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How to Use a Whistle for Dog Training

Why the simple whistle might be the secret to stealth and better communication with your hunting dog.

How to Use a Whistle for Dog Training

Here’s what you should know about the benefits of using a whistle to control your dog more effectively in the field. (Photo By: Jordan Horak)

My upland hunting obsession goes back several decades, well before the internet was a thing and information was readily available. As a result, there was a lot of trial and error with my methods. While there was plenty of blundering that made success more difficult, those experiences also provided a foundation for what not to do (and every once in a while, what to do). My first dog was a hard-charging yellow Lab from American field trial lines. He liked to go hard in the field, and in retrospect, was maybe a bit too much dog for an 11-year-old boy that was learning mostly through trial and error. 

One of those “errors” included a significant amount of yelling while trying to keep my original “Cato” dog hunting with me. I can remember a scenario playing out many times: me trying to put the sneak on some wily roosters on a calm morning which required a considerable amount of stealth, considering the daily dance I played with these birds. I’d enter the field with some quiet words to Cato, reminding him that I needed his full cooperation, but as we progressed through the field, those words would be quickly forgotten and full-on shouting would ensue. This would, of course, have little effect on Cato, but significantly more effect on the birds as I’d watch them flush out the far side of the field. 

At the time, I remember being extremely frustrated, but also clueless to a solution. Little did I know there was an inexpensive, readily available tool that would have helped significantly with my circus act in the field. Enter the whistle. 


WHY USE A WHISTLE?

It was over a decade later that I was finally turned on to the value of using whistles with hunting dogs, and now, it’s an irreplaceable tool that is ALWAYS with me whether I’m training or hunting. Why? Because the advantages are so significant versus using my voice that I could never go back to not using a whistle. Some of those advantages are more obvious than others, but here are the main advantages that I’ve experienced. 

Distance: This may be the most obvious one. A whistle has a far greater capacity to be heard at a longer distance than our voice does. Hopefully we aren’t having to take advantage of that quality very often, but it’s nice to have. Sometimes it’s necessary for our dogs to be a considerable distance from us (like a long retrieve), and other times it happens inadvertently, (yup, I’ve had dogs range farther than they should and on the rare occasion get turned around in the grouse woods). In those instances, it can be a life-saver to have a whistle around my neck!

dog trainer with whistle
Keep a whistle around your neck and you will always have a way to communicate with your dog, even at very long range or in thick cover. (Photo By: Jordan Horak)

Less disturbing to birds: When we use our voice to communicate with our dog, birds hear it, and they automatically know that a person has invaded their space. Pressured birds are going to automatically be put on high-alert, but even unpressured birds are going to be unsettled by the noise. Wild game birds don’t seem to be completely oblivious to the whistle, but in my experience, they do not seem to be affected by whistles nearly as much. This is a huge advantage for us as it allows us to communicate with our dogs while still maintaining some level of stealth. 

Pied Piper Affect: I don’t really know why (although I’m sure there’s a scientific reason), but dogs just flat out respond better to the whistle than they do to our voices, especially when in the field. My theory is that the whistle is at a pitch that makes it easier for the dog to hear, but whatever the reason, using a whistle typically results in a better response from our dogs. Obviously this doesn’t eliminate the need for training, but if there’s a simple tool that automatically improves our dog’s response to commands, it’s in our best interest to give it a try.  

Easier: Frankly, I think it’s exhausting to spend an afternoon talking to (sometimes very loudly) my dog as I go through a field. Even if it didn’t disturb the birds, it would wear my patience thin. A whistle requires very little effort to create noise, even at higher decibels. It might take a little practice and time to get to the point where you can hold a whistle in your mouth without thinking about it, but when you get to that point, it’s almost effortless to use the whistle. 


SPECIFIC COMMANDS TO USE THE WHISTLE

How we use the whistle is important. If it’s just a noise-maker that is haphazardly blown, it’s not going to be nearly as effective as it could be. I like to think of the whistle as an extension of my voice, so if I have a voice command for a behavior, there’s a good chance I also have a whistle command for the behavior. The main ones I use are “sit,” “come,” “turn,” and one that I call a “draw” whistle. 

