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Grady Istre – FIELD DOGS

WON News Column by Grady Istre

WON’s canine columnist Grady Istre was born into a family of waterfowl hunters, but as he grew up so did his passion and appreciation for any kind of bird hunting.

His knowledge of dog behavior has been gained through his 30 plus years of training both competition and hunting dogs. He takes pride in the fact that he trains the hunter as well as the dog which makes a very productive team in the field.

Casting drill
Teaching your hunting dog to take directional hand signals is a huge asset while hunting game. They save time, add to the game bag, and besides, there’s nothing to beat the thrill of hunting over a well-trained dog. A handling dog is a responsive dog, and when you can direct your dog to a dead bird he hasn’t seen shot, the whole day just seems to go more smoothly. So, I really recommend taking the time to teach dogs hand signals. “Back” and “over” are the basics, but often it seems that the perfect cast to a downed bird is the “angle back.” So, I do teach all my dogs to go to the right and left using a 45-degree back signal.


But, before you embark on teaching the angle back casts, it important that certain basics are solid. The commands of “heel,” “sit,” “fetch,” and “come” should be taught first. Your dog should also have been forced on “back,” take left and right “overs,” and be able to perform a 40-yard known blind. This foundation of learning is important because teaching the angled back is more advanced and requires a secure foundation. Otherwise, as in any new lesson, you may get side effects due to confusion and need to go back and refresh your dog with the commands and drills he has already learned.

As always, it’s best to teach your dog anything new in a controlled environment where he feels comfortable. This can be in your yard, or any known place with some space and few distractions. I teach my dogs beginning drill work in a fenced pasture where they are comfortable and feel secure. They are accustomed to the place and it’s now a learning environment for them.

Before teaching your dog to take angled “backs” you will need to have him taking straight backs first. And, he must turn to go to the straight back, turning properly, both left and right. To start, have your dog sit in a facing position in front of you with the bumper pile directly behind him. Throw a bumper into the pile and work on the straight “back” first. The goal is to have your dog turn both ways, according to which arm you raise. If at first the dog doesn’t see the difference, you can take a tiny step toward your arm to explain to the dog that you want him to turn in that direction.

Once you’ve mastered the turning and going to the bumper pile, you can add the angled backs. The goal is for the dog is to understand the four major “backs.” They are: straight back to the left, straight back to the right, angle back to the left, and angle back to the right. To maintain having the dog turning properly, you will want to keep that going by doing a set of straight backs often during the dog’s learning process.

Here are the expected mistakes and how to deal with them: When you send the dog for a straight back and he turns incorrectly, say “no” immediately and bring him back to the facing position and recast him. The second mistake is when your dog turns in the proper direction but goes for the wrong bumper. In this situation, wait a bit until the dog is halfway to the bumper before giving him a “no” command and bringing him back to the facing position to recast him. These two scenarios clearly define the mistake your dog has made. You should not stop him in the same location for both mistakes or you may confuse the hell out of him. By stopping him immediately, he will quickly see that he turned in the wrong direction. By stopping him halfway to the bumper, he will see that he went for the wrong bumper.

There you have it, fellow trainers. Something to work on; and something to solidify your communication with your dog. With a little help from the three P’s: “patience, persistence, and prayer,” you’ll have your dog handling in no time. You’ll also have a new tool: the beautiful angle back cast.

If you need additional help or pointers in teaching this drill to your dog, I have a video on my Facebook page Reibar Kennels, which should better explain the process.

Have fun training!

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Grady’s column’s generally appear in WON every other week and he can be reached at

•   •   •   •   •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.

Analysis of a blind retrieve casting
The popularity of retriever Hunt Tests has exploded over the last few years, with the last national competition involving over 600 dogs. Many of the contestants are also hunters who train their dogs themselves. In the evening, handlers and pros often discuss the day’s work, and the favorite topic involves the “blind” retrieves. That’s because the blinds demand more involvement from handler and dog, unlike the “marks” where the dog is on his own to find the birds. Conversation inevitably turns to the details of the handling. Which cast proved to be the proper one, and at which point the handler should have made the dog sit on the whistle? Should the handler have used a “back” or an “over” cast, and exactly when should he or she have stopped the dog?

