Time was, I thought the tone buttons on my e-collars were a waste of…tone. After all, I had a voice, and I had a whistle. I could (and can to this day) scream at a dog until my ears bleed. And my friends, with cause, may well consider me the poster boy for excess whistling. What’s more, if a dog continued to ignore me—hard to believe given my eminent stature in the dog-training universe, but still—I would march right out there and make him listen. So there.
But nothing lasts forever, and my preconceived ideas about tone buttons, along with a whole bunch of other preconceived ideas I’d rather not go into, have fallen by the wayside. The reason? I was wrong.
These days, the more I rely on my tone buttons to recall my dogs, the better I like them, and the better I like them, the more I use them. I was introduced to their use about a decade ago, somewhat reluctantly, by clients whose dogs I was training who insisted that their dogs recall to a tone. All were pheasant hunters who believed that silence put more birds on the tailgate. I’m agnostic on that theory, but I taught their dogs to recall to the tone anyway. It made them happy.
The problem, as I saw it then, was that using the tone button was all well and good, but if your dog didn’t know where you were, where was he going to go when he heard the tone?
I think my reservations were justified, but my mistake was in believing that dogs are running hither and yon with no idea of your whereabouts. As I learned, they usually do know where you are, and a tone button often works even if they can’t physically see you.
Still, there are limitations. Partially wooded quail country and wide open Hun country is a better fit for the tone button than the thick Wisconsin grouse woods, but they work even there as long as the dog isn’t too far away. For my three dogs, that translates to a rough distance of 100 to 150 yards.
Beyond that, they’re more likely to lose their bearings, and sometimes head in the opposite direction when I hit the tone button. But to be fair, they often behave the same way when I whistle, when, theoretically, they should be able to locate the sound. Every dog has a set point, the distance at which the directional compass in its head, like weak reception on a tv, begins to fuzz out. The moral of this story is to figure out where that is with your dog, and if you’re hunting in compromising cover, recall him before he gets past the point of no return.
Although I use the tone function on my collars more each year, I still rely on my whistle. That’s due in equal measure to habit and convenience. My GPS (which has the tone button) is in a pocket on my vest, which takes a bit of juggling to smoothly remove, although it’s not something I can’t manage. My trusty whistle, on the other hand, is attached to my trusty lanyard and slung around my trusty neck, which has been in the same place on my body since I was a kid. After 50 years of slinging my whistle from my shirt front to my lips, I don’t have to analyze the process.
But here’s what I do analyze: my whistle vis a’ vis my friends. Allow me to explain. I like loud whistles. Very loud whistles. For the life of me, I’ve never been able to figure out why certain people with dogs that range 300 yards out insist on whistles that are barely audible at 50. Yes, I know all about a dog’s supposedly superior auditory capacities. But a horn whistle for a pointing dog? Horn whistles are for spaniels.
However, loud whistles come at a price: the pain to you and your friends’ ears. I started wearing cheap, effective ear plugs years ago, and that has eliminated my own pain. My friends haven’t been so lucky. When I let loose on my Acme Thunderer (medium, brass), anyone standing nearby has to cover his ears or suffer the consequences. So, as often as not, I now use the tone button.
Teaching a dog to recall to a tone isn’t difficult—in fact, it’s usually quite easy—but it takes time. That’s because before you get to the easy part, you have to do the hard part of teaching the dog first to recall to a voice command, then to a whistle. You could, I suppose, forego teaching the dog voice and whistle commands and go directly to the tone, but I believe that would be a mistake, if for no other reason than there will be times you need to recall your dog when he isn’t wearing a collar.
Since I’ve been through the process before in this column, I’ll keep my instructions brief. Once the dog has gone through its introductory training and been collar conditioned, I put the dog on a 20-foot lead, tell it to whoa, back off to the extent of the lead, and command “here,” then pull the dog to me. When the dog has grasped that, I take it for a walk, still attached to the lead, and again repeat the “here” command, pulling the dog to me if it doesn’t respond. (Note: two or three commands per walk is plenty; more than that and most dogs get “sticky.”)
Last, when the dog is recalling at a walk, I turn it loose and let it run free, dragging the lead as it goes, then give the command “here,” dashing out to grab the lead if the dog ignores me. So far, so good.
From that point on, training the dog to recall to a whistle and then the tone is a matter of overlaying the new command with the old command. Here’s how that works: When you’re ready to use the whistle, turn your dog loose (with or without the lead doesn’t much matter at this point), blow your whistle, then immediately follow that with your voice command. Your dog will quickly connect the two, and within a few days you should be able to drop the voice command all together. Incidentally, you can also add electronic stimulation to reinforce the whistle command at this point or not, as you see fit.
Now your dog is ready to recall to the tone. Since your dog has 1) learned to recall to your voice, and 2) learned to recall to the whistle, you can easily train him to recall to a tone by hitting the tone button and following it immediately with the whistle command, which by now he’s well familiar with. I think you’ll be surprised by how quickly most dogs pick it up—often in just a matter of days.
In fact, sometimes it takes even less time than that. I often train my dogs to recall to the tone while they’re in the field, on an actual hunt, using exactly the same sequence, tone/whistle, I’ve described above. Thus far, it’s worked every time.
So now I’m a convert to the tone button. For those who want to tell me, “I told you so,” I respond to a voice, the whistle...and the tone.