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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.

The dirt clod drill
This article is for all of my neglected competition trial readers.

Before discussing this drill, there’s a warning needed: this drill can have dire consequences if used in the wrong circumstances. No drill should ever be used beyond the point where the joy of the quest is removed from the dog. It’s useful solely for dogs that are “hot” and can be damaging for dogs that are sensitive or insecure. Its purpose sounds simple: to teach high-energy dogs to quest for a mark in an organized manner.

But, the amount of pressure put on a lesser-energy dog can lead to: coming back to the handler without a bird, giving up usual hunting patterns and going off in bizarre directions, and, especially, popping on marks.

I recently used this drill for two of my dogs: Flint and Eli. They were built up from running hunt tests for two days and were careening around freely when being aired. The amount of excitement in their body language was cause for alarm. I knew the next test would include a water blind and water marks — both areas where obedience to the handler would be critical.

So, here’s one version (there are others) of the drill.

An experienced bird boy goes out into the field and throws a single mark (bumpers or birds). The handler throws a distraction mark well off to the side and sends the dog for that. While the dog is getting the distraction bird, the long mark is picked up by the bird boy and he returns to his original position. The handler receives the distraction bird, and sends the dog to the long mark in a normal manner.

While the dog quests for the missing bird, the bird boy studies the dog’s hunting pattern. Where the dog hunts, how he hunts (head up or down, for example), his energy and persistence, and, most important, how thoroughly he hunts. The hunt pattern should be organized, in that the dog shows a systematic way of covering the field. For example, large mindless circles show lack of attention to the task at hand. A good hunt pattern would cover the field in sections, energetically looking for the bird.

After a period of time, up to the discretion of the handler or bird boy — whichever is decided beforehand — a bird should be sneaked in. Its location should be close to where the original bird fell, but not exactly. Instead, its placement should reflect the dog’s hunt and be a location where the dog neglected to put in an organized look. For example, if the dog hunted too deep, the placement should be shallow; if he hunted too close to the thrower, it should be quite a bit away, if he avoided heavy cover, it should be thrown into that. The choice of bird placement will depend on the dog’s hunting pattern.

Of course, the placement cannot be very far away from the original fall. When the dog does find the bird, his reaction to finding the bird should be noted. Some dogs show surprise and this is desirable because that reaction leads to paying more attention to the throw.

The throw should then be repeated and the dog allowed to retrieve it normally. The goal is to wear down the too-high energy of the dog, but not to diminish his confidence in his own marking ability.

The result of the drill should be: the dog pays more attention to the throw, the dog hunts more systematically, the dog’s high energy is now more manageable.

We used to throw actual dirt clods instead of bumpers or birds when doing this drill, but I think some dogs can tell the difference as they view the clod in the air. And, you do need a thrower with an especially good arm to create a proper arc with a dirt clod! Another issue can be that the dirt clod stays intact after being thrown and some dogs could try to pick it up. Always, it’s critical that the handler makes sure the dog isn’t looking when the bird boy picks up the bird.

This drill is quite useful during a competition because it doesn’t require finding good training grounds (although a bit of cover is necessary). It does a good job of burning off excess energy, encourages attention to the throw, and helps build a systematic hunting pattern.

Variations of this drill can be: scenting the fall area and throwing the replacement bird into that area, and using the collar and handling if the dog hunts in a ridiculous manner. This particular variation Will help dogs with lesser marking talent, it teaches them to hunt in the scented area until they come up with the bird.

You can’t always predict dog behavior and, as always, drills should adapt to the circumstances that arise.

Have fun training!

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

Male or female
About this time of year, hunters begin thinking about purchasing a new puppy for next season. One question I get a lot is this: which sex makes a better hunting dog, male and female? Personally, I like quality and I don't care what sex the quality comes in. But if your personality is such that you cannot see yourself owning anything but a particular sex, don't be foolish— get that specific sex. It’s doubtful that you will be happy with anything else.

So, the question still remains: which sex make the better hunting dog, especially for the average hunter? As you might imagine, there are a bunch of different options on this often controversial subject. I think I've heard most of the old wives tales on the subject, such as, when it comes to finding difficult cripples that have fallen in the muck and mire, the females seem to come up with the bird, whereas, the males’ attitude seems to be, “Oh hell that one is got away, I’ll get the next one.” There are different opinions on this of course, but I agree. Maybe it’s because of the motherly instincts to feed their young which makes females seem to hunt more tenaciously for difficult, downed birds. Also, because the basic nature of the female is often more submissive than the male, I really feel that they make better hunting dogs for the average guy.

