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A Right Good Lesson on Dog-Breaking

Dog Willing

Here is another nugget I’ve come across as I research various breeds for Volume Two. Like the previous post, it features a Russian Setter, but this time, the story is about shooting snipe in Delaware, in the spring. It appears in a book published in 1853 entitled “American Game in its seasons, etc.” by Henry William Herbert.

Beyond mentioning Russian Setters, the story is also interesting for the instruction it provides regarding teaching dogs which kinds of birds are OK to point, and which ones aren’t. I can actually relate to the fellow in the story who explains his approach to hunting snipe with pointing dogs. Before my friend Yannick Molès came from France to hunt in Manitoba, I, and my dogs, would ignore any snipe we came across. But once Yannick convinced me that snipe were not only challenging targets, but absolute delicacies on the table, I was hooked. The problem was that I had to figure out a way to let my dogs know that snipe were no longer to be ignored, but were now at the top of the list of things to point. How did I go about it? In almost exactly the same way as the author of the story did in 1853!

Happy reading!

“Snipe Shooting” A stunning  platinum print  from about 1880 by one of my favourite photographers Peter Henry Emerson.

“Snipe Shooting” A stunning platinum print from about 1880 by one of my favourite photographers Peter Henry Emerson.

SPRING SNIPE-SHOOTING by Henry William Herbert, 1853.

The scene was Short's Landing, in the State of Delaware, and on the noble river of the same name. The place “Robinson's tavern”—the time daybreak, on as wild an April morning as ever woke in mingled hail squalls and Sunshine.

“ If you please, sir, it's taime to get oop,” said a cheerful voice, with a most marvelous north-country burr, at the best bedroom door of a small way-side tavern, in the little State of Delaware, not many miles distant from the noble river whence it derives its name. “The deuce it is!” replied the lodger, in fine manly ringing tones, although the speaker was but just awakened. “I did not think that I had been in bed ten minutes. What time is it, Timothy, and how does the day look?” 

“T” clock's run doon; and it bean’t day,” replied Harry Archer's famous body servant, who was in one of his literal moods, that morning, busying himself, as he spoke, in stropping his master's razors by the apology for a light afforded by the home-made dip. “Confound you, man, when will it be day then, and how does the morning frame*?” answered his master, himself adopting the Yorkshire phraseology, half in fun, half in irritation, to meet his henchman’s comprehension. * To “frame,” in Yorkshire, signifies “to promise,” “to give token of becoming,” as “the puppy frames to be a good one.” “The day frames to be fine.”

“T”sun’ll be oop in half an hoor, and t'morn frames vary badly.”

“What—is it wet? Are we going to have a rainy day?” “Nay! it's not that weet; nor it be going to ra-ain, ay reckon. But it blaws raight doon, and t’sky’s as red as blude amaist it east. It'll tak’ walking the day, and shuting too, if think's to mak’ a bag.”

“Easterly wind, Tim?”

“Norwest,” answered the varlet. “Noo, then, t’razors is ready and t’hot wather; and t’breakfast, sooch as’tis, it'll ready i'faive minutes. T’other gentleman, he's been doon it kitchen, boiling t'eggs hard for a quarter of an hoor.”

“Hurrah! then, away with you; and tell him I'll be with him before they are hard.”

fisher and carpenter snipe shooting .jpg

Nor was the boast an empty one, or unfulfilled, for scarcely ten minutes had elapsed, before the rickety staircase clattered beneath the ponderous hob-nailed half-boots of the sportsman, and while his companion was still superintending the preparation of the eggs which were to furnish their luncheon, Harry entered the breakfast room in full fig, corduroy breeches, leather leggings, broad-skirted, many-pocketed shooting coat, and wide-leaved felt hat. “The top of the morning to you, Charley;” said he, as he came in, addressing the Baltimorean, who was booted to the hip, ready for action.

“The bottom of the night, rather;” replied Charley laughing. “It’s an awful state of society, when a fellow’s dragged out of bed by an insane Yorkshireman, two hours before day-break, and made to get into his boots, whether or no.”

“It must have been something of a job to get into yours, I should think; but I’ll tell you what, if we get the birds in to a bit of tussocky bog, where we shall find them, if we find them anywhere to-day, you’ll get out of them, I fancy, a plague deal quicker than you got in; for they'll stick fast assure as mud's mud—and the mud there, or clay, rather, is better than any boot-jack.”

“The Lord's will be done—” answered the other; “at all events, I shall keep dry ten minutes longer than you.”

“True, O king! Now, Timothy, take half that loaf of rye bread, cut it into chunks, and give the dogs their breakfast.”

“Which dogs are you going to take today,Harry?”

“‘Dinks and “Bob’—the orange and white, and the black and white Russian.”

“Dinks is the greatest beauty and Bob the greatest brute I ever set my eyes upon.”

“If you don’t change your tune before night, you may eat me. Anyone can see that Dinks is by far the handsomer, but Bob is the very best dog I ever pulled a trigger over in my life. That's all.”

