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.

Pros and cons of dog vests
I first heard of an anxiety vest for dogs a couple of years ago. I had sold a well-trained, six year old German Shorthair Pointer to a client and he called me about a problem. In the five years that I owned her, she had been a nice dog without any real issues. But now this owner had a real problem. She was running away and he could not keep her in his newly-reinforced dog run, “I’m going to have to build a jail cell to keep her from escaping,” he said. There was desperation in his voice.

After bailing her out of animal control three times in a week he had finally called me for advice. Luckily, my wife was listening to the conversation and remembered reading about an innovative product called a “Thunder Shirt.” Not having any better ideas other than building that jail cell, I recommended that the owner purchase one and give it a try.

A few days later, he called raving about this new discovery.

“She is a totally different dog now. She calmed down and is a loving member of the family. We even brought her in the house to mingle with everyone. I was surprised and relieved. I had looked on the internet and found that for years, medical professionals were advising new parents to swaddle irritable babies. Also, researchers now recommended “pressure vests” to alleviate behavioral issues in children with Autism; it gives them comfort and a calming feeling. Some creative person took the idea and applied the theory to dogs.

Still, there seem to be exceptions to every rule. And here’s a conflicting story. I trained a Yellow Labrador female for a client who is a member of a southern California duck club. This dog was a very good student and graduated from my basic training course with high marks. After she had been home for sometime, and with a month of duck hunting under her belt, I gave the client a call to ask about her progress under actual hunting conditions.

“I’m taking it slow with her,” he replied. I detected some uncertainty in his voice, and that’s not the answer any professional wants to hear from a client. I knew something wasn't right. Since this client had extended an open invitation to me to come down and hunt with him at his club, I decided to take him up on his offer.

When shooting time arrived I dropped the first duck close to the blind which she reluctantly retrieved. Any bird that dropped over 15 yards from the blind she flatly refused to go after. This was not the same dog I sent home a few months earlier. The first thing I look for in such situations is to see if the dog has an injury or illness of some kind. I was assured that she was healthy. So I started eliminating all the potentially negative things such as the electric collar and the camouflaged dog blind. We even allowed her to stand out in the open, but all these things had no impact on her attitude whatsoever.

The next morning, as we stood around having coffee and talking before I noticed that the dog was still wearing the neoprene vest she’d worn the day before. I thought it was odd, because the weather was not cold. “Why is she wearing a vest?” I asked. “All the dogs in the club wear them, so I thought it was a good idea,”he said.

I suggested working her without it, and he agreed. The moment the owner removed the vest the dog’s attitude changed. She became animated and playful with one of the other dogs and I saw in her the energy I remembered. We went out to the blind and her positive attitude continued much to her owner’s delight, (and mine). She was a retrieving machine, enthusiastically retrieving every bird we shot that morning. Unlike the anti- anxiety Thunder Shirt that had helped calm down the Shorthair, the neoprene vest had a negative effect on this particular dog to the extent that it even affected her performance in the field. There is no doubt in my mind that the vest was the problem, but why it affected this particular dog the way it did remains a mystery. I’m sure quite a few of you hunters know dogs that have worn these vests without any problems, but this was an interesting exception. Hopefully, this information will help someone down the road.

Good Hunting!

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

Confusion for novice trainers
It can be a confusing world these days for novice dog trainers. There are many owners out there who are attempting to train their first hunting dog and many are rank beginners who are getting most of their information through the internet.

Often, they don’t even know the terminology and with no experience to draw on, they misunderstand the meaning or intent of the drills and the whole process of teaching a dog. There’s simply too much information out there that is inaccurate and misleading. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the material. There are many solid training programs available in both book and video format.

The problem is, most of it is too advanced for novices to digest. It’s easy for beginners to misinterpret what they see. For example, I saw that there was an online conversation where a guy asked for help with his dog. Seems the animal was finished with obedience, simple retrieves, was steady to wing and shot, and now he wanted to know some detail about hand signals. Readers were answering with lots of suggestions.

Thing is, the man’s dog was actually still a puppy. It was just five months old! This is only one of the instances I observed where a beginner jumped right into training without any frame of reference. And, the chat room was full of even more beginners giving advice! Their answers were a sure prescription for trouble ahead for the questioning owner. His pup will almost certainly develop problems he would have avoided if only he had both more careful study, and observation.

