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Grady Istre's Blog

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.

Making commands solid
Every time I write, “never take an untrained dog to the field,” I get emails and phone calls from fellow hunters claiming their dogs have never had a day of training in their lives and are wonderful and skilled hunting companions. I think perhaps these hunters have formed that opinion because they have never hunted over a truly well-trained dog.

And, what do I mean by “well-trained?” I mean, a dog that is reliable, steady, and, above all, obedient. I maintain that this final characteristic, obedience, can’t be a part of the dog without proper force training.

Many beginner hunters, especially those who are training their first dog, don’t always understand why basic commands need to be reinforced with pressure to become solid. They are under the misguided notion that once taught, a dog will perform all his lessons without much guidance. That’s only in a dream, fellow hunters. The idea that dogs are born knowing how to hunt is unfounded. “It’s the dog’s birthright,” argued one caller. And, while it’s true that well-bred dogs have the innate characteristic of wanting to catch birds, that’s just a platform to build upon. We trainers know this, and we also know how hard it is to convince some dog owners that we do know this. Our job is to take the talent within the dog and show the dog how to express it within the strictures of teamwork with the owner. Our goal is to mold the dogs’ innate abilities into a solid partnership so that the dog is in sync with his owner and looks to him for direction. Then, with field experience, the relationship becomes even stronger as it builds through obedience over time.

Speaking of “time,” if you wait for your dog to misbehave in the field to show you what lack of control and respect looks like, you’ve wasted valuable days and months and made the process of starting real training harder. It’s best to dig in at the outset and train properly before your dog develops bad habits. Making occasional mistakes during a hunt is tolerable if the reason is confusion, but even small disobedient mishaps, when repeated, quickly become habits that are hard to break

Real training is “force training.” A well-turned-out dog is one that has been “forced” on all his commands and is finally solid and comfortable performing them for the team. If you are one of the hunters who doesn’t believe in forcing learned commands, you will need your prayer beads and your waders handy. That’s because your dog will always have the potential of unruly behavior in the field.

Still, if you’re one of those hunters who resists the idea of forcing, and is accepting of the way his “natural” dog hunts, you are a very lucky person. As for me, I don’t want to take risks with my few days hunting and worry about whether my dog will be the steady hunting partner I want him to be.

I must say that I don’t envy the “newbie” gun dog owner these days. That’s because he can become overwhelmed with all the diverse information available on the internet. There is a seemingly-endless variety of books and videos with much conflicting information out there. I confess that I was once in the newbie’s shoes and was also resistant to the idea of putting pressure on my young dog. I used a non-pressure approach with my first Labrador and the result s weren’t pretty. I was asking, not telling, my dog to perform. I finally had to go back to the beginning and train my dog properly. I had to give up asking and start demanding. And, the idea of putting teeth into each command really paid off in practice. With the new electric collars of today, the amount of pressure can be tailored to each dog’s tolerance. It’s not punishment, and shouldn’t be used as that. The logical steps to teaching each command are simple and really work. I know I’ve explained all this in the past, but here’s a summary :

1. Teach the meaning of the command, and show the dog the proper action.

2. Have the dog perform the command without pressure.

3. Have the dog continue to perform but add pressure ( light collar stimulation)

4. Have the dog perform again without any pressure.

5. Have the dog perform again and add a word of praise.

6. Have the dog perform again without any praise.

If, at any time, the dog stops preforming the command, you can back up one step. Repetition helps, and the end of the training for the day should end with encouragement.

I know that an amateur can train his own dog himself adequately, but it takes self control and getting in tune with the dog. Dogs are willing creatures and really want to please, so the last advice I would offer is to be fair. There’s always another day.

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Grady Istre column runs every other week and he can be reached at

Effects of using pressure in training dogs
The other day, I saw a description of myself online as an “Old School trainer.” The evaluation made me chuckle because, although I’ve been a trainer for over thirty years, I certainly don’t train the same way today as I did back in those days. Then, I considered myself on the cutting edge of dog training techniques but much has changed in the succeeding years.

I was training competitive Labradors for field trials — including for the Nationals — and there was no margin for error in those dogs’ performances. I used a system I called “absolute obedience” and that meant that the dogs had to take commands exactly or they were severely corrected. I think that’s probably what the critic meant by “old school” training. Still, I made many field trial champions using high pressure methods. I train only gun dogs now, and a lot has changed. Some years ago, I decided that the constant travel of the field trial circuit was too hectic for me. Also, I am an avid hunter and there was no time for that.

Not only has my training changed, I’ve noticed that the dogs of today are different. Comparatively speaking, the dogs of today are much more trainable than those of the past. Through selective breeding, the dogs of today are much more sensitive and their intelligence levels are higher. They are more in tune with people and their willingness to learn and perform commands properly means less pressure needs to be applied to get the right actions. Also, high tech and reliable electric collars that can be suited in intensity to fit the individual dog means that training can be easily tailored to fit each pupil.

