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.

Training step by step
Training hunting dogs requires equal doses of talent, a good mental attitude and a bunch of tenacity. All are important in order to be successful at the job. I’ve never met a trainer who was born with the all the knowledge that is required to properly train a gun dog. We’ve all studied and practiced the tried and true training techniques that are the foundation of all field dog training.

An organized step-by-step method is the foundation of all successful training. It doesn’t matter whether you use the tennis shoe method, the clicker or an e-collar disciplined training format, Just choose a method that fits your personality or beliefs and stick to it, that will by your road to success. Just to be clear, I personally believe that all learned commands have to be forced once taught; that’s the key to reliable obedience that carries over to any hunting situation.

Before you begin any training format you should have a final goal in mind, decide what you want to accomplish with your dog as an end result. For example, if you intend to teach your hunting dog to take hand signals, all learned command such as force-fetch and come-on-command must be much more solid in the dog’s mind than if you were doing a simple basic training job.

If commands are not solid, you’re going to have to go back and redo them at some point later on down the road. This will make your job much more difficult.

All gun dog training begins with obedience. Heel and sit are usually very easy for the trainer to teach and the student to learn. It becomes the obvious first lesson. The method I follow for each command is: teach, teach, teach, then force what you’ve been teaching. Then, give your trainee the time needed to learn to live with and relax into his new knowledge and discipline level. Your student’s attitude toward retrieving will be your gauge as to when he is ready to move forward with the next lesson up the step-by-step ladder. When a dog reaches the acceptance level of discipline his attitude will change. It’s first noticeable by his elevated confidence level on retrieves.

It’s difficult, and I believe courageous, for a novice hunter who knows very little about the training of a gun dog to attempt such a feat. If you’re a beginner, there’s no way you can do the job of training your dog as well as a knowledgeable amateur or professional. Experience pays off. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t do a decent job in schooling your trainee to become an adequate gun dog. It can be very rewarding. As a beginner, you should make the effort to observe how a trained dog performs.

If you’ve never seen the final product you may always have far too low a standard of acceptable performance. Make an effort to find a professional trainer who will allow you to train with him so that you can witness the level of competence that can be attained by a master level gun dog.

Hopefully, you will be motivated to strive for that higher level of proficiency in your own dog.

Have fun training!

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

Whoa command
Pointing dogs have their own special command for steadiness; and that command is “whoa.” Like most essential commands, it should be forced at some point in the dog’s training; but not in the first stages of his learning. In the beginning, “whoa,” should be taught in the yard and not in the field.

Later, after the trainee completely understands the meaning of the command and has some field experience, stricter methods can be used to reinforce the steadiness in the field. Generally speaking, most pointing dogs do not handle tougher discipline procedures well — it’s best to avoid them if possible.

The first thing I do with any new trainee is to take him for a long walk on leash. At some point during the walk, I’ll first introduce the “whoa” command. If a pointing dog tries to sit, I simply pinch him in the flank or slap him on the belly to make him stand in an erect posture as I repeat the “whoa” command. This accomplishes two things: it teaches the dog not to sit and reinforces the “whoa” command. When training other types of field dogs, such as retrievers, they learn to heel and sit. Here no sitting is allowed. So, before taking a pointing dog to the field, the “whoa” command must be well introduced, the trainee should know exactly what it means, and is performing it well in yard situations.

In combination with the leash work, I also like to work the dog in a controlled situation; where he is up off the ground and close to me. I use a table or top of a dog house to direct the dog’s attention to me while he learns to be steady. I consider myself fortunate to have a large pigeon pen in my yard with my table facing it for the dogs to focus on birds while on the “whoa” command. I really believe this significantly adds to the understanding of the “whoa” command for a young dog, because birds are involved. Any time you can add excitement of some sort to a command you are teaching, it quickly becomes much more solid in the mind of your trainee.

When you feel comfortable that the “whoa” command is solid in your dog’s mind, you can challenge him in a non-working environment, just to see how well-instilled the command is in your dog’s mind. It’s okay to attempt this challenge process while other people are present but not when other dogs are running around, because that’s too much distraction, and it’s unfair to a beginner dog.

To increase your chances of success, it’s best to first try this in the area where he was originally trained on the “whoa” command — working on the premise that familiarity aids success. The trainee should be the only dog out when you challenge him giving the “whoa” command. Allow your trainee to run around and have a good time, then give him the “whoa” command and see what you get. If necessary, physically force the dog to perform, because now he must learn that there is no compromise. The “whoa” command must be obeyed any where, any time.

