I am a great fan of dog whistles and in this article I’m going to explain why.
We’ll look at what a dog whistle can do for you and your Labrador, which are the best dog whistles on the market, and how to train your dog to the whistle.
I’ll also help you decide if you should buy a whistle – they are not for everyone – and where and how to buy one when you are ready.
But before we dive into whistle training, let’s take a look at why people use dog whistles, and how they can help you with your dog training.
What are dog whistles traditionally used for?
Long before dog whistles were made in factories, people were whistling dogs.
You have probably watched sheepdogs working with shepherds on TV and it’s certainly a wonderful thing to see dogs running from left and right, and sometimes dropping flat on their bellies, to whistle commands, often at hundreds of yards from their handler.
Modern shepherds often use a flat metal whistle which they place inside their mouth, to get the distinctive sound.
Whistle control for the working labrador retriever
This kind of responsiveness to distance training has been bred into our Labradors too. As working gundogs Labradors must be able to follow whistle signals at a distance, especially the stop and recall signal.
“Well, that’s all very well”, you may say, “but why does my Labrador need a whistle, he’s just a pet.” And that is a reasonable point. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of whistle training.
Pros and cons: Why pet Labradors can benefit from whistle training
There are some obvious benefits to a dog whistle. A good whistle carries a long way, further than most people can shout, and your whistle won’t get a sore throat if you use it too often. If you don’t have a very powerful voice, a whistle will certainly help you.
There are other benefits too.
When we are dog training, the cue or signals we give our dogs are easier for the dog to learn if they are consistent.
A whistle always sounds the same, even when you are angry, or tired, or just have a cold, your whistle will sound the same to your dog, and this consistency helps him to learn.
Another benefit to the whistle is that you can prevent other people using it. This can be helpful if you have small children who tend to devalue the dog’s name or recall command by using it over and over again, and at the wrong times.
One disadvantage of course to a mechanical signal like the whistle, is that it is possible to forget it!
Disobedient dogs get a fresh start with whistle training
The main advantage of whistle training for many pet dog owners is that it offers them the chance of a fresh start with their training.
Many of us get in a bit of a muddle with our first dog. We tend to mess up the training process and often end up with a dog that suffers from selective deafness or tends to ignore us and only come back when it pleases him.
Dogs like this have learned that “come here” means practically nothing at all. It might mean Dad is going to be a bit cross, but that’s about all.
The whistle on the other hand, has no meaning – not yet. But it is a new and interesting sound. And a chance for you to retrain your recall and get it right this time – we’ll look at that below.
Will a whistle make my dog more obedient?
A whistle won’t make your dog more obedient, but whistle training will, provided that you commit to it.
There is nothing about a whistle that makes a dog instinctively respond to it. You still have to train your dog to obey the whistle, just as you have to train him to obey your voice.
You might think that this is obvious, but I do need to mention it, because it isn’t that unusual for people to return a whistle that they have bought and claim it doesn’t work. And they are not talking about the sound that the whistle makes, they are talking about the fact that their dog doesn’t respond to it.
Are whistles harmful?
One question people sometimes ask me, is can a whistle harm a dog? Will it hurt his ears or harm his hearing?
Some whistles are extremely powerful, especially some of the USA competitive gundog whistles that are designed to be heard hundreds of yards away even in strong winds.
It makes sense to avoid making very loud noises next to your dog. Having said that, the whistles I recommend for both pet dogs and hunting companions should not do your dog any harm at all provided you do not blow them directly at his ear.
Which is the best dog whistle?
I am going to tell you which whistles I prefer and why, but remember that this is a matter of personal preference.
The main features you need in a dog whistle are
- Consistent sound – it shouldn’t vary too much when you blow it at different times
- Carries well – your dog should be able to hear the whistle clearly at distances of up to 200 yards
- Strong, rigid construction – you will drop your whistle and tread on it at some point.
- Washable – it goes in your mouth!
- Easily replaceable – if you lose it, you don’t want to have to retrain your dog to a different tone
- You can hear it clearly too – I am not so keen on ‘silent’ whistles as I like to be able to hear what I am blowing
If a whistle fits all these criteria, it’s probably just fine for you and your dog.
There are some very pretty whistles on the market, some of them hand made out of stags horn and other natural materials.