These “skull sessions” are fascinating and can get heated. An analysis of each whistle and cast can go on into the night. So, what is the conclusion? It all depends on where the dog was when the handler stopped his with the whistle. And, then it depends on which cast the handler chose to get the dog away from trouble and to the bird most easily.

Even if you’re not a competitor, the most efficient handling will put more birds in your game bag at the end of your day afield.

In Competition:

Be sure to watch the test dog, if possible. Assess the best possible place to stand on the line. Take into account the test dog’s abilities and experience if you know them. Observe from the line where old falls are located. Get an exact fix on the location of the bird plant and notice any markers in the background. Be sure to notice wind direction carefully, as it can be different at the bird plant. Stand on the line after the test dog has run, if you can, and look out from the dog's perspective. Some pros crouch down but that may not be necessary. There can be advantages to exactly where the dog sits. Notice obstacles in the terrain, especially those close to the line.

Then, if possible, watch other dogs and handlers carefully. Where do dogs want to go? How strong are the distractions? Which casts are experienced handlers giving and how well does the dog submit to those individual casts? Which hand signals are dogs not taking precisely? (This is critical because often handlers repeat the same errors as other handlers and this can be avoided).

In the holding blind, watch the exact plant of your bird. Again, get a fix on its location.

When walking up to line, watch your dog because he may look out at the test and tell you where he wants to go (e.g. back to the flyer location). When lining up, notice where the dog looks and how strongly he looks there. Adjust your body position if necessary to influence his initial line. Give him a quiet “no” or ”here” as necessary. Notice how willing the dog is to take your cues because this will give you an indication of how submissive he will be on your cast.

After the dog leaves your side, be prepared for anything. Don't be caught off guard by unexpected circumstances, such as people or cars or bird boys interfering with the test. Keep your concentration on the dog no matter what happens around you.

When the dog fades from the exact line to the bird, hit the whistle at that moment. Notice how fully the dog turns on the sit. Notice if he looks at a distraction. If the dog is fairly close to you, you can give a more subtle cast than if he is far away. If you feel that dog is with you, you can give a cast that hopefully just tells him where the destination is, and it will be the only correction you need. This first cast is critical because this is your best chance to get the blind in only one whistle. The cast should communicate exactly where the bird is. An obedient dog will know exactly where to go.

You should know if the dog is in tune with you or is being tempted to give in to the distractions. His body language will tell you if you have been observant in training and know how to read him. On this critical cast, notice how fully the dog is facing you because that will indicate how strong the next cast needs to be. Once the dog has taken the first cast, notice how strongly he deviates from the direction you’ve given. That will determine the second cast. This cast can be a hint of a cast if you feel the dog is attentive. Otherwise, you must give a broad cast in hopes that he takes it all the way to the bird.

Don't forget that the “over” cast results in the most correction. When a dog is not responsive, this is the only cast that will result in a strong momentum change. It is also a “no” cast away from a strong distraction. “Over” doesn’t means ‘over’ to the dog under the excitement of the competition. It is used as a “pay attention” ploy when the dog is resistant to directional change. When a dog is taking only slight direction changes from you, the “over” works well to break up the incorrect momentum. Also, the verbal “back” does the opposite: it increases momentum and can increase momentum in the wrong direction. Remember this: “back” increases momentum, “over” changes direction. The sit whistle says “no.”

As you give various casts, you should be aware of any changes in the dog's attitude. If he makes a sudden motion, you will need to hit the whistle (which says “no”) loudly and firmly. Then, when the dog is facing you, take a second to allow his incorrect momentum to fade. The cast now will need to be a broad one. Successive cast strengths will be determined on how tender the dog is to direction changes.

