning for dogs, in that it is more up to the handler to make sure their dog is safe rather than leaving it up to the dog to understand how to be safe around a gun.
Do Dogs Know That Guns Are Dangerous?
As dogs do not understand exactly what a gun is, they absolutely do not understand that a gun is dangerous.
They should be treated similarly to very young children in that any guns within a household should be kept in an appropriate location where the dog cannot access them.
When out in the field or when preparing to use the guns in a dog’s presence, additional precautions should be taken to make sure that the safety is left on and that the dog cannot accidentally set the gun off.
There have been recent incidents where a dog has accidentally stepped on a loaded gun and severely injured or even killed their owner, so it’s important to continue to take any and every safety precaution with your dog just as you would with another person.
Guns are also dangerous to dogs in another way in that they have the potential to cause short- and long-term damage to their ears and hearing. Many gundogs wind up deaf at an age younger than they would normally be due to frequent exposure to gunshots from a close distance.
While there are some earplug-type products on the market that can help limit the damage, a dog’s hearing is so sensitive, and the decibel level of a gunshot is so loud that the risk of damage is still high.
With some things, like fire, dogs may not understand what it is but may learn a hard lesson if they approach it and get burned, and thus avoid it in the future. But with guns, there’s no way to convey how dangerous the gun is to them, or what it is capable of.
Are Dogs Afraid Of Guns?
Dogs are not afraid of the sight of guns, like many people can be. However, dogs will become sensitized and afraid of the sound a gun makes, especially if they are not desensitized to the sound from a young age.
The sudden, loud, and often unpredictable sound a gun makes is very startling to a dog. This startle response elicits an emotional reaction in the dog, which the dog will then sensitize to.
If the dog is repeatedly exposed to something that causes such a reaction, they will continue to sensitize even further to the sound and develop an even stronger reaction to the sound of the gunshot. This is a similar reaction to dogs who are afraid of thunder or fireworks, which are other loud and unpredictable sounds that can trigger anxious and fearful behavior in dogs.
For gundogs and working dogs, if they are not desensitized to the sound of gunshots in a very gradual manner, they too will react in a negative manner.
While dogs are generally afraid of the sound of a gunshot more than anything, they may rarely develop a fear of the smell or sight of a gun if they had a previous traumatic experience with one, such as if they were hit with the butt of a gun.
But again, because dogs do not naturally know what guns are or what they do, fear based on the sight or smell would only occur if the dog had a previous negative history with a gun and it is more likely for them to be afraid of the sound of gunshots rather than the gun itself.
Gun Desensitization And Training
While the exact desensitization and training process can vary based on the individual kennels (and it can also vary based on whether it is for gundogs or for working K9s), dogs are generally introduced to very low levels of gunshot sounds from a very young age.
This is usually done through prerecorded sounds of a variety of gunshots, and while the sounds are playing the dog is often rapidly given treats and rewards as they are listening to the sounds. This is to help associate the sound of the gunshots with something pleasant, which is part of a learning process called Classical Conditioning.
Desensitization is part of classical conditioning, and over time the sound level is gradually increased as the dog becomes accustomed to it. Once the dog is comfortable with louder recordings, they may move on to being exposed to lower decibel gunshots such as a starting gun. Eventually, the training can progress to the regular guns the dog will likely be around while out in the field or while working.
The reason this part of the training process can be so lengthy is that if the dog develops any sort of sensitization or anxious reaction to the sound of a gunshot, then it could potentially make them a liability out in the field, thus it is an important part of their training that they be desensitized in such a gradual manner to avoid making them afraid of the sound of a gunshot.
Are Dogs Afraid Of Toy Guns?
As most toy guns do not make the same sound as a real gun, dogs are not generally afraid of toy guns unless the toy gun was used to traumatize the dog in some way.
Puppies and young dogs can be especially susceptible to traumatic experiences (even accidental ones), so if you have young children in the household who have access to things like foam dart guns or similar toy guns, it’s important to teach them to be careful playing with those around the dogs as they could unintentionally create a fear in the puppy or young dog if they accidentally shoot them with the toy darts.
Are Dogs Afraid Of Other Types Of Guns?
Similar to toy guns, dogs may become afraid of other types of guns such as BB guns, airsoft guns, and paintball guns if they are used to traumatize or punish the dog in some way.
As with any type of gun, dogs do not inherently understand what they are so they will not show fear if confronted with one, but if they have had any sort of negative encounter with one previously in which it was used to shoot or hit the dog (unintentionally or not), they are likely to react cautiously at best and aggressively at worst.
While dogs can be desensitized and trained to tolerate the sound of gunshots in order to do their jobs, they will never be able to truly understand what a gun is and how to be safe around one without the guidance of their handler.
It is up to us as responsible pet owners to help make sure our four-legged friends are safe when working around guns.