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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.

Respect through proper training
In order to earn the proper respect level from your dog, you’ve got to first convince him that you know what the hell you’re doing. This means you should have a little schooling yourself.

Even with a dog that has good desire, trainability and intelligence, that can be a difficult task. And pray to the training gods for help if your trainee is lacking in even one of those three characteristics, because at some point you will need some serious expertise to dig yourself out of a hole.

It’s very difficult for some hunters/trainers to really believe that higher levels of discipline are occasionally required to make their dogs submit to a given command.

Because of the human’s innate need to love and be loved, many novice trainers are reluctant to properly discipline their trainees when it’s necessary to do so, even though it’s in the dog’s best interest.

Still, if you have a dog with a very submissive attitude towards life in general it’s doubtful that you will need a higher level of discipline to make your point.

Those exceptionally willing dogs are few in number. Generally speaking, your dog will challenge you at some point in his training and it’s at that moment that you need to meet his challenge. You may be taken by surprise, but if you’re prepared, you won’t back away. This is a test of your patience and calmness. Your dog wants you to be in charge and will usually submit with gratitude that his behavior is in your hands. He wants you to be the boss.

Your training goal is to have your dog’s discipline acceptance level high enough so that you won’t encounter side effects when you attempt to clean up his misbehavior.

Over the years I have learned that adding any more than 10 percent of pressure more than what a dog is accustomed to handling in a given training situation will create unwanted side effects. But if you do get involved in these other issues, you will have no choice but to work on them and leave your initial problem to be dealt with at a later time.

Handling such training situations without too much emotion and a bit of know-how whenever they occur is what will naturally elevate your respect level with your dog. Even after your dog has learned all the commands and skills you think are necessary to make him a proficient hunter, you solidify respect even more by backing up each of those commands on a daily basis.

This means never letting your dog entertain the thought that he has a choice as to whether or not he will obey commands at his training level. Your dog expects you to be in charge, and if you vacillate in your role as master, he will step up and take control and allow himself to give in to the using his innate instincts given to him by Mother Nature; in other words, he will no longer be hunting for the team.

You will be amazed at just how easily you build respect from your dog simply by following a well-designed training plan that adheres to a step by step approach to everyday training. If you aren’t consistent in giving commands to your trainee, making every hand signal, verbal command and physical cue mean the same thing every time, your dog will realize you really don’t know how to be in charge. Then your training troubles begin. If you get in over your head, be smart and seek out some help from a professional or an experienced friend.

Have fun training!

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

Experience also teaches
There is no way you can claim to have a “finished” hunting dog without giving him a bunch of field experience. No matter how talented or well-trained your dog is, he will never reach his full potential as a hunter without a lot of hunting experiences under his belt. So there is no misunderstanding, I’m talking about a trained dog, not a young beginner without training. Hopefully, you’ll remember that I never advise taking an untrained dog to the field.

Through observation over the years, I have noticed how difficult it is for novice hunters/trainers to accept the fact that just having even a reasonably well trained dog is not nearly as good as the finished product. A well-trained hunting dog is only the beginning; he needs experience in the field to become a proficient hunter.

It can be difficult to duplicate actual hunting conditions in a training situation, but any effort on your part will be rewarded later on down the road. Have you ever heard the expression, “wild birds make the dog”? Well, I’m a firm believer in that old saying. Wild birds are best, but any kind of live bird for training is better than using bumpers on a consistent basis; that’s why here at Reibar I use live birds daily. I know how difficult it is to shoot birds for your trainee these days, but if you want a well-trained, seasoned dog to take to the field, you’re going to have to make the effort to find an area where you can make that happen. Live birds in training will give your dog a better idea of what happens on a real hunt. There’s just no substitute.

