Choosing and Using a Dog Whistle

At MSDA, we often receive inquiries about whether or not a whistle has to be used in training, which whistle is best for training, and do different sporting dog breeds need different whistles?

In answering these questions, this article assumes:

  • That the reader has already decided to use a whistle in field training, hunting, hunt tests and/or field trials, and they need to make a preliminary decision about which whistle to use.
  • That the reader will not use a whistle as a command or while handling until after the dog has already learned that command without a whistle.

A sporting dog’s ability to hear
There is a hearing difference among dog breeds – those with floppy ears covered with hair won’t be able to hear as well as those with erect ears. But there is no material difference in the hearing between any of the sporting dog breeds.

Humans can hear a frequency range between 20 and 20,000 Hz; dogs can hear 40 to 60,000 Hz. The smaller the number the lower the sound; the higher the number the higher the pitch. This explains why a dog can hear a silent whistle, which emits a sound above 20,000 Hz, yet the sound is inaudible to most humans.

People need to train their dogs before incorporating a whistle
There are many dog owners who have exceedingly high expectations of a dog whistle. A toot on a whistle has no inbred meaning for a dog. A dog may be interested the first few times he hears a whistle’s distinct and/or unusual sound. The dog may even approach you to investigate, but the effect is typically temporary. Over time, the dog will lose interest in the whistle unless he begins to associate the sound with something that he has been already taught to do.

Do you need a whistle to train a sporting dog?
Strictly speaking, the answer is “no”. You can teach any dog a command with voice alone. Once a command is learned, you can add hand signals to help a dog understand the command at a distance. But, out in the field, a dog may not be able to hear your voice or see your hand signal. During hunting, a hunt test or a field trail, using a whistle will be appreciated by fellow hunters, handlers and judges, and is much more dignified than yelling at your dog from the top of your lungs.

A whistle for sporting dog training is helpful for three primary reasons.

  • A whistle is easier to hear – the human voice does not carry as effectively as a whistle over distance, especially on a windy day.
  • A whistle is clear and unambiguous – the human voice is variable in pitch and easily distorted by environmental factors. A good quality whistle will not alter in pitch when you are angry or tired.
  • A whistle is less disturbing to most wildlife – the human voice is very disturbing to wild game, and sporting dog work should be carried out with a quiet hunt whenever possible.

A whistle is not always the answer in every situation. Sometimes, you may want to work a dog in almost complete silence; for example, in close quarters a hand signal, or whisper voice, may be more appropriate.

In practice, most sporting dog handlers should first teach voice commands and then add whistles and hand signals as training progresses and the dog has already learned the voice command.

Choosing a whistle
A whistle choice often comes down to the handler’s preference as the specific pitch doesn’t make any difference to the dog. Once you have bought your first whistle, you are likely to use that whistle “type” for the rest of your life. However, no two dogs are exactly alike which can make it more difficult to choose the perfect whistle from the beginning.

Most people have to experiment to see which whistle is just right. Some handlers will buy a half-dozen or more of the same whistles at a time to test each one for the exact sound they want. Other handlers, even if they have been around for a long time may switch whistle preference with some regularity.

Whistles for sporting dogs
The breed of sporting dog and the type of training can impact which whistle you may choose. Spaniels tend to work closely and you may not need to use a whistle with a large sound radius even if cover is thick. A pointer will spend a lot of their time air scenting at a distance, but once on game, they will get into the undergrowth; you may benefit from a whistle which can cut through thick groundcover at a distance. And, retrievers work over long distances so you need a loud whistle for giving instruction and a reliable recall.

Additionally, if you have a retriever that runs in retriever hunt tests as well as spaniel hunt tests, or a spaniel or a pointer that runs in retriever hunt tests as well as spaniel or pointer tests, it’s nearly impossible to pick one whistle that works well in two different test types. Just because a dog has learned to recall on three toots on one type whistle, does not mean they will recall well with three toots on a different whistle type. There are some combination dog whistles (aka dual-tone whistles), but they still yield different tones on different frequencies as if you were using two different whistles.

Many of the dog whistles have a “pea,” a small cork ball inside the whistle shell. A pea allows you to “trill” the whistle and make different combinations of sounds. However, the pea in a whistle can freeze in cold weather from your saliva. For cold weather training and other reasons, many handlers use a pealess whistle which are also better at making quick blasts. And a metal whistle that works well in most seasons, can freeze to your lip in below freezing temperatures.

Making the final decision
Even though some whistles are better suited for different situations, in the end, it’s your choice. No matter what whistle you choose, to get the most out of it you must know how to blow it and be consistent with your tones.

If you’re interested in learning more about choosing and using a whistle, the following links may be of interest to you: