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.

Expecting too much
Are you one of those trainers who expects too much from your young pup? If so, you seem to be in good company. I’ve been seeing a lot of unreasonable expectations from amateur trainers lately.

I feel that this is an aspect of dog training that has become prevalent because there has been far too little explanation. Novice trainer/owners don’t always understand that their pups have limitations on just how much they can learn at any one given time. It’s sometimes difficult for owners to understand that puppies have a short attention span. They should not be asked to perform any task for extended intervals when beginning preliminary or formal training.

First of all, puppies should be allowed to just be puppies and enjoy and explore the wonders of their new world. It’s okay to familiarize them to a leash, introduce them to birds and water, but only in small doses. To put demands on a pup that he is not prepared mentally or physically to handle is a sure fire way to create distrust, apprehension and confusion.

New clients have asked me this: “how many hours a day are you going to spend working with my dog?” usually, I am dealing with a novice person who knows very little or nothing at all about dogs or training, I doubt he will understand the answer I give him. That’s because it’s difficult for many hunters to understand that their pup cannot handle hours of work at any one given time period when they first go into formal training.

There is a big difference between playing fetch with a tennis ball while going for a walk with a pup and his performance in formal training. When training begins, a pup learns quickly that there are rules that dictate how he retrieves a ball or a bird. This puts pressure on the little fellow because he is trying to meet this new standard you have set.

To keep his attitude positive, it’s best to build time and pressure tolerances in small increments on a daily basis using the step up the ladder theory---a method that has been proven to work best.

In many cases, novice trainers do a better job in the teaching department because many professional trainers move too fast and come up a little short on the time spent on the instruction portion of a pup’s education before moving into the force area of that command. To be fair, a professional has a time schedule with a client’s dog, whereas an owner does not feel any obligation as to time. Patience and repetition will bring solid results.

My Uncle Frank’s advice of, “If you don’t know, go slow”, is sound advice when starting out with a young pup. From the time he is born, every day is a huge learning experience for him. So, give him the time he needs to adjust to his environment, family and all the new experiences he is encountering.

The time for strict obedience and discipline will come later on once he better understands his place in this new world that he is exploring. I feel that most dog owners are like me, they like puppies because of their innocence and adaptability. So, play it safe and allow your pup the time needed to grow as a happy, well-adjusted individual.

Have fun training!

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

The all-around dog
Most hunters these days want a dog that doubles as a pet at home and a hunting dog for the field during the season. However, Just like people, dogs have motivations and insecurities that can dictate their behavior both at home and in the field. Those tendencies can create problems for both hunter and dog at times.

When a dog is at home he is usually not subjected to strict rules because everyone wants to enjoy him as a member of the family. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, the hunter in the family shouldn’t be as lenient as other family members. It’s unfair to the dog because it may lead to more discipline needed to regain the respectful relationship that is needed in the field.

When he is working in the field he must muster up enough self-control to obey the rules and commands that he was taught when he was originally schooled to become a hunting dog.

So, if you haven’t maintained a realistic measure of control on a daily basis, troubles can develop. Correcting behavioral problems, or I should say attempting to correct these problems can be a very difficult task for trainers of all levels of expertise. Ideally, you want to begin working on these created problems before they become an ingrained habit, because once ingrained, they can be extremely difficult to fix at that time. Maintaining a dog’s level of training means that training sessions should be ongoing during the off season. Many hunters try to fix problems in the field while hunting.

Knowing the character of the dog you are dealing with is crucial when outlining the proper training program which will best benefit the dog’s temperament so control and/or advancement can be easily achieved or maintained.

I’m not talking about a dog that is going through basic training and learning his hunting skills. I’m discussing a dog that knows the rules of the hunt and chooses to disobey, such as breaking, (going before sent) or a bird dog that breaks point before the gun has a chance to get into position to make the shot.

This behavior can be created by a loose home atmosphere during the off season or a succession of hunting trips where your dog is allowed to get out of control. When this situation arises, your goal is to get your dog back under control and hunting to his training level again as quickly as possible — and with as little discipline as he will allow.

