Sound OC for Firearm Safety

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series CT for Shooting

In mid-October, I embarked upon a new learning experience — handling and shooting a firearm. I spent nearly a year and a half researching this prospect, deciding if it were a path I wanted to start down, and I’d decided firmly that if I were to have a gun, I would train to a high level of fluency and competency.

Imagine my delight, then, when among the usual trash advice dispensed to newbies in any sport or hobby, I encountered some truly fantastic, behaviorally-sound recommendations for learning to shoot and handle safely.

One page had excellent advice for introducing a first-time shooter, which as both a novice and a behavior analyst I heartily approved:

“Big targets. And you’re going to put them close rather than far away. You want your newbie to experience good success. If your range allows it, use reactive targets, things that pop or fall over or make a noise when shot, because reactive targets don’t keep a record of misses the way paper targets do.”

This aligns solidly with our training principles — easy success, obvious marking of success, and complete disregard of mistakes. It’s the best way to let a novice experiment and become excited by a new challenge.

By the time I found this site, I was already using good operant conditioning on myself, including self-TAGging for key points. (More on that in a later post!) Safety was, of course, foremost in my mind, and this is why I was so thrilled with the following find. I don’t have a child in my home, but if I did, this is how I would introduce gun safety!

You are going to teach your child that any time she wants to hold a gun, you will drop whatever else you are doing and stand over her while she holds the unloaded gun pointed in a safe direction. You are doing this so that her curiosity doesn’t kill her sometime when you are not around, and you are doing it so that “leave the room and tell an adult” will never mean the end of fun to her. You are doing that so that “tell an adult” is to her a promise that the adult will satisfy her curiosity and let other good things happen too.

                             IMPORTANT POINT

If your child ever does come and tell you about a firearm that she could have touched and didn’t, give her a candy bar or take her to the playground or do whatever it is that you would do to show her that you are really, really pleased with her. Do not react with panic (except perhaps in private when your child is elsewhere).  Instead, react with pride and let her see how pleased and proud you are because she did the right thing.

Make telling an adult a pleasant experience!

This is so nearly identical to the advice we give owners of sneaky, thieving dogs — and it’s often met with skepticism. “What do you mean, I teach them to leave it alone by rewarding them for showing interest?!” But it works.

If a child tells an adult that she saw a gun, and the adult gets upset and/or removes the gun (a forbidden object of fascination), the behavior of telling the adult was punished. At minimum, the child is less likely to inform an adult, and at worst she’ll try to interact with the gun on her own. Likewise, the dog who steals an item and gets caught learns not to leave the item alone, but to hide once he has it!

If I want the child to reliably inform an adult if she’s spied a gun, I need to reward that behavior, not punish it. (And freaking out, even if it’s not direct anger at the child, can be a punishment!) Likewise, I praise and reward a dog who has brought me his stolen goods, even if — especially if — it’s valuable or dangerous to him. I want him to think that sharing is fantastic!

Does it work? This weekend, Thanksgiving weekend, my husband absent-mindedly left a package of leftovers on the counter. Laev nipped it off the counter, carried it from the kitchen, up the stairs, and to where I was working before setting it down to open it. We immediately noticed what she had, and she willingly surrendered it to us, waiting patiently while we opened the bag and gave her a piece.

Yes, the dog was rewarded for carrying off the food. But the dog got only a part, rather than the whole package, and she didn’t ingest any of the plastic wrapping. We didn’t fight over the contraband or chase her about the house. If Laev thinks that she can bring her snacks to a person to be opened, well, I guess that’s fine. (And today she ignored 3 packages of food and a trash bag full of rotting scraps which I negligently left out — so it’s not necessarily training her to be more of an opportunist than she naturally is!)

Still disagree? Consider my client whose dog picked up a full package of rat poison while visiting in-laws. If the owner had chased him, emphasizing the value of the found object and possibly prompting him to bolt it down before it could be seized, an expensive emergency clinic visit would have been the best outcome. But because they’d practiced reporting and trading, the dog ran happily to my client and spat out the more-than-lethal block of enticing bait.

Of course, neither rat poison nor guns should be left out for pets and children to happen across! but the truth is, nothing and no one is perfect and there’s always a chance of management failure. That is why we train with safeguards, so there are a couple of levels of safety.

Because I train in protection sports, because my dog is trained to bite, I make absolutely sure of good stimulus control and I use complex (multi-layered) cues which aren’t going to be duplicated in casual life. That’s why Laev could do Schutzhund and therapy work with kids back to back — fluency and stimulus control work. Because a gun is a tool which can be dangerous if used improperly, I need to train myself to high levels of fluency with excellent stimulus control. And I’m using the same operant conditioning skills to do it!

I’ve been asked by several people to write a bit on how I’m training myself for first, safety, and second, technique, so I’ll have another post coming on that. I’m using a lot of TAGteach and it’s a great experience so far!

Meanwhile, I highly recommend the site from which I took these quotes, It’s a very informative site on firearm safety and technique, written in a very accessible manner — even for anyone who has no intention of ever picking up a gun, with such helpful articles as How to Deal with a Found Gun. The author also has a book, The Cornered Cat, which I purchased in electronic format just to help support the site I found so useful.

What are you doing to train your dog or child to inform you of potential temptations and dangers?

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.

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  1. I like your suggestions regarding children.

    Many years ago, one of my co-workers related a story about her (then 7 year old or so) son going over to a friend’s house and seeing guns laid out on a bed (I gathered the father had been cleaning them and negligently left them out). The co-worker in question didn’t allow even toy guns in her house. Her son came home, told her about it and said “but they weren’t really real” because in his experience people didn’t have real guns and especially kids didn’t have access to real guns. The coworker basically had hysterics.

    I’ve long thought that any household with a gun should have gun safety lessons for any children and adults in it…and they’re not a bad idea even for households that don’t. Just as an added point of interest, I don’t know how to use a gun (well I have shot a shotgun a couple of times), but I’ve known the “assume it’s loaded” and “don’t point it at anything you don’t want to shoot” rules for decades. 😉 I don’t by any stretch of imagination qualify as a “gun nut”. 🙂

  2. This information is genius! So many excellent points, for dogs, children, and even spouses! 😀

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