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CALIFORNIA'S ONLY SPORTSMAN'S NEWS SINCE 1953

Grady Istre – FIELD DOGS



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.



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.


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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 reibar.com.


•   •   •   •   •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. 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 reibar.com.


•  •  •  •  •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. 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.


Training attitude
If you are training your gun dog yourself, you should be aware of the necessity of maintaining a good training attitude in your protégé at all times.

A good hunting dog is always the desired result, so being careful not to overplay your hand when discipline is used is something every trainer should strive to understand and implement. Finding ways to maintain a good working attitude every session is an essential goal. Dogs are forgiving, but they have a limit as to how much negativity they will tolerate. Being aware of their energy and knowing when to end a lesson is the key.


Dogs are individuals, and they all have different levels of tolerance for discipline. There’s a time when their attitudes can go from one of willingness to one of rebellion and/or con­fusion. So, it’s necessary to know your own dog’s signs before you reach the end of his tolerance.


Some dogs may decide to give up and others may rebel under stress. Both grinding repetition, and/or too much correction can trigger unwanted behavior. There are various signs of avoidance and each dog has his own way of giving his trainer the message of “too much” or “I quit.”


It’s not prudent to work a dog into a situation where he thinks being back in the kennel is preferable to being in the field. When that kind of negative attitude becomes evident, I blame the trainer, because he should be reading the dog more accurately before reaching that crossroad.


The trainer should be careful to remain calm, fair, and ready to explain the situation to the dog when necessary. Just going back to the teaching part of the lesson relieves pressure and can get the dog back into his proper positive learning mode.


There is no time when losing one’s temper results in a positive outcome. Remember that there’s another choice: stop the training session and decide to resume the work the next day. Or, turn to something easy that the dog enjoys and does well. Then, you can reward that good work with a flyer or some deserved praise. The last thing the dog should do is something positive so he can relax, unflustered.


Training a dog is, for me, much easier than training his owner. Often, beginners are reluctant to ask questions. They either think they will appear foolish or that they will interrupt the flow of the training session. It’s natural for trainers to assume that owners know more than they do.


We sometimes forget to explain things in language a novice can understand. That’s why I encourage my clients to speak up and let me know when anything is unclear. I really want to have confident, self-assured clients because I’ve learned that it’s lack of knowledge that promotes frustration and even anger.


Working a dog while angry is a huge mistake because it can easily change the dog’s attitude and make him resentful. Trying to restore a dog’s confidence and joy in working can be an uphill battle.


The trainer’s efforts will take time away from progressing the dog’s education and a resentful dog may carry negative memories that exhibit themselves as intentional misbehavior under competitive or hunting conditions. This is a situation to avoid, fellow hunters. Taking a piece of a dog’s overall training attitude can’t be replaced. If you just keep training fair where the dog makes progress, and gets a reward of some sort, you will usually stay out of trouble. The partnership of man and dog is a noble goal and a well-earned reward that every hunter should strive for.


Always have fun training!


* * *


Grady’s column usually appear every other week in WON and he can be reached at reibar.com.


•  •  •   •   •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. 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.


Dog blinds
These days, most waterfowl hunters are concealing their dogs from view of savvy ducks and geese that they hunt by using a blind. I myself had never used a dog blind while duck or goose hunting until this year. In the past, I’ve seen dogs returning with a duck in their mouth, splashing through the pond, and still ducks are landing right next to them. Not only did the ducks seem to have no fear of the dogs, but they did not associate a dog with hunters. As I see it, that has changed. Over the years, ducks have educated themselves by paying attention to hunters’ tactics and I really believe it's due to the larger number of waterfowl hunters.

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My granddad was a market hunter back in the heyday of American waterfowling. He used hand-carved decoys made of cypress wood to lure in his prey. The decoys were unpainted, improperly-sanded replicas of ducks, many of which had their heads missing because he shot most of his ducks on the water. Yet, he lured in and shot enough ducks to sell and feed his family. I don't think those old decoys would attract as many ducks in today's hunting world.


