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.

When should you take a young dog hunting?
It’s never a good idea to take an untrained dog to the field for a hunt because there is very little to gain and a bunch to lose. I have given this advice many times over the years and some hunters think it’s a good idea, while others ignore it completely.

Every hunter wants to take his new untrained puppy on a hunting trip with him no matter how old he/she is at the time. It takes self-discipline to refrain. So the question lingers: when should you take your puppy hunting? You’d think there would be a simple answer to the question; but, like most answers in the dog training world, it depends.

The last thing you want to have happen to your pup is to frighten him, especially with something that should be music to his ears — like a shotgun blast. Even though you’ve made the effort to give your pup some controlled experience to gunshots does not mean he will handle the noise from multiple guns going off in the field under hunting conditions. Even a dog who has graduated from a basic training course can be apprehensive on his first few hunts. If you compound his nervousness with a shotgun blast, or multiple blasts — you can create a potentially disastrous situation for a young dog.

When there are too many things happening at one time for an inexperienced dog to cope with, side-effects can arise that will set back, or in some cases, even ruin his maturing into a competent hunting dog.

Inexperienced dogs need time to figure out what the hell is going on all around them so that each element of the occurrences encountered in the field can be competently introduced. Fear is not a motivating factor for any pup, so don’t be foolish by exposing your youngster to frightening experiences before he is ready to handle them.

The smart thing for you to do is not take him on a hunting outing until he has had at least a basic training course under his belt, that way he will feel more comfortable performing essential commands. He also will have a general idea as to what will be expected of him in most hunting situations better than if he did not have that kind of education beforehand. Of course, some dogs handle pressure situations better than others, but why not take the safe route?

When educating a beginner dog, training should be done in small doses, never going beyond what the little fellow can handle at any one time. Small steps up the ladder of knowledge are always best. It’s always wise to adapt training to your individual pup.

I know many of you have read or heard a trainer say, “read the dog.” If you can do that, you can know how much a dog can handle and not go beyond his limitations in a training session. As always, tailoring a session to your pup’s abilities, and your own needs, leads to success.

As dogs get older and more mature, they are better able to handle higher levels of learning, knowledge and discipline than when they were pups. I think my Uncle Frank’s wise words apply here: “when you don’t know, you go slow.” It’s of course your choice whether to take your young pup out to the field or not, fellow hunters, but I hope you will now be aware that there are risks involved. Making good decisions is not just something we teach our gun dogs. We as trainers must make an attempt to be become as self-disciplined as the dogs we instruct.

Always have fun training.

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

Blind luck
This waterfowl season, if you find yourself needing a way for your dog to avoid detection by savvy incoming birds, consider using a dog blind. Although they are relatively new to the hunting community dog blinds are becoming more popular with each successive season. Many retailers now offer various dog blinds for concealment in snow, tulles and ghillie grasses and come in several camo patterns as well. Most of the ones I have seen are collapsible. They fold up like a suitcase for easy carrying and storage, which makes them much easier to transport to the field.

THE USE OF NATURAL cover fastened to the dog blind helped conceal Cami during a goose hunt in Alturas last season

I have not yet used one of these dog coverings in a hunting situation, but I would not hesitate if the circumstances warranted concealing my dog. It has been my experience that ducks and geese look for any movement made by either hunter or dog and or easily suspicious of any given setup. So, training your dog to stay inside his blind quietly is paramount. I can see that it would be even more important to conceal your dog in a cut grain field where there is usually less cover than in a marshy area where it’s more difficult for our feathery foes to spot a hunter and/or his dog.

Teaching your dog to use one of these blinds can be a challenge, but in the end it’s well worth the effort. I start by first teaching a dog to confidently use the down command. Then once your trainee understands and is comfortable performing the down command, it’s time to get him accustomed to having something covering him. I like to use an old jacket or blanket to cover the dog from the neck back, leaving his head and front legs free. It’s important not to move too fast. Patience with your dog’s understanding and insecurities is the key here and your dog must become comfortable with each new step before moving on to the next.

I don’t like to introduce new word command to a dog’s vocabulary, so use the well-known, “kennel” command with a gesture to order a trainee into the dog blind. Then, once he’s comfortable with this I practice in the yard under controlled conditions. Eventually, your dog will get the idea and will automatically run into the blind and lie down when commanded; they quickly learn that good things happen when they’re in the blind.