Females are not necessarily easier to train, but once trained they are much easier to control than the males of equal talent. That's my opinion after over a half century of observing both sexes in the field. However, here's one rule I have learned to follow while training the girls: don't ever be unfair in your training practices. If you do, they can get back at you at an inopportune moment down the road.

Here’s a memorable example: some years ago, at a National Retriever competition, I watched in disbelief as a female Labrador ate a bird in the sixth series. Having trained with the owner many times, I knew how unfair she could be in the training of this wonderful talented female. She would nag and pick at the smallest details and repeat drills endlessly even when the dog performed perfectly. This particular National test was a triple retrieve that was giving many of the contestants a variety of problems in their attempt to come up with the birds.

After just hammering the difficult test, this dog stopped 15 feet from the handler with the last pheasant and proceeded to rip it apart in front of the judges the gallery and her owner — especially her owner. She sent a memorable message: don't be unfair to a female dog.

Here at Reibar, both sexes go through the same training regimen while learning their hunting skills. However, it's not just the learning of skills that makes the females more favorable in the eyes of hunters: they know how to make you fall in love with them a whole bunch faster and better then the males.

So, which sex dog do I personally like to hunt over? Given two dogs of the same ability, I lean towards the females, even though I have only had males for the past 40 years. My only reason is this: male dogs bring in the stud fees.

No matter which sex you choose, it's doubtful you'll make a mistake if you make sure to get a quality dog.

Good hunting!

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

The fine art of training a dog
Dog training is comprised of two things: repetition and correction. Repeti­tion is involved when teaching commands to get a certain desired behavior. Correction involves the discipline part of training and is used when a dog insists on a wrong action after he understands what the right action is.

Understanding the difference between defiance and confusion is something that takes experience working with many dogs. But, there are people who seem to know dog behavior better than others, and those people are just plain lucky. Most dog owners don’t really know whether their dog is faking bad behavior to get attention or when the dog simply doesn’t understand what the right action is.

Over the years, I have observed a big variety of dog owners with both hunting dogs and field trial dogs. In both categories, they have had lots of success. Those owners/trainers who have little natural understanding of the nature of dog have worked harder than the natural trainers but they have arrived at their goals anyway. They have learned how to succeed, through hard work and lots of repetition.

Dogs like to work. They will respond to the trainer regardless of the training method used because they want the feeling of success that comes through praise and proper actions is a huge reward. They are open to communication with their owner or trainer and study that person almost as much as the human seeks to understand them.

That’s the beauty of these animals and what keeps old trainers like me out in the field every day. I tell my clients that most any sensible training method they choose will work if they persist and are consistent. More knowledge is gained through working the dog than through watching videos and reading books. A good dog will try mightily to please his human even when the human goes about training in an unorthodox way.

Here’s an example. In teaching a young dog to heel on leash, one owner may keep his dog on a tight rein and another may allow a loose leash. The first owner won’t know when his dog is actually accepting the “heel” command and walking obediently at his side. The second owner will allow the dog to surge ahead, then give him a jerk on the leash to have him return to his side; now the dog must walk obediently out of his own choice. The latter is a better way to train because it gives the dog options and makes the proper action come from the dog; the dog submits and the lesson is better retained because it was learned from the dog’s own decision. Still, both teams of dog and owner will be successful and reach their goals. Again, dogs want to learn, and that means that repetition of any sort will bring reward.

So, fellow trainers, never worry unnecessarily about your own training expertise. You will be successful no matter how you train, as long as you are fair and persistent. Through work, the team of man and dog will bring rewards. Not only in getting the birds in the field, but also in everyday life. Remember that dogs can’t read books, nor can they watch training videos.

Have fun training!

* * *

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

Gundog hand signals
Bird hunters who hunt with dogs can get a little restless a month or so after the wild bird season has ended. If you are one of those hunters, and are looking to advance your dog’s hunting skills for next season, I suggest teaching him to take basic hand signals. It’s not as difficult as you might imagine, and can only enhance your communication with your dog.

Unfortunately, many hunters seem to know very little about how to implement skills of higher learning. Most of the gundogs I sell are trained to take hand signals. As part of my sales contract, I offer five free lessons for the person who purchases a dog I have trained.

In all of these years, I’ve had only one person come back for a lesson, and he only came one time. None of these people got their money’s worth because the lessons were part of the value. Also, these new owners possibly failed to establish the best communication with their new dogs, and very likely didn’t transfer the high level of respect their dog was accustomed to.

