Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
What Is Whistle Training for Dogs?
Whistle training for dogs may sound like a new modern trend, but in reality it has existed for centuries, way before actual whistles were crafted. Using their tongues, lips and strong sets of lungs, shepherds have whistle trained their dogs to effectively respond to different pips and blasts for many years so they could control livestock. Nowadays, the tradition still lives on, but you don't need to have a herd of sheep or be an avid hunter to benefit from whistle training your dog. You can still perpetuate this tradition but using your natural whistling techniques, or if you are like me—that is, a poor whistler—you can purchase a silent dog whistle and try it out with your dog.
What Is a Silent Whistle, and How Does It Work?
The silent whistle, also known as Galton's whistle, was first invented in 1876 by Sir Francis Galton. What makes it special? Its main characteristic is that it emits sound in the ultrasonic range which can be detected readily by animals but cannot be detected by humans. This whistle was invented when Galton started studying the hearing capabilities of animals. It was first mentioned in his book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development.
Interestingly, dogs are capable of hearing in the ultrasonic range because of their past as hunters. Indeed, hearing in the ultrasonic range allowed dogs and cats to be effective hunters since small prey such as small rodents emit squeaks in that range. Expect a dog whistle to generally be within the range of 23,000 Hertz to 54,000 Hertz, which is above the hearing range of humans (who can detect sounds between 64 to 23,000 Hertz).
It can be readily detected by dogs, though, as their hearing range detects sounds between 67 and 45,000 Hertz, according to the Louisiana State University. Yet, the term "silent" whistle is bit of a misnomer since humans can for the most part hear a quiet hissing sound—which I like as I want to know how my whistle sounds when I am blowing it!
Pros and Cons of Dog Whistle Training
There are several advantages of dog whistle training. We will look at several that are advantageous to both you and your dog. Following are some pros and cons of whistle training for your dog.
Pros of Dog Whistle Training
- Ideal for training dogs at a distance.
- Works better in heavy cover, rain or high winds compared to voice.
- No need to scream at dog parks or other places where your voice may bother others.
- The tone is more consistent than voice.
- Can be used by rest of the family with lower risks for creating confusion in the dog.
- Dogs who have started to develop hearing problems may detect the whistle.
- A good alternate to those cases where owners have poisoned their recall cue.
Cons of Dog Whistle Training
- You will need to carry the whistle with you all the time.
- The whistle needs to become a conditioned reinforcer for it to become effective.
- Some models of whistles aren't as good as others.
Whistle Training Your Dog: How It Works
Don't just expect Rover to hear the whistle and promptly come flying to you! I had some people in the past write to me asking me why their dogs weren't responding to the whistle as they expected. I asked them what they expected, and they told me they expected their dogs to respond to it without ever doing anything! Well, at least that's how it goes for the most part. Oddly, the first time I blew my silent whistle, both my Rottweilers came rushing to me, perhaps because they were curious about the noise. But, yes, your dog will definitely need some training if you want to use whistles. Here are some tips for starters.
Getting Familiar With the Whistle
As the very first step, you need to take a good look at your silent whistle. What make and model is it? Does it have an instruction booklet. If so, don't just assume you don't need it. Read it—that's what it's there for! You may have a whistle that has a locking nut that can be loosened so you can adjust the pitch. In this case, try to adjust the pitch and watch your dog's reactions. Try to see if certain pitches are more effective in getting your dog's attention. Look for the more intense "orienting response." Once you're satisfied, lock the nut so to keep the screw in place.
Next, if you want to train different commands, you'll need to invest in different sounds so you have variety. Just as your verbal commands are different from one another, you want to use varied sounds so not to confuse your dog. Experiment. Attain long blasts and short pips and pay attention to the rising and falling sounds your whistle produces. Then, assign a sound to a specific command, or, if you wish, use the standard sounds used by the pros. Following are some examples coming from Kelly Olson, a breeder and trainer of gun dogs:
- Sit: one long blast
- Come: three to four repeated blasts
- Direction changes: one long thrill noise
Introducing the Whistle
If your dog is already well-trained and responds reliably to verbal commands or hand signals, adding the whistle to the mix is a piece of cake. Just let the new whistle sound precede the familiar command repeatedly, until your dog learns that the new sound is a cue that predicts the well-known command. Because dogs like to anticipate, at some point your dog will start responding to the whistle alone, and you can fade the verbal or hand signal altogether if you wish. Soon, Rover will be on his way to coming running to you at the blast of a whistle.
