You may have heard about dog whistles, special devices often portrayed as magically turning a distracted dog into an obedient dog who runs towards his owner immediately, no questions asked. As much as dog whistles may seem appealing, they are not really these magical training objects as they are often portrayed. No training tool will train your dog with no effort, suddenly turning incorrigible Marley into the most obedient dog of the planet. Here are some interesting facts about dog whistle training to be aware of before tossing the dog whistle into the trash.
1) Dog Whistles are Not as Modern as Thought…
When you purchase a silent dog whistle, you may think that it is some modern invention of the 21st century and that silent dog whistle training is a new trend.
In reality, dogs have been whistle trained for a very long time. Using their tongues, lips and pair of effective lungs, shepherds have been providing instructions to their herding dogs through whistle pips and blasts for centuries.
Whistles have also been used by hunters for many years so to provide their pointers, setters and retriever dogs with directions from a distance.
Did you know? The invention of the actual silent whistle dates back to 1876 when sir Francis Galton created it when studying how humans and animals hear. For this reason, dog silent whistles are also known as “Galton Whistles” so to honor his creator.
2) But They Come Handy in the 21st Century.
In more modern settings, police have been using silent whistles to signal to their dogs commands from a distance for quite some time. The whistle blast may tell the dog to corner a suspect without prior warning, so that the suspect doesn’t know what to expect, explains Stanley Coren in the book “How Dogs Think.”
You don’t though have to be a shepherd or a hunter or a policeman to reap the benefits of whistle training. Anybody can enjoy the amenities of silent whistle training their dogs.
Indeed, you can keep the tradition of whistle training dogs alive by simply relying on your own natural whistling abilities, or if you are a poor whistler, you can always purchase a professional dog whistle so that you can start whistle training your dog.
The art and tradition of training dogs with a whistle indeed has made a comeback, and it is being used with success even for training dogs simple cues such as a sit or a powerful recall. For a good reason more and more dog trainers are wearing their silent whistles on a lanyard around their neck! This way, they don’t have to fear about losing their whistles and they can still provide additional visual cues such as directional hand movements as needed.
3) Silent Whistles Reach the Ultrasonic Range…
The silent whistle for dogs gains its name from the fact that it is meant to emit sounds that are in the ultrasonic range. What does this mean? It means that its sound can be detected by animals, but not necessarily by humans.
Dogs in particular are known for having a sense of hearing that can detect the ultrasonic range possibly courtesy of their past as hunters. Several squeaks of small rodents indeed tend to reach the ultrasonic level and this may have been helpful to the dog’s ancestors.
“Ultrasound may posses some innate significance as a directional indicator for detecting and locating small prey animals whose distress vocalizations are expressed at ultrasound frequencies” says Steven Lindsay in the book ” Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Adaptation and Learning.”
A dog whistle is therefore expected to reach the range of 23,000 to 54,000 hertz which is above the hearing range of humans considering that humans can only hear sounds between 64 to 23,000 hertz.
“Ideally dog whistles emit a frequency of between 23,000 and 54,000 Hz although some emit frequencies as low as 16,000 Hz (which people can hear) or much higher than 55,000 Hz (which dogs can’t hear).” ~D Caroline Coile, Margareth H. Bonham
4) But They are Not as Silent as Thought
The term silent whistle is a bit of a misnomer considering that the majority of silent whistles on the market emit a sound that humans can detect.
Humans though may not hear the silent whistle the same way dogs do and over the same distances, but they can detect a hissing sound.
Many dog owners are annoyed by the fact that they hear the sound. They believe the silent whistle must have a pitch that only dogs may hear, and therefore think they have fallen victims of a gimmick, but after all, this feature comes handy, as at least you get to know the whistle is working properly!
“Silent dog whistles make use of the high-frequency sounds that dogs can hear and we can’t, but they are something of a gimmick: Whistles that produce at least some sound audible to human ears are much easier for us to control. (How can you tell when a silent whistle isn’t working?)” ~John Bradshaw
5) Dogs Aren’t Born Whistle Trained
Many dog owners toss away their silent whistle or ask the company that produces them their money back. Why? Because they expect their dogs to respond to it with no previous training!
If for instance, you look at several reviews, you might stumble on several dog owners making remarks such as: “My dog cared less about the silent whistle!” or “It doesn’t stop my dog from barking.”