Manufacturers of dog blinds get more creative every season. They started out by simply making a metal shell and covering it with camo cloth, and that worked well for starters. Into today's market, the blinds fold flat for storage and have a handle or shoulder strap for ease of carrying out to the field. Some of them have telescoping legs that fold down to elevate the floor some 34 inches in order to keep your dog higher up out of the water. To make your hunting dog more comfortable, many of these enclosures have a porous bottom, which eliminates excess water from a wet dog. Depending on your needs, you can purchase one of these blinds for around $55 all the way up to just under $200, and there’s a great variety to choose from.


One other advantage to using a blind has to do with steadiness. Most dogs feel more comfortable lying down in these blinds, and that makes them more steady to shoot when the action begins. Just having your dog in the “down” position will add to his discipline level as well. It does takes a bit of training to get your dog comfortable with using one of these blinds, but that not unusual. I've witnessed guys trying to force their dogs into a blind without much success. I simply take a dog treat, break off a piece, and give it to the dog. Then, while you have your dog’s attention, quickly toss the remaining piece into the dog blind. I’ve yet to have a dog not go in after that treat.


You can even think ahead, and feed your dog his dinner meal inside the blind. The idea is to demonstrate to the dog that it not dangerous, and no harm will come to him or her if she enters the blind. I had one client who put his dog in a dog blind while he cut his lawn. Getting creative by putting your dog in different situations can only help.


The ducks are getting smarter, fellow hunters, and we need to either adjust or just admit that we have been outsmarted by a DUCK.


Have fun training!


* * *


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


•   •   •   •   •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. 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.


Assessing Performance
Now that the early dove season has come to a close, it’s a good idea to make some notes on how your dog worked for you in the field. Did you feel that he was tuned into you and that the two of you worked as a team? Or, did you feel you had to constantly correct him? You are probably lucky if everything went perfectly, but it’s never too late to get in sync with your dog.

When studying a dog’s field performance, all you can expect from a dog is for him to live up to his training level. So, in looking ahead to the upcoming bird season, it may be time to work on the three areas I use to gauge a dog’s performance in the field. They are:


STEADINESS: Which is not only being steady in the field and calm while waiting, but also includes behavior during non-shooting time.


RETRIEVING: How quickly the dog finds the bird, and how well he delivers to hand.


COOPERATION: How easily the dog takes correction and is attentive to the handler, including his willingness to be helped under exciting circumstances.


Many of these elements of obedience can be improved just through simple drill work. Obedience in the yard does transfer well to the field. And, repetition of correct actions does make those actions a natural part of the dog. Of course, allowing disobedient actions also becomes part of the dog! That’s why disobedience in the field can’t be overlooked. Hoping a bad habit will go away on its own just doesn’t work, fellow hunters. Working on problems away from the hunting conditions really does carry over into the field later. Also, you want to keep the dog’s hunting attitude a positive one.


Of course, if this is your dog’s first season of hunting, you need to be understanding of mistakes that arise from simple inexperience. Some dogs can be intimidated by new things. And, it’s important to make his first outing a good one. Shooting only one bird at a time helps. Praise for a willing attitude also helps. You might want to have your hunting buddies do some of the shooting the first time out so you can concentrate on working your dog. The goal is to carry over the training to the field in a seamless way.


Even if you have an experienced dog, the first season’s hunt might require concentrating on your dog for the first few birds, to refresh the standard you want to maintain for the rest of the year. A dog that has at least one season under his belt should be more relaxed because he knows what’s going on. Then again, even older dogs get excited in the field and can act as if they’ve never had a day of training in their lives. In that case, correction in the field can be quite effective. For a green dog, correction during the hunt can exacerbate problems. I don’t recommend it as a rule.


Maintaining a standard of performance for the experienced dog should not be difficult. A periodic assessment of the dog’s strengths and weaknesses is important. Not only the dog’s training level and performance should be examined, but also his physical fitness. Fitness is, of course, critical. If your dog isn’t in shape, it’s unfair to expect him to perform well all day in the field. Extra care should be taken if your dog is overweight.


So, fellow hunters, good luck this season. I hope your dog with be a perfect hunting companion: obedient, joyful and fit.


Good hunting!


Grady’s column generally appears every two weeks in WON, and he can be reached at reibar.com.


* * *

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. 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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