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."
April 24, 1972
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.
For a time, electric shock collars were popular training tools. A disobedient dog a hundred yards away can be jolted by remote control, but MacKintosh is very wary of electric collars. "If they are used," he says, "they should be used by an expert trainer. I'm sure electric collars have ruined a lot of dogs. People should avoid them." Not long ago, when a customer happened to mention a certain trainer who was known for his reliance on the collars, MacKintosh allowed in rich burr, "I don't know how good a trrrainer he is, but I hear he is one hell of an electrrrician."
All things being equal, MacKintosh would rather train a dog from a home, even a spoiled lap dog, rather than one kept outside in a run. "A dog from a home knows people," he says, "but a dog from a kennel doesn't. I've seen kennel dogs that don't know how to go up and down stairs. Dogs learn a lot living around people. They're quick to pick up moods and voices. One of the smartest dogs I ever saw was a Lab. I think that Lab knew every word in the language because his owner talked to him continuously." Bob Eliasen, a friend of MacKintosh's and proprietor of The Coffee Spot, a local restaurant, adds, "I knew the owner, too, and he was drunk half the time. I think his dog used to drive him home."
Now 47, MacKintosh was born in Conon Brae, Ross Shire. When he was 14, he left school to work on the estate of Sir John Stirling, where his father was the inside gardener. At first he was an apprentice gardener, then he became an assistant gamekeeper, where he soon proved himself with problem dogs. He cured a pointer of chasing hares by tying a 14-pound hare to the dog's collar and making him lug it around all day. A wild curly-coated retriever that broke on rabbits was not so easy. Finally he took the curly to a railroad embankment that housed a number of rabbits. He measured off the distance from the fence at the top of the embankment down to the steel tracks below. It was 60 feet. He got a 60-foot rope and tied one end to the curly and the other end to the fence. He told her to stay while he then flushed rabbits from their holes. "Each time a rabbit ran out," he says, "she ran down that steep embankment. When she hit the end of the rope, she flipped and hit her rear end on the track. She did this three times, and then she was mine."
In World War II, MacKintosh served four years in the Royal Navy aboard torpedo boats and minesweepers off Africa and southern Europe. In 1956 he emigrated to the U.S. after Alec Johnston, a fellow gamekeeper who had been brought to Millbrook by Robert Montgomery, the actor, urged him to come over. Professionally, MacKintosh is the superintendent of Schoonhoven Farm, owned by Thér√®se Thorne McLane, and he trains dogs only on afternoons and weekends, which is why he limits his kennel to about 20 dogs. On the farm, MacKintosh likes to garden, and he has won 10 gold medals and 100 blue ribbons for his bulbs, mostly freesias, at the International Flower Show in New York.
For a number of years MacKintosh specialized in field trial retrievers. He handled Whygin Cork's Coot, a Labrador, to four wins in derbies. Under another trainer, Joe Riser, Coot went on to win two National Open retriever championships. Field trial dogs take more time than MacKintosh can spare, but he is always in demand as a judge or a gun or a bird-thrower at trials. He probably can throw a live duck higher, farther and more accurately than anyone living. He throws with such enthusiasm that his shoulder is often sore for several days after a trial.
From early spring into June, MacKintosh usually has openings for dogs. Starting in July, he is booked solid into October, and customers must go on a waiting list. About half the dogs in residence are problem dogs new to the kennel; the others are repeaters back for a refresher course before the hunting season starts. For the duck hunter, MacKintosh figures he can get a retriever or spaniel to retrieve doubles in water in about six weeks' time. Flushing dogs, either spaniels or retrievers, take about three months each, and pointers and setters longer. Every dog gets to work at least five days a week. The rates are unbelievably low—only $3 a day for both board and training, less than it costs just to board a dog at most kennels. Live birds are extra. Pigeons are $1 each and pheasants $4. Dead birds are free, and so are live ducks unless a dog kills one. "But that rarely happens," MacKintosh says, "because I don't work a dog on live ducks until he's proven himself on dead pigeons."
Generous and outgoing, MacKintosh encourages customers to come as weekend guests. "I want them to shoot over their dogs to see how they're progressing," he says. "Then again, a lot of customers, especially new ones, can use a little teaching themselves."