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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.

Finding downed birds
Conservation is a part of every hunter’s goal, and no hunter wants to leave shot game in the field. That’s why dogs are a valuable asset for both waterfowl and upland hunters. A well-trained dog is essential in many situations where it would be difficult and time consuming for a hunter to retrieve a crippled or dead bird.

Often, it’s difficult to lure waterfowl into gun range. It takes excellent decoy placement and, usually, a hunter who has practiced extensively on his duck or goose call. Then, if he’s luckyenough to get the birds within gun range, he still has to make the shot.

If he accomplishes all those feats, the next step is to find the downed bird. Upland hunters have the same problems as duck hunters. Except that first, their dog has to point or flush the bird. Then, you need to make the shot, and finally, recover the bird.

Finding that downed bird will take the effort of both hunter and dog. And the process is one that should be part of a dog’s proper training. Every hunting dog should be well-schooled, and become obedient and proficient in this skill.

With both retrievers and upland dogs, I begin teaching them to find downed birds only after they have reached the force-fetch level of expertise in their basic training course. By then, these dogs have had enough birds shot and thrown for them so that they understand the nature of their job within the team of hunter and dog. The cue I use to explain to my dogs that we are hunting a downed bird is: ”Dead bird, fetch it up.” That “dead bird” part takes a young dog a while to understand, but the “fetch it up” part they understand immediately, because of the force fetch sessions they’ve had in the yard.

Any time I introduce a new skill to my trainees, I try to incorporate vocabulary that they are already familiar with — that way, there is less chance of confusing the dog during this learning stage.

As it is with most new techniques, many repetitions over time is the key that will familiarize him with the process. Do it over and over again until you feel that the animal completely understands what is being asked of him.

To incorporate this new skill into daily training, I begin by throwing a dead bird onto the open ground while the dog is in the process of retrieving an­other bird. When he returns from his retrieve and delivers the bird to hand, I line him up facing the dead bird on the ground, then I give him the command “dead bird, fetch it up,” and gesture in the direction of the downed bird.

Teaching a young dog to follow your hand gesture is not at all difficult, and will become a valuable tool when in a hunting situation on down the road. As your dog gets more and more comfortable with this new learned skill, you increase the difficulty by throwing the bird into heavier cover. To make it more challenging, you might have one of your cronies hide a bird and just tell you the general area. That way, you and your dog have a more realistic hunting situation, and you add some fun to the routine.

For dogs that are proficient in the water, find a pond that has a good tule patch along the shoreline and throw a dead duck in the middle of the patch. It’s much more educational for a novice dog if the wind is blowing across the pond and onto shore.

Bring out your trainee and give him the cue, “dead bird, fetch it up,” as you encourage him towards the tule patch. He should get scent of the bird from shore and dive into the bullrushes and recover the bird. Having success during the teaching part is it essential to making your trainee confident.

As always, when training with birds, you should make the session a pleasant experience. Discipline when teaching and using bumpers is a much better time to use pressure. The use of birds is an occasion for letting the dog feel free to use his natural instincts, with just encouragement from you.

It’s reward time, have fun with your dog. A well trained, obedient dog is in a partnership with you, and that’s what all of us who use dogs to hunt think this sport is all about. Always have fun training.

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

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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.

Believe what you see
The dove opener is the beginning our long-anticipated hunting season, and offers a great way to evaluate your dog’s readiness for the lengthy upcoming days ahead. Hunting dogs have no sense of whether they are out of shape, or if they’re not in a properly disciplined frame of mind. They will make a valiant attempt to do their part in the hunt, right or wrong; but it’s up to you to make sure it’s done the correct way.

All you can expect from your hunting dog is that he performs to his training level, and that’s it, fellow hunters. Expecting a dog to perform beyond his training level is never realistic, and can get you into a bunch of unnecessary trouble. However, not demanding that he measure up to his training level can get you into an equally unacceptable situation.

Not believing what you see is one of the problems faced by novice trainers — some of my clients, as well. Every hunter wants his dog to perform to his highest level while in the field. When that doesn’t happen, owners may make excuses for their dogs, instead of looking at the problem for what it is and seeking solutions to correct the difficulty.

Dogs take your inaction when they misbehave as a sign of weakness on your part. When a hunting dog figures out that you are going to do nothing about his misbehavior, he’s going to take advantage of your inaction and even misbehave to a new, higher, level. For instance, if you allow your dog to break (go before being sent), before long he is going to start breaking when you lift your gun to shoot an incoming bird. That of course will either spook the bird out of gun range, or, at best make for a difficult shot.

Anything less than making your hunting dog perform to his highest training level will teach him to be comfortable with his misbehavior. Then it will take a very large eraser to remove problems, even away from the hunt.

In a static situation like dove hunting, steadiness is the best indicator of your dog’s field readiness. If your dog is steady to shot, you’ve done a great job during the off-season maintaining his training level. If not, you’ve got some serious homework to do. If your dog has had a solid basic training program by a competent trainer, fixing just one of your dog’s bad behaviors will usually bring all the others back up to his former disciplined training level.

For those of you who are breaking out a new dog this season, be fair. Remember, your dog has never been hunting before. First hunts are often not pretty and require patience. You’re putting a green dog into an unfamiliar situation, which makes him uncomfortable. That’s why it’s the best for you to work your dog and have someone else do the shooting, at least for the first few birds.

Of course, it’s almost impossible to simulate actual hunting conditions while in a training situation. It’s doubtful that your young trainee has ever seen birds coming in from all directions and his excitement will build. Take a leash or a tie-down in case you need it. Your hunting partners will appreciate it, and your dog will learn steadiness under fire.

I’m not a big fan of any training during a hunting situation and most hunters believe you should go into a hunt with a well prepared dog. Nevertheless, there’s always a necessary first hunt.

If you want your hunting dog to be prepared for the season ahead, work him a lot. Then believe what you see because your dog’s actions will tell you how prepared he is for the season. Don’t make excuses for his bad behavior, again, believe what you see. Following only that advice, fellow hunters, will put you and your dog on a path to a successful season.

Good hunting.

•   •   •   •   •

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.

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!

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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.

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