“But I thought you said they had never seen snipe.” “I said they had never been hunted upon snipe, or allowed to point them. English-broke setters are very apt to be whipped off snipe, for it's a horrid bore in moor-shooting, to toil half a mile or better up hill to a steady point, and then instead of a pack of grouse, to flush what Colquhoun calls a “twiddling snipe. These dogs were broke in England, and re-broke in Canada West.”

“And are there no snipe there?”

“So many, and they lie so hard, that dogs are useless. On the regular snipe grounds,they walk them up.”

“And how do you expect these dogs to point snipe now ?”

“I do not expect them to point snipe at first; but as soon as they find we are shooting them, they’ll point them fast enough, I promise you.” “You think So?”

“No. I know so. I would bet a hundred to five,if I were a betting man, that before night they point, and back, and find dead too, on snipe as steadily as ever you saw dogs.” .

Maybes o; but it's new to me. Do you mean to say that good dogs will stand anything?” “I mean to say that good dogs can be broke to stand on anything, or—nothing.”

“On anything! on any game you mean.”

“I mean, precisely, what I say—on anything. And that is the reason why I checked you for shooting a meadowlark over them the other day, and why I am so particular as to the ‘who I take out with me. If small birds are killed indiscriminately with game, over dogs, before many days you will have as dead points at larks and brown thrushes, as at quail and ruffed grouse. If a man shoots pigeons, larks, and black-birds, or even reed-birds, for that matter, over my setters, he may do so once, but he will have no second chance, I promise you.”

Bob and Dinks from The Book of The Dog, by Dinks, Mayhew, and Hutchinson

Bob and Dinks from The Book of The Dog, by Dinks, Mayhew, and Hutchinson

“I expect to see these dogs of yours paragons. They ought to be such, by all the trouble you take with them. I know no one who insists so much on doing everything ship shape.”

“They are good dogs. The best broke dogs, to my mind, that I have seen in this country; but this is no fair opportunity to judge them. Their forte is high fast ranging for quail; and they are going to be tried today, in ground, and upon game, such as they never have seen. But come; you seem to have finished that abominable coffee, so we had better get under way at once. It is a wild, bad morning, and the birds will scarcely lie; and if we want to make anything like a bag, we shall have to fag hard for it.” - Thereupon, without further words, the two friends took up their guns and got under way; Timothy following, game-bag on shoulder and cudgel in hand, the two setters, just released from the chain, gambolling about in the highest spirits and most admirable condition, as was evinced by the moist coolness of their jet-black noses, and the silky gloss of their deeply feathered coats.

“There is a piece of wild meadow here, Charley,” said Archer, pointing across a pair of bars to the right,“ which, before the banks were broke, and the tide got in, used to be the first in the country for spring shooting. There are a good many birds in it now, I dare say, for it has got plenty of covert, and they will seek covert in such a wind as this.”

“Let us try it, then, if you say so.”

“It is most infernal walking, but it wont do to stick at trifles. So here goes,” and suiting the action to the word he strode across the fence, and at the first step was mid-leg deep in a soft rust-colored sludge, half semi-liquid mud and half semi-decomposed vegetable matter. A few floundering strides through this Sirbonian bog, brought them to drier, if not sounder ground,which was, in truth, even harder walking than before, as the soil was here so tenacious that it was difficult to draw the leg out of the mire, into which it sunk ankle deep. In places, this was covered by high reeds standing wide apart, with splashes of shallow water covering the surface, and here the bottom was harder; in others, a rank, short, rushy grass, which had probably been burnt over, some two years before, grew thick and matted on the loose rotten soil, through which, every few yards asunder, soaked little rills of nearly stagnant water, indicated more by the blackness and ooziness of their muddy channels, than by any visible stream or current.

The setters looked at one another wistfully, and then at their master, as if they wondered what the deuce they were expected to do in such ground as that, and when at length in obedience to his “hold up, good lads!” and the wafture of his hand to the right and left, they broke off, and began to quarter their ground steadily and beautifully, crossing each other in regular diagonal lines; they did not beat at their usual dashing gallop, heads up and sterns down, as they would have done, had they been beating for quail, but felt their way, as it were, gingerly and fearfully, keeping at a trot, though they whipped their flanks all the time with their feathery sterns, and often putting down their noses, as if to seek for some strange trail or scent. -

“Upon my life! Harry,” said his friend, “if it were not impossible, I should believe that those dogs know as well as we do, that they are after some game to which they are unaccustomed to day.”