The two main reasons I like to take my young protégé’s to hunt Mexico are because of the liberal limits and the plentiful number of wild birds. Sometimes, we hunt pheasant, duck, quail and dove in the same day. I know one die-hard hunter whose dog flushed and retrieved more birds in one season in Mexico than most dogs in the United States ever get in a lifetime. This particular dog is a joy to hunt over. It’s amazing how his experience just kicks in, whether he’s searching for a wounded bird or tracking a runner he seems to know what the birds are going to do in most situations. It takes several seasons for a good hunting dog to learn about wild bird habits — especially their tactics when wounded; that’s another reason to give your dog as much hunting experience as possible.

When first time hunters who have trained mainly on bumpers and/or dead birds take a novice dog to the field, that dog can go crazy and get out of control with the excitement of the flying bird. It doesn’t matter whether you have an upland or waterfowl dog, he will probably ruin your hunt. This same scenario happens with the most sophisticatedly-trained dog in the world. It took me several years to convince my national retriever trial competitors that they should begin shooting pheasants and ducks for their dog weeks before the event ever began. National field trial competitions last for a week (usually ten tests) and dogs that are not accustomed to seeing big birds shot on a daily basis can quickly forget whose boss. The only way to curb that kind of craziness is familiarity. As Uncle Frank used to say — “give ’em a bunch of what they are going to see.”

To sum it up fellow hunters, if you have a talented hunting dog you are going to have to shoot him as many birds as possible while in training and then expose him to a bunch of wild birds while in the field to complete his education. Only then will you experience the satisfaction and pleasure of hunting over a seasoned dog.

Good hunting!

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

Wagon wheel part 11
Here’s how to set up and teach the wagon wheel drill. For the novice dog and trainer, begin with just three bumpers in a 180° semi-circle, placed at 9,12 and 3e o’clock.

In order to make it easier to learn for your trainee, the bumpers should be thrown on a mowed lawn about 15 feet out in front in plain sight. With your dog at your side, line him up on either 9 or 3 o’clock bumper and send him using the “back” command. When your dog returns with the bumper, keep your left foot (I’m assuming your dog heels on the left side) pointing towards that spot and throw the bumper back to its original location.
With your dog lined up on the replaced bumper, put your hand over the center of his head and say “no,” then use the “here” command as you tap your leg to go right and snapping your finger behind your left knee to go left, which will move your dog towards the 12 o’clock bumper.

These are the cues I use, yours may be different. Your goal is to eventually get this in one move once you have many, many lessons under your belt. Then say, dead bird, this cue tells your dog that you’re going after a new blind retrieve. Finally send him on “back,” the final cue that send your dog for the next bumper to be retrieved. Don’t hesitate to simplify if you should happen to get into trouble with one of the bumpers. Once you have reached the point that your dog gives you 100 percent compliance on the three bumper drill, it’s time to gradually add more bumpers.

In order to elevate the difficulty of the drill and better educate your dog on the complexities of the process you need to systematically move up the ladder by adding four, five and six bumpers to the semi-circle, which will elevate his skill level on this drill. Once your dog has mastered the drill using 6 bumpers and you have achieved the level of mental and physical communication that you are striving for, it’s time to test your accomplishments in the field.

Transferring this skill to a practical application is going to take some time but once you and your dog get on the same page with this drill you will eliminate many of the problems you’ve had with distractions on blind retrieve and for the more advanced dogs, poison birds. For the gun dog folks, you will be able to pull your dog off a dead bird to retrieve a fleeing winged bird before it gets away — something not many hunters have the option of doing.

One of the beauties of this drill is that it can be made as simple as you want it to be, or as complicated as any other training technique you have ever taught your dog, it’s your choice. If you are one of those guys/gals who like to train on new difficult skills, the wagon wheel drill should challenge you and your dog for the entire summer before reaping any rewards during the new hunting season.

Have fun training.

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

Aggressive behavior
It’s not cute to watch an eight-week-old puppy snapping and growling at people — or even other puppies. This behavior can be a harbinger of problems to come and should be discouraged as soon as possible. Too many owners think it’s funny when their pup snaps when the food dish is removed or when they try to take a toy away. They believe the pup will just “grow out” of those actions and that it’s amusing to see such a small animal acting like a grownup. But hey, puppy owners, don’t take chances with your pup’s future. Nip any aggressive activity in the bud early.

