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.

Blind luck
This waterfowl season, if you find yourself needing a way for your dog to avoid detection by savvy incoming birds, consider using a dog blind. Although they are relatively new to the hunting community dog blinds are becoming more popular with each successive season. Many retailers now offer various dog blinds for concealment in snow, tulles and ghillie grasses and come in several camo patterns as well. Most of the ones I have seen are collapsible. They fold up like a suitcase for easy carrying and storage, which makes them much easier to transport to the field.

THE USE OF NATURAL cover fastened to the dog blind helped conceal Cami during a goose hunt in Alturas last season

I have not yet used one of these dog coverings in a hunting situation, but I would not hesitate if the circumstances warranted concealing my dog. It has been my experience that ducks and geese look for any movement made by either hunter or dog and or easily suspicious of any given setup. So, training your dog to stay inside his blind quietly is paramount. I can see that it would be even more important to conceal your dog in a cut grain field where there is usually less cover than in a marshy area where it’s more difficult for our feathery foes to spot a hunter and/or his dog.

Teaching your dog to use one of these blinds can be a challenge, but in the end it’s well worth the effort. I start by first teaching a dog to confidently use the down command. Then once your trainee understands and is comfortable performing the down command, it’s time to get him accustomed to having something covering him. I like to use an old jacket or blanket to cover the dog from the neck back, leaving his head and front legs free. It’s important not to move too fast. Patience with your dog’s understanding and insecurities is the key here and your dog must become comfortable with each new step before moving on to the next.

I don’t like to introduce new word command to a dog’s vocabulary, so use the well-known, “kennel” command with a gesture to order a trainee into the dog blind. Then, once he’s comfortable with this I practice in the yard under controlled conditions. Eventually, your dog will get the idea and will automatically run into the blind and lie down when commanded; they quickly learn that good things happen when they’re in the blind.

HERE, A SPRIG is being familiarized with his blind in the back yard.

I have a client and friend, Jeff Studt, who told me that he used treats to get his dog, Cami into the blind then quickly gave the down command before she could come out. “When Cami sees the blind come out I hardly have time to get it on the ground before she dives into in and makes herself comfortable.” Jeff told me.

This is not a training process that will be accomplished overnight, but you’ve got the entire summer to get your dog acclimated to this new apparatus Use your time wisely.

There are other advantages to using the dog blind. For instance, if he is housed in a dog blind several feet away. Once your dog is acclimated to his blind it’s a good idea to gradually move the blind as much as 20 to 30 feet from the guns, which will diminish the concussion of the gun blast and save your dog from any unnecessary hearing loss.

Have fun training!

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

Preparing upland hunting dogs
With the upland season scheduled to begin next month, now is a good time to get your flushing and pointing dogs in shape. The physical demands placed on these dogs are generally far greater than those placed on dogs that retrieve duck and dove. So, getting them into top condition is essential.

Whatever way you choose to exercise your dog doesn’t really matter. Muscle building and stamina are necessary if you want to be fair to your dog when you’re out on your first hunt of the season. Long walks when no training fields are available are acceptable, especially where the dog has some space to stretch out. However, combining exercise with some refreshers in training is the perfect combination. These dogs love to work. And, they also love to run, and that can be a problem if your dog isn’t properly schooled.

In addition to physical preparation, the dog needs some mental preparation as well. If your dog isn’t under control, you can have a miserable, frustrating hunt. Whether you’re hunting wild or planted birds, keeping your dog in gun range is a must for flushing breeds. All dogs like to have fun out in the field, and that can be a problem.

Chasing a flyaway or putting up a hunt hundreds of yards in front of the guns shouldn’t be allowed by any hunter. One of the biggest problems I see with unschooled hunters is the desire to follow the dog instead of making the dog hunt back to them. That’s one of the better reasons why every hunting dog should go through a basic training course. Again, control is essential with upland dogs. The dog should be taught to come on verbal and whistle commands. If you can’t accomplish this in the yard, it’s doubtful you will have an obedient dog in the field. Your end goal is to have a dog that understands the hunt and his role as finder and retriever. The standard of performance you set for your dog when he is young and impressionable is what you can expect for the remainder of his hunting life. It’s really important that you never allow your hunting dog to learn any lesson the wrong way, which can happen if you take him to the field too soon. Dogs learn bad habits just as quickly and proficiently as they learn good ones.

