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.

Introducing your puppy to water work
When I first began training dogs as an amateur, back in the days more years ago than I care to mention, it was a “rule” that puppies should be a year old before being introduced to water. The philosophy went something like this: don’t scare the little guy; wait until he’s mature enough to handle any unforeseen circumstances; if he gets spooked, he’ll never be a good water dog. Now, I’d like to tell those old-schoolers: “That’s bull!” I think puppies should become acquainted with as many different situations as they can handle as soon as practically possible.

There may be exceptions, of course, there always are. There may be very shy pups that need to be brought along with a patient hand and those pups could be slow to mature in every way. Those exceptions are sometimes large pups that develop later due to their size alone. But, most puppies gain confidence through overcoming small fears and these accomplishments provide a great foundation for future training.

I like to take my pups to as many different environments as possible, as young as possible. Just taking them on walks can be instructive. Seeing different landscapes, watching birds, meeting people — it all adds up. I also like to have my pups watch the older dogs work. I keep them on a leash in a safe place where they can relax and observe everything that goes on in the field.

But, when I introduce a pup to water, I like to do that alone with him in a controlled situation. The best situation is to find a nice sloping bank where there’s easy access and where you can wade in yourself. I usually throw an object the pup is already familiar with, that he’s already retrieving, like a ball or a sock, or even a bumper. If he goes out for the retrieve, then that’s great, but, if not, you can wade in and get him to follow. If he doesn’t go along readily, you can carry him with you and gently set him down in the shallows where his feet can touch the bottom. He’ll probably head for the shore, but that’s okay.

Next, you can carry him out with you, throw the object toward the shore (because that’s where he wants to go anyway) and he’ll retrieve that and take it with him to the shore. If you can progress to wading out and having him follow for a retrieve, that’s great. But, if not, just having him get into the water and/or making any kind of a retrieve at the water’s edge is enough to accomplish for a first effort. The goal is to have this first session fear-free and easy. Always quit on a positive note, even if you’re not completely satisfied with the outcome.

The same process goes with introduction to birds. If you’re encouraging your pup’s birdiness early, you can blend two lessons nicely. Once the pup is chasing clip-wing pigeons in the yard, you can move that playfulness to the water. Making water work joyful and exciting is the key. These beginning lessons are a great start toward making your puppy into a belly-busting water dog.

Have fun training!

* * *

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

Overhandling your flushing dog
With the upland bird hunting season opening this month, I thought some info on handling your flushing dog might be in order. Hopefully, it will help you have a more successful and rewarding hunt.

Often, when people talk about “handling” a dog, they mean giving hand signals to direct a dog to a fallen bird, but that’s not what I mean to discuss here. Sometimes, we do direct a flushing dog to a bird he hasn’t seen by giving him “back” and “over” commands and that’s helpful, but it’s more important for a flushing dog to find birds in the first place. And, when he does find the bird, to be in shooting range. Both these necessities take training and, then, experience, but these experiences should be in a disciplined format.

When I school clients who hunt with a flushing dog, I recommend that they first make their dog sit before releasing him to hunt a field. That’s because it’s a good idea to start out in a disciplined manner. Then, when you release the dog, he is in a somewhat obedient frame of mind.

Send the dog out into the field and allow him to quest, watching for his natural tail and head movements that can indicate when he has caught scent of game. The idea is to have the dog move in a nice flowing motion, on his own, but fairly close to you and attentive to your commands. Your hunting companions will appreciate this because no one wants to hear a handler yelling or whistling at his dog all day long. Even though it’s not a good idea to interfere with the dog while he’s enthusiastically questing, if he gets out of control and ignores you, you should react right away. A disobedient attitude needs to be corrected immediately or it can become a bad habit.

The proper hunting situation is when the dog gets into a rhythm and moves back and forth in front of the gunners while you walk quietly behind him. This is how I describe an ideal hunt to my clients, but some of them seem to have taken my cautions too far. In an effort to control their dogs, they have intruded so much on their dogs’ natural tendencies that they have lost that balance between the “hunt” and the “control.” They have gotten into “over-handling” in the field. Their fears of having the dog get out of gun range, or having the dog become dis­obedient has caused them to whistle or call the dog in­cessantly. As a result, they’ve almost taken the quest and natural hunting instincts out of their animals. Some sensitive dogs will quit the hunt al­together and return to their handler’s side.

