Retrievers: Tweet!

Retrievers: Tweet!

Your most important command.

"Tweet!" is the sound your whistle emits when you blow it just once and vigorously. In retriever language, Tweet (the Sit-whistle) tells young Feather-Fiend or old Mallard-Muncher to stop immediately, turn toward you, sit down and look at you for further directions.

To control your retriever in a variety of situations, you must be able to stop him thusly. In a blind retrieve, if you can't stop him, you can't "handle" (redirect) him, so he'll probably never find your downed bird. On a marked retrieve, if he loses his mark and you can't stop him, he'll disturb too much cover, perhaps again never finding your downed bird. When he's quartering in the uplands, if you can't stop him, you can't keep him close, so he'll flush birds out of gun range. Also, in the uplands, if he chases a hen pheasant (or, heaven forbid, a rabbit!) toward a road and you can't stop him, a speeding vehicle may wipe him out.

Even around home, you might save his life with the Sit-whistle. Years ago, after arriving home from a training session, I let my four dogs out of my dog trailer and started toward the backyard with them following me. But en route we flushed a stray cat from a bush and the chase was on! The cat fled toward the street with four dogs in frantic pursuit. Instinctively, I stuck my whistle into my mouth and exhaled vigorously: Tweet! To my great relief, all four dogs stopped immediately, turned in unison, sat as one and looked at me. It was like synchronized swimming on land! Fortunately, no one teaches cats the Sit-whistle, so the fleeing feline raced on across the street.

Why A Whistle?

If you're new to retrievers, you may wonder why you should use a whistle to stop your dog instead of the vocal command, Sit. Two reasons.

First, the human voice disturbs birds whereas a whistle normally doesn't. If you yell at your dog while waterfowling, your decoys will lose their appeal for a considerable spell. If you yell while hunting pheasants, the birds will start slinking away before you get within 100 yards of them. True, you and Feather-Fiend might catch up with them eventually, but then again you might not. I've seen flocks of prairie chickens flush at about 100 yards at the sound of a human voice.

Second, the sound of a whistle carries much farther than that of the human voice, making the whistle especially valuable in blind retrieves. Who hasn't had a crippled duck glide 200-plus yards before coming down? Similarly, who hasn't had a rooster pheasant fly, apparently unhurt and climbing higher and higher, for over 100 yards before collapsing and tumbling to the ground? I don't understand this, but I've learned to watch any climbing pheasant that I've shot at and apparently missed. These gliding ducks and "upwardly-mobile" pheasants frequently become very long blind retrieves. Few people can holler loud enough to be heard at such distances, especially in a heavy wind. Besides, a person can get hoarse from repeatedly yelling so loudly.

Clearly, the whistle is the instrument of choice for stopping our retrievers.

Why A Single Blast?

Granted, as your Sit-whistle, you could use any sound your whistle can produce: a series of beeps; a trilling sound or even Morse code for "Sit down, you idiot!" Why, then, have knowledgeable retriever people always relied on the single blast, Tweet? Again, two reasons.

First, it's the shortest possible whistle command. When tooting the Sit-whistle, you want your dog to plunk it down right there and right now. Before stopping, you don't want him to continue running merrily along while enjoying your whistled rendition of the National Anthem, or whatever. The short, single blast minimizes the lag time between command and response.

Second, it's the simplest possible whistle command. You can blow it the same way every time, regardless of conditions and circumstances. To get your dog to understand any command, you must give it consistently, time after time. If you were to use some more "creative" Sit-whistle, you wouldn't get such consistency. You'd louse it up sometimes. Even if you got all the "notes" right, you'd inadvertently vary the cadence, depending on whether you were calm or excited, happy or frustrated. Such variations would confuse your dog and delay, if not eliminate, his response.

Do both yourself and your dog a favor: Use the single blast, Tweet, as your Sit-whistle.

Continued -- click on page link below.

Biggest Problem

If you're a neophyte trainer, you may well find teaching your young dog the Sit-whistle unbelievably simple. Shortly after you bring him home as a just-weaned puppy, you teach him to sit on the verbal command, Sit. You push down on his rump and lift his chin as you say, "Sit." Then, you praise him, and perhaps give him a food treat. After a few repetitions, when you say, "Sit," his rear hits the rug before you can utter the final "t." At three months, he'll sit on command anywhere around the house or yard. At six months, he'll not only heel beside you but also sit politely whenever you stop.

To transfer this response from the verbal command to the Sit-whistle, you'll toot Tweet immediately before saying, "Sit." After a few repetitions, the verbal will no longer be necessary. "Wow," you may think, "dog training is easier than I ever dreamed!"

So it goes with many neophytes every year. However, if the Sit-whistle is such a breeze to teach, why do so many older retrievers ignore it at the most inopportune times? For example, at hunt tests, why do you so often hear, "Mallard-Muncher was doing fine, but then he started slipping whistles and the judges told me to pick him up"? (The terms, "slipping whistles," and "slipped whistles," are euphemisms for the harsher term, "ignoring the whistle," and "whistle refusals.") The same retriever that has obeyed every sit command, every Sit-whistle, since he was a pup, suddenly goes deaf under pressure. Why?

The trouble is, training a retriever to sit is too easy! Therefore, the beginner thinks he has completed the job when he has barely started it. He has taught his youngster to sit under ideal circumstances, that is, in the house and around the yard, where there are almost no distractions. Too soon, the proud trainer checks the Sit-whistle off as a job well done. Only later does he discover his error. Even then, he tends to let things slide, to put up with a few slipped whistles, rather than go back and finish the training as he should.

The Finishing Touches

After your dog sits reliably under ideal circumstances, you should introduce him to less and less ideal circumstances, in other words, distractions. With him on lead (for control), you should first distract the little guy one way and another before tooting the Sit-whistle. For example, in the backyard, you should have a family member approach and, as your dog rushes off to greet him, you should toot the Sit-whistle.

If your dog ignores it, as he almost certainly will at first, a quick leash correction should bring him back to his senses. (Nota bene: After every correction, as soon as your dog is sitting, you should praise him lavishly, just as if he had obeyed without correction.) Next, have someone bring in another dog (on lead) before you toot the Sit-whistle. And so on until you've exhausted all the readily available backyard distractions.

Next, with your dog on a check cord or retractable lead, you should take long walks around the neighborhood. When he's near the end of the check cord and highly distracted, you should toot the Sit-whistle, and correct him (followed by praise) if necessary. Then, you should extend this check-cord technique to romps in cover out in the country. And so on.

Finally, you should "e-collar condition" your dog so you can reinforce the Sit-whistle immediately at a distance without a check cord. For details on e-collar conditioning, see either of my books, Retriever Training Drills for Marking, or Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves (available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf).

If you complete Sit-whistle training this thoroughly, you'll get reliable responses almost always. And, whenever your dog begins to backslide, you'll know how to restore his former "integrity."

Jim Spencer's books are available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf. Titles are: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows, Retriever Training Tests, Retriever Training Drills for Marking, Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves, HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way, POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog and the video, Duck Dog.

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