by Beverly Lambert
Teaching a dog to work on whistles is very easy and saves an enormous amount of effort over the long haul. A dog working any distance away front the handler, or in strong wind or against loud background noise can hear a whistle much more easily than he can hear a spoken command. The need to yell and shout to have a spoken command carry any distance is tiring to the shouter and can easily lead to misunderstanding on the dog’s part of both the command and the intention of the command. A dog that has been given a LEFT flank command twice without hearing it may well hear the exasperated shouted command the third time and then over flank in response to a loud, strident command. The result is an unnecessary change of direction on the part of the stock if the handler is lucky, or needing to re-gather or worse.
When selecting commands for a dog, a good way to start is with the whistles that the handler can easily make. Take the whistle with you for a week or two and practice using it while driving around in the truck or doing other chores. Find half a dozen sounds that you can consistently make. Then take the whistle out into the field where you will be using the dog and try the commands out while visualizing your dog doing a job of work for you. Make the whistles loud enough to carry to the furthest distance you might want to work your dog. If you can still make the whistles loudly as well as you did softly you are now ready to select the ones you will use on your dog.
The Stop Whistle: The usual stop whistle for a dog is a long blow. Some handlers prefer a stop whistle that has a slight up or down note at the end but almost universally handlers like a long solid whistle for the stop. The stop command is used more than any other command with most dogs. It is also used in a lot of different ways. Take time to notice when next you are doing a job of work with your dog how many different things you can mean with your stop command. It can mean “stop and lay down right now or the cows are going to go into the road and get hit by that truck.” It can mean “take it easy, buddy, that momma is going to turn around and come after you if you get any closer.” It can mean “wait there a second while you look around and see if you have everyone gathered up.”
All of these intentions and an abundance of others are communicated to your dog by the tone of your voice. You need a whistle that has an equal ability to communicate intention as well as command. A long whistle gives that degree of flexibility. If you want the dog on the ground, blow it loud and clear and hard. If you want the dog to slow down, blow it hard enough to for him to start to stop and then allow it to flow into your walk up command to slow him down but keep him coming. If you want him to just check his forward progress for a second give him a short easy blast. If you want to steady him and get his attention prior to giving another command, give him a half blast followed by another command. A long whistle will allow this flexibility as your power to communicate with the whistle grows.
Flank Whistles: Of course the two flank whistles need to be clearly different whistles. But more importantly they need to be clearly different from the very first sound out of the whistle. Too many times the flank whistles may sound different to the handler but the first note may be so similar that at a distance it is indistinguishable from one whistle to the other. Remember that a quick working dog is ready for a command and is going to start moving as soon as you start to whistle. He is often going to be moving on the first note of your whistle and then deciding how wide or fast as he hears the rest of the whistle. So make sure the first note is very different for both sides. Get a friend to listen to the two whistles at a distance of 200 yards and see if they can tell the first note of each whistle one, from the other.
Handlers with aspirations to trial their dogs may at some point want half flanks on a dog. The half flank for each side is generally the first note of that side’s flank whistle. Make sure you can make the half flank for each side before settling on a pair of flank whistles. Also, again give them the volume test. Can you make them over the wind blowing in your face and the livestock racing for the fence so the dog can hear and understand them?
I also like flank commands that I can blow out big when I want to tell the dog to make a big flank. As with the stop command I am looking for whistles that allow me to communicate as much as I can with the tone of my voice. A bigger whistle gives more room for expression so don’t short change yourself by selecting whistle sounds with insufficient scope for your future communication.
Walk up: The walk up command should be like a good dance song. The sound should be so sprightly and gay that the dog can hardly help himself when he hears it — he just has to get up and move. I like to make sure it isn’t using a note that is also the first note of either flank command so as to avoid any possibility of confusion on the dog’s part, but otherwise I think that the walk command is any chipper sound that will carry well. It should be a sound that can be used once softly for a slow walk and often fast for a get up quick command.
The use of whistles can greatly reduce the amount of effort involved in working a dog at a distance or in a strong wind. They can be given much quicker then vocal commands and are generally easier for the dog to understand. It is not difficult to teach a dog to take whistle commands and they considerably increase the usefulness of the dog while reducing the fatigue of the handler.
this article was first published in Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine, July/August 2002