Sometimes it’s hard to find that perfect balance of obedience and natural instinct. My advice is to step back and take a good look at your dog as this season begins. Is he happy in the field, yet tuned into you? Is he loose enough to hunt for birds, yet attentive when you call to him? If you get the feeling that the two of you are partners out there under the morning sky, enjoy it. You’ve got something most people can only dream of: a wonderful hunting companion that brings pride and joy to the hunt.

Good hunting.

* * *

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

Checking For Injury
Many hunters just do not give their dogs a proper physical examination after a hard day afield. Every hunting dog should be given a good going over after a hunt, no matter how short or long the outing.

It’s amazing how many hunters will not accept responsibility for examining their dogs, even when someone reminds them to do so. The answer I get most is, “if there were something wrong with him, I’d know it.” That’s probably true, providing the animal has an injury that is obvious, such as a limp, or blood on his coat.

Have you ever heard the phrase; dogs suffer in silence. Well that’s a fact, especially when dealing with a hunting dog; they will suffer through most painful injuries just to keep doing what they love. I know of a hard charging retriever who one day during a training session, hit the water so hard he broke off a willow branch that lodged six inches into his chest without his owner ever knowing anything was wrong until later that night when he was ex-rayed by a vet. The dog survived, but was unable to compete for many months; it was a very serious injury that went completely unnoticed until long after the training was over. If your dog does anything out of character while in the field, don’t be foolish, bring him in a check him over.

This past season I began noticing just how many of the guys I hunted with actually gave their dogs a physical examination after the hunt. I am fortunate to be invited by clients who hunt Mexico on a regular basis. The pheasant hunting across the border is nothing short of fabulous. The larger percentage of our hunts are in large alfalfa field, and it’s unlikely that a dog will get injured in such a well cultivated area, but these guys checked their dogs feet after every field we hunted; I was very impressed and proud by their attentiveness. Hopefully, my teachings had something to do with that.

Sometimes, when we do not find birds in the alfalfa, we are forced to hunt the many ditches that carry the irrigation water to the various agricultural fields in the area. These small waterways are dangerous; some of them hold everything from old automobiles to broken glass and many other objects that can harm your dog. Needless to say, these ditches are well scouted by everyone, before ever putting a dog in them.

Preventative measures, and checking your dog after every hunt will make you a more responsible dog owner; it may even save your dog’s life. Know the dangers in the area you plan to hunt as well, find out if the area has any cactus, lava rock or old farm equipment, just to mention a few of the common hazards.

The three areas on my dog that I check closely are, his eyes, feet and I rub my hand over my dog’s entire body to determine whether he has any cuts; if he does, your hands will come out bloody. The few seconds that it takes to thoroughly examine your dog in the manner I just described will someday, save you and your dog a bunch of pain and grief later on down the road.

Our hunting dogs add so much happiness to our lives; the least we can do is make the small effort that it takes to see that they have not been injured during a hunt.

Good Hunting!

Grady Istre can be reached at 

Buying a started dog
With the wild bird season rapidly approaching, many hunters are considering the purchase of a started dog to enhance their hunting experience to help put more birds in the bag this year. I know this because of the many confused hunters who have called me asking what skills a started dog should possess. Unfortunately, there is no governing body in the gun dog world to measure the level of competence of any hunting dog world to set a standard of performance or skill level by which you can gauge a potential candidate when considering purchasing a started dog. So when you’re considering purchasing a started dog, you’re on your own.

The term “started dog” is used for any dog with any amount of training under his belt. It can mean anything from a puppy that has had a mild course of obedience to a well-trained dog that take hand signals — I know, it’s crazy, but that’s the dilemma faced by sportsmen today.

It’s okay to have a preconceived idea as to the talent level of the prospective dog you would like to purchase. However, when talking to a seller it’s best to do most of the listening. If you are a novice hunter, you might consider hiring someone knowledgeable to help you assess the quality and training level of a dog you are considering purchasing. So you’re better educated, I have compiled a list of questions that should help anyone who is having trouble deciding.

