Using the Whistle
Being a Limey in America, one thing that always amuses and fascinates me is that I often have to pronounce the same word in a different way in order that an American can understand me. Even my name Martin (Mar-tin) I often have to pronounce Mart’n without any emphasis on the “i” so that it is accepted and even understood. As gundog trainers we have to communicate with our dogs to catch their attention and give commands, words come easily to us and as long as we are consistent in their use for specific actions we have few problems. Even if we have strong voice accents our own dogs still understand us. Accents however can create problems and I have heard varying ‘accents’ from the mouth of the same owner when working with their dog which produces different sounds, even though they are attempting to give the same command . The ‘accent’ I am thinking about here though involves whistles.
We use whistles to communicate with our dog and usually the number of commands is limited to about three. Sit, Recall and Turn while hunting. But I have noticed on a number of occasions both in the field and at workshops I have run, that there are a large number of people who do not realize they are ‘speaking’ (or whistling) in a way which confuses the dog.
One of the biggest problems is the newcomer who does not know how to blow a whistle, how to get pitch, duration, intensity and sharpness. With the whistle we need to be as consistent as we are with our words, and like any other musical instrument a trainer new to whistling must practice blowing the whistle without the dog. I can remember many years ago when I first started, having a whistle hung around my neck on a piece of string and regularly putting it into my mouth and practicing the different sounds I would use on my dogs. Now often this was in the car on the way to work. Many was the surprised face I saw as I stopped at traffic lights and looked across to the other lanes, whistle gripped firmly between my teeth going through my repertoire of ‘toots’. I even used to talk to myself with the whistle still firmly gripped or sing songs to the radio so that I would learn to be able to talk to my dog and have my whistle always available. There is nothing worse than casting your dog off to hunt or for a retrieve, then realizing you need to stop him or get a change of direction and your whistle is tucked down your vest. I was taught always to put my whistle in my mouth before I gave any commands – like fastening your seat belt before even starting the car. Be prepared.
Even after practicing, it is important to get the whistle signal right. Again I have heard handlers casting the dog off with two ‘toots’ and then using the same two ‘toots’ to try and turn the dog. In the dogs mind two ‘toots’ could mean go away from me (learned from being cast off with the signal) and I have often seen this happen. The dog then gets into trouble for doing what it has been taught. I have also heard handlers using one short to medium length ‘toot’ to stop and sit the dog and a long single ‘toot’ to bring them in. The length of the blow indicating what is required. This can only be confusing to the dog. My own preference is One ‘toot’ sharp and definite to stop and sit, two ‘toots’, ‘toot-toot’ overlapping to turn while hunting, and a series of overlapping ‘toot-toots’, with a short split second space in between – (‘toot-toot’, space, ’toot-toot’, space ’toot-toot’.) to command the recall.
To actually blow the whistle is easy once you know how and have practised. It is not so much a blow but a ‘spitting’ of air. With the whistle held firmly between your teeth, if you place your tongue over the opening and then ‘spit’ blow, your tongue will leave the opening automatically and the whistle will activate. Practice blowing at different intensities, so that like a musician you can get the feel of the whistle, which in itself is a musical instrument. It should come as naturally as driving a car or combing your hair. When training up close I try to blow with a low intensity. A dog’s hearing is very acute and I find that blowing it at a lower volume firstly gets them listening more intently and secondly when they are away from you, you can increase the volume so that it sound similar to the close up volume at increasing distances.
There are many different types of whistle you can use. My own personal preference are plastic with the exception of a silent whistle I like to use for my spaniels. This is metal. But I fit a piece of rubber tubing over the mouth piece so that I can hold it between my teeth. The whistles which often create problems are what I call the decorative ones. Stag horn whistles in particular have a ‘dead’ sound to them and although they look smart, are not as effective as the higher frequency precision whistles for getting through to the dog. Especially when it is working in top gear. Whistles are a personal thing with trainers and we all have our favorites. The interesting feature of them is that even though you may have three or four handlers working experienced dogs all at the same time using exactly the same model of whistle, each dog will only be reacting to its own handlers whistle. The dog will recognize its own handlers whistle ‘accent’. That is why that ‘accent’ has to be practised to be consistent no matter what the situation or activity level. It then becomes a distinctive individual sound. Your own whistle ‘accent’.
I am always of the opinion that if I have trained my dog correctly, it is always trying to please me, however if it is not clear what I am asking it to do through confusion on the whistle, it is only me to blame. And I know myself that in moments of panic and stress it is only the years of practice and experience of blowing that makes whistling come as natural as it does – you do it instinctively and correctly without even thinking. So go on – practice and “Give a little whistle!” [MD1].