By Mike Stewart
Flipping through a few older editions of popular English sporting publications, Shooting Gazette and Shooting Times, I began to notice a common question from readers, “Why won’t my dog listen to my whistle”? This seemed to be a common thread of a problem so I decided a quick review of the subject may be in order given the level of reoccurring interest. How do you perfect whistle stops the positive way?
First, let’s recognize that the problem is not “listening.” I am confident the dogs in question heard the whistle blast quite well. The issue then becomes the dog’s response or the lack there of. Two reasons exist for noncompliance to whistle signals or any command for that matter.
1. The pup does not understand the meaning of the whistle (sit, stop) or
2. The pup is blowing the handler off… he/she could simply care less, preferring to ignore the signal.
Whistle signals should be trained to the point of a conditional response, a default behavior. The whistle peep for a stop (single blast) results in an immediate reaction almost to the point that the dog responds without thinking. It is more of a reaction. Developing effective whistle habits are a result of consistent repetition which should begin at quite a young age for the sporting dog.
Early Starts: Incorporate whistle sits/stops in all aspects of puppy development and socialization conditioning. As soon as the pup learns to sit on command, incorporate the sit whistle. Use the sit whistle as part of place training. With the puppy sitting patiently (as the desired behavior is being performed), walk around the pup with the stop hand held high giving both verbal and whistle sit/stop signals. As you walk with the pup on lead, teach the pup to sit immediately when you stop without any verbal command. When successful, just incorporate the whistle signal to stop/sit.
With pointer breeds, sit is not a desirable behavior. We don’t want to encourage sit on a point. The command is “whoa” with a single blast of the whistle. The Pointer stops and stands still rather than sitting.
Many of the dogs we see coming into training have no background exposure to the whistle. It’s unfortunate that pup owners miss the developmentally critical time in a pup’s life to imprint the meaning of whistle commands. A sporting dog’s most important period for habit formation and fundamental development is 7 to 16 weeks of age. Traits learned at these ages are paramount.
Avoid attempts to stop a youngster when out of your proximity (span of control) and interested in a distraction. Rather, wait for a moment when the pup is close to you and you can achieve his focus. Then signal the stop/sit whistle command. Take one or more steps toward the pup with your hand held high and give a second firm peep on the whistle. Your body posture and hand signal indicates that you are in control. When compliance is achieved, quickly stop your advance and reward the youngster with verbal praise, a marker, “Good.” Avoid getting into this situation on open ground. Keep the area a bit confined. With whistle training, remember the Wildrose Law #7, “If it is not right at heel, it won’t be right in the field.”
Other tips for early star whistle stop training:
If a dog ignores the whistle stop, collect the student and gruffly return the violator to the exact location where he/she failed to stop.
Don’t call a pup off sit too frequently when practicing coming to you and stopping on the whistle. This practice will soon produce a creeper. Rather use reverse heel.
Practice early starts whistle work at heel going forward using a steady tab as a lead. Simply peep the whistle and keep walking. Your body language and gait say move on yet the whistle command is to stop.
Next, reverse heel. As you both walk along, begin to back away (see Sporting Dog and Retriever Training, the Wildrose Way, page 90). As you continue to back up the pup will be approaching from the front. The skill to achieve is to stop the pup with the whistle as you continue to back up. Your body language says come. Your command, though, is to stop and/or sit.
In teaching a pup to return to his dog mat/bed, you incorporate the whistle. Send the pup to his bed with a “place” command. As he arrives and turns to look at you, give the whistle command to sit. The skill will later transfer to boat blinds, water stands, dog platforms and many other field applications.
Similarly we incorporate “whoa boards” or platforms that may be moved about the field. As soon as our youngster jumps to the board, the whistle command to stop, sit, hup and/or whoa is given. This is place orientation (Wildrose Law #9) at its best.
Two important parting reminders:
Return a youngster to the exact place of incompliance. Do not let the pup get away with a “slip” of the whistle.
Do not give a command you cannot reinforce.
Keep your young sporting dog close and under control until all obedience skills (including whistle stops) are thoroughly entrenched to the point of habit.