As mentioned, it's wrong to assume your dog will just start responding to the whistle without any previous training, just as when you are charging a clicker, you'll need to make the sound of the whistle a conditioned reinforcer. This is an important step you want to take if you are planning on training recalls. So you would blow the whistle, give a treat, blow the whistle, give a treat several times in a row, until your dog makes the association.
Putting the Whistle to Work
Once Rover responds reliably to your whistle, you can put it to good work. Use it to call your dog from a small distance when he's on a long line and reward him with several treats given in a row. Or use it it re-direct your dog when he is about to dig out all your rose bushes so he comes to you instead. Big, big rule: Always, always, always reward lavishly for responding to the whistle—and this often entails the highest rewarding treats on Rover's top ten hierarchy of best treats.
Advice on Choosing the Right Whistle
Acme and Remington are leaders in the dog whistle brand industry. For practical reasons, invest in whistles with a cord attached that you can wear them around your neck or hang them somewhere so you can easily find them.
Bottom line: Whistle training your dog is fun and can be effective if you do it correctly. Happy training!
My Whistle Training Work With a Hound Mix at Rover's Ranch Home
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli
Tina Quinn on July 09, 2020:
I use a whistle for recalls but would love to teach my dogs other commands using the whistle are there books on it.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 17, 2013:
Yes, and it's fun to use too epbooks! thanks for stopping by!
Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on July 17, 2013:
Great advice. I've never tried this or the clicker. But I liked what you said no longer needing to scream their name at the park. I realize how annoying I must have sounded when my dogs were younger and I was yelling their name! The whistle seems like a great idea.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 16, 2013:
That's awesome Vista15! You have created a good conditioned reiforcer. I remember as a child I had these two cats that also used to come running at the sound of a whistle.
Tiana Dreymor from Columbus, OH on July 16, 2013:
I whistle for my cats. Not for specific training, but to let them know to come and eat. It works.
Dog Whistle Training
Like treats, a whistle can serve as a Pavlovian enforcer for good or bad behavior. You can even customize whistle commands into a language that only you and your dog can understand. This goes back to the whistle being a means of communication between you and your pup. Whistles are very useful for command training in their effectiveness for conditioning behavior plus dogs can hear your commands from far away. When developing this “language” with your dog, it means your pooch will react only to your whistle. Whistles can be combined with hand signals and verbal cues to create an even more intricate and customized language.
Whistles are more effective in a variety of weather conditions than a person’s voice. This holds especially true for heavy cover, rainy conditions, and during intense winds. Whistle tones are more consistent than a voice plus can be used by the entire family to avoid creating confusion for your dog. This is directly related to the consistency feature of whistles. Since the whistle is so high-pitched, it can be recognized by dogs who have begun to develop hearing problems and/or are in very noisy and distracting environments. Finally, whistles are a great option when an owner has “poisoned a cue”, meaning a dog associates unpleasant things with a cue or command. Even if you think you are not demonstrating unhappiness with your dog’s behavior, your pup might “see” things differently.
Your dog picks up on much more than the sound of your voice they interpret body language, scents, and sounds. You must remain consistent in your training and be mindful of everything about your demeanor as your dog cannot read your mind but can take even the slightest change of tone as a punishment when you are trying to compliment. Poisoned commands can be recuperated, but it takes a tremendous amount of work.
Whistle Recall Training
Teaching your dog to respond to a whistle has several advantages over relying on your voice alone.
- The sound of a whistle carries further than your voice, especially in windy conditions.
- A whistle does not convey emotion e.g. frustration, anger, fear.
- A whistle is transferable between handlers, ensuring the dog returns to whoever is walking him/her.
Dogs do not respond automatically but need to be “tuned in”. The earlier you start the better, but it can be introduced at any age. Guide Dogs for the Blind introduce whistle feeding from six weeks of age!
How to “tune in” your dog.
- Get organised! You will need your dog’s food in a bowl, a whistle, and your dog, wearing a collar.
- Have your whistle around your neck.
- Get your dog to sit most sit automatically if you raise the food bowl above their head.
- Put a finger in your dog’s collar for control.
- Put the food bowl on the floor telling your dog to “leave”.
- Get the dog to wait a couple of seconds, control with the collar as necessary.
- Blow the whistle, 3 short, sharp blasts.
- Release your dog’s collar to allow them to eat.
You need to practise this at each meal for at least a week to form the whistle/food association.
You can then build up to using the whistle to call the dog to you in the house. Have another family member hold the dog, show the dog a nice food treat and walk away from the dog a short way. Use the same whistle signal as at feed time, the helper releases the dog, you reward the dog when he/she returns to you. As the dog gets the idea, ask for a sit on their return and take the collar before giving the treat (this ensures they don’t return, grab treat and shoot off again!). You can now go out of sight and call the dog, to make the exercise harder, and build up to practising in the garden to build up the distraction level.