Another common area of confusion for beginning trainers arises when they pick and choose from the whole array of training methods. They take part of one of one professional trainer’s system, and add bits from other systems as well. This is another recipe for disaster. Often, professionals disagree on how to train a hunting dog. That’s okay because each of them has been successful doing things their way and their way is a cohesive step by step process.

But when a novice looks at all the available methods and takes pieces from various systems, the result can be a mishmash that no longer makes sense. So, I suggest finding a training method that seems sensible and following it carefully.

Better yet, go visit a professional trainer in your area. Stay a week or so and get some practical experience that can be applied to your dog. Go out in the field and throw bumpers/birds and plant blinds. You can gain an amazing amount of knowledge that way. You’ll see good dogs in action, learn the lingo, and find out if training your dog yourself is really what you want to commit to.

If you do decide to do all the training yourself, follow that up by finding a like-minded — and experienced — training group of other amateurs. If your dog has talent and you are sincere in wanting to learn, they will welcome another worker to the group.

Always, I need to give some words of caution to beginners. When observing dog work, on video or in person, understand that your own dog may react differently. Try to assess the inherent nature of your own dog. Your dog may be more, or less, sensitive than the dog being worked by a professional. Counteracting a dog’s unwanted behavior is a skill that comes from lots of experience with lots of different kinds of dogs. That’s why I recommend visiting a good professional as a start.

Making a real study of dog work is fascinating. And rewarding. I hope you will find this out for yourself. It’s my life’s work and I am grateful for it, every day.

Have fun training!

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

Assessing your dog’s abilities
How did your dog perform during the this first half of the huntin gseason? Did he add to your enjoyment of the outing, or did you wish you had left him at home?

If your experience was less than a pleasure, maybe it’s time to take stock of the team. That is, the team consisting of you and your dog. It’s a partnership that should be at least 50/50 and one that should bring out the best in both of you.

Before you get irritated with the misbehaviors of your dog and the missed opportunities he may have caused, you may want to see where the blame should lie. That’s because I usually see that the faults are heavily weighed onto the human, not the dog. There’s hardly ever a situation where the dog has been properly trained and the owner has been consistent in maintaining his training where the finger of blame can be pointed at the dog.

Let’s start with the dog’s side of the partnership. Is he really thoroughly schooled in all the basics? Has he been taught to carry over the things he learned in training to the hunting situation? Those are the two aspects of any dog’s life and are the two essentials for his success: proper schooling, and reinforcement in the field. So, to be fair, really examine the training to see if you have explained every command and then put some teeth into each. If you have, then your dog should know the meaning of : heel, sit, fetch, and come when called. This means that the dogs knows to stay at your side when the birds are flying.

He should be steady to shot after being told to sit. Then, he should go get the birds and deliver them to hand — both part of the fetch process. He should always come back to you when commanded. Each command taught outside the excitement of the hunt, if thoroughly learned, will make sense even when the duck calls start honking and the guns are loaded and excitement builds. That’s when the fun also begins and the team of dog and man becomes so bonded that each can read the other’s body language and commands need be much more than a whisper.

But, if you can admit that the training isn’t very solid, don’t be foolish, it’s never too late to go back to the yard and work with your dog, solidifying the weakest commands and repeating the commands that are just okay to make them better. I always say that you don’t need fields and ponds — although those are great to have — to get some good work done with a dog. That’s because obedience brings respect, no matter how you train.

It’s never too late to improve your relationship with your dog, and it’s gained through the hours of work the two of you spend together. The hunting experience holds up a mirror that reveals exactly where you and your dog really stand with each other. Sometimes it’s hard to look honestly, but if you do, it’ll make your hunting days much more pleasurable.

The reward of hunting when you and your dog can put out a team effort is worth just about everything, in my opinion. As you will find out, It’s worth all the work.

Good Hunting.

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

Hunting dog insecurities
How many of you dog owners think your dog can’t be intimidated by a new hunting situation? It seems quite a few hunters would place a bet that his dog would handle just about anything, especially you owners of experienced dogs.

Because our dogs seemingly handle every situation in life without any problem, we are sometimes lulled into thinking they can handle anything, anywhere, any time. Not so, fellow hunters, some dogs are as in­secure as a muskrat swimming across an alligator pond.

Hunting dogs can be intimidated by weather conditions, terrain or just about anything they have not encountered before. Over the years, I’ve witnessed some cases and heard stories about dogs that refused to work when they encountered ice and snow, mud, swift or cold water, and first-time encounters with a large bird such as a goose. These are just a few examples that come to mind. Of course, young dogs with little or no experience are the most susceptible to these intimidation factors. It doesn’t happen often, but older dogs fall victim to unfamiliarity just as well.

