Castle Gunmakers, Norham, Northumberland


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Castle Gunmakers, Norham, Northumberland

Training hunting dogs

In the mid 1990’s, I arrived at the “Flying G Ranch” in the Rio Grande area of south Texas. After many successful years in the UK driven game shooting industry, I had been offered the opportunity of a lifetime and my remit was to make the “G” into a first class ‘wild quail’ ranch. I had little or no idea of the challenges I would face nor indeed the huge differences of lifestyle, attitudes and values I would meet.

One of the first things I discovered when I arrived was that I had to get used to sharing my space (often my home and occasionally my bed!) with scorpions, huge tarantulas, the much nastier Black Widow and the tiny brown Recluse Spiders. You always had to remember to tap out your boots in the morning and believe it or not, this array of dangerous creatures  made you feel that the abundant rattlesnakes were somehow less worrying!

In the semi-arid lands which were populated by ground squirrels, pack rats, jack rabbits, cotton tails and ground nesting birds, food was plentiful for the ‘rattlers’. They were numerous and some grew to great size, specimens 6 to 7 feet long and thicker than a man’s arm were not uncommon. These snakes were not overly aggressive – one might almost say ‘gentlemanly’ – as they would always warn you with their rattle if you got too close and were only dangerous if cornered or surprised. The approaching stomps of heavy boots would usually ensure their departure and I resolved to leave them alone, except to treat them as vermin in the close proximity of the ranch house and dog kennels.

The challenge I had been set – to create a first class wild quail shoot – saw me draw on all my experience and knowledge gained over the years in the UK. To this end, I brought over English Springer Spaniels, English Pointers and Irish Setters to supplement the local tough, big-running Texas Pointers. The terrain turned out to be too rough for the Setters (except one) and the real success of the Pointers from Scotland was to cross them with their Texan counterparts. The Springers were no problem and my grandfather’s line of big, tough hard workers were the main success story and the line continues in Texas and the Southern States to this day.

A hunting dog is generally quieter than a man or horse but also inquisitive, so snake bites became a big problem and we lost a few dogs and saved many. One day I was told about a character named ‘Dog Rattler Breaker’. Word that we required his services quickly spread from farm to ranch store and soon enough “Jesus” (pronounced Heysouse) the Breaker arrived.

Jesus, a genial Mexican, wearing a Stetson with a rattlesnake band complete with fanged head to the front and sporting a pair of snake-skin cowboy boots and a snake-skin belt, stepped out of his battered Dodge truck. We introduced ourselves and then got down to business.

“How many dogs, Patron?”, he asked. “Twenty-Eight” , I replied. His broad grin showed a mouthful of gold teeth from under his large moustache, “Many Peso’s, wow! Special deal for you fifty dollars per dog”.

I told him that this was too much and that I’d rather lose a few dogs and buy new ones with what I would save. (Not quite the truth!)

After a little haggling we settled on $900 for the lot and he said he would do them in three batches with payment of $300 per visit. He produced 10 imitation shock collars, crudely made from wood and leather and told us to put them on the first 10 dogs. I was to leave them on for a week to allow the dogs to get use to them and then he would be back.

A week later he returned with a box full of rattle snakes that were about two to three feet long. He hooked one out with a stick, picked it up by its tail leaving a third of its length on the ground, and quickly ran his hand down the snake to hold it behind its head. He removed the main fangs with a pair of pliers and also removed the tiny rear fangs which grow behind as replacements. The next step was not for the faint-hearted but dog’s lives were at stake! Jesus produced a needle and fine fishing line and neatly stitched the snake’s mouth shut.

The fake shock collars were then removed from the hunting dogs to be replaced with real ones. The snake was then placed on the ground in the shade and I was told to work the dog up to it. The object of the exercise was for the snake to strike at the inquisitive  dog, at which point the shock collar would be activated. Some of the hard-headed Pointers needed more than one treatment but interestingly once was enough for the Springers (I like to think they are more intelligent!)

Training hunting dogs, as with many animals, is an exercise that needs to be repeated for best results. As a consequence this operation was repeated over a four-week period with the earlier pupils being checked in between and this training proved very successful as we only lost one dog over the next few years. In time, I took over the snake handling together with training the new dogs, although never with the same degree and dexterity of Jesus, a real ‘rattler handler’. I have never been a real believer in the use of shock collars, but when used this way to save lives, it’s not only acceptable but necessary. This experience also taught me to respect the rattlesnake, who was in turn hunted by the huge Indigo and King snakes.

However there were other dangers lurking. Whenever I approached a water course the distinctive smell of rotting cucumbers signified the presence of a Water Mocassin or Cottonmouth (a venomous, semi-aquatic pit viper), always putting a little fear in me. These snakes didn’t rattle, they just attacked without warning!

But that’s another story…………………….

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