“Know it! of course they know it! Why, if we had been upon stubbles, they would have ranged the whole of this piece, before this time. Ha! Bob—toho!” he exclaimed, as a snipe sprung directly under the black dog's nose, who went on without taking the least notice either to stand or to chase—“Toho !” and at the word, the staunch brutes both came to a stand, irresolute of course, and uncertain, as a stand always must be, when dogs do not know what they are upon, but still, without a forward motion, after the word met their ears. But, even as he shouted,Harry pitched up his gun to his eye, literally drawing the trigger as it rose, so that it was discharged the instant the butt struck his shoulder—for the bird had sprung wild, at least twenty yards off, in the first instance, and the wind blowing very fresh, in cold squalls,had gone away, as if “the devil drove, directly in the teeth of the north-wester, zig-zaging it with all his wings, and reiterating his sharp squeak, as if in triumph. But there was a quick eye, and nimble finger behind, and a gun, that if held straight, was wont to tell a tale; and when he had got some five-and-forty yards away, the strength of the charge struck him full,and sent him, doubled up like a rag, some six yards further forward.


At the report, as is very often the case, in snipe shooting, a second bird, which would have skulked and allowed them to pass him, jumped up within three feet of Archer's toe, and wheeling half round him to get the wind, was cut down, completely riddled, before he had flown ten paces. At the second shot,the meadow seemed literally alive with birds, some thirty or forty rising one by one, between the young men and the dogs, most of them in front of the Baltimorean, and going away, scaipe, scaipe, scaipe, scaipe, as who should say, “deuce take the hindmost,” to the north-westward, ever as they flew and squeaked, calling up fresh legions over the wide flat, until there must have been above a hundred snipe in the air at once.

At these, Charley did his work well, keeling a brace over, very neatly, one of which fell within a yard of Bob’s nose, who had gone down to charge without being bidden, the moment the report of the first shot followed the flash. The steady dog snuffed a little, and wagged his tail, but did not stir, though to increase the temptation, the snipe, which was only wing-tipped, after turning some twenty consecutive somersaults under his nose, made several ineffectual efforts to rise, springing four or five feet into the air, and screaming “scaipe,” a qui mieux.

“Wonderfully steady, indeed!” said Charley, in profound admiration—wonderfully steady. But that was a slashing shot of yours, that first one, Harry.”

“Yes! it was some, as Bill Porter would say. I wanted to kill that chap for the dog's sake, and would not have missed him for a trifle. I had no idea there were such a lot of them lying all around us. I never saw so many birds on the ground in my life; if it were a still, warm day, we should have rare sport. As it is, we will make out a bag. All this has turned out capitally. I would not be surprised, if you will give me five minutes to work the dogs after my own fashion, to see them stand the next bird, after we have retrieved these.”

“Take your own time—I am ready. At all events, I will say now that I never saw better-broke,or steadier dogs.”

“Now then, holdup, good lads,” cried Harry, waving his hand to the dogs with a low whistle, and walking up to them, he encouraged them, and cheered them, as he made them find each one of the four dead birds, and when found, let them scent and snuffle themas much as they chose, and even mouth them gently. After that, he laid them at a short distance before their noses, and crying “toho!” made them stand and back, several times in succession. After this, he pocketed the birds, apologizing to his friend, as he came up, for having kept him waiting.

“No need for an apology, Harry, ”said he;“ on the contrary, I am much obliged, for,like the dogs, I too have been taking my lesson.”

“Well, forward, hold up lads!” and away they went again, the dogs gathering courage as they drew, and beating more boldly and carrying more head, as they ranged forward, but still working much slower, and more warily than they would have done on quail. For a while they found nothing, for all the birds had scattered far and near, at the first disturbance of the feeding ground. After a while, however, at the edge of some tall flags in good springy feeding ground, Bob, who was a little to the right, in front of Charley, dropped from his canter into a slow trot, straightened his neck and stern, and drew on in a straight line. “Lookout, there is a bird there!” Scaipe! scape!“ close under the dog's nose he started,and as he started, but not till then, Bob stood stiff. The bird fell to Charley's shot, was recovered, bagged, and on they went, rejoicing. Five shots and no bird missed. The next rise was to Archer. Two Snapshots, right and left, birds which rose wide of the dogs. The first, fell clean killed—the second, just grazed by the shot, skated off, and pitched three hundred yards, off. The dead bird, Dinks pointed dead, in fine style, Bob backing him. And twenty minutes after, the order was reversed, Bob finding the hurt bird, beautifully, and Dinks backing eighty yards off. That bird took another shot, but he came to bag.

After that, all day long, the green dogs worked like old hands, on their new game; before afternoon, they were racing heads up and sterns down, in their old fashion, and yet neither of them flushed another bird all that day. Despite wind and weather, the friends filled a heavy bag, and as they sipped their peach brandy, by the fireside in the evening, Charley said, laughing: —“Well, Harry Archer, coute qu'il coute, I will never doubt again, that well-broke dogs can be made to point anything, or—nothing!”

“And, is Bob a brute, now?”

“Dinks is the beauty, but Bob is the best; and that is not saying a little, for, on the whole, they are the very best brace I have ever seen together.”

“I thought that you would say so—and you have had—”

“A right good lesson on dog-breaking, so goodnight.”