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.

There have been many studies of how dogs use their noses, but there’s still much to be learned about the subject of scenting. Dogs can be taught to distinguish between a large variety of smells and their use in finding people and bombs is well known. Still, I continue to be fascinated when I watch dogs in the field and often marvel at their abilities to find game in even extreme or unusual conditions. I find scenting the most fascinating part of dog training.

A good hunting dog will learn to use his scenting abilities through the many experiences he encounters in the field. The more experiences he has, the better he seems to hone his skills. I am always amazed when I observe just how a road, stump, bush, hill or tree affects winding conditions. The best example I know of is to observe the swirling smoke of a camp fire. It seems to have no true direction. That’s possibly why a dog can scent a bird from the opposite direction the wind seems to be blowing. I’ve decided to just accept what I see and not try to figure out the circumstance. Analysis of these oddities might just drive a person crazy.

Hunting dogs are born with certain instincts given to them by the hunting gods. However, learning to properly use those instincts for the team of man and beast can be greatly enhanced by a good trainer. Using birds consistently in training helps dogs understand not only their scents but also their behavior. This is especially true of upland game that can move about after being planted. A very experienced bird dog will be able to distinguish old scent from fresh scent and trail a bird easily. I’ve seen guys try to handle their dog in the field, give up, and watch as their dog runs to an entirely different location and picks up the bird. Sometimes it’s best to just let the dog have his way, after all, he’s the expert!

Experienced duck dogs learn how to find wounded birds in most circumstances, but birds have their own capabilities too. I remember pursuing a wounded duck on the Santa Ynez River that gave my very experienced dog, Hondo, a difficult time by hiding in plain sight. The duck had hunkered down in a small depression of the side of the sloping river bank. The distance across the river was only fifteen yards and I was able to observe not only the dog’s tactics, but the duck’s as well. Although my dog was in winding position of the duck, he couldn’t pick up the scent. After hunting for a bit, Hondo paused and looked to me for direction. I casted him straight back and he actually stepped on the duck, which spooked the bird and Hondo made the retrieve. So, it’s not always the dog’s fault for not winding a bird.

I’ve seen hunters get upset in situations when they think their dog should have found a bird. There are so many factors that come into play. A very dry day is one. An extremely windy day is another. Scent rises differently depending on conditions, and a dead bird lying in plain sight on a very hot day can give a dog trouble. So, hunters, cut your dogs some slack.

Don’t be too quick to judge your dog’s scenting abilities, and give the dog plenty of experience. That’s the best we can do for our faithful hunting companions.
Have fun training

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

Attitude while training

Learning to assess your dog’s training attitude is important in becoming a proficient trainer. You should be able to observe your own dog in a clear way, without emotion, in order to advance his training fairly. Attitude — a dog’s willingness to please under pressure — is part of his inherent makeup. Every dog has a level of tolerance for the pressures of training that is unique to him. It’s up to you to discover your particular dog characteristics and to train him with that knowledge in mind.

You are lucky if your dog has a strong prey drive. A dog’s prey drive — his urge to get the birds — is key. If it is low, it becomes more difficult to maintain his enthusiasm when learning and obeying. So, as a trainer, you need to watch your dog’s body language as well as his performance. Whenever a dog shows a reluctance to work it can manifest in various ways. If he refuses to perform, that refusal is an attitude problem that shouldn’t be allowed to continue because it can become an ongoing obstacle to advancement. Assessing whether or not the dog understands the meaning of a new command, or whether his mind is full of conflicting ideas and he can’t think of the correct action, is something that takes years of working dogs to determine. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is for a trainee’s lack of willingness, because the cure is the same: simplification. Backing up to the explanation step in the teaching process helps. Or, you may choose to abandon the lesson for the moment and decide to repeat a drill that a dog knows well and likes. Both these solutions are ways to get yourself out of trouble so you can end the day’s training session on a positive note.

If you are fortunate to have a dog with a strong prey drive, training should be much easier. That’s because when you hit a real obstacle and your dog seems low, a shot bird will get you out of trouble and restore your dog’s enthusiasm for work immediately. The downside, however, is that training your dog may need to be exceptionally thorough to offset the excitement of the hunt. When the “hot” dog gets under the excitement of hunting conditions, he can be hard to control. That’s why a stronger level of discipline may be needed on a daily basis. The goal, with every dog of any temperament, is to maintain an eager — yet obedient — attitude as a habit.

As a professional trainer, I’m not as intimately involved in my dogs’ daily successes as their owners. I care greatly about each dog but without the emotional aspect I see in my clients. I think this adds to being able to be open to each individual dog’s strengths and weaknesses and to train each one according to his makeup. Still, the novice trainers of today benefit greatly from the enormous amount of training information available online and in the variety of books and videos. Also, the novice usually has more time to devote to his dog and can bring him along more slowly. Steady and consistent work is really ideal.