Be sure to have the dog on the winding side of the bird when he approaches the bird plant. If he isn't in the winding position, be careful to stop him before he gets too far beyond it. Lots of casts in the area of the plant is a sign of an inexperienced handler. Some novices allow the dog to cruise pass the bird, and many allow the dog to get too far to one side or another. The ideal last cast on any blind is a slight silent back to the bird itself.

If your dog takes the bit in his teeth, here are some solutions: hit a sharper than normal whistle, make the dog sit for a moment and delay the corrective cast as long as necessary, give a come-in whistle to the place where he just sat and try to regain control before continuing casting.

In Training:

Casts in a training situation are very different from those used in competition. They are more exact. The goal is to teach the dog to take the exact hand signal no matter what the situation may be. In competition, the handler reads the dog’s attitude and tries to give the most helpful cast to get to the bird with as little direction as possible, using the fewest whistles. In training, the goal is to teach the dog to take the exact direction change given, regardless of distractions and terrain difficulties.

For example, an angle back cast can be given, but the dog only gives a slight motion in the correct direction and then continues on his desired line. There are two choices for the trainer: attrition, and correction with the collar. In my opinion, attrition is the better choice. As in any drill, with attrition, the dog ends up submitting mentally. With correction, the collar can create a hot spot and no thinking is involved on the dog’s part. Submission to the direction change is the desired result, no matter which method you choose.

The main difference between training and competition is this: challenging casts are given in training, and helpful casts are given in competition.

When using attrition to get the desired cast, the dog is stopped and whistled in to the spot where he last sat, and the same cast is repeated. The goal is to have the dog submit fully to the cast. Calm replication is necessary. The trainer is trying to enter the dog’s mind to get the dog to see the goal (the correct direction change). Patience is necessary. Also, the dog must be able to take this mental challenge. Attrition is not suitable for soft dogs, nor is it good for inexperienced dogs that are still in the learning phases of their blinds.

When working the inexperienced, or soft dog, it's helpful to have the dog sit on the whistle and wait for you to walk out into the field. This stops the dog’s incorrect momentum and gives him time to worry about his actions. Again, no emotion on the part of the trainer is necessary. If you get into some confusion with an inexperienced dog, you can always walk up to him, touch him and throw a bumper in the direction of the desired cast.

In all training, the trainer needs to remain creative. If working on a test where there are multiple marks and blinds, the trainer should be willing to stop and walk out to the dog if necessary. This gets the correct cast to the blind and separates the individual retrieves. Then, the test can be repeated when the desired result has been attained on that part of the test.

Yard drills should always be part of the training repertoire. Lining and casting — the two components of the blind retrieve — should be taught, or refreshed, throughout the life of the dog. Except in the case of soft dogs, these drills are fun for the advanced dog, and good refreshers for the exactness of the handler’s casts.

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We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.

Using indirect pressure
When a problem arises during the training of your dog, it’s tempting to go directly at the problem to solve it. In most cases, that works. But, before going directly at a problem, an assessment of the personality of your dog will determine the proper training approach that should be taken.

For instance, if you have a sensitive, or low-prey-drive dog, going directly at any problem may not be the best choice. Instead, day-by-day repetition, leaning a bit to the positive side of the command or the problem you’re dealing with might be a better answer. For any dog, harsh discipline can have dire consequences, and in some cases, it can create more problems than the one you’re trying to deal with.

Take for example, the steadying of your dog (going before sent). You can put your dog through a formal steadying format, which will usually involve some form of medium-to-severe discipline during the process.

Or, you can demand an elevated standard of performance through­out all of your basic training, which will allow your dog to choose to be steady on his own.

The steadying of a dog is the last of the basic training skills I teach because his natural eagerness to retrieve should be developed first. This gives the trainer a unique opportunity to use the other three skills of the basic training process to steady his dog using indirect pressure throughout the three procedures. Also, If you intend to teach your dog to take hand signals, you’ll be rewarded by having many more opportunities to reinforce his steadiness while teaching that demanding skill.

Let’s take “heel and sit” as an example. By using a step-up-the-ladder disciplined format to teach this skill, you can encourage your dog to become steady.

With your dog on a leash, you should gradually increase the demand that your trainee heel properly and sit properly when given the command to do so.