It’s a gift to any trainer when a single issue arises, because it’s not complicated and there’s no confusion on the part of the dog as to why he is being disciplined. Commands such as, breaking or not coming when called are easy. Your dog knows what they mean and should comply when a bit of discipline is added.

Usually, it only takes the correction of one command to get your dog in the right frame of mind to begin hunting to his training level again. And, the discipline on that one command or issue heals disobedience on all his other commands as well.

Re-building a proper relationship through even a little work should only be a reminder to the dog of his prior respectful attitude. Through observation, they learn what action on their part will provoke a reaction from you that they are seeking. That’s why discipline is needed; you have to counteract that behavior. Dogs are smarter than you think fellow trainers, so, sometimes you have to get a little creative in your approach to correction.

Have fun training!

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

Training alone
There are quite a few good reasons a hunter will train his dog without any outside help. The one I hear most is: “I just can’t fit my schedule into a training group’s time frame.”

Whatever your reason, all is not lost, because there are plenty of educational techniques you can either teach, or begin to teach, your trainee yourself. Still, it’s a bunch more fun to train with others. Not only can you set up better tests, but also observing other dogs and handlers is really helpful.

So you may want to go out with a group on an occasional basis. If your goal is to compete in hunt tests or field trials, it’s to your advantage to train with others. In fact, you will need to be able to set up tests to mimic those at a competition. In that case a group session will become a necessity.

A dog’s early education is always a one-man-job. In fact, every technique used in the basic training of a young dog’s beginning education is taught by just one person. The commands of, heel and sit, force fetch, and come-on-command are taught by a single trainer. Also, the “whoa” command for upland pointing dogs is taught by one person. Training your dog yourself will give you a calmer attitude in the field and a confidence that you’re in control of all situations.

There are a lot of training aids that can be used by an individual trainer. Some are a bit pricy, but these gadgets will make your training life much easier to say nothing of the fun you will have while learning how to use these innovative tools. For instance, when training dogs to mark fallen birds there are hand held bumper launchers that use a 22 blank cartridge to propel a specialized, launching bumper.

The distance the bumper travels is determined by the cartridge load that is used. Some trainers prefer to use a remote controlled launcher system. With this apparatus a trainer can simulate his dog retrieving for another crony who is hunting from a different blind, or to simply extend the length of his dogs retrieves. The use of a specialized metal frame, along with pulleys and bungie cords and fitted with a remote controlled release device, is quite useful. Some of these units have a slot for a blank 22 shell that fires when the launcher is released, which quickly gets your dog’s attention and simulates gunfire. These devices can be used to launch a dead bird or bumper for your trainee to retrieve. They can also be used to launch live birds which can be shot for steadying purposes. Of course they have to be within shooting distance of a gun when used for that purpose. There is even a multiple bumper launching system that is powered by a propane bottle.

There you have it fellow trainers, it’s not a bad idea to train alone---it can be very rewarding as well. Knowing that your efforts produced the results you are reaping in the field will not only put more birds in the bag at the end of the hunt but make you a more competent handler as well.

Always have fun training!

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

Reinforcing commands
Many novice dog trainers have a problem when it comes to reinforcing commands once they have been taught to their trainees. Obser­vation has taught me that some of these guys are simply worried that the forcing in some way will make their dog not love them any more. Also, once a command has been taught for weeks on end, maybe even months, it seems reasonable to the novice trainer that their dog will always perform that command whenever asked to do so, even under exciting hunting circumstances. “Force,” “discipline” and/or “pressures” are bad words in some dog training circles. I agree that it would be great if all we had to do was teach a dog his hunting commands and then watch him perform flawlessly in the field. I wish that were possible. But, it’s not likely to happen.

It’s instructive to look at training from a dog’s point of view. For instance, dogs are given certain innate, survival instincts by Mother Nature, so that they can fend for themselves in the wild. We, as trainers, must utilize these genetic senses by teaching our dogs to hunt for us instead of themselves. This is where the reinforcing of all learned commands comes into play to avoid a hunting situation where the dog will revert to his innate habits and ignore his handler amidst the excitement of flying birds.