Still, there are quite a few gun dog owners who have trained their own dogs to take basic hand signals. They feel a basic course is all they need, and in many cases they’re correct. However, one of the biggest problems these novice trainers face is having their dogs go beyond a fallen bird or even the decoys spread to retrieve a dead or wounded bird. What some of these inexper­ienced trainers do not understand is that it’s an innate part of all dogs to perform something familiar, unless otherwise trained. So, guess what’s going to happen when you drop one duck in the decoys and then sail one beyond them that your dog does not see fall. When you send your dog on a blind retrieve to fetch the duck that fell beyond the decoys, guess where he’s going to stop: right where he picked up the last duck. If he is not trained to handle through a distraction, you’re either going to have to get out of your of duck blind and help the dog find that bird or consider it a lost bird — which is never okay in my book.

So here’s how you train your dog to go beyond distractions such as, roads, ditches, fallen birds or decoys.

First, teach your dog a known blind retrieve of at least 50 yards in distance. Once your dog has made a retrieve to this location many times and you consider the “blind” well established and solid in his mind, it’s time to add a distraction. Always run the blind a couple of times before each session to remind your trainee of its location. Then throw a bumper 90 degrees to your right or left, and have your dog retrieve that bumper.

When he returns with the bumper, line him up and send him for the known blind; if you have any problem, move forward a few steps towards the blind. As your dog gets more and more familiar with this procedure and completely understands what you’re expecting of him, it’s time to start moving the thrown bumper closer to the line to the blind. Eventually, your goal is to be able to throw the distraction bumper on the same line to the blind and have your dog run through the bumper he just picked up and get the blind. If he stops, simply handle him through with a back command.

Teaching this concept and then having your trainee flawlessly perform the procedure many, many times will solidify the process in your dog’s mind. If you have a bird source, it’s a good idea to teach this process with birds before taking it to the field. You may even want to get a little creative and use a wing-clipped pigeon as the distraction bird.

If your dog goes through the area where he picked up the fluttering bird to get the blind, you can probably depend on him to perform well under hunting conditions.

Have fun training!

* * *

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

What did you learn?
Do you want to have a more productive hunt next season? The only way I know of to accomplish that is to review this past season’s performance.

To begin, think about your dog's behavior in your pre-training sessions before the season began. After a long layoff, dogs tend to be a bit on the unruly side. Instead of having to use harsh discipline to get your dog under control, I would suggest that you start your pre-hunting training a bit earlier to give yourself time to iron out problems well before the coming season.

Another gauge of obedience is to assess how your dog acted in his usual environment away from the field. A good balance between work at home and in the field is a proper goal. An assessment about two months before the season begins should be adequate — that's what I recommend to all of my clients.

Also, how did your dog act around the clubhouse or the motel? Unless your dog lives with the family at home and is totally comfortable on the inside of a public dwelling, I would suggest bringing your dog crate into the motel room to avoid unnecessary problems.

And, at the clubhouse, if you know your dog has an aggressive nature, it's not a good idea to bring your dog inside. In my experience, I have found that most hunt clubs will allow dogs into the clubhouse as long as they get along with other dogs and people. Dogs in that setting seem to add a primitive nature to the gathering that most hunters enjoy. I know I do.

Of course, the bottom line for any hunting dog is how well did he perform in the field. I encourage clients to maintain a modicum of control over their dogs, which I believe begins with steadiness. If you brush up your dog on his steadiness, everything else seems to fall into place.

But sometimes there can be problems you can foresee! For example: I was invited by a client to hunt ducks at his club in Los Banos this past January, and on the morning of the hunt we were pleased to have what I consider an adequate amount of ducks coming towards our blind to harvest a double limit.

But the ducks wouldn’t come into our decoys. Instead, they would flare just out of gun range. Baffled and frustrated, I finally got out of the sunken blind In an effort to see what was going on. I couldn't see a damned thing wrong with the decoys spread or our setting, yet the ducks continued to flare. As noon time approached, I noticed that our Black Labrador Retriever was wagging her tail, vigorously. I had to laugh when i figured out that her happy attitude had been our problem all along.

The motion of her tail was so extreme that small rocks were scattering about. Late-season ducks are quite wary, and even a small movement is enough to make them flare away from an area. These days, waterfowl coming down all the flyways are getting so much pressure from hunters that we need to take extra measures to avoid detection. During all the years that I hunted the Louisiana marshes, I never concealed my dog. But times have changed, fellow hunters.

There are quite a few manufacturers that make nice dog blinds but they are cumbersome and difficult in some cases to carry out to your blind. I suggest you consider taking a camo blanket instead. We could have used one to cover our dog’s tail action. That’s one of the things I learned this past season. Controlling your environment takes a bit of study, but the one thing you can certainly control is your dog.

Observing your dog’s habits in all areas will aid you in preparing for the next season. In order to make your dog a better companion and hunting dog it's important that you remember, and write down, what he did at home, at the motel, the clubhouse, and especially in the field.

Good hunting!

* * *

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

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