Hopefully, this information will give all upland trainers a better understanding of the “whoa” command, which should help to put more birds in the game bag this fall.

Have fun training!

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

Hand signals
Many of my novice clients who come out to work with their basic dogs for the first time are blown away when they see the more advanced dogs taking hand signals. I agree that it’s amazing to watch complicated techniques we are able to teach the well-bred hunting dogs of today.

They are eager to learn and a pleasure to work. What is even more extraordinary are the sophisticated techniques and casts that competitive hunt test and field trial dogs are able to learn. The biggest challenge is for the neophyte handler/trainer in learning the proper skills that will enable him to easily communicate with his dog on this higher level. Teaching the handler takes longer and is much more challenging than teaching his dog.

Communication between an owner and animal takes time because humans are in the habit of interacting with other people on a daily basis, not a dog with innate characteristics given to him by Mother Nature. Consequently, it can take quite a while for some of the novice dog trainer students to learn, understand and then communicate to his dog how to perform the skills that are necessary if he wants an advanced gun dog. It’s difficult for old timers like me to remember that no dog handler, amateur or professional starts at the top of the knowledge pyramid — It’s a lengthy learning process for all of us.

Before teaching hand signals, it’s necessary for beginner dogs to reliably go and come on command. They need to go when sent, which makes forcing on the “back” and “here” commands a necessity. Also, they need to stop on the whistle command---both these issues must be very solid before taking hand signals to the field.

Competitive dogs learn complicated angled hand signals and even need to distinguish between verbal and silent commands. On the other hand, gun dogs only need the basic hand signals of straight “backs” and “overs” to be effective in a hunting situation. They do not have to take an exact line to the downed bird, but the handler should learn just exactly what hand signals it takes to give his dog enough information to be in position to wind and recover a downed bird.

The next step is to learn which hand signal to give in each situation. Learning to counteract Mother Nature’s influences such as wind and terrain can be difficult for most beginners. Often, only time, experience and even failure, will school a new handler in what it takes to get his dog to do things his way.

Over the years of training dogs and people, I have learned that it takes true dedication for a handler to persist and learn from his mistakes. It takes grit to continue when yesterday’s lesson may not apply in today’s situation. The key is to get a dog from a solid blood line and to take lessons from a knowledgeable trainer. After that, repetition and consistency should lead to success in the field.

Have fun training!

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

Basic Obedience
Every gun dog has to be taught to heel and sit in order to properly continue with his more advanced hunting skills training. In most training methods, professional or amateur, it’s the first skill we teach our trainees — It’s the foundation for all the other gundog skills to be taught. Unfortunately, many novice trainers do not take the heeling and sit drill to a degree that is high enough to make their dogs understand that they must perform on command — hopefully, the following description will change that.

The tools needed to teach this heeling drill are: choke chain and a six foot leash, along with a Whiffle bat or a heeling stick. I will assume that you have introduced your trainee to the leash by taking him on long walks to solidify his acceptance of the choke chain and leash. It’s important that you understand that this drill will transfer the responsibility of properly heeling from you to your dog. This will be accomplished by waking the pup with a loose leash.

When the little fellow moves too far ahead, small jerks on the leash will begin the transfer of responsibility from you to him. When you hold a tight leash while heeling your pup, you are accepting the responsibility for his actions, conversely, when you allow slack in the leash and make him pay the penalty for not properly heeling by jerking the leash you transfer the responsibility to him — got it?

All the tips and techniques will be taught with the dog heeling on the left side of the handler, because most hunters are right handed and shoulder their guns on their right shoulder.

Here’s how I start teaching the pup awareness of my body position and its introduction to building a wordless rapport under the excitement of hunting conditions. First, every time you turn to the right tap your leg; either hand will do. Every time you turn to the left snap your fingers on he left hand one time. Even if you don’t plan to take your trainee to the handling stage where these skills are widely used, these cues still add valuable communication language between you and your dog that will last his lifetime. In hunting situations where silence is sometimes needed, these cues can be used as a non-verbal interaction.

