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.

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

Shooting, hunting and dogs
Most hunters have their own ideas about training dogs, hunting and shooting — all three very important rudiments of the bird hunting sport. Getting together to share and explore ideas with your hunting cronies is a great way to expand your knowledge on any of these subjects. But when the conversation starts to flow, be sure the person doing the talking knows something about what he’s saying. If possible, find out about his particular experience and credentials, if any.

If the topic of conversation is one in which you have a great deal of interest but in which you are not well-schooled, it’s better if you first listen before offering advice. Have you ever heard someone make a neophyte’s statement about a specific topic, and felt that he will regret his words after he learns more about the subject? That can be embarrassing. Especially if some journalist should quote his words (Just listen to some of our politicians running for office.)

I recently read an article in a sportsman’s magazine where the author quoted some uninformed, obviously naive, wanna-be dog trainer discussing the merits of a not so popular breed of hunting dog. This trainer/breeder was quoted as proudly saying, “Many hunters who own one of these dogs take them out hunting without ever putting a day of training into the dog. While that may be possible, I did not hear him discuss how well the hunt went using this untrained dog!

To what level of hunting expertise do you expect your dog to be trained? That does not seem like a complicated question, but the answer usually bring up more questions than conclusions. Unfortunately, many guys who hunt with dogs have never even been exposed to a really well-trained and obedient hunting dog. If they had, their hunting life would have been made much simpler. I remember one young hunter telling me, “ You only hear stories or read about such wonderful hunting dogs in some magazine—it’s not possible for someone like me to own one.” Why the hell not? If you are willing to put in the time to find a puppy with good blood-lines to purchase, and are able to spend the time and money necessary to have the dog and yourself properly trained, you too can have a dog that someone writes and tells stories about. It’s a commitment, but a commitment with huge rewards.

Hunters who hunt with dogs naturally gain a greater understanding of a hunting dog’s talent than the guys who don’t use dogs. But even these more knowledgeable hunters usually cease their handling and training education after learning only the rudimentary skills necessary to handle their dog in the field. I believe that a hunter should not be satisfied with a dog that is trained only to perform basic hunting skills. Nor should he be satisfied with a beginner classification as his handling skill level as well. I urge every hunter to take the time and spend the money to learn to become the team of handler-and-dog that other hunters talk about. When I go hunting, my goal is to retrieve every bird that I hit whether crippled or dead, I believe that there are very few excuses for leaving a downed bird in the field. If you and your dog are trained well enough to work as a team, there is very good chance that you can find that downed bird. Make the effort to learn how to handle your hunting dog fellow hunters, and you may be the subject of the talk around the fireplace.

Have fun training!

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

Training step by step
Training hunting dogs requires equal doses of talent, a good mental attitude and a bunch of tenacity. All are important in order to be successful at the job. I’ve never met a trainer who was born with the all the knowledge that is required to properly train a gun dog. We’ve all studied and practiced the tried and true training techniques that are the foundation of all field dog training.

An organized step-by-step method is the foundation of all successful training. It doesn’t matter whether you use the tennis shoe method, the clicker or an e-collar disciplined training format, Just choose a method that fits your personality or beliefs and stick to it, that will by your road to success. Just to be clear, I personally believe that all learned commands have to be forced once taught; that’s the key to reliable obedience that carries over to any hunting situation.

Before you begin any training format you should have a final goal in mind, decide what you want to accomplish with your dog as an end result. For example, if you intend to teach your hunting dog to take hand signals, all learned command such as force-fetch and come-on-command must be much more solid in the dog’s mind than if you were doing a simple basic training job.

If commands are not solid, you’re going to have to go back and redo them at some point later on down the road. This will make your job much more difficult.

All gun dog training begins with obedience. Heel and sit are usually very easy for the trainer to teach and the student to learn. It becomes the obvious first lesson. The method I follow for each command is: teach, teach, teach, then force what you’ve been teaching. Then, give your trainee the time needed to learn to live with and relax into his new knowledge and discipline level. Your student’s attitude toward retrieving will be your gauge as to when he is ready to move forward with the next lesson up the step-by-step ladder. When a dog reaches the acceptance level of discipline his attitude will change. It’s first noticeable by his elevated confidence level on retrieves.

It’s difficult, and I believe courageous, for a novice hunter who knows very little about the training of a gun dog to attempt such a feat. If you’re a beginner, there’s no way you can do the job of training your dog as well as a knowledgeable amateur or professional. Experience pays off. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t do a decent job in schooling your trainee to become an adequate gun dog. It can be very rewarding. As a beginner, you should make the effort to observe how a trained dog performs.

If you’ve never seen the final product you may always have far too low a standard of acceptable performance. Make an effort to find a professional trainer who will allow you to train with him so that you can witness the level of competence that can be attained by a master level gun dog.

Hopefully, you will be motivated to strive for that higher level of proficiency in your own dog.

Have fun training!

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

Whoa command
Pointing dogs have their own special command for steadiness; and that command is “whoa.” Like most essential commands, it should be forced at some point in the dog’s training; but not in the first stages of his learning. In the beginning, “whoa,” should be taught in the yard and not in the field.

Later, after the trainee completely understands the meaning of the command and has some field experience, stricter methods can be used to reinforce the steadiness in the field. Generally speaking, most pointing dogs do not handle tougher discipline procedures well — it’s best to avoid them if possible.

The first thing I do with any new trainee is to take him for a long walk on leash. At some point during the walk, I’ll first introduce the “whoa” command. If a pointing dog tries to sit, I simply pinch him in the flank or slap him on the belly to make him stand in an erect posture as I repeat the “whoa” command. This accomplishes two things: it teaches the dog not to sit and reinforces the “whoa” command. When training other types of field dogs, such as retrievers, they learn to heel and sit. Here no sitting is allowed. So, before taking a pointing dog to the field, the “whoa” command must be well introduced, the trainee should know exactly what it means, and is performing it well in yard situations.

In combination with the leash work, I also like to work the dog in a controlled situation; where he is up off the ground and close to me. I use a table or top of a dog house to direct the dog’s attention to me while he learns to be steady. I consider myself fortunate to have a large pigeon pen in my yard with my table facing it for the dogs to focus on birds while on the “whoa” command. I really believe this significantly adds to the understanding of the “whoa” command for a young dog, because birds are involved. Any time you can add excitement of some sort to a command you are teaching, it quickly becomes much more solid in the mind of your trainee.

When you feel comfortable that the “whoa” command is solid in your dog’s mind, you can challenge him in a non-working environment, just to see how well-instilled the command is in your dog’s mind. It’s okay to attempt this challenge process while other people are present but not when other dogs are running around, because that’s too much distraction, and it’s unfair to a beginner dog.

To increase your chances of success, it’s best to first try this in the area where he was originally trained on the “whoa” command — working on the premise that familiarity aids success. The trainee should be the only dog out when you challenge him giving the “whoa” command. Allow your trainee to run around and have a good time, then give him the “whoa” command and see what you get. If necessary, physically force the dog to perform, because now he must learn that there is no compromise. The “whoa” command must be obeyed any where, any time.

Hopefully, this information will give all upland trainers a better understanding of the “whoa” command, which should help to put more birds in the game bag this fall.

Have fun training!

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

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