Dogs are not born whistle trained and the dog whistle is not meant to stop a dog from barking, unless you invest some time in training your dog to respond to its sound so to interrupt a behavior and re-direct it by giving something else to do.
Just as with other training tools such as clickers and target sticks, dogs need some guidance to fully understand how dog whistles work.
But they Can Be Conditioned to Respond to its Sound
A big mistake dog owners make when using a silent whistle is to not allow it to have a meaning.
Without any training, the dog may just show an orienting response the first few times the whistle is blown. The dog may twitch his ears in direction of the sound, perhaps turn his head or even come running to check on its source. Some dogs may bark.
On top of that, if the silent whistle is improperly overused, it just teaches dogs that it’s a sound they don’t need to listen for. Therefore, instead of learning to pay attention to it, they learn to ignore it (learned irrelevance), which is the opposite of what you might want.
To train a dog to come running at the sound of the silent whistle, the whistle needs to become a conditioned reinforcer for it to become effective. Conditioned reinforcers are basically things that are neutral and therefore don’t have much significance to the dog or minimal significance, but that through experience your dog has learned to appreciate because they have been associated with a primary reinforcer (anything your dog doesn’t need to learn to love) such as food.
How does a dog whistle assume such special meaning? Here is brief guide on whistle training a recall.
Whistle Training a Recall
If your dog is already trained to come when called and reliably responds to his name, adding the whistle to the mix can be as easy as pie. Simply, let three to four repeated blasts precede the regular words you use for a recall repeatedly (eg. 3-4 whistle blasts then “Rover come!”), strongly reinforcing every time he comes to you with several treats given in a row.
After several repetitions of hearing the 3-4 whistles blasts followed by his name, your dog will soon start understanding that the new whistle blasts are a cue that precedes being called.
Since dogs have a tendency to anticipate, at some point, you’ll notice that he’ll start responding to the whistle alone even before you call his name!
If your dog instead isn’t reliable when it comes to coming when called, then you’ll have a little more work to do. Your first step is giving the whistle a strong meaning, and the best way is to do this is with tasty treats.
So start by blowing the whistle, and then giving a treat. Blow the whistle and give a treat. Repeat this exercise several times in a row, until your dog makes the association that the sound of the whistle means that a treat is coming. You know your dog got the the idea when, upon blowing your whistle, Rover comes looking for his treats.
Gradually, start increasing distance and adding distractions. Try blowing your whistle when your dog is away from you at a short distance and then when he is a bit distracted.
As your dog gets good at this, increase distance more and more and add more and more distractions. If your dog struggles coming to you at any time, you know that most likely, you are asking too much and your dog is not ready for this level of difficulty yet.
Progress slowly making sure you don’t jump ahead too much at a higher level when your dog still hasn’t mastered dealing with the challenges to the level prior to that.
Tip: If your dog loves meal time and it’s one of the most anticipated events of the day, have a helper hold him (use caution if he gets too frustrated) while you prepare his meal. Then, use those whistle blasts a split second before you place the bowl on the floor as your helper releases him. Your dog will rush to eat his meal. Repeat a few times in the next few days. Then, prepare his meal one day while he is out and about exploring in the yard. Then, place the bowl on the floor, open the door and use those whistle blasts to announce to him that his dinner is ready in his bowl. Your dog should come dashing inside and the whistle sound will soon become music to his ears!
The Bottom Line
Whistle training is great tool that can bring appealing results. It comes handy when you are working on distance and when rain or high winds may cover your voice. A whistle works better than voice in guiding dogs because its sound is more consistent than voice.
The only few drawbacks is that you’ll need some conditioning exercises to introduce it to your dog so that it has a meaning and that you’ll have to carry it with you all the time you plan on training (but it’s a good idea to always keep it on you just in case). Look for a model that you can carry around your neck.
When it comes to pitch, consider that there are whistles that are fixed while others are adjustable and therefore come with a locking nut that can be loosened so to adjust the pitch. If that’s the case, you might have to experiment and figure out which pitch your dog responds best to.
- Why Do Dogs Like Balls?: More Than 200 Canine Quirks, Curiosities, By D. Caroline Coile, Margaret H. Bonham, Sterling (September 2, 2008)
- Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend …By John Bradshaw, Basic Books; First Trade Paper Edition edition (May 8, 2012)
- Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Adaptation and Learning, By Steven R. Lindsay, Iowa State University Press, 2000.