Maintaining a proper training attitude is the goal. But, if you get into trouble with your dog, remember that there is no substitute for a shot bird. As one of my clients once said, “When it comes to birds, don’t spare the horses!”

Have fun training!

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Grady Istre column runs every other week and he can be reached at

Making commands solid
Every time I write, “never take an untrained dog to the field,” I get emails and phone calls from fellow hunters claiming their dogs have never had a day of training in their lives and are wonderful and skilled hunting companions. I think perhaps these hunters have formed that opinion because they have never hunted over a truly well-trained dog.

And, what do I mean by “well-trained?” I mean, a dog that is reliable, steady, and, above all, obedient. I maintain that this final characteristic, obedience, can’t be a part of the dog without proper force training.

Many beginner hunters, especially those who are training their first dog, don’t always understand why basic commands need to be reinforced with pressure to become solid. They are under the misguided notion that once taught, a dog will perform all his lessons without much guidance. That’s only in a dream, fellow hunters. The idea that dogs are born knowing how to hunt is unfounded. “It’s the dog’s birthright,” argued one caller. And, while it’s true that well-bred dogs have the innate characteristic of wanting to catch birds, that’s just a platform to build upon. We trainers know this, and we also know how hard it is to convince some dog owners that we do know this. Our job is to take the talent within the dog and show the dog how to express it within the strictures of teamwork with the owner. Our goal is to mold the dogs’ innate abilities into a solid partnership so that the dog is in sync with his owner and looks to him for direction. Then, with field experience, the relationship becomes even stronger as it builds through obedience over time.

Speaking of “time,” if you wait for your dog to misbehave in the field to show you what lack of control and respect looks like, you’ve wasted valuable days and months and made the process of starting real training harder. It’s best to dig in at the outset and train properly before your dog develops bad habits. Making occasional mistakes during a hunt is tolerable if the reason is confusion, but even small disobedient mishaps, when repeated, quickly become habits that are hard to break

Real training is “force training.” A well-turned-out dog is one that has been “forced” on all his commands and is finally solid and comfortable performing them for the team. If you are one of the hunters who doesn’t believe in forcing learned commands, you will need your prayer beads and your waders handy. That’s because your dog will always have the potential of unruly behavior in the field.

Still, if you’re one of those hunters who resists the idea of forcing, and is accepting of the way his “natural” dog hunts, you are a very lucky person. As for me, I don’t want to take risks with my few days hunting and worry about whether my dog will be the steady hunting partner I want him to be.

I must say that I don’t envy the “newbie” gun dog owner these days. That’s because he can become overwhelmed with all the diverse information available on the internet. There is a seemingly-endless variety of books and videos with much conflicting information out there. I confess that I was once in the newbie’s shoes and was also resistant to the idea of putting pressure on my young dog. I used a non-pressure approach with my first Labrador and the result s weren’t pretty. I was asking, not telling, my dog to perform. I finally had to go back to the beginning and train my dog properly. I had to give up asking and start demanding. And, the idea of putting teeth into each command really paid off in practice. With the new electric collars of today, the amount of pressure can be tailored to each dog’s tolerance. It’s not punishment, and shouldn’t be used as that. The logical steps to teaching each command are simple and really work. I know I’ve explained all this in the past, but here’s a summary :

1. Teach the meaning of the command, and show the dog the proper action.

2. Have the dog perform the command without pressure.

3. Have the dog continue to perform but add pressure ( light collar stimulation)

4. Have the dog perform again without any pressure.

5. Have the dog perform again and add a word of praise.

6. Have the dog perform again without any praise.

If, at any time, the dog stops preforming the command, you can back up one step. Repetition helps, and the end of the training for the day should end with encouragement.

I know that an amateur can train his own dog himself adequately, but it takes self control and getting in tune with the dog. Dogs are willing creatures and really want to please, so the last advice I would offer is to be fair. There’s always another day.

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Grady Istre column runs every other week and he can be reached at

Effects of using pressure in training dogs
The other day, I saw a description of myself online as an “Old School trainer.” The evaluation made me chuckle because, although I’ve been a trainer for over thirty years, I certainly don’t train the same way today as I did back in those days. Then, I considered myself on the cutting edge of dog training techniques but much has changed in the succeeding years.

I was training competitive Labradors for field trials — including for the Nationals — and there was no margin for error in those dogs’ performances. I used a system I called “absolute obedience” and that meant that the dogs had to take commands exactly or they were severely corrected. I think that’s probably what the critic meant by “old school” training. Still, I made many field trial champions using high pressure methods. I train only gun dogs now, and a lot has changed. Some years ago, I decided that the constant travel of the field trial circuit was too hectic for me. Also, I am an avid hunter and there was no time for that.