All this being said, I see owners misunderstanding their particular dog’s responses in training, and it can be difficult to offset the videos and advice they see online. So, I caution you hunters to really notice your own dog’s sensitivity and willingness to obey. If you pile on the discipline when the dog doesn’t understand what the performance is supposed to be, you can set yourself back considerably.

That’s why I always say to teach, teach, teach first, before applying correction. And, also to tailor your work sessions to fit your own dog’s abilities and needs. Dogs learn differently. Some respond best to a small amount of work with daily sessions. Others have the mental and physical stamina to tolerate a full day of heavy work. Some dogs respond well to praise; others take advantage of it and then perform poorly. So, try to clear your mind and notice your dog’s specific responses as an individual. If you need help in an assessment, you can go work a few days with a professional trainer to get an unbiased opinion.

I always assume that dog owners will try to find a puppy or older dog that comes from quality breeding stock. If you do that, you can avoid a dog’s worst characteristic: lack of trainability. This can come from the deadly combination of a lack of willingness along with a lack of interest in work. These dogs are, luckily, rare these days and the desire to hunt is usually strong enough to allow the owner to make many mistakes. Even so, the mistake to avoid is this: applying pressure when the dog hasn’t been taught sufficiently. High pressure training is no longer necessary with today’s dogs. Consistency, time, and studying your own dog will make training a pleasure.

So, again, my great Uncle Frank’s advice is worth repeating: “if you don’t know, go slow.” He was a natural dog man who had many dogs in his life and all of them turned out to be great for hunting from a pirogue in the bayous of Louisiana. I learned a lot from him about the basic nature of dogs.

Have fun training,

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


When and how to start your pup
This is a great time of year for hunters old and new to start training a new pup for a first hunt when dove season opens this September. Four months is all you need to get a pup through his basic training course and learn the rudimentary skills he should need to experience the dove opener with you.

The normal age for a retriever puppy to come into professional training is somewhere around the six-month range but some of the upland breeds generally mature more slowly and should be a little older. If your pup has his permanent teeth in place and is both mentally and physically mature enough to accept formal training, six months old is an ideal age to start teaching the basics. Any reputable professional can make that decision for you after a day or so of evaluation training.

If you wait too long to start your obedience work and building respect as well as confidence you may make extra discipline necessary. That’s because the older a pup gets the more skilled he becomes at identifying human weaknesses and how to use those to his advantage. It doesn’t take a puppy very long to lose his innocence and develop unwanted bad habits. Dogs are natural born con-artists, and if you aren’t consistent, patient and attentive, bad habits can develop. Often, when a professional trainer begins training an older pup he must first break all the bad habits the animal has learned and that can not only be time consuming but tough on both dog and trainer.

Every new puppy owner should know what to do during the months before the little guy is of age to be put into formal training, consistency is the key. Generally, pups are very insecure when first removed from their brothers and sisters in the litter and that’s an excellent time to begin your relationship on a respectful note.

Your pup should be introduced to short moments of discipline that he can readily handle. The process of teaching one command like “sit” will show him the obedience format that will be meaningful throughout his entire life. He should also enjoy new experiences with you. He should be introduced to birds and water (for retrievers) as soon as possible. Taking him on walks where you encounter different types of cover will increase his confidence and build rapport. If you are going to train your pup yourself, these field trips and shared experiences provide you a golden opportunity to begin your pup’s life with you on a respectful note.

Don’t get me wrong, loving your pup is a good thing for both you and your dog. It’s just that the human’s need to be loved can get in the way of a respectful relationship with an animal and that’s what I believe you should be striving to avoid. In my forty years of training dogs this is the number one thing I have noticed: most owners are guilty of making it too easy for their dogs to perform a command. Here’s an example, when calling your pup to the heel position, be accurate. Insist that your dog come to a proper heel positon by your side. Don’t be like some novice trainers who will move up to the dog to make him seem successful instead of holding their position and demanding the animal come to them. Instead, show your dog your determination as a trainer and make him perform each command to a high standard. These little things are what a dog uses as a gauge to determine just how well he has to behave or perform.

If you do this right from the start, your pup will see your high standards and take joy in meeting them. A well-trained hunting dog is the product of many small lessons that result in a rewarding and admirable relationship. When you are finally a team, all those lessons with your pup will pay off with a brilliant performance in the field.

Have fun training! 

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

Pros and cons of dog vests
I first heard of an anxiety vest for dogs a couple of years ago. I had sold a well-trained, six year old German Shorthair Pointer to a client and he called me about a problem. In the five years that I owned her, she had been a nice dog without any real issues. But now this owner had a real problem. She was running away and he could not keep her in his newly-reinforced dog run, “I’m going to have to build a jail cell to keep her from escaping,” he said. There was desperation in his voice.

After bailing her out of animal control three times in a week he had finally called me for advice. Luckily, my wife was listening to the conversation and remembered reading about an innovative product called a “Thunder Shirt.” Not having any better ideas other than building that jail cell, I recommended that the owner purchase one and give it a try.

A few days later, he called raving about this new discovery.

