Your dog whining or whimpering while sitting in a blind or while waiting his turn at a club training session or trial is a large problem. The people who mostly face this problem are Labrador retriever owners. But being noisy is by no means exclusive to Labs. Once this problem occurs, depend on it escalating, getting worse, more intense, or starting sooner—because it will. But why does it happen, why does it escalate, and how do we fix it?
Why It Happens
The proximal reason a dog whines is excitement and over-the-top enthusiasm. One source is the dogs are selectively bred for it. The competition of trials and tests demand a big, splashy entry. The game of the dog launching itself from a dock after a flung bumper demands showy enthusiasm if it is to get the ribbons. The winners are the dogs selected for breeding, and this is what sells the most puppies. Selecting dogs for flashy enthusiasm instead of common sense will give you an excitable dog, and one with a high potential for whining.
Then we also inadvertently train dogs to be vocal. We get a puppy and think it is very cute for it to chase things and admire the pup’s drive, and so we reward it. Anything a pup gets rewarded for will be etched in stone. We set it up, so the pup looks like a world-beater at four months and we make it excitable, building on its genetic predisposition. Mostly, we create the problem.
Then it gets worse: In training, we have a dummy launched but the pup just whined a bit, barely noticed, while waiting anxiously for something to happen—and it happens. In the dog’s head is the message, “Whine and you get to retrieve.” Next time, pup is waiting for his turn and he whines a few times. The last whine works, and he gets to do his thing. Again, whining is being rewarded. He wins often enough to keep him interested in the whine game. Reward is frequent enough to keep anticipation alive, so pup whines more, louder, and is eventually reinforced for it. A behavior that is rewarded intermittently is the strongest learned and the most difficult to extinguish.
Fixing the Whine
The easiest fix for unwanted vocalization is to do everything you can to prevent it in the first place. When you get a new pup, have faith that the genetics will provide enthusiasm, drive, and energy.
First, try to get a pup that is not overly excitable. Look at the parents and make your best guess when selecting a pup. Make all the early training in the calm, quiet, most laid-back way you can to instill self-control when still a pup.
Teach the pup up front that quiet and calm gets the reward; wild play and noise gets ignored. Ignore the attention-getting antics and reward quiet sitting time instead.
In later training, long before you get into blind doubles, don’t do things like have the pup chase things. If a helpful soul tells you to do something to increase the dog’s enthusiasm (they will surely call it “prey drive”), pat them on the head and tell them you will do it tomorrow.
When your pup has learned well that calm is the way to go, begin retrieve lessons the same quiet, calm way, pushing for patience. For example, when doing water retrieving, start at the shoreline, so the dog can step directly into the water and not get a run at it. It will discourage leaping, but the retrieve will be just as efficient.
But what if the dog still whines while waiting for ducks to come by, or for his turn at a training session—how can you fix it?
If your dog whines primarily when sitting, or in the blind, start with something the dog is good at like “sit.” Start by sitting on a stool on the lawn with the dog on “sit” beside you. Tell the dog “quiet.” Stare at the horizon and wait for five minutes. If the dog is quiet for the period, reward him and take him for a short walk on leash around the yard. Next, move the stool a few feet to face another direction and repeat the “sit” and “quiet” and lengthen the time to seven or 10 minutes. If 10 is too long and he whines, back up to a shorter period. Keep repeating, adding small increments of time until you are confident the dog can sit without whining for up to 15 or 20 minutes.
Your confidence is important. If you are not confident, you are sending your dog the wrong signals and he knows it. Now, start adding things like putting a portable blind around your stool. Start short and increase duration gradually. If the dog is still progressing well after 10 minutes, add something else, such as hunting clothes in the blind. Then add decoys set on the lawn and a gun, a duck call, jump up and dry fire, and so on. Have a helper toss a bumper into the decoys and send him to retrieve it. Keep getting more like a hunting situation by adding things you would need to simulate a real hunt. Each time, start short and increase duration as fast as your dog will allow. If ever he should whine, back up a few steps, come at it again more gradually, always rewarding for “quiet.”
Do not punish a whine by a slap in the face (as some might recommend), or a shock from the collar. Simply say “quiet,” wait a few minutes, and then tell him “good quiet” along with a reward of some kind, and then quit for the day. When you have achieved this at home, move to the field and to a pond. Make it as real as possible. Your dog will eventually learn that quiet brings the reward, and the whining will disappear.