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.

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

Buying a hunting dog
With dove season coming up in September and other wild bird seasons starting in October, many hunters begin entertaining the idea of purchasing a hunting dog before the season starts.

Some guys just want to replace their aging hunting partner with a younger dog, while others have made the decision to begin hunting with a dog for the first time. If you are and avid hunter who hunts without a dog, at some point you’re going to get fed up with losing the birds that you deem recoverable in the field. That’s the main reason many hunters purchase their first dog. During their quest to put more birds in the bag, many of these hunters will discover the joy and pride that owning a well-trained, talented dog brings to their hunt. The extra benefit is that a dog is not only a competent hunter, but a faithful companion.

If you decide to start with a puppy, you should follow the advice in this old saying: “The price you pay for the pup is the cheapest part of ownership.” I know many of you have heard this before, but I really believe it eliminates problems in the future when a buyer pays attention to the true meaning. My first rule in purchasing a hunting dog — especially a puppy is this: buy good blood. You’re going to pay more for good breeding, but as I mentioned it’s the most valuable asset.

Breeders, especially in the field trial world, know the background of all the stud dogs and good bitches for generations back. They know that the three top genetic problems, hip displasia, elbow displasia and eye problems have been bred out of their dog lines, and this can mean fewer trips to the vet throughout your dog’s life.

There are genetic guarantees that come with a well-selected puppy, but no breeder guarantees hunting qualities. No matter how good the pedigree — it’s a crapshoot when you start with a puppy. That’s why my recommendation is to buy a trained dog. If you have the money of course, the best way to purchase a hunting dog is to find one that is already trained, or even a partially trained dog, but if you choose the later, you’ll need some expertise to make that determination. If you do, you can see the quality, character and adult physical appearance of the dog you are buying. Even if you find a trained dog, there are other considerations. You should feel comfortable around the animal, spend a little time working the dog and take him for a walk to get to know him better.

If you feel something is not right, don’t even consider looking at the animals other qualities because it’s a waste of your time. Of all the dogs that I have trained in my career, there have been only three that I flat-out did not like, so, I would consider it rare that you would have a personality conflict, but it does happen. Once you decide to purchase the animal, make sure some instructions come with the deal. No matter how competent a handler you are, every trainer has his own way of training and you should learn the proper commands and exactly how the dog was schooled.

I offer five free lessons with every trained dog I sell, unfortunately, only two buyers have taken advantage of that deal and of those two they came out only a few times. Every professional trainer who sells trained dogs want his client to come out and learn how to take advantage of the instructions offered; It’s a good deal for both buyer and seller. The buyer gets a better understanding of how to handle his new dog and the seller is assured his client will be happy with the animal he sold.

If you have never hunted with a dog before, do yourself a favor this season and learn the joy and satisfaction a dog add to the hunt.

Have fun training!

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

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

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