“She is a totally different dog now. She calmed down and is a loving member of the family. We even brought her in the house to mingle with everyone. I was surprised and relieved. I had looked on the internet and found that for years, medical professionals were advising new parents to swaddle irritable babies. Also, researchers now recommended “pressure vests” to alleviate behavioral issues in children with Autism; it gives them comfort and a calming feeling. Some creative person took the idea and applied the theory to dogs.

Still, there seem to be exceptions to every rule. And here’s a conflicting story. I trained a Yellow Labrador female for a client who is a member of a southern California duck club. This dog was a very good student and graduated from my basic training course with high marks. After she had been home for sometime, and with a month of duck hunting under her belt, I gave the client a call to ask about her progress under actual hunting conditions.

“I’m taking it slow with her,” he replied. I detected some uncertainty in his voice, and that’s not the answer any professional wants to hear from a client. I knew something wasn't right. Since this client had extended an open invitation to me to come down and hunt with him at his club, I decided to take him up on his offer.

When shooting time arrived I dropped the first duck close to the blind which she reluctantly retrieved. Any bird that dropped over 15 yards from the blind she flatly refused to go after. This was not the same dog I sent home a few months earlier. The first thing I look for in such situations is to see if the dog has an injury or illness of some kind. I was assured that she was healthy. So I started eliminating all the potentially negative things such as the electric collar and the camouflaged dog blind. We even allowed her to stand out in the open, but all these things had no impact on her attitude whatsoever.

The next morning, as we stood around having coffee and talking before I noticed that the dog was still wearing the neoprene vest she’d worn the day before. I thought it was odd, because the weather was not cold. “Why is she wearing a vest?” I asked. “All the dogs in the club wear them, so I thought it was a good idea,”he said.

I suggested working her without it, and he agreed. The moment the owner removed the vest the dog’s attitude changed. She became animated and playful with one of the other dogs and I saw in her the energy I remembered. We went out to the blind and her positive attitude continued much to her owner’s delight, (and mine). She was a retrieving machine, enthusiastically retrieving every bird we shot that morning. Unlike the anti- anxiety Thunder Shirt that had helped calm down the Shorthair, the neoprene vest had a negative effect on this particular dog to the extent that it even affected her performance in the field. There is no doubt in my mind that the vest was the problem, but why it affected this particular dog the way it did remains a mystery. I’m sure quite a few of you hunters know dogs that have worn these vests without any problems, but this was an interesting exception. Hopefully, this information will help someone down the road.

Good Hunting!

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

Confusion for novice trainers
It can be a confusing world these days for novice dog trainers. There are many owners out there who are attempting to train their first hunting dog and many are rank beginners who are getting most of their information through the internet.

Often, they don’t even know the terminology and with no experience to draw on, they misunderstand the meaning or intent of the drills and the whole process of teaching a dog. There’s simply too much information out there that is inaccurate and misleading. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the material. There are many solid training programs available in both book and video format.

The problem is, most of it is too advanced for novices to digest. It’s easy for beginners to misinterpret what they see. For example, I saw that there was an online conversation where a guy asked for help with his dog. Seems the animal was finished with obedience, simple retrieves, was steady to wing and shot, and now he wanted to know some detail about hand signals. Readers were answering with lots of suggestions.

Thing is, the man’s dog was actually still a puppy. It was just five months old! This is only one of the instances I observed where a beginner jumped right into training without any frame of reference. And, the chat room was full of even more beginners giving advice! Their answers were a sure prescription for trouble ahead for the questioning owner. His pup will almost certainly develop problems he would have avoided if only he had both more careful study, and observation.

Another common area of confusion for beginning trainers arises when they pick and choose from the whole array of training methods. They take part of one of one professional trainer’s system, and add bits from other systems as well. This is another recipe for disaster. Often, professionals disagree on how to train a hunting dog. That’s okay because each of them has been successful doing things their way and their way is a cohesive step by step process.

But when a novice looks at all the available methods and takes pieces from various systems, the result can be a mishmash that no longer makes sense. So, I suggest finding a training method that seems sensible and following it carefully.

Better yet, go visit a professional trainer in your area. Stay a week or so and get some practical experience that can be applied to your dog. Go out in the field and throw bumpers/birds and plant blinds. You can gain an amazing amount of knowledge that way. You’ll see good dogs in action, learn the lingo, and find out if training your dog yourself is really what you want to commit to.

If you do decide to do all the training yourself, follow that up by finding a like-minded — and experienced — training group of other amateurs. If your dog has talent and you are sincere in wanting to learn, they will welcome another worker to the group.

Always, I need to give some words of caution to beginners. When observing dog work, on video or in person, understand that your own dog may react differently. Try to assess the inherent nature of your own dog. Your dog may be more, or less, sensitive than the dog being worked by a professional. Counteracting a dog’s unwanted behavior is a skill that comes from lots of experience with lots of different kinds of dogs. That’s why I recommend visiting a good professional as a start.

Making a real study of dog work is fascinating. And rewarding. I hope you will find this out for yourself. It’s my life’s work and I am grateful for it, every day.

Have fun training!

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

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