I know of a 5-year-old Labrador that allowed belly-high mud on an isolated island in a federal refuge to intimidate him to the point of refusing to retrieve birds that were shot and fell into the decoys some 20 yards away. When a dog is in familiar hunting surroundings where he is more comfortable, he will generally handle his insecurities much better than if he were in unfamiliar territory.

Another factor can be a remembered stress from a difficult lesson during the course of training. Training teaches dogs that there is a certain way they are expected to perform, and if they don’t meet that standard, they are disciplined. Therefore, when dogs become unsure about how they should perform, they may choose to do nothing instead of taking the chance they will be disciplined.

I had one client call me on his cell phone from a planted pheasant field telling me that his newly-trained flushing dog would not leave his side to find game. I advised him to go back to the clubhouse and purchase a pheasant, take it to his assigned field and simply shoot it for his dog. Three hours later I got another call from this now very enthusiastic guy telling me what a fabulous job I did on his dog. Sometimes a jump start like something familiar is all it takes to get a dog going in the right direction. It takes keen observation to determine if your dog is nervous about being disciplined or just worried about something unfamiliar.

If you run into a problem with your dog refusing to performing while in a hunting situation, (especially a young or first-timer), stop and look at the problem from the dog’s point of view. Instead of getting angry, and doing something that will make your problem worse, ask yourself: what would it take to make my dog at ease? Turn to something the dog does well and keep it simple so there can be no doubt as to what is expected.

Usually, that’s all it takes to remove the confusion and get your dog hunting again.

Good hunting!

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

The importance of yard work
Just mention dog training to most novice trainers and the first image to pop up in their head is the vision of their dog retrieving, flushing or pointing a bird in the field. To them, that’s training. That’s understandable, because most in­experienced trainers have never been schooled in the importance of yard work, so all they picture is the end result. Unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s difficult to see the value of working with your dog in a non-hunting environment.

I often get phone calls from hunters all over the state asking me what they can do to train their hunting dog when they live in a metropolitan area. I always reply, “Use what ya got.” By that I mean, your back yard, parks, school grounds or even a golf course. Of course, when using public areas, you should always get permission and use the area when there are very few, if any, people around and always leave it at least as clean as you found it.

You can teach your dog the fundamentals of everything he needs to know to become a proficient hunter right in your own back yard. Understand, I’m not saying that field work is un­important, but it’s difficult to drive great distances to shoot birds or train with your cronies on a consistent basis when you live in a city. So, instead of wasting precious training time waiting for the perfect place to train, prepare your dog for the field by teaching him all of the basic commands, drill work and introduction to birds in your yard. That way, when you do take him to the field, he’ll already have a basic understanding of what’s going on. Your time in the field will go smoothly because of the obedience and rapport you have already developed.

Always, when working with a young, inexperienced dog, it’s best to teach the fundamentals in a restricted area where you have complete control over the dog’s actions. But even If you have an older, more exper­ienced and well-trained dog, you can hone and refine his skills there too. Taking hand signals or going where sent on multiple retrieves are two skills that translate well from yard to field.

I had one caller ask, “What can I do with my pointing dog in the backyard?” I asked him, “Does he hold point in the field?” “No,” was the reply. I then described a good method for teaching the “whoa” command. This is an essential lesson for any upland dog and it’s easy to do.

Simply stand the dog up on any kind of a fairly high platform that gets him off the ground, such as a sturdy patio table. Most dogs will become uneasy when first placed in an unfamiliar place, so there in the beginning you might need to calm his fear through repetition and praise. Then when he’s stable and standing nicely, say ‘whoa.”

After a week or so, test the command on the ground. If he’s steady, it’s time to try it out on birds.

For retrievers and flushers, you have an entire basic course consisting of “heel,” “force fetch,” “come on command” and “steady to shot” are all concepts that can be taught in the back yard. Again, proceed slowly and surely through the lessons and insist on a high standard of performance.

Do not use, “I don’t have any place to train” as an excuse not to educate your hunting dog. Simply taking him for a walk in the park can be training. Enhance your rapport while teaching him to obediently walk with you. Work on his social skills by introducing him to people and new environments. Fellow trainers, there’s always some place and some way you can teach your dog — you just have to be a little creative.

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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