This is the busy time of year for Jack MacKintosh, a former Scottish gamekeeper who now runs a kennel in Millbrook, N.Y. MacKintosh is a superb trainer of problem gundogs, perhaps the best in the country, and anguished dog owners as far away as Florida, Texas and Canada regularly ship him retrievers that won't retrieve, pointers that refuse to point and spaniels that spook at the sound of a shot. "Aye," says MacKintosh, giving a nod toward the culprits in his kennel, "most of them wouldna be here if they weren't bad actors."
Instead of laying on an instant thumping, MacKintosh approaches his charges with all the self-assurance of Father Flanagan greeting a dozen Mickey Rooneys. "Dogs are like kids in a classroom," he says. "They're all individuals, and you've got to get to know each one. Some are hard, some are soft, and you can't beat them all the time. You have to show you're boss, but you have to do it in a manner so the dog won't lie down or quit on you. Sometimes the worst dog in the world proves to be one of the best. It's all a matter of understanding."
One of MacKintosh's greatest assets is his voice, which can range, with dramatic suddenness, from a throaty, threatening burr to the softest, sweetest coo. "Ya rotten sod!" he will hurl at an errant dog, but as soon as the dog obeys, MacKintosh singsongs, "Goood dog, goood dog. Aye, that's the goood laddie." Gundog fanciers, who go to Millbrook to observe MacKintosh at work, listen with the privileged bliss of opera buffs admitted to a Callas rehearsal. "Tone of voice is very important in teaching a dog," MacKintosh says. "I know two owners who just can't train dogs because they can't put it in their voices to tell their dogs they're pleased."
Most of the problem dogs that MacKintosh gets are chasers—dogs that run off in a field to hunt on their own. "It's caused by the owner who tries to train the dog himself and then gradually gives up," says MacKintosh. "So the dog has been chasing birds all over the country for two years. A dog like this gets keen on game, and when you take him hunting, off he goes. He lines out half a mile in front of you, flushes a bird and then chases it. The owner could smoke a pack of cigarettes by the time the dog finally comes back. Sometimes dogs like this lose their bearings and never come back."
MacKintosh works a chaser on a check cord in a held with planted live pigeons. When the dog rushes a flushed bird, MacKintosh restrains him and doesn't shoot. "If the dog is intelligent he soon catches on," he says. "He finds he gets game with me and none on his own, and that's the best lesson of all."
Hardmouth is another problem. "I had some beauts last year," he says. One was a Labrador of outstanding field trial lineage who had a mouth like a miniature guillotine. "All I'd get back at first was a piece of bloody pulp between two wings," MacKintosh says. He cured this dog by making him sit with a dead pigeon in his mouth. The instant the dog started to bite, MacKintosh read him off and took away the bird. Then he would open the dog's mouth with his left hand and draw the lips down with his fingers so they were directly beneath the two big front teeth, or tusks as MacKintosh calls them. He would then place the bird in the dog's mouth with his right hand. Every time the Lab started to clamp down, MacKintosh's fingers pressed the tender lips up against the tusks until the dog yelped. He says, "A lot of dogs have hardmouth put into them wrestling with sticks or getting a bad bird."
A number of factors can cause gun shyness, which in turn can prompt additional problems. "You can get a gun-shy dog that won't flush a bird because he figures the shot is coming right afterwards," MacKintosh says. "Then the owner starts to punish him, and the dog associates the punishment with the bird because that's when all the bad things start to happen to him."
MacKintosh had a classic case of gun shyness last year with a golden retriever that inexplicably went bad when a year and a half old. The distraught owner shipped him off to one trainer who returned the dog as incurable. Then the owner sent the dog to MacKintosh. In the kennel the golden was obedient and friendly, but when he got out of the truck in the field and saw a gun, he would flee back to the truck. MacKintosh planted pigeons nearby and got the dog to flush them. No shots were fired. The first time MacKintosh did shoot, the golden turned tail. The dog was then worked on a check cord to prevent his running away, and another dog was taken along to do the retrieving. After three months of coaxing and cajoling, MacKintosh sent the golden, by then eager to flush and retrieve, back to a happy owner. "I finally figured out that dog's problem," MacKintosh says. "He must have got sprinkled accidentally with some shot in the backside when he chased after a bird he flushed. From then on, he lost all interest because he associated guns with that sting, and I had to change his mind."
On occasion, MacKintosh will take on a dog that requires special training. A duck and dove hunter down South, who had been paralyzed from the waist down, wanted a young Labrador bitch to be steady and retrieve to his wheelchair. MacKintosh taught her to do the job. "It wasn't difficult," he says. "I'd sit on a chair in the field and work her from there. There's no great difference between a dog delivering to hand or to a wheelchair."
When required, MacKintosh gives a dog a thumping. This usually consists of hard whacks on the rib with a chain collar. "You have to punish a dog promptly on the spot to correct him," he says. "You can't do it later, and you can't nag. Some dogs need a hiding just once, and for soft dogs the voice will do. You don't want a dog to cringe or shy away from you." MacKintosh gets his share of "wild dogs," and he is bitten three or four times a year. He shrugs it off as part of the job.