Many trainers only embellish the natural skills that their dogs have been given by the hunting gods and neglect the discipline essential in training the animal to hunt for the team. They just hope and pray that their student will perform his command under all conditions without a background of force. Maybe in a perfect world.

Dogs are creatures of habit, so, the best way to teach an animal a new command or skill is through repetition.

Dogs learn best by performing a new drill over and over until it becomes an ingrained habit and a part of him, never to be forgotten. One of the lesser known methods of putting teeth into a newly learned skill is for the trainer to demand through this repetition that the trainee learns a new skill the exact way the trainer wants the dog to perform this skill in the field.

In the process of making your trainee perform the command in a fashion that is not exactly natural for the dog, this puts pressure on the animal to perform, and makes the command more solid in the dog’s mind. Cajun dog training rule #1 is: “If you want a command to stick in the dog’s mind for the remainder of his life, teach it to him while he is under pressure.” There are two kinds of pressure: repetition and correction. It’s ideal to use both in a dog’s training program, but not at the same time. Correction while repeating will undermine a dog’s enthusiasm and make training a chore for both trainer and student.

Of course, some dogs are much more trainable than others. Very compliant dogs require much less pressure to solidify a command than dogs that are not blessed with a high level of trainability. It can be very difficult for a novice trainer to make that distinction between dogs, especially when it comes to assessing his own dog. An outside opinion from a professional can help.

Grit and determination are two qualities most novice trainers possess, but, unfortunately, those two qualities do not trump experience. Never be reluctant to seek out help from a knowledgeable person when training questions arise.

Always have fun training.

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Grady’s column appears in WON every other week. He can be reached at

Should you use your duck dog to flush?
Over the past several years here at Reibar, we’ve have had a tremendous number of clients asking for their waterfowl retrievers to be trained to also flush upland game. Retrievers do love to flush, as discovered by many duck and goose hunters. And retrievers are quite proficient at finding and flushing upland game as long as they are properly trained to perform this skill. So, there is really no downside to having both waterfowl and upland game use in one dog. The challenge is to keep a retriever that is working upland within gunshot range of the hunting party.

In the past, many hunters were of the misguided opinion that it would diminish their duck dogs’ retrieving skills in some way, as well as diminish the dog’s obedience level if they were allowed to flush upland game. Of course, that’s true if you don’t maintain a proper standard of disciplined performance. As a gauge, you might want to teach your flusher to work no farther than 20 yards ahead and to both sides of the guns---this is the distance I teach all of my flushing dogs. By the time a rising bird reaches 30 yards, you should have shouldered your gun and fired a shot. However, if your shooting skills are not that good, teach your dog to hunt even closer to the gun - it’s not that difficult. The key is not to follow your dog. Instead, make him hunt to the gun and everyone will be happier. And always watch your dog and keep him under proper control.

Years ago, when I ran a pheasant club, I used my black Labrador, Hondo, as a flushing dog for hunters who didn’t have a dog. He got a great deal of flushing experience that first year. During the following waterfowl season, I noticed a big difference in his ability to quickly find and retrieve difficult downed birds that were hidden in the demanding foliage along the Santa Ynez River, where I hunt locally. Anyone who hunts birds of any kind knows just how elusive a wounded bird can be to retrieve in certain circumstances; sometimes they hide in plain sight where only a dog’s educated nose can detect them. One of the main skills a hunting dog that hunts upland game learns is the habits of downed and fleeing birds. I became convinced that having my dog as a dual-purpose companion was a good idea.

Retrievers that have learned the flushing skill make better all-around dogs as long as the handler maintains a disciplined format during the hunt. They learn to be much more proficient while seeking out cripples in unforgiving mire, all the while learning the many elusive tactics used by wounded birds. The longer a fleeing bird is allowed to go undetected, the more difficult it becomes to find and bag the feathery foe. Dogs that are experienced and educated in finding downed birds quickly put more feathers in the daily bag. No hunter I know likes to leave a wounded bird in the field, and training your waterfowl dog to hunt upland will aid in eliminating that problem. . Fortunately, most retrievers are gifted with the natural talent level to hunt both upland and waterfowl without creating any conflicting problems for the hunter in the field.

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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