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.

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

Commitment to training
For those of you who are thinking about getting a puppy and training him yourself, please consider the time and effort that will be involved. The decision you make when you pick a pup from the litter is just the beginning of a relationship that will last the dog’s lifetime. Your goal of having a hunting companion that enhances your experience in the field will require not only money but time, a lot of time, and, a lot of your energy.

Most of my clients do buy puppies instead of started dogs. They then socialize their new pup and teach him basic manners to use around the house. Then, at around five or six months, they bring the youngster to our kennel to learn the skills that will be needed to make him a good hunter.

They leave the training to us — teaching the dog to hold and fetch, to walk at heel, to be steady to shot, and obedient in the field. We introduce the dog to hunting conditions, using pigeons, pheasants and ducks. We encourage the owner to come and work with us and his dog as often as possible. The goal is to build teamwork and create rapport and respect for handler and student. It’s a process that has worked well for years.

But, for the owner who really wants to train his own dog, it would be wise to study the many helpful books and videos to see just what’s involved in training for the field. There are certain skills that all hunting dogs must learn to become proficient at their jobs. These skills should be taught in a predetermined order and on a well-balanced time schedule so the young dog understands, accepts, and uses these lessons as a guide to not only his performance in the field, but in his everyday life as well.

Unfortunately, many novice trainers simply do not understand just how important this early training is. When pups are young and impressionable, they are exploring the world on their own and will learn bad habits as easily as good ones. If you don’t teach a young dog exactly how you want him to perform a skill or command, he will simply do it the way his instincts tell him it should be done — usually not the best result for the team.

Missing critical weeks when a pup should be learning can mean that bad habits will need to be corrected later. He will be gaining experiences every day, and if the owner is too busy or tired to explain and teach proper behavior, precious malleable moments are lost.

Beginning a course of training should be laid out logically with one step following another and progressing toward a final goal. The basic training course is a step by step process where one command builds upon another that is already learned. There are no short cuts and there’s no substitute for time spent building respect and rapport. It’s a good idea to keep a calendar with notes so you can look back from time to time and see the dog’s progress.

Because dogs have individual innate talents and abilities, it’s wise to remain flexible and adapt to a pup’s specific way of learning. Just observing your pup’s body language when training will tell you a lot. It’s important to keep training exciting and fun, especially in the beginning.

Using a professional trainer is the ideal because he is experienced with more dogs than the amateur will encounter in his lifetime. But, if you want to embark on an organized training system yourself, don’t hesitate to consult a professional from time to time. You can even watch a professional or an advanced amateur work their own dogs. Training a pup should be an exciting experience and not a chore.

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

Right dog for the job
At the end of each hunting season, many hunters begin thinking of purchasing a hunting dog for the next season. Many of my clients only pursue waterfowl, while others hunt upland birds, but there are quite a few who hunt both and they want a dog that will fit all their needs.

When a person hunts only waterfowl, the choice is easy: get a retriever. They can handle the cold water and will quest in thick, sloppy cover quite well. Their weakness is in that they have limitations in the upland areas because of the heat. Still, if you don’t mind resting them often during the hunt, they can do an excellent job at flushing upland birds. Those who hunt only upland game should select a pointing dog or a spaniel.

Pointers and spaniels have plenty of stamina and can handle the heat quite well. Their shortcomings are in the cold water. They don’t have enough fat on their bodies to handle cold on a consistent basis, and that is a requirement for water fowling. Of course, the best scenario is to have two dogs — one for waterfowl and one for upland. However, you have to be one serious hunter to make that happen.

The reason we have so many breeds of hunting dogs is because they all have a specific job that they were bred to perform. Thirty years ago, many serious hunters all had time and multiple dogs, and/or a professional trainer who did all the work for them. Hunters today expect their dogs to fill many roles, including that of a family pet.

To me, a hunting dog should be able to focus completely on his duties as a hunter, which usually means living in a kennel and living the life of an athlete. He lives to train and hunt and his joy is his accomplishments in the field. In today’s world that can seem barbaric to many hunters. Breeders have responded to these hunters and through selective breeding practices, most of today’s hunting dogs can handle being a pet as well as a hunting dog, at least to some degree.

There is still the risk that once a hunting dog is introduced to family life, he may decide to take it easy and just play with the kids and lie on the sofa instead of going hunting. These dogs are missing that strong genetic characteristic that drives them to want birds more than anything else in their life.

Which brings us back to the question: what do you want from your dog?

I have a Pudelpointer in training for a client who wants this upland bred dog to double as a waterfowl dog. As a result, this dog’s schooling is hard on both dog and trainer. Luckily, because of the quality of this particular animal, I will be able to produce a hunting dog that meets my standards in both areas.

But here’s the reason. This client belongs to a duck club in Southern California, which has a mild winter climate in which to hunt ducks. Mother Nature gives dogs the physical makeup to deal with the climate and terrain in which the game they pursue lives. For every situation there’s a dog that’s most suitable. So, it’s best to choose a hunting dog that most closely fits your specific needs.

Choose wisely fellow hunters, because you’re going to live with your choice for a decade or more.

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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