April 21, 2021
All waterfowlers should have a dog whistle. Actually, scratch that. All waterfowlers should have at least two dog whistles, the reasons for which I'll get into later. Blind retrieves and hand signals are entirely dependent on whistle training and use, and both are essential tools in the duck dog's arsenal.
Before beginning dog whistle training, you need to decide which type of whistle you want to use. The choices are seemingly endless, but I recommend plastic over metal. If you're hunting the last days of the season in the north country and put a metal whistle to your mouth you may end up losing some skin off your lips. Selecting a high- or low-pitched whistle will depend on your specific hunting situations.
Higher pitched whistles tend to carry over longer distances, so keep that in mind. And keep this in mind, too: probably 99 percent of the folks I know who train dogs use high-pitched whistles, so maybe there really isn't much of a decision. And don't rely on a whistle with a pea in it. Those can freeze up in truly cold temperatures after your spit turns to ice. This doesn't mean you shouldn't choose this type of whistle, but always have a backup.
In fact, no matter which type of whistle you opt for, always have a second while hunting. Just know, it doesn't really matter whether you've got one whistle or 100 if your dog isn't ready for training.
We start our pups early—in the 7- to 12-week range—yet only break out the whistle once the pup knows his verbal commands. At this time, we are using treats and praise to encourage verbal and whistle commands at the same time, so that the pup understands what the whistle means to them.
When you start training your puppy with a dog whistle train yourself to use them correctly as well. The best way to use a whistle is with it clenched between your teeth. This allows you the chance to whistle and give verbal commands at the same time. Think about your high school football coach blowing on his whistle in between directive shouts. He understood the correct way to use a whistle, and so should you.
Single Whistle Blast
Provided your dog has his verbal commands nailed down, you can start with a one-blast whistle command. This is a command that tells him to sit down on land and await another command, or if he is in the water, to stop and look to you for direction.
To teach this, start in your yard with the dog on a leash. Give the verbal sit command, and if necessary tug up on the leash, and then immediately blow the whistle once. Your dog will soon understand that the verbal command for sit and the whistle blast signal he needs to plant his butt on the ground. The next step is to use a longer check cord so your dog has some room to roam away from your side. Give him the verbal sit command but do not let the dog run toward you. If he does, run toward the dog and make him sit. Eventually he'll learn that he is to sit down immediately wherever he is and look to you for the next command.
It's important that when you're conducting this drill you don't immediately release the dog from his sit. Always wait at least a few seconds before giving a release command. This is the first step to handling long-range hand signals and blind retrieves.
Multiple Whistle Blasts
Once your dog understands, both on land and in water, what one single, short blast on the whistle means, it's time to move on. The next step is the repeated blast call, which should bring the dog to you. This can be taught on a lead as well, and should be fairly easy for your dog to learn. Once you blow the dog whistle in quick succession, he should turn and come toward you whether he is on land or in the water. To teach this, use the come command on your leashed dog and immediately follow it up with multiple whistle blasts until the dog is at your side. If necessary, offer him a treat at the initial stages. Eventually, you'll be able to employ the longer check cord for this drill as well.
It's important to note that while teaching both commands, we start out with a verbal command and then follow up with the whistle command. And we always have the dog on some kind of lead in case we need to correct his behavior, which is very likely. As your dog starts to understand both whistle commands, it's time to reverse the sequence.
Instead of starting with the verbal command, start off with either whistle command and then use whatever verbal order follows. This enforces the dog's understanding that a single whistle blast really is the sit command, and that multiple blasts really are the come command.
Remember to be patient when teaching with whistles, because your dog will not get everything down in the first lesson. Slow and steady is the only way to win the dog-training race.
Controlling the Dog
Both whistle commands are crucial for a few reasons. The first is that they truly are the cornerstones for hand signals and blind retrieves. Think about it this way, if you can't get your dog to pay attention to you, how will you ever get him to notice your hand signals? And if he doesn't notice your hand signals, how is he ever going to find the ducks you saw fall but he didn't?
The second reason for employing a whistle is the most important—safety. You have to be able to stop your dog, and to call your dog back to you no matter how distracted or determined he is. There are some situations, like hunting near a roadway or running into a porcupine or raccoon that require instant control of your dog before it becomes dangerous. There's also the reality your dog might swim into choppy water after a diver and get so far away the wind could swallow your voice but not the shriek of a shrill, high-pitched whistle.
It's never a good idea to let your dog get in a position where you can't control him, and it goes far beyond recovering more wounded ducks and geese. It also goes toward bringing your four-legged hunting partner home safely with you after every hunt, and for the price of a couple of whistles and a lanyard, I'll take that every time over the alternative.