I train all my flushing dogs to hunt within 20 yards of the gunner. I feel confident that I can hit a rising bird at that distance. Right from the start, you should demand that your dog hunt at whatever distance is comfortable for you to make the shot. Over time, that space will become what I call his neutral distance from the gun.

Pointing dogs, on the other hand, can hunt at greater distances from the gunners, but need to hold point until you catch up to them. Of course, the pointing breeds can be allowed to cover much more ground because they aren’t going to intentionally flush the bird; instead, they are going to point the location, giving the hunter time to move in and make the shot.

In order for both hunter and dog to have a great day afield, the dog must adjust to the needs of the hunter or there will be very little fun for the person with the gun. It’s going to take a little work during the off season to get your dog in shape and obedient, fellow hunters, but it’s definitely worthwhile in the end.

Good Hunting!

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

Dove season canine prep
The opening of each new hunting season is something I look forward to each year. When the season ended last January, I was ready for a break, but, as usual, by March, I was rested and ready to go again.

For me, owning a good hunting dog and not using him is like owning a boat and not fishing. I feel guilty when I’m not out in the fields pursuing some sort of birds with my dog. Even in the off-season, I keep my hunting dog in good shape — both physically and mentally by working him at least three times a week.

Most dogs, no matter how well trained they are, need a tune-up about this time every year. If your dog is young, or not fully trained, or not experienced with dove, there are some precautions I would recommend. You may not know how the dog will respond to the first hunt of the year, and the first day out, you will likely find out how good your training job was. If you’re breaking out a new dog, there are a bunch of unknowns that may form a long list in your book of concerns. And, the first hunts will usually define the kind of hunting dog you will have for the remainder of his career.

If you’re going to attempt to correct any unwanted behavior while on the hunt, certain precautions should be taken. For example, any corrections should be clear-cut in your dog’s mind. If you add discipline while your dog is confused, you could get into some trouble that can be avoided and you may see some unwanted side effects that are hard to handle for most amateur trainers.

Also, disciplining a dog when there are birds involved is not necessarily a good idea. You don’t want the dog to associate birds with severe correction. Birds are the dog’s reward and the reason he puts up with the training. The last thing you want to create is a dog that dislikes going to the field.

For an inexperienced or young dog, the first hunt can create an uncertainty as to what you expect from him and that can create anxiety.

The reason this happens stems from the fact that in training your pup, he dis­covered that learning something new is often followed by some form of discipline. I don’t advise any harsh discipline for a novice in his first hunting experience.

If you have a well-trained, experienced dog who is accustomed to discipline, it’s okay to use the e-collar if he should break on a shot bird. But I do not recommend using the e-collar on a first-timer; there are other steps that can be taken.

For instance: you can simply tie your young dog down and not release him for the retrieve until he settles down. If you have a hunting partner who is a decent shot, you can put the dog on a leash and work him on the sit command to show him that steadiness carries over to the field. After all, the dog has to learn to apply the skills he has learned in training to the hunt. So, you want the dog to enjoy the hunt as much as possible, but not allow him to make the occasion frustrating.

For the first hunt, the atmosphere should be one of excitement tempered with decent control. You’ll be pleased, and possibly surprised, to watch your pup discover the joy of working and honing his natural instincts. This event should be a well-deserved reward for the many days of training, and I hope you have a successful day in the field together.

Have a great dove opener!

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

Getting your dog ready
The hunting season may seem a long way off fellow hunters, but it’s time to start looking ahead and preparing your dog for the demands of a lengthy season. After all hunting dogs are athletes; and, like any athlete there’s a the physical and mental conditioning process after any long layoff.

Work should begin in small steps — not giant leaps, so you need to start preparing early. Most of today’s hunting dogs double as pets for the family to enjoy during the off season, which can make getting them into hunting shape and refocusing their attention on game birds all the more difficult.

Although very important, the heart, lungs and muscles are what most hunters think about when you mention getting your dog in shape for the season. Not many sportsmen think about the pads on their dog’s feet when it comes to the conditioning process. Unless your dog has been very active during this past offseason his pads are going to be a bit on the soft side and not field ready. Because of their unrelenting desire to hunt, dogs are going to give it their best effort no matter what their physical condition. So, it’s unfair to the animal, to take him to the field when he’s not hunt-ready.