Not only has my training changed, I’ve noticed that the dogs of today are different. Comparatively speaking, the dogs of today are much more trainable than those of the past. Through selective breeding, the dogs of today are much more sensitive and their intelligence levels are higher. They are more in tune with people and their willingness to learn and perform commands properly means less pressure needs to be applied to get the right actions. Also, high tech and reliable electric collars that can be suited in intensity to fit the individual dog means that training can be easily tailored to fit each pupil.

All this being said, I see owners misunderstanding their particular dog’s responses in training, and it can be difficult to offset the videos and advice they see online. So, I caution you hunters to really notice your own dog’s sensitivity and willingness to obey. If you pile on the discipline when the dog doesn’t understand what the performance is supposed to be, you can set yourself back considerably.

That’s why I always say to teach, teach, teach first, before applying correction. And, also to tailor your work sessions to fit your own dog’s abilities and needs. Dogs learn differently. Some respond best to a small amount of work with daily sessions. Others have the mental and physical stamina to tolerate a full day of heavy work. Some dogs respond well to praise; others take advantage of it and then perform poorly. So, try to clear your mind and notice your dog’s specific responses as an individual. If you need help in an assessment, you can go work a few days with a professional trainer to get an unbiased opinion.

I always assume that dog owners will try to find a puppy or older dog that comes from quality breeding stock. If you do that, you can avoid a dog’s worst characteristic: lack of trainability. This can come from the deadly combination of a lack of willingness along with a lack of interest in work. These dogs are, luckily, rare these days and the desire to hunt is usually strong enough to allow the owner to make many mistakes. Even so, the mistake to avoid is this: applying pressure when the dog hasn’t been taught sufficiently. High pressure training is no longer necessary with today’s dogs. Consistency, time, and studying your own dog will make training a pleasure.

So, again, my great Uncle Frank’s advice is worth repeating: “if you don’t know, go slow.” He was a natural dog man who had many dogs in his life and all of them turned out to be great for hunting from a pirogue in the bayous of Louisiana. I learned a lot from him about the basic nature of dogs.

Have fun training,

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


When and how to start your pup
This is a great time of year for hunters old and new to start training a new pup for a first hunt when dove season opens this September. Four months is all you need to get a pup through his basic training course and learn the rudimentary skills he should need to experience the dove opener with you.

The normal age for a retriever puppy to come into professional training is somewhere around the six-month range but some of the upland breeds generally mature more slowly and should be a little older. If your pup has his permanent teeth in place and is both mentally and physically mature enough to accept formal training, six months old is an ideal age to start teaching the basics. Any reputable professional can make that decision for you after a day or so of evaluation training.

If you wait too long to start your obedience work and building respect as well as confidence you may make extra discipline necessary. That’s because the older a pup gets the more skilled he becomes at identifying human weaknesses and how to use those to his advantage. It doesn’t take a puppy very long to lose his innocence and develop unwanted bad habits. Dogs are natural born con-artists, and if you aren’t consistent, patient and attentive, bad habits can develop. Often, when a professional trainer begins training an older pup he must first break all the bad habits the animal has learned and that can not only be time consuming but tough on both dog and trainer.

Every new puppy owner should know what to do during the months before the little guy is of age to be put into formal training, consistency is the key. Generally, pups are very insecure when first removed from their brothers and sisters in the litter and that’s an excellent time to begin your relationship on a respectful note.

Your pup should be introduced to short moments of discipline that he can readily handle. The process of teaching one command like “sit” will show him the obedience format that will be meaningful throughout his entire life. He should also enjoy new experiences with you. He should be introduced to birds and water (for retrievers) as soon as possible. Taking him on walks where you encounter different types of cover will increase his confidence and build rapport. If you are going to train your pup yourself, these field trips and shared experiences provide you a golden opportunity to begin your pup’s life with you on a respectful note.

Don’t get me wrong, loving your pup is a good thing for both you and your dog. It’s just that the human’s need to be loved can get in the way of a respectful relationship with an animal and that’s what I believe you should be striving to avoid. In my forty years of training dogs this is the number one thing I have noticed: most owners are guilty of making it too easy for their dogs to perform a command. Here’s an example, when calling your pup to the heel position, be accurate. Insist that your dog come to a proper heel positon by your side. Don’t be like some novice trainers who will move up to the dog to make him seem successful instead of holding their position and demanding the animal come to them. Instead, show your dog your determination as a trainer and make him perform each command to a high standard. These little things are what a dog uses as a gauge to determine just how well he has to behave or perform.

If you do this right from the start, your pup will see your high standards and take joy in meeting them. A well-trained hunting dog is the product of many small lessons that result in a rewarding and admirable relationship. When you are finally a team, all those lessons with your pup will pay off with a brilliant performance in the field.

Have fun training! 

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

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