“A dog whistleis an extension of your voice,” says Tom Dokken, who, along with his staff in Northfield, Minn., trains some 450 dogs a year to respond to commands from a whistle. You’re unlikely to want to use a whistle indoors. Outside, though — when hunting, herding sheep or even just hiking — your voice can get lost, particularly if the wind is at your face and your dog is off leash ahead of you. A whistle acts like a megaphone, stretching the range of your communication many times beyond the natural confines of your vocal cords.
Before being introduced to a whistle, dogs should master verbal commands. After that, you can start pairing your words with a pattern of blown sounds. Eventually you’ll drop the verbal part altogether outdoors. Whistle lexicons vary, but some standards have emerged. “Continual blasts on the whistle, like, ‘toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot,’ means I want you to come all the way back to me,” says Dokken. Two trills, pause, two trills tells the dog to check back in with you visually. One sharp chirp tells the animal to stop and sit in place. Livestock-herding dogs have their own repertoire of tweet directives specific to their line of work.
In time, a dog can be whistle-trained to do almost anything. Still, be patient. Dokken likes untrained dogs to be boarded at his facility for 30 days to master verbal commands, followed by another 30 days for whistling. Don’t push puppies 12 weeks or younger. “You’re really not going to be demanding them to do things,” says Dokken — though they will, occasionally, work for treats. Ignore the adage: Old dogs can also learn new tricks, including the whistle.
In cold climes, choose a plastic whistle to ensure your lips won’t freeze to the metal, and carry a backup. There are two types of dog whistles; use the ones that make a sound humans can hear. Dokken never uses the high-frequency variety that is detectable to dogs’ ears but inaudible to humans, and he’s not sure why you would. The point is to send a clearly articulated direction out as sound waves into the air so that an animal might hear you and respond accordingly. “How do you know what you’re communicating if you can’t hear it yourself?” Dokken says.