# 1. How old is the dog? Keep in mind that the older the dog the more training he has — generally speaking of course.

# 2. Is the dog genetically sound and clear of ( EIC) exercise induced collapse? Not only the parents but grandparents should have OFA certificates for hips dysplasia.

# 3. What is his training level? Your decision, how well trained a dog do you want.

# 4. What is his pedigree? It’s always a good idea to purchase a dog with good blood lines, showing hunt titles and /or field trial titles in the near background.

# 5. If the dog is a bird dog, does he dog hold point and is he steady to shot. Does he quarter at a desired distance and does he retrieve downed birds? These skills are important gauges as to his training level.

If purchasing this started dog from a professional trainer, ask if there are any free lessons included with the purchase. Most trainers want you to be happy with your dog and will be willing to do so.

In my experience, many hunters expect too much. They want the animal to have all the skills of a field champion, and he only one year old. I often have to bring up that point to a prospective buyer’s attention and that it takes time to train a dog to become proficient at his job.

Fellow hunters, In my opinion, the best possible scenario is to purchase a dog that not only has learned his skills, but has at least one season of hunting under his belt; be advised, that dog will cost more.

Buying a 3- or 4-year old dog should be considered even though it's tempting to think, “I want to get as many years out of this dog as possible.” The joy of hunting over a well-trained dog cannot be measured in age or dollars and cents. Owning a well-trained, seasoned dog will elevate your hunting experience to a level that will bring you a sense of pride that you probably didn’t even know existed.

Still, one important factor remains when considering any individual dog. And it’s an intangible necessity, you’ve got to like the dog. If you don’t, do not purchase the dog. It won’t work. Although rare, the personality of a dog and man sometimes clash. So, if you don’t feel a genuine connection with the animal, it’s best to walk away, no matter how good the deal.

Good Hunting!

* * *

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

Off-season program
Very few hunters are receptive to the idea of maintaining their dog’s skill level during the off season and I believe that’s a big mistake. I hope that after I explain just how uncomplicated it can be to retain your hunting dog’s skills throughout the summer months, you’ll use some of this knowledge so your dog will be field ready when the first bird season opens in September.

The ideal training situation is to work your dog for about ten minutes on a daily basis — that’s all. Then if possible, once a month you should get together with some of your hunting buddies to prepare a training session where you shoot birds, to simulate hunting conditions for all of your dogs.

If you don’t have time to work your dog on a daily basis, that’s okay, but do figure out what days you have available and set up a training schedule. As I have learned, if you do not do this chances are you won’t get around to making it happen. Then, the closer we get to the opening day of the season, it’s a good idea to increase the frequency and length of those training sessions. This will not only sharpen your dog’s skills, but get him in good physical shape as well.

Dogs play the hand they are dealt, so if you want your hunting dog to become a pet during the summer months, guess what: he’ll become a pet. That means that his discipline level will slip during this time and so will his willingness to perform the skills he has learned. Conversely, if you maintain his training, he’ll be an even more obedient pet for the whole family to enjoy.

All dogs want is a modicum of consistency in their lives. They want you to be dependable. They want to be able to count on some sort of routine. They want to know what is going to happen next and just exactly what role they play in that scenario. When their lives are predictable, dogs tend to become better citizens.

If you can’t go training on a given day, just sitting in a chair in the backyard reading the paper, book or magazine with your dog by your side can suffice in a certain way. Dogs have to learn patience on those slow days when the ducks and/or dove are not flying well. So, just lounging in your lawn chair throwing him a bumper every once in a while is maintaining a certain training level and that’s about as easy as it gets, fellow trainers.

Still, if your dog has achieved handling status, there are drills like the wagon wheel that can give him a better understanding of the line to a downed bird. The casting drill will also sharpen up his interpretation of your hand signals when directing him to a fallen bird.

Hopefully, I have pointed out just how simple or how complicated you can make your summer training schedule. It’s your choice. Training your dog need not be a chore. It should be fun and bring a certain pride of accomplishment to your life.

So, get creative this summer, make a training schedule and if you don’t like my suggestions, create your own. But train your dog. Please.

Have fun training!

 * * *

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

Page 1 of 25 First | Previous | Next | Last

Anglers Marine