The last thing any hunter wants to happen is for his dog to be laid up after the first outing of the season — especially if it is a preventable injury. That’s a real bummer. Another problem during the off season is that many sportsmen don’t pay close enough attention to the amount of food their dogs are being fed. Consequently, the slim hunting dog they ended the season with is now overweight. Cutting back on the dog’s food is another good reason to start the conditioning process early.

Even the simplest outing can be unfair to an out-of-shape dog. I’ve had hunters tell me, “There are no real demands on a dog for a dove hunt.” That’s wrong, fellow hunters. A dog that is overweight will overheat much quicker on a hot day than one that is in hunt-ready shape, and they are more likely to strain a muscle. Also, the hot ground tends to make their pads wear or tear more easily. Dove hunting is as dangerous for your dog as any other type of hunting when your dog is in poor condition.

Although, I do not disapprove of roading a dog to get him in hunting shape, I feel the better choice is to go the training route. It’s also a mental refresher for any dog and sharpens the communication between the two of you. Teach him something new or hone an existing command, skill or technique. Set up a training schedule by deciding how many days you have until the season begins, then set up realistic goals to accomplish in the weeks ahead.

Your ultimate goal is to have your hunting dog at his proper field ready weight, in good physical conditioning, with toughened pads, and tuned in to his training level by the first hunt.

It’s a long season ahead fellow dog owners, so be kind to your hunting partner and get him into shape by the time the season begins. A dog adds joy to any hunt. Don’t be without your dog on any of your outings simply because you didn’t do your part to get him ready.

Good hunting!

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

Shooting, hunting and dogs
Most hunters have their own ideas about training dogs, hunting and shooting — all three very important rudiments of the bird hunting sport. Getting together to share and explore ideas with your hunting cronies is a great way to expand your knowledge on any of these subjects. But when the conversation starts to flow, be sure the person doing the talking knows something about what he’s saying. If possible, find out about his particular experience and credentials, if any.

If the topic of conversation is one in which you have a great deal of interest but in which you are not well-schooled, it’s better if you first listen before offering advice. Have you ever heard someone make a neophyte’s statement about a specific topic, and felt that he will regret his words after he learns more about the subject? That can be embarrassing. Especially if some journalist should quote his words (Just listen to some of our politicians running for office.)

I recently read an article in a sportsman’s magazine where the author quoted some uninformed, obviously naive, wanna-be dog trainer discussing the merits of a not so popular breed of hunting dog. This trainer/breeder was quoted as proudly saying, “Many hunters who own one of these dogs take them out hunting without ever putting a day of training into the dog. While that may be possible, I did not hear him discuss how well the hunt went using this untrained dog!

To what level of hunting expertise do you expect your dog to be trained? That does not seem like a complicated question, but the answer usually bring up more questions than conclusions. Unfortunately, many guys who hunt with dogs have never even been exposed to a really well-trained and obedient hunting dog. If they had, their hunting life would have been made much simpler. I remember one young hunter telling me, “ You only hear stories or read about such wonderful hunting dogs in some magazine—it’s not possible for someone like me to own one.” Why the hell not? If you are willing to put in the time to find a puppy with good blood-lines to purchase, and are able to spend the time and money necessary to have the dog and yourself properly trained, you too can have a dog that someone writes and tells stories about. It’s a commitment, but a commitment with huge rewards.

Hunters who hunt with dogs naturally gain a greater understanding of a hunting dog’s talent than the guys who don’t use dogs. But even these more knowledgeable hunters usually cease their handling and training education after learning only the rudimentary skills necessary to handle their dog in the field. I believe that a hunter should not be satisfied with a dog that is trained only to perform basic hunting skills. Nor should he be satisfied with a beginner classification as his handling skill level as well. I urge every hunter to take the time and spend the money to learn to become the team of handler-and-dog that other hunters talk about. When I go hunting, my goal is to retrieve every bird that I hit whether crippled or dead, I believe that there are very few excuses for leaving a downed bird in the field. If you and your dog are trained well enough to work as a team, there is very good chance that you can find that downed bird. Make the effort to learn how to handle your hunting dog fellow hunters, and you may be the subject of the talk around the fireplace.

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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