But before you buy one, do make sure you can get another in exactly the same tone, because you will lose it. My own preference is for Acme gundog whistles.
Why I love Acme gundog whistles
In the UK, almost all British gundog trainers, both competitive and non-competitive, use Acme gundog whistles. I have been using them for close on forty years. And though I have lost a few, I have never had one break or fail to work.
I should add that Acme are not paying me to write this!
The sound produced by an Acme whistle is consistent. It carries well, and buying one is not going to break the bank. The acme comes in several frequencies, but the two most popular are the 211.5 and the 210.5
Where can I buy a dog whistle?
The Acme whistles are widely available in the UK and increasingly in the USA as well.
For many years the only color Acme whistles came in was black, but you can now buy them in a range of different colors, from lime green to baby pink.
You’ll also need a lanyard to hang the whistle around your neck. You can’t manage without one, the whistle needs to be right there near your mouth because you can never be sure when you might need it.
The lanyard is also handy for hanging your whistle up when you get home, though if you are retraining a naughty dog, I recommend you keep your whistle where only you can find it.
I have one hanging up with my car keys, another in my dog training bag, and a spare in my car.
Which frequency whistle is best?
I have used both Acme 211.5 and Acme 210.5 whistles, but I now stick to the higher frequency 210.5
You may hear people say that one frequency is for Spaniels and the other for Retrievers, but it simply doesn’t matter.
I have both Labradors and Spaniels and I use the 210.5 for both.
What is important is that you are consistent. Pick your frequency and stick to it.
How to use your whistle
Before you start training your dog, its a good idea to get the hang of using the whistle and making a distinctive sound with it.
Try blowing a single blast both softly and loudly.
Use your tongue to break up the sound and tap out a series of ‘pips’ – its a bit like say ’t-t-t’ at the same time as you blow
What kinds of commands can whistles be used for?
Most of us focus on using the whistle to get our dog to come back to us. But there are lots of other uses for whistles too.
My hobby is gundog training and so I use my whistle to control my dogs at a distance.
I use a whistle command to turn my spaniels for example, so that they don’t get too far away from me (spaniels should work within gunshot range) and I use a whistle command to ’stop’ my dogs at a distance and get them to look back at me for directions.
A stop whistle is a useful cue for pet dogs too.
Another whistle command I use is to tell my dog to put his nose down on the ground and start hunting for a retrieve. This is useful if you want your dog to fetch something that he did not see fall.
What do the standard whistle commands sound like?
You can teach your dog to come to any kind of whistle blast that you can consistently make and repeat with your whistle
There are benefits to using standard whistle commands though.
If you really get into whistle training and decide to take your training further at some point, you may want to teach your dog more than just a recall.
You might also want to attend training classes, in which case it’s quite helpful if everyone is singing from the same song sheet.
Here are the three most basic, standard gundog whistle commands
- Recall a string of pips I use five pip-pip-pip-pip-pip
- Stop! A single blast peeeeeeep
- Turn two brief pips pip-pip
Check out my puppy recall video if you want to hear what my recall whistle sound like.
If you are certain that you never want to get involved in gundog training at any point, and if you only ever want use your whistle for recall, or teaching your dog to come, then you can use any of the above as a recall signal.
Your dog won’t care what your signal is. Everything hangs on your commitment to teaching him to respond to it. And that is what we’ll look at below. Let’s just deal with a common concern first.
Do I need different whistles for different dogs
I use the same whistle for all of my four dogs. And there is no reason why you should not do the same.
If you have several dogs to train, you’ll need to train your dogs individually, rather than as a group to begin with.
Once they all respond well to your whistle, you can recall them all at the same time.
How to train your dog respond to the whistle
Whistle training is essentially the same as training with your voice, there is no real difference in technique, no special skills or tricks you need to know.
If your dog is disobedient, buying a whistle is a great opportunity to start again with your training and get it right, I’ll explain the stages you need to go through below.
If you have already taught your dog to respond to your voice and he is fairly obedient, you can transfer that response to the whistle quite quickly.
Simple transfer from voice to whistle
Start by pairing the new whistle command or cue, with your old verbal one. Always give the new cue first.
