John Sale: When A Man Loves His Dogs

During the golden years of Georgia quail hunting, John Sale became a dog-training legend at Callaway Gardens Hunting Preserve.

Duncan Dobie | December 1, 2003

John Sale has had a lifelong love affair with hunting dogs. During the height of his career during the ʼ70s and ʼ80s, people used to kid about his amazing ability to train quality bird dogs. People would often say, “Why heʼs so good, he could even train a goat to point a covey of quail!”

To my knowledge, John, of Pine Mountain, has never made good on that claim, but he probably could have. During his 25-plus years as a premier hunting guide and bird-dog trainer at Callaway Gardens Hunting Preserve, he personally trained an average of six puppies a year for more than a quarter of a century. If my math is correct, thatʼs more than 150 top-notch, high-performance bird dogs. Many of these dogs went on to fetch prices that most people wouldn’t believe. In addition, John usually owned at least 25 dogs of his own at any given time — always a curious mix of pointers, setters, Brittany spaniels, even coon hounds. John could train just about any kind of hunting dog — bird dogs, coon dogs, rabbit dogs — it didn’t matter.

If you were fortunate enough to have him as your hunting guide during his long tenure at Callaway Gardens, there was one thing you never did around John Sale. As a highly-esteemed professional who loved his job with a passion, you absolutely, never, ever mistreated a dog in his presence. Woe to the unsuspecting hunter who made this mistake.

There was another thing that you tried very hard not to do in his presence as well — miss a shot at a bird. If you did, youʼd never hear the end of it from this ex-Army sergeant. Even though he was easy-going, mild mannered, and revered by his shooting customers, John had an uncanny ability to make you feel lower than a snakeʼs belly if you missed a shot. Of course, it was all in good fun.

In addition to training dogs, John also trained untold dozens of first-time bird hunters in the school of how to handle a shotgun safely, how to shoot, and how to hunt quail efficiently. If necessary — and it often was — he also taught people how to act around his beloved dogs. Taking care of the dogs, and making sure they were safe, was always of primary importance.

When a novice hunter missed a shot at a bird, John was a little less hard on them — until they gained some experience. After that, no one escaped his witty and scathing comments. For scores of repeat customers from all across the South who hunted with John Sale during his time at Callaway Gardens, most will tell you they owe the man a debt that can never be repaid.

This photo of John and three of his favorite dogs was taken in 1994 on the day he retired from Callaway Gardens. From left to right, the dogs are Christy, (Johnʼs dog), and Abby and Floyd, two excellent dogs John trained for Callaway Gardens.

John was born on July 3, 1925 in Madison County, Florida (just across the line from Valdosta). He was next to the youngest of eight boys and life on the farm was not easy. Growing up consisted of long days toiling in the cotton fields, milking cows, and doing other hard physical labor. On rare occasions, he would get a reprieve by going quail hunting with his father.

Out of desperation, John joined the Army in January 1946 when he was 20. The war had just ended, and the Army offered the promise of a viable career. At the behest of one of his older brothers who was already in the Army, John hitchhiked to Fort Benning from his home in Madison County and signed up — overjoyed at the thought of leaving those miserable cotton fields behind him forever.

As he had hoped, John got to travel and see the world. In 1950, he also got to go to a little God-forsaken peninsula called Korea where he saw heavy action for 13 months as a combat engineer.

“It was as rough as any war could be,” John remembers. “I lost a lot of good friends over there. I was lucky to come home.”

Before going off to war John had met the love of his life while stationed at Fort Campbell, Ken. When he returned home in 1951, he and Irene, his Kentucky sweetheart, were married. In all, John spent nearly 21 years in the service. During the last 10 years he and Irene were stationed at Fort Benning.

“We really liked the area, and we decided we wanted to live near Columbus after I got out of the Army,” John says. “Throughout my military career I had always pursued my passion for quail hunting wherever it was possible. I trained a few dogs for people at Fort Campbell and at Fort Benning, and I hunted as much as I could in my spare time. When I retired I decided the thing I wanted to do most of all was become a hunting guide and train dogs for a living. I told Irene if I could get me a new pickup truck and hunt quail for a living that Iʼd be in hog heaven.”

Irene was very supportive of Johnʼs dream. By chance, John saw an ad in a Columbus paper that had been placed by Dutch Martin. At that time, Dutch ran the hunting operation at Callaway Gardens Hunting Preserve. He was looking for a good dog trainer and guide. John immediately applied for the job.