HERE, A SPRIG is being familiarized with his blind in the back yard.

I have a client and friend, Jeff Studt, who told me that he used treats to get his dog, Cami into the blind then quickly gave the down command before she could come out. “When Cami sees the blind come out I hardly have time to get it on the ground before she dives into in and makes herself comfortable.” Jeff told me.

This is not a training process that will be accomplished overnight, but you’ve got the entire summer to get your dog acclimated to this new apparatus Use your time wisely.

There are other advantages to using the dog blind. For instance, if he is housed in a dog blind several feet away. Once your dog is acclimated to his blind it’s a good idea to gradually move the blind as much as 20 to 30 feet from the guns, which will diminish the concussion of the gun blast and save your dog from any unnecessary hearing loss.

Have fun training!

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

Preparing upland hunting dogs
With the upland season scheduled to begin next month, now is a good time to get your flushing and pointing dogs in shape. The physical demands placed on these dogs are generally far greater than those placed on dogs that retrieve duck and dove. So, getting them into top condition is essential.

Whatever way you choose to exercise your dog doesn’t really matter. Muscle building and stamina are necessary if you want to be fair to your dog when you’re out on your first hunt of the season. Long walks when no training fields are available are acceptable, especially where the dog has some space to stretch out. However, combining exercise with some refreshers in training is the perfect combination. These dogs love to work. And, they also love to run, and that can be a problem if your dog isn’t properly schooled.

In addition to physical preparation, the dog needs some mental preparation as well. If your dog isn’t under control, you can have a miserable, frustrating hunt. Whether you’re hunting wild or planted birds, keeping your dog in gun range is a must for flushing breeds. All dogs like to have fun out in the field, and that can be a problem.

Chasing a flyaway or putting up a hunt hundreds of yards in front of the guns shouldn’t be allowed by any hunter. One of the biggest problems I see with unschooled hunters is the desire to follow the dog instead of making the dog hunt back to them. That’s one of the better reasons why every hunting dog should go through a basic training course. Again, control is essential with upland dogs. The dog should be taught to come on verbal and whistle commands. If you can’t accomplish this in the yard, it’s doubtful you will have an obedient dog in the field. Your end goal is to have a dog that understands the hunt and his role as finder and retriever. The standard of performance you set for your dog when he is young and impressionable is what you can expect for the remainder of his hunting life. It’s really important that you never allow your hunting dog to learn any lesson the wrong way, which can happen if you take him to the field too soon. Dogs learn bad habits just as quickly and proficiently as they learn good ones.

I train all my flushing dogs to hunt within 20 yards of the gunner. I feel confident that I can hit a rising bird at that distance. Right from the start, you should demand that your dog hunt at whatever distance is comfortable for you to make the shot. Over time, that space will become what I call his neutral distance from the gun.

Pointing dogs, on the other hand, can hunt at greater distances from the gunners, but need to hold point until you catch up to them. Of course, the pointing breeds can be allowed to cover much more ground because they aren’t going to intentionally flush the bird; instead, they are going to point the location, giving the hunter time to move in and make the shot.

In order for both hunter and dog to have a great day afield, the dog must adjust to the needs of the hunter or there will be very little fun for the person with the gun. It’s going to take a little work during the off season to get your dog in shape and obedient, fellow hunters, but it’s definitely worthwhile in the end.

Good Hunting!

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

Dove season canine prep
The opening of each new hunting season is something I look forward to each year. When the season ended last January, I was ready for a break, but, as usual, by March, I was rested and ready to go again.

For me, owning a good hunting dog and not using him is like owning a boat and not fishing. I feel guilty when I’m not out in the fields pursuing some sort of birds with my dog. Even in the off-season, I keep my hunting dog in good shape — both physically and mentally by working him at least three times a week.

Most dogs, no matter how well trained they are, need a tune-up about this time every year. If your dog is young, or not fully trained, or not experienced with dove, there are some precautions I would recommend. You may not know how the dog will respond to the first hunt of the year, and the first day out, you will likely find out how good your training job was. If you’re breaking out a new dog, there are a bunch of unknowns that may form a long list in your book of concerns. And, the first hunts will usually define the kind of hunting dog you will have for the remainder of his career.