So for example if you normally say ‘come’ when you want to recall your dog, and your new whistle recall signal is a string of pips, you’ll need to give the pips first followed by the word ‘come’. Like this
Pip-pip-pip-pip-pip “Come” – give your dog some great rewards when he arrives, food, a game, a retrieve etc. Don’t rely on praise or petting.
After a few repetitions, start to leave a gap of three seconds between the pips and the ‘come’. Soon, your dog will start to come towards you before you say ‘come’
Make the pause bigger now, and drop the verbal ‘come’ as soon as the dog is coming to the whistle alone. As with any new training, make sure you avoid distractions to begin with.
That’s for good dogs. Now let’s look at naughty dogs, because whistle training is a great chance to start over
Starting over with whistle training your dog
When you train dog to do anything to a whistle, there are five stages to work through.
If your dog has got into bad habits (ignoring you) You need to start at stage one, and work through to stage five with a brand new command. That’s your whistle. Here are the five stages
- Get the behaviour
- Pair the behaviour with your whistle
- Teach your dog to respond to the whistle
- Proof the response against distractions
- Maintain the response to the whistle
Many people fall down by trying to begin at stage three. Let’s look at an example.
Training your dog to come to the whistle
Dogs learn much faster if the signals you give them have meaning. It is much easier to teach your dog to come to your whistle, if he already knows that the whistle means ‘run to me’
The way he learns what the whistle means is by hearing the whistle when he is already running towards you. That’s what Stage Two is all about.
Stage two – a new language
In stage two we introduce the whistle not as a cue, not as a command, just as something that happens when he is running your way.
This is essentially about learning a foreign language. About understanding that ‘pip-pip-pip-pip-pip’ is just another way of describing the act of running back to your best friend. But first you need to get him running after you – which brings us to Stage One
Stage one – loving that recall
Stage One is all about creating a dog that enjoys returning to you. This has to come first, and the only way to have a dog that really loves running up to his owner, is by reinforcing that behaviour with a powerful reward.
A lot of people struggle with this because they think a dog should come out of duty or respect or love.
But I can promise you that neither duty, nor respect, nor love is going to help you when your dog is three hundred yards away and is having to choose between returning to you or playing with another dog. Only a trained response is going to do that.
And to train an automatic response we must reward the behaviour we want, or punish the behaviour we don’t want.
Most of us don’t want to use punishment nowadays, and in any case, it is very difficult to punish a failed recall, so reinforcement is the way to go.
You can find out much more about all this in our recall training section and in my book Total Recall
‘Get it’ and ‘Pair it’ first
Remember, before you start to ‘teach’ a response you need to ‘get’ the behaviour and ‘pair’ the behaviour
1. Forget about commands. Just get your dog running after you and keep on surprising him with great rewards every time he reaches you. Get him running after you by acting silly, get his attention, whoop and wave your arms about, and run away from him. Keep those rewards coming. And stop giving him commands. Do this well away from any distractions.
2. Once your dog enjoys running towards you, start blowing the whistle when he is on his way and has almost reached you. When you are out with your dog and he checks in with you, blow the whistle as he approaches. It still isn’t a command. This is the pairing stage.
Then head over to teaching my dog a basic recall for the rest of the training process. We’re going to finish up here by taking a look at whistle training for puppies
Whistle training for puppies
People often ask me at what age whistle training can start. Should you teach a puppy a whistle recall first for example, or a verbal recall then a whistle?
I have done this both ways and I can honestly tell you it doesn’t matter.
One at a time
I think it is best to choose either a verbal cue, or a whistle cue and get the puppy responding well to that before teaching the other.
And many people will want to start with a verbal cue because they don’t want to be worrying about wearing a whistle in the house during those early weeks when a puppy is small.
However, one thing you can do, to build a great association between the whistle and a pleasurable experience, is to blow your recall whistle gently whenever you feed your pup.
If you do that four times a day for the first month, he is going to be a big fan of the whistle before you even start training.
A dog whistle can’t train your dog, but it can certainly help you get the job done. It will carry a long way on a windy day and be a recognisable and consistent sound that your dog associates with happy recalls.
Starting with a puppy can be a lot of fun, but don’t worry if you have an older and rather naughty dog.
This is your chance for a fresh start and a great way to get your dog bounding back towards you as you’ve always wanted.
Have you taught your dog to come to the whistle? Share your thoughts in the comments box below
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