“How soon can you start?” Dutch asked him after only a few minutes of sizing him up.

John was willing to start immediately, but he still had three months to go before his discharge.

“I worked part time as much as I could for those three months,” John says. “Then, in January 1967, I went full time. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Someone was actually paying me to train dogs and hunt. At that time, there was only one other full-time guide besides me. A full dayʼs hunt cost $25, and you could kill 10 birds. Extra birds were $2 apiece.”

Thus began Johnʼs almost legendary career at Callaway Gardens. His first day on the job, he backed his brand-new pickup truck into a tree, denting it severely. But things only got better after that. John quickly developed a reputation as a first-class dog trainer as well as an exemplary wing shot. The mild-mannered man who frequently smoked a pipe became an institution at the hunting preserve. In addition to his dog-training skills, he also possessed an inborn knack for attracting people and making friends, and his customers loved him (despite the blistering comments if someone missed a shot.) John spent long hours each day pursuing his new avocation with boundless energy. Irene often hunted quail alongside him, becoming an excellent wing shot in her own right.

During the height of his career, people wondered when John found time to sleep. A typical day for him might go something like this: Up before daylight and over to the kennel to feed the dogs and prepare for the dayʼs hunt. Guide all day. If no customers were booked at certain times of the day, any spare moment would be spent working with the latest brood of bird-dog puppies that were in training. Go home, eat dinner with Irene. After dark, grab the coon dogs and a couple of friends and head to the woods for a night of coon hunting. (For years, John guided quail hunters by day, and hunted coons by night.)

The next morning he might be up at the crack of dawn to go rabbit hunting with the beagles for several hours before any paying customers arrived to hunt quail. Then repeat the schedule.

It was a hectic 24 hours, and John loved every minute of it. Although he trained some of the finest bird dogs in the country at Callaway Gardens, if he really wanted to impress a special customer he would hunt behind his own dogs. To this day, longtime customers still tell stories about some of Johnʼs legendary dogs.

“Probably 85 percent of our hunters were beginners,” John says. “So we spent a lot of time teaching gun safety and how to shoot. They really appreciated what we did for them.”

Over the years, Callaway Gardens Hunting Preserve earned a national reputation as one of the Southʼs premier quail-hunting preserves. John was featured on the covers of a number of popular magazines including Southern Living and Progressive Farmer. Numerous photos of John standing over stately dogs on point that he had trained appeared in calendars, magazine articles, ads, on hats, and in a variety of other places. Oftentimes, a picture of John standing over several quail dogs would appear in some publication and John had no idea how the picture got there.

When TV hunting shows and hunting videos began to gain popularity in the late ʻ80s and early ʻ90s, John also appeared in numerous shows and videos. He was a natural in front of the camera. Although he always tried to take backstage to his dogs and customers by allowing them to be the real heroes, he commanded a tremendous “on-camera” presence with his easy-going manner and great personality.

John officially retired from his full-time position in 1994 after working at Callaway Gardens for more than 25 years. For several years after that he guided quail hunters on a part-time basis.

Johnʼs dogs have always been regarded as members of the family. Since he and Irene never had children, his dogs became the children he never had.

“Youʼve got to love them,” he says. “All a dog wants to do is please you. If you show him love and kindness, heʼll do everything he can to please you.”

John could easily write a book on how to train almost any type of hunting dog. His training methods are simple — yet highly effective. Johnʼs common-sense dog-training rules include four essential ingredients: 1) give them lots of love, 2) be extremely patient with your dog, 3) try to understand your dog and why he does what he does, and 4) know what youʼre doing, and take the time to do it right.

Here are Johnʼs answers to some often-asked questions that people still ask him about training a dog.

When To Start Training A Bird Dog

“I start training my dogs from the time their eyes open,” John says. “The first thing I do is give the puppy a name. Then I call the puppy by its name over and over again. In a few days, the dog begins to recognize its name and it will come when you call. While weʼre on the subject, never name your dog anything that sounds like ʼWhoa!ʼ Whoa is an important command, and if you name your dog Joe or Mo or Bo, youʼre going to confuse him in the field when you holler ʻWhoa!ʼ Iʼve seen it happen several times.

