My wife’s grandma Christine Nelson with Grandpa Nelson’s pointer, Dan. As with my own dogs, it’s good to know that Grandpa’s birddogs were part of his family.

For bird hunters and dog trainers, things are definitely different today than they were half a century ago. With technology we have many conveniences that have made things easier, but not necessarily better. In fact, we can learn some good things from those pioneers who came before us. Lately, I have enjoyed the writing of the likes of Burton Spiller, Raymond P. Holland, Dan Holland, Corey Ford, and Havilah Babcock. Their bird-hunting tales make me long for the days of yore.

One of my favorite outdoor stories is “The Reformation of Bo” by Havilah Babcock. The story is about Havilah’s friend’s hardheaded pointer named Bo and a cracker (white cattlemen from the Appalachian Mountains) trainer who wouldn’t put up with the dog’s shenanigans. You see, this pointer had a great nose and could find the bobwhite coveys easily, but loved to bust birds just before the hunters were in range. If that weren’t bad enough, when the hunters managed to scratch down a bird or two Bo would get to the downed birds first and have himself a little snack. After hunting with Bo one day, Havilah absolutely despised him.

Havilah Babcock was the Head of the English Department at the University of South Carolina by profession and an outdoor writer by passion. As “The Reformation of Bo” illustrates, he could sure tell a good story.

The next season Havilah was invited by his friend to hunt the same property and lo and behold, to his chagrin, there was Bo once again. However, unlike the year before, Bo was a complete gentleman who held his birds well and even retrieved without so much as ruffling one feather. The tell-tale sign of Bo’s complete reformation occurred when Havilah dropped a bird in a wide creek. Not wanting to get wet, Bo acted as if he did not see the bird fall, and went about the business of hunting. The cracker stopped the hunt, leaned against a tree, pulled a quail out of his game pouch, and nonchalantly dangled it by the feet. After seeing this gesture, Bo humbly jumped into the water and retrieved Babcock’s quail to the trainer’s hand. What was the secret of Bo’s complete reformation?

The dog owner’s answer to Havilah was two-fold. First, when the trainer took over with Bo, he put on a check cord. The first time Bo went on point, the trainer quickly grabbed the check cord and got up right next to Bo. When he tried to bust his birds, the trainer snatched him off the ground and tossed him right into the midst of a mortified covey. Basically, the crazy cracker used the hardheaded dog to bowl for bobwhites. Can you imagine? The next time the dog wanted to break point, he thought twice on it as the trainer hovered over him ready to scoop him up and throw him head over heals into the hidden covey. The smart dog learned quickly not to bust his birds.
Dan, Grandpa Nelson’s hardmouthed pointer.

Once Bo was broken from his bird-bustin’ ways, the trainer then moved on to his next bad habit: Bird eating. During this session, Bo held his first few points just fine, but, without a blink of an eye, he ate three birds in succession. With Bo feeling nice and full, the trainer then proceeded to pin Bo to the ground belly-up, and stuffed three more quail down his throat, making it six total. After this violent feast, Bo no longer had any desire to eat birds. In fact, the thought was so repulsive to him that the cracker’s waiving of the dead quail was enough incentive for Bo to make the water retrieve he tried to avoid. You gotta love the wisdom of the old timers! Although harsh, their training tactics were effective and the dogs learned.

Whenever I read Babcock’s writing, I can’t help but think of my wife’s Grandpa, Milton James Nelson, who is now 101 years old. Like Babcock, Grandpa is a quail hunter from the South. I have spent many afternoons listening to him tell of quail hunting in the south and training his birddogs. He is living history. I often wish I could have spent one day afield with Grandpa in the sprawling soybean fields following his pointers and setters.

Milton James Nelson: Southern bird hunter extraordinaire. In the south, “bird hunter” means one thing and one thing only: quail hunter.
Like the story of the cracker in “The Reformation of Bo,” Grandpa has some pretty good stories about effective training tactics. One such story is of a pointer by the name of Dan, who originally had a soft-mouthed retrieve. However, Grandpa made the mistake of trying to obtain a mixed bag by shooting a squirrel during a quail hunt. The unsuspecting dog went in for the retrieve and once the wounded squirrel was in his mouth, it savagely bit Dan on his lip. In self defense, the howling dog crunched the squirrel into oblivion and gained a bad habit in the process. From that point forward, Dan chomped any game bird in his mouth. Grandpa took full responsibility for this problem. But what to do about it?
Grandpa Nelson with Dan and Cola.

Grandpa’s solution was ingenious. He took a dead quail and loaded it full of penny nails so that it basically had spikes protruding from multiple locations throughout its small body. During his first retrieve of this bird, Dan learned that if he bit down hard, the bird would–if you will–bite back. Needless to say, after a few retrieves, Dan gave up trying to chomp the bird. According to Grandpa, this broke Dan from having a hard mouth for the rest of his life.

The next example is about a Llewelyn Setter with the name of Cola (pronounced Kolay as opposed to the soda). Grandpa told me that Cola had a great nose and could find her birds just fine. However, when the firing began, the gun-shy dog hightailed it into the next county. Of course, for a diehard birdhunter like Grandpa, this would not do. Somehow, Grandpa had to teach the dog that the sound of the gun was nothing to be afraid of. Or, maybe he could show the dog there are worse things in life than the sound of a shotgun . . . a choice of evils so to speak.

Grandpa decided to take his shotgun and Cola out into a boat in the middle of a big lake in the dead of winter. As you can guess, when Grandpa fired the gun, Cola quickly bailed out of the boat into the cold water. Grandpa would not let her back in the boat and may have even dunked her under the water a few times to make her experience even more unpleasant. After Cola tired, Grandpa picked up the cold, miserable, soaked dog and put her back in the boat. Of course, he fired the gun again, the dog quickly abandoned ship, and they went through the whole rigamarole all over again. After a few such episodes, the dog learned that it was better to stay in the boat with a loud boom than to try to jump out and just about drown from cold and exhaustion. And through the process, Cola was broken from being gun shy and turned out to be a great birddog.

Nowadays, we have shock collars to train hardheaded pointing dogs (which undoubtedly is a good thing). Back then, they had nothing but their own ingenuity to tackle the myriad of problems that a dog trainer faces. I’m sure some of their tactics might raise the ire of the animal rights activists, but they definitely lived in a different time than us. I admire them for the common sense approaches that they took to finding solutions to their problems. More importantly, I honor these great men for the tradition of bird hunting that they have passed down to us. No doubt, outdoorsmen have been blessed by the wisdom of the ages. It’s up to us to pass this wisdom and tradition on to our children.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. JimK says:

    Hiya Andy,I enjoyed reading this earlier this morning; got a real kick out of it. Now, if my "new-fangled, sure-fire, guaranteed gunshy cure" doesn't work, I have a backup. M'huntin buddy said I could borrow his boat!

  2. Awesome to hear about your wife's grandfather…those were the days! Love Havilah Babcock!

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