When the dog is responding reliably, don’t give a food treat every time. This will keep the dog guessing, it’s like gambling – you never know when it will pay off, so is always worth trying. When the dog is reliable in the garden you are ready to practise out on walks.
Some do’s and don’ts
- Do always remember to take your whistle and some treats, attach the whistle to a key ring or even your lead, so you remember it.
- Vary your walks dogs become very complacent if they know the exact pattern of each walk.
- Interact with your dog, take a toy (ball on rope, tuggy toy), play hide and seek, make sudden changes of direction. All these help to keep the dog’s interest on you otherwise they will look to the environment for their entertainment!
- Walk with a friend if their dog has a good recall response, your dog will learn from their example.
- Don’t call your dog the minute you have let him off, give him time to let off some steam.
- Don’t call your dog if he is just about to go to the loo (would you respond?).
- Don’t call your dog if you know he is likely to ignore you, i.e. just started playing with another dog. You want to aim for successes at first.
- You will find your dog reacts better in some places than others. If you are finding it difficult in a particular place avoid it for a few weeks, practise in some easier areas and return as the dog becomes more reliable.
Never tell your dog off for a slow return, however annoyed you may be. If you shout or smack your dog on their return he will simply learn to avoid you.
Best Dog Training Whistles
Whistle has an adjustable pitch feature, so you can use it to deliver multiple commands.
Only dogs can hear the training whistle, so it won't annoy other people in the area. It's loud enough to carry over a distance, but it doesn't overload the dog's hearing. Uses a stainless steel construction, so it's going to last in all kinds of environments. Ships with a lanyard. Reasonable price.
Can be tricky to learn how to use without spending some time practicing.
Extremely low-priced dog training whistle that's easy to use for issuing commands.
Has a hand-crafted design with tough plastic. Works for all kinds of trainers, whether they're just starting out or have a lot of experience. Sound carries a long distance in the field, making it a good training whistle to use while hunting. Directs the sound outward and toward the animal in the distance.
Pea often sticks inside the whistle, which leads to a loss of sound.
Offers precise adjustment of the pitch of the whistle, as well as long distance usage.
This whistle carries the sound over a few hundred feet. Allows use of multiple, precise frequencies for issuing different commands. Uses a brass construction with a nickel plating for a long-lasting design. Small size so it's easy to carry with you anywhere. Made for experienced handlers.
Expensive. Will make a noise that's audible to humans at certain frequencies.
This is one of the easiest dog training whistles to use, as it doesn't require much airflow.
Uses a low-pitched sound that will carry over longer distances better than some other training whistles. Design of the whistle directs the sound toward the animal and away from the handler. Doesn't take a lot of practice to start using this whistle successfully with your dog. Nice price point.
Doesn't allow for fluctuations in pitch or volume. Has a cheap plastic feel.
Uses a high-quality plastic construction to keep the weight and price down.
Provides a single frequency at 5900Hz, so it's easy to use. Reasonable price. Emits a very high-pitched sound that will grab the dog's attention while remaining at the edge of the audible range of humans. Plastic design is tough enough to survive drops on hard surfaces or dog bites. Popular brand.
The single frequency is tuned primarily for spaniels not as effective for other breeds.
Dog training whistles allow handlers and owners to issue commands to working dogs. These whistles use a frequency that is just at the edge or outside the range of human hearing. Only the dog hears the whistle clearly. The whistles carry the sound of the command over a greater distance than voice commands alone. Some of these whistles work over a few hundred yards. This is advantageous for hunters or herders in the field. Plastic whistles cost less than metal whistles, but they may not last as long. Some advanced dog training whistles allow for using multiple, precise frequencies. This means the handler can issue specific commands based on the frequency of the sound.
What Type of Dog Whistle Should I Buy?
There are a couple different types of whistles you can buy for your dog.
Often used by police dog trainers and officers on duty, these whistles are quiet to the human ear but loud to a dog’s. They’re ideal for police training because they won’t alert a suspect to the presence of a canine officer.
These whistles are also ideal for people who hate the shrill sound of whistles, or who have people in the family with extra-sensitive hearing. Take me, for instance. Because my son is terrified by loud, shrill noises, I train Eira with a silent whistle.
Some trainers claim that a silent whistle won’t do the job as well as a regular one. While I haven’t found that to be true so far, later on in this article we’ll show you our favorite not-silent and silent whistles so you can choose the best one for you and your dog.
Whatever whistle you choose for your dog should be specific to training dogs. The best whistles have adjustable pitch so that you can experiment with different pitches and figure out what your dog responds to the best.