“I also make sure the dog is exposed to a lot of different people at a very young age. That way, heʼll get used to being around people and he wonʼt be afraid. I spend a lot of time with young puppies talking to them, playing with them, and petting them. This builds confidence and self-assurance. They know I love them and all they want to do is please me.”

How So You Break a Gun-Shy Dog?

“This problem is almost always the ownerʼs fault. In most cases, the owner has tried to rush things by shooting around the dog before the dog understands whatʼs going on. Once this happens, the dog becomes terrified whenever a gun goes off.

“Iʼve found that there are usually two types of gun-shy dogs. The first will run out of the field when you shoot. The second will get up under your legs and wonʼt move. The dog acts this way in both cases because it is afraid. What I do to remedy the problem is this: I take the dog out in the field without a gun. I work with the dog and let him point birds until he gets to where he is not afraid or nervous. Then I get a .22 blank pistol. When the dog is about 50 to 75 yards away, I shoot one time. He might stop what heʼs doing and look up at the sound, but heʼs usually not scared. If he is scared, Iʼll keep working with him without the pistol. The next day, Iʼll get a little closer and shoot again. Depending on how he acts, in three or four daysʼ time I might shoot twice. Whenever heʼs working Iʼm always praising him, petting him and telling him heʼs doing a good job. By this time heʼs usually having fun again, and heʼs not afraid any more. Having fun is what itʼs all about.

“When I think the dog is ready, Iʼll take a buddy with me and let him shoot one time with a shotgun about 50 or 60 yards from the dog. I always watch the dogʼs reaction and pet him to reassure him. If he acts scared, Iʼll put him up for the day. Gradually, though, Iʼll get him used to the noise and being around guns. Iʼll have someone shoot a little closer to him each day. It doesnʼt take long before he starts associating the gun with hunting birds. Once he realizes the gun is part of hunting, heʼll lose his fear.

“I pretty much do the same thing when Iʼm training a normal dog. Iʼll take him out, let him point some birds, and let him get used to seeing a shotgun in my hands. I never start off shooting close to the dog. Iʼll shoot a blank way off in the distance. Gradually the dog begins to associate the gun and the noise with hunting. I never shoot over a young dog with a shotgun until I know heʼs ready. Again, most gun-shy dogs get that way because their owner hasnʼt taken the time to properly get them used to guns in the field.

“I once knew a man who had bought two expensive pointer puppies. When they were six or seven months old, he tied them to a post, walked up behind them, and started shooting off his shotgun. The dogs were terrified. For one thing, they were tied to the post. Secondly, they certainly didnʼt associate the gun and the noise with hunting. The man came to me and told me the dogs were no good. I worked with one of them for several weeks and he turned out to be a fine dog — after he understood the real purpose of a shotgun and after he lost his fear.

Ever Use Shock Collars?

“No. I’ve seen so many good dogs ruined with shock collars. It takes months to train a good dog. You canʼt rush things and do it in a matter of days by trying to scare him to death. You’ve got to love your dog and give him plenty of understanding. If you donʼt, heʼll know it. Like I said, all that dog wants to do is please you. If you show him gentleness, patience and kindness, heʼll do everything he can to make you happy, and heʼll perform like you expect him to. All a shock collar does is put fear in that dogʼs head. Once heʼs afraid, heʼs not going to perform at his best.”

In addition to his great dog-training skills, John also developed a reputation as being an unsurpassed wing shot.

“When you’ve been doing it every day for over 25 years itʼs easy,” John says modestly.

As an example of his extraordinary shooting ability, John was invited to a local dove shoot about six or seven years ago. Within 30 minutes of the time the hunt started, John shot 13 times with his trusty 12-gauge and killed 12 birds.

A few years after John retired from Callaway Gardens, the quail-hunting operation at the gardens was leased to a private company. Although the popular skeet and trap range is still in operation today, the rich quail-hunting tradition at Callaway Gardens is a thing of the past.

At a very young 78 years of age, Johnʼs once-overflowing kennels stand empty in one corner of his yard. But he does have two fine hunting dogs — a beautiful English setter named Christy and a pointer named Daisy.

In addition to his other bird-hunting interests, John has been an avid turkey hunter for a number of years. More than one Harris County longbeard has succumbed to his deadly aim.

“I’ve never missed a shot at a turkey,” John says. “I simply donʼt pull the trigger unless I know he is dead. If I donʼt have a good shot on him, I donʼt shoot. Thereʼll always be another day and another turkey!”

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