Once your young dog understands the nuts and bolts of the heeling drill, you can introduce the heeling stick, or, if you prefer, the Whiffle bat. When used properly, these two training aids can create a mild form of discipline and elevate your trainee’s overall discipline level, which will indirectly help with his future steadiness.

The second discipline in the basic training program is “force fetch.” This skill is usually taught by pinching the dog’s ear with your thumbnail to make him take hold of a bumper. Making your trainee sit before demanding he take the bumper from your hand reinforces the “sit” command as well. His obedience with this drill will also help with his steadiness.

The third of the basic skills we teach is “come-on-command.” Again, as in other drills, your dog should be on a long leash. This skill includes an introduction to the electric collar, and really elevates your dog’s discipline level. This drill teaches your dog to come when he is called on the whistle and “here” command. Then, your trainee must learn to sit as you walk away from him after he has been stimulated with the electric collar to come. As you might imagine, this really helps with the steadying of your dog.

It’s a judgment call on your part, fellow trainers, as to whether or not you are going to go directly at a problem or use the indirect pressure method I have outlined above. Both methods are effective. The character of the dog you are training will dictate which method you choose.

Have fun training!

* * *

Grady’s articles generally appear every two weeks in WON and he can be reached at

•   •   •   •   •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.

Preparing advanced dogs for the hunting season
While we still have a few months before dove season opens, it’s a good idea to start preparing your dog for the long hunting season ahead. A hunting dog’s discipline level can slip during the off-season, especially if he’s acting as a pet and not focused on his duties as your hunting companion. Instead of working on already-learned drills to improve a dog’s discipline level, I think it’s more effective to teach your dog something new that can be useful in the field. I’m a big believer in drill work when teaching any dog a new skill, command or technique and, I teach everything in the yard before taking it to the field.

There are quite a few drills that will add to any advanced dog’s repertoire, but here’s one you may not know. It’s actually an anti-“switching” drill, used for competition dogs, but adapted for hunters.



THE ANTI-SWITCHING drill in action.

First, let me give you a hunting scenario where this drill will come in handy. Have you ever had your dog bringing in a shot bird when all of a sudden another bird flies by, you shoot it, and your dog drops the bird in his mouth and “switches” to go for the fresh shot bird? I’ve had clients ask me, what’s so bad about that? Well, just suppose the bird in the dog’s mouth is still alive. You might get lucky and find that elusive winged bird later, but the odds are not in your favor. And, think of the time you can waste looking for that dropped bird that is now running away.

Your goal in teaching the anti-switching drill is twofold. First, you want to teach your dog that he must hold onto the bird that he has in his mouth. Second, you want to advance his obedience in the field. How you are going to teach this new skill will depend on your dog’s existing discipline level. If you feel you have great control, you can do it in the open. If not, you’re going to need a fence with a gate.

Here’s the easiest way to teach this drill. Stand in the open gate area with two bumpers in your hand. Throw one bumper on one side of the fence and send your dog. As your dog is returning with that bumper, throw another bumper on the other side of the fence. If your dog spits out the first bumper, you can stop him when he tries to go through the gate where you’re standing. Now, make him go back, pick up the bumper he dropped, and deliver it to hand. Then send him for the second bumper in a normal manner. It may take persistence to teach this drill but patience and repetition help.

After the dog has learned the drill, it’s time to up the ante by using birds. Again, throw a bumper on one side of the fence and as the dog is returning, throw a wing-clipped pigeon on the other side of the fence. Keep repeating until he does it correctly. Finally, you can use a bumper on one side and shoot a flyer on the other as the dog is returning. If your dog has a big problem with this drill, you may have to use the E-collar to correct misbehavior. Of course, the ultimate goal is to do this drill without the fence.