“Sit” and “come” are pretty self-explanatory. You can use whatever whistle sequence you’d like, but I use one sharp toot on the whistle for “sit,” and for “come” I use a series of three short toots in rapid succession. If your dog doesn’t respond to the sit whistle the first time, it’s important to make sure your follow up toots are at a large enough interval that they don’t get confused with the come whistle. For the come whistle, keeping the three toots distinct and in fast succession is important. Rather than using my lungs to control the toots, I use my tongue to open and close the whistle while I’m blowing. This keeps the toots sharp and distinct. It does take a little practice to get this down, so don’t be afraid to practice away from your dog (and probably away from people for that matter!)

“Turn” is a bit more complex. Essentially, it’s a command to help my dog quarter in front of me. If he’s off to one side and I want him on the other side, two toots on the whistle lets him know I’d like him to quarter in front of me (and the whistle is often accompanied by a gesture or hand signal that specifically lets him know which way I’d like him to go). 

My “draw” whistle is something that I came up with to let my dog know he’s too far away from me and I’d like him to work back in closer to me. I differentiate this from my “come” whistle because I like my commands to be specific. When I just want my dog to come back part of the way in, I’ll blow a soft, long toot on the whistle. This starts the dog moving back toward me, and I can then use a hand signal to cast the dog at a 90-degree angle when they’ve cut the distance from me back to what I deem to be an appropriate range. 

dog trainer with whistle and cocker spaniel
With a little practice, your dog will easily learn to take whistle commands, sometimes more effectively than your voice. (Photo By: Jordan Horak)


HOW TO TRAIN TO THE WHISTLE

Training your dog to respond to the whistle doesn’t have to be complicated, but there are a few principles to keep in mind. Please don’t just buy a whistle and start indiscriminately blasting away on it—this won’t help your dog, and actually may be counterproductive as it will create confusion. 

Have a process: I like to start out by first teaching a behavior, then giving it a voice command (i.e. “sit”), then overlaying the whistle with the voice command, and then finally use the whistle by itself. What I don’t want to do is start blowing on the whistle requesting a behavior that my dog doesn’t already know, because now he’s trying to learn two things (the behavior and the whistle) at the same time, and that typically leads to confusion. 

Be consistent: This can’t be overstated. Be consistent with how you use the whistle! If one toot means “sit,” it always means sit. If three toots mean “come,” it has to always mean “come.” We need to think of the whistle as a simple yet precise language. If we are indiscriminately blowing the whistle hoping for our specific response, we’re going to end up disappointed and our dog will only be confused.  

Don’t overdo it: Listening to someone repeatedly yell at their dog while going through a field is high on my list of most annoying things ever (akin to nails on a chalkboard) but blasting on a whistle like you’re in a symphony orchestra isn’t much better. So don’t be that guy! Typically less is more—if we only use the whistle when it’s really necessary, it will carry more value for your dog, so keep that in mind. 

WHICH WHISTLE SHOULD YOU USE?

There are a lot of whistle options on the market, and I imagine they all have their benefits and disadvantages. Because I hunt and train primarily spaniels, I like to use a relatively quiet whistle. The Acme 210.5 whistle fits the bill perfectly for me. If I wanted a little more distance, I might step up to the  Acme 211.5 whistle. These whistles are both pea-less whistles that rarely freeze up in cold weather and have the capability of being blown very softly. On the other end of the spectrum are pea whistles, some with amplifiers attached that are capable of producing extremely loud blasts but are inferior at communicating quietly. 

dog trainer place training with cocker spaniel
A whistle can easily become an integral part of your dog training kit. (Photo By: Jordan Horak)

When choosing your whistle, you need to think about how you’ll use it. Since I rarely handle dogs at a distance beyond 100 yards, the quieter whistles are perfect for me. If you need more distance, you’ll likely want to look for something with a pea in it that can produce more volume. In any case, I’d recommend that you stick with one whistle to avoid confusing your dog. 

In a world full of complex gadgets and thingamabobs, the whistle might not seem like much, but I’d make the case that it’s as indispensable as the boots on your feet and the gun in your hands. Put some thought into the best whistle for your hunting style, start implementing it into your training, and you’re likely going to see a marked improvement in your pup’s cooperation and your level of enjoyment while hunting.

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