Sometimes, aggression can be an unpleasant surprise and may be associated with a relationship with an owner. Here’s an example. One day, a new client showed up to work with me and check on the progress of his young dog who had been in training for about a month. When he arrived, his dog was running and playing with other dogs, just romping in the large fenced pasture I have next to the kennels. When the youngster spotted his owner, he immediately turned and attacked one of the other dogs. It was a surprise to me, but not to the owner. The owner had encouraged “protective” instincts in his pup and now the dog was just trying to measure up to the “tough guy” image his owner had encouraged. Of course, we had to stop his normal training and work on obedience and behavior. Both the owner and his dog had to learn that to aggression could no longer be tolerated.

Owning a dog with innate “alpha” tendencies is a choice. Assertive dogs are often appealing and often make great hunting dogs. But “assertive” shouldn’t be confused with “aggressive.” Playing tug-o-war with a puppy, rewarding him with approval when he mock fights, and roughhousing with him — all these actions should be watched carefully. If his behavior crosses the line from assertiveness to aggression, notice that and take steps to correct it right away.

Most hunting clubs won’t tolerate bad dog behavior and will immediately ban any dog that attacks another. No one wants to see their fine working injured by another dog acting like a thug. Owning a dog whose behavior has to be monitored is tiring and risky. It’s also just no fun.

A good day in the field should be a pleasure. Each outing with a well-trained animal should be a treasure. The partnership between man and dog is special. My wish is that every owner can experience that and enjoy his dog in ways that build memories to savor for a lifetime.

Good Hunting!

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

Maintaining the standard
Too many dog owners who have had their dogs trained by a professional don’t hold up their end of the bargain when it comes to making their animal work at his training level while in the field or at home. If a trained dog isn’t made to work at the level of his training, he will begin taking advantage of his handler in all situations.

It’s very difficult for some novice dog owners to shake that initial neophyte mentality that once their dog is trained he will never again put a foot down wrong ever again. Others simply do not like to discipline their dogs. In either case, when a hunter’s dog recognizes this lack of attention to training details by his owner, the animal will begin a gradual process of taking control of their relationship.

This gradual deterioration of a dog’s training level usually begins at home — not in the field as one might think. Over the years, I have noticed that not many dog owners want to be disciplinarians, especially at home in a relaxed family atmosphere. Dogs are much smarter than most of us give them credit for. Once he is trained, it becomes his job to find out just exactly how much misbehavior his owner will tolerate before blowing a gasket and begin correcting his naughtiness. During this process dogs learn to be very observant, patient and subtle in their approach to taking charge. Some hunting dogs are not as difficult, and will live by the guidelines that are set by their owners, but only if these rules the animal has learned are backed up by discipline. Like all animals, dogs live by a set of inborn rules given to them by Mother Nature at birth — these rules are mostly for survival. We humans must teach our dogs to hunt for the team, which means we must instill a new set of rules in order for our dogs to become proficient hunters. Although dogs are quite willing to learn these new rules, the second they recognize any weakness in their handler’s disposition they will revert to the instinctive rules of Mother Nature. Just like kids, they will push to find your limits.

So, as a hunting dog owner, you should strive to maintain as close as possible the standard at which your dog was trained. If you don’t, your well-trained dog can make your hunting life a frustrating hell. It’s more exasperating for a dog owner to have his well-trained dog get out of control than it is if his dog had never had a day of training in his life. The reason is that the owner knows it’s his fault for allowing the misbehavior to have reached such a low point.

Not only does maintaining a high standard of performance gain a trainer/hunter a great deal of respect from his trainee but it’s also a great way to save a low-desire dog’s attitude. That’s because the type of correction sometimes needed to restore a dog’s proper performance rarely becomes necessary.
Just knowing about a dog’s intentions will give impetus to maintaining your dog’s level of training. And that will put you in the upper level of dog handlers.

Have fun training!

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

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