This method is not your super-market parking lot variety of heel and sit, where the handler does most of the turning and the dog simply follows — that type of training is OK for a pet, but not a gundog. A hunting dog needs to learn to perform verbal cues as well as physical cues, which puts pressure on him to learn more than to just mindlessly follow his handler.

After your pup is walking nicely at your side on leash, and following your body language a bit, we move onto the right hand turn because it’s the simplest and easiest for your dog to understand and perform. Keep in mind that you are a teacher and your dog’s performance may be shaky in the beginning; so, don’t get frustrated. These are military type turns, so plant your left foot and pivot 90° to the right as you pat your leg. Give the verbal “heel” command and jerk lightly on the leash. It’s important that your dog not only properly perform these right hand turns but he must also cultivate and accept a disciplined mentality that tells you he knows he must meet your standard — that part may be difficult for some to understand. It will probably take the better part of two weeks before your trainee even begins to understand the complexities of this drill you are teaching, but during that time we will also be starting the 180° and 360° turns.

Once your pup has a grasp of the right turn, then begin teaching the more difficult left turn by first giving the dog a verbal “sit” command as you continue to walk ahead. You can be sure he’s going to attempt to follow as you move, so, be patient. Here’s where the heeling stick comes in. Use it to intimidate the youngster as you move away. Then when you reach the end of the length of the leash, turn and face the dog. After a few seconds snap your fingers and encourage the little fellow to come to the proper heel position without going around your body; he must come straight to your left side. After a few of these he’s ready to start the left turns.

The procedure for left hand turns is the same as the right turns, except for the snap of the finger instead of patting the leg. Plant your left foot while snapping the finger and pivot to your left using your heeling stick to guide the pup into compliance.

There you have it fellow trainers; after two months or so, these intense workouts will educate your dog to the point that he will completely understand how to properly heel and sit. More important, he will begin to respond to your movements and enjoy the attention that will begin a respectful relationship with you

Have fun training!

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

A gun dog’s confidence is one of the most important factors in producing a competent dog eager to find game in the field. After all the training is done, and all the discipline and techniques are in place, if you have neglected to instill confidence in the process it’s doubtful you will realize the true joy a well-trained dog brings to the hunt.

Dogs have different personalities, just like people. Some are tough as nails, while some are very sensitive, and a whole bunch are in-between. Attempting to find the necessary balance between teaching disciplined techniques and maintaining confidence is quite a challenge, but one that must be achieved.

We cannot discount genetics as an important part of producing a confident hunting dog—it’s best to have a talented, willing student to begin with. But some dogs simply do not get a good dose of “prey drive” from Mother Nature at birth. It can be difficult to maintain a good working attitude with these dogs, especially for a novice trainer.

Using dummies in training is great while teaching some of the basic techniques, but they are no substitute for the real thing. For a dog to become a reliable hunter he should be properly introduced to birds at an early age, then experience will help him learn the habits of his prey at some point. The more positive the contact a pup has with game, the more self-assured he is likely to become. This in turn, will put more birds in your game bag at the end of each outing. One of the major rules I follow is: never force on game.

However, you’re going to get different opinions on that issue because there are some trainers who do not follow that rule. That’s a big no, no in my dog training world — birds are sacred. For trainers birds are an, “ace in the hole” because when you have a dog in training who has lost his eager, positive attitude a live shot bird can make everything right again.

Every dog has to go through the rigors of basic training, but when introducing any new aspects to your pup, not only birds, but even water, or unusual terrains, this should be done on the positive side to insure a confident attitude in those key areas. After all, a sporting dog’s performance in the field seldom suffers because he is overconfident. Of course, he should always be obedient. So, the goal is to produce an obedient, yet confident dog.

Each new type of game should be introduced under as controlled conditions as possible to avoid problems in the field. I have seen even aggressive dogs get traumatized after being speared by a wounded goose. As I explain to all my goose hunting clients, “make sure the goose is dead before sending your dog for his first few retrieves.”

The more birds a dog retrieves the more confident he becomes. When a dog becomes experienced in retrieving geese, he should hit an aggressive, winged goose like a linebacker, with no fear. That, fellow hunters, is fun to watch. So, birds are of primary importance, but there are other new situations to consider as well, such as terrain, muddy bottoms, and big open water with multiple decoys. I could go into each individual element, but the fix is the same: take it slow and find ways to make your dog comfortable in each new situation. That formula will make you and your dog a very productive team in any hunting situation.

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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