Once the dog has mastered the drill using a fence, you can test your success by eliminating the fence as a barrier. Moving to the field, throw a bumper for your dog to retrieve and when he is halfway in, throw your other bumper 90 degrees to the left or right. If your dog knows how to take hand signals, and he spits the bumper out, simply hit the “sit” whistle, and make him pick up the bumper he dropped before sending him to retrieve the other one. Once you have enough successful repetitions under your belt, you can make the drill more exciting again by adding a bird. The idea is to continue adding higher levels of distraction until your dog submits and performs the drill flawlessly, time after time.

As is with any drill, you must be sure that your dog understands completely what you are asking of him before adding any stress or unnecessary correction.

Have fun training!

* * *

Grady’s columns generally appear in WON every other week and he can be reached at

•   •   •   •   •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.

The small things
Aside from experience, one of the major differences between professional trainers and amateur trainers is that a professional is interested in the many small details of dog work. A pro knows that if he can form a rapport with a dog in the simple drills done in the yard, that the dog’s trust will be gained and training is apt to go much more smoothly when it comes time for more complex work in the field.

Starting a new dog in the yard, just heeling on a leash, tells the trainer a lot about the characteristics of the new pupil. The dog’s reaction to a click of the leash, how quickly he sits when told to, and if his tail is held high with confidence — all these details are important. The dog’s body language will reveal a lot about his intelligence and his willingness to learn new commands. An interest in these small things is usually either not noticed or cared about by a novice.

I believe this is the main difference between a pro and an amateur. For example, in teaching a dog a new command, lots of patience is required. First, a professional takes care to explain a new drill without any pressure. He makes sure the dog really knows what is expected and to what standard he must perform. The dog’s body language is watched at each step. For example, often, a dog will work slowly or carefully while learning and when he “gets” it, he will speed up and perform with confidence.

I probably do more drill work than most professionals. This gives me an opportunity to work on details such as these: a dog not coming back to a proper heel position, a dog not holding the bumper properly, or a dog trying to decide which bumper to pick up from a pile (“shopping”). Dogs are con artists, and most of them are damned good at it. Dogs will use your reluctance to correct details such as these as a sign of weakness.

So, when a dog who has been force-fetched comes in from a retrieve and drops the bumper at your feet instead of delivering to hand, not stopping to work on “hold” is a mistake. Getting away with even this small misbehavior may make the dog relax into other bad actions such as breaking. Soon, he may decide to take off when you just lift your gun to take a shot. Dogs notice everything you do, and lack of discipline at the moment of unwanted behavior can lead to other, even more flagrant, misbehavior. My point is this: if you let dogs get away with small things, pretty soon you may be working on the large things.

However, it’s important to separate confusion from dis­obedience and for an amateur that can be difficult. It’s easier for a pro because of his experience with a variety of dogs over the years. The professional can more easily “read” a dog. That is, he can distinguish whether a dog is trying, confused, or rebellious. For the dog, receiving correction when he’s trying to learn a command or a drill can be a real setback. So, becoming sensitive to dog’s body language is something to study and watching a professional work a kennel full of dogs can be enlightening.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that most dog owners don’t take advantage of this opportunity. They may not take in the details they see, or — and this is common — they are only interested in their own dog. Sometimes I’ll be working a dog and ask a client, “Did you see that?” when the dog suddenly “gets” the correct action. For me, it’s an “aha” moment. Maybe the dog has wagged his tail or is running at full speed now. It’s these details that make working a dog a pleasure. Of course, each dog is different, and each one has individual ways to communicate with the trainer. Their differences are part of the fascination with training a variety of dogs.

For a long-time professional such as myself, even working basic obedience on a leash remains interesting. Every time a dog puts a foot down, he’s telling me something about how he’s feeling, what he’s thinking, what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it. I’m sure you’ve heard of “tells,” in poker, and dogs have “tells” as well. Learning to read your own dog will make you a better trainer and handler. And, I recommend watching other people’s dogs every chance you get. If you attend field trials or hunt tests, watching dogs perform is another way to learn about dog behavior.

Observation leads to knowledge. Knowledge leads to confidence. And, best of all, confidence brings success in the field. Always have fun training.

* * *

Grady’s columns generally appear every other week in WON and he can be reached at

•  •  •  •  •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.

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