If you’re going to attempt to correct any unwanted behavior while on the hunt, certain precautions should be taken. For example, any corrections should be clear-cut in your dog’s mind. If you add discipline while your dog is confused, you could get into some trouble that can be avoided and you may see some unwanted side effects that are hard to handle for most amateur trainers.

Also, disciplining a dog when there are birds involved is not necessarily a good idea. You don’t want the dog to associate birds with severe correction. Birds are the dog’s reward and the reason he puts up with the training. The last thing you want to create is a dog that dislikes going to the field.

For an inexperienced or young dog, the first hunt can create an uncertainty as to what you expect from him and that can create anxiety.

The reason this happens stems from the fact that in training your pup, he dis­covered that learning something new is often followed by some form of discipline. I don’t advise any harsh discipline for a novice in his first hunting experience.

If you have a well-trained, experienced dog who is accustomed to discipline, it’s okay to use the e-collar if he should break on a shot bird. But I do not recommend using the e-collar on a first-timer; there are other steps that can be taken.

For instance: you can simply tie your young dog down and not release him for the retrieve until he settles down. If you have a hunting partner who is a decent shot, you can put the dog on a leash and work him on the sit command to show him that steadiness carries over to the field. After all, the dog has to learn to apply the skills he has learned in training to the hunt. So, you want the dog to enjoy the hunt as much as possible, but not allow him to make the occasion frustrating.

For the first hunt, the atmosphere should be one of excitement tempered with decent control. You’ll be pleased, and possibly surprised, to watch your pup discover the joy of working and honing his natural instincts. This event should be a well-deserved reward for the many days of training, and I hope you have a successful day in the field together.

Have a great dove opener!

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

Getting your dog ready
The hunting season may seem a long way off fellow hunters, but it’s time to start looking ahead and preparing your dog for the demands of a lengthy season. After all hunting dogs are athletes; and, like any athlete there’s a the physical and mental conditioning process after any long layoff.

Work should begin in small steps — not giant leaps, so you need to start preparing early. Most of today’s hunting dogs double as pets for the family to enjoy during the off season, which can make getting them into hunting shape and refocusing their attention on game birds all the more difficult.

Although very important, the heart, lungs and muscles are what most hunters think about when you mention getting your dog in shape for the season. Not many sportsmen think about the pads on their dog’s feet when it comes to the conditioning process. Unless your dog has been very active during this past offseason his pads are going to be a bit on the soft side and not field ready. Because of their unrelenting desire to hunt, dogs are going to give it their best effort no matter what their physical condition. So, it’s unfair to the animal, to take him to the field when he’s not hunt-ready.

The last thing any hunter wants to happen is for his dog to be laid up after the first outing of the season — especially if it is a preventable injury. That’s a real bummer. Another problem during the off season is that many sportsmen don’t pay close enough attention to the amount of food their dogs are being fed. Consequently, the slim hunting dog they ended the season with is now overweight. Cutting back on the dog’s food is another good reason to start the conditioning process early.

Even the simplest outing can be unfair to an out-of-shape dog. I’ve had hunters tell me, “There are no real demands on a dog for a dove hunt.” That’s wrong, fellow hunters. A dog that is overweight will overheat much quicker on a hot day than one that is in hunt-ready shape, and they are more likely to strain a muscle. Also, the hot ground tends to make their pads wear or tear more easily. Dove hunting is as dangerous for your dog as any other type of hunting when your dog is in poor condition.

Although, I do not disapprove of roading a dog to get him in hunting shape, I feel the better choice is to go the training route. It’s also a mental refresher for any dog and sharpens the communication between the two of you. Teach him something new or hone an existing command, skill or technique. Set up a training schedule by deciding how many days you have until the season begins, then set up realistic goals to accomplish in the weeks ahead.

Your ultimate goal is to have your hunting dog at his proper field ready weight, in good physical conditioning, with toughened pads, and tuned in to his training level by the first hunt.

It’s a long season ahead fellow dog owners, so be kind to your hunting partner and get him into shape by the time the season begins. A dog adds joy to any hunt. Don’t be without your dog on any of your outings simply because you didn’t do your part to get him ready.

Good hunting!

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

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