By Tom Davis
Every year, before his team took the floor for its first day of practice, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden gathered his players together and showed them the correct way to tie their shoelaces. His point was that there’s a right way and a wrong way, and you can’t assume you’re doing it the right way simply because you’ve always done it that way.
Teaching your retriever whistle commands is no different. Like Wooden, professional trainer Sharon Potter of Red Branch Kennels starts with the basics. “First, take the time to learn how to blow a whistle correctly,” Potter explains. “You wouldn’t believe how many owners huff, puff, and darn near hyperventilate, but the sounds that come out of their whistles are pitiful. You can’t expect your dog to respond consistently if your whistle sounds are inconsistent. Plus, if you’re blowing it incorrectly, you can’t control the volume, which is critical on windy days or when you’re handling your dog at a distance.”
The first whistle command Potter teaches is the come, or here, command. She uses three quick tweets to give this command, although she notes that some trainers prefer a single drawn-out blast or a machine-gun series of short, sharp bursts. She emphasizes that what matters isn’t the command itself but that you’re consistent with the one you choose.
Potter starts training the here command with very young puppies, hitting the whistle when they’re coming to her more or less of their own volition and thereby establishing the connection between the sound and the desired behavior. Then, when it’s time to graduate to a more formal training program, she clips a check cord to the dog’s collar. “Puppies are easy,” she observes, “but once they get older, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I heard you, but I don’t care.’ That’s why you have to have that dog on a check cord, so you’re always in a position to enforce the command. Eventually you can transition from the check cord to an e-collar, but the whistle always means the same thing.” What it doesn’t mean is “come to my general area,” Potter is quick to add. “So many people think that if the dog just gets close to them that’s good enough. Well, that’s not good enough. The here command means ‘Come to a specific spot and sit there.’”
This brings us to the other whistle command all working retrievers need to know: whistle-sit. This command is universally delivered via a single blast. Potter introduces the whistle-sit only after her pupil has mastered the verbal sit, which she teaches via the traditional on-lead heel-sit method. “Once the dog complies reliably with the verbal sit,” she explains, “adding the whistle is an easy overlay. You hit the whistle and say ‘sit.’ After a number of repetitions, the dog learns to sit on the sound of the whistle alone.”
You can teach and reinforce this skill virtually anywhere, even in the house. And just as here shouldn’t mean “somewhere in the vicinity,” sit shouldn’t mean “wander around and eventually sit,” Potter explains. “It means ‘spin around and sit right now,’ and that requires a check cord, and later an e-collar, to enforce remotely.”
The next step is to transition from whistle-sit on land to treading water while waiting for direction to a blind retrieve. Potter begins by training the dog to sit in shallow water. Once the dog is comfortable with that, it’s an easy transition to deeper water. Potter cautions, though, that water work should begin only after the dog has demonstrated full competency on land, including taking hand signals to blind retrieves.
“The whistle-sit is so important,” she asserts. “Not only is it fundamental to any kind of handling, it’s an important part of overall steadiness. Whether you’re hunting out of a blind, jump-shooting, or competing in hunt tests, there’s every reason to have a steady dog. Your dog should stop when you want him to stop, and the whistle is the most effective way to deliver that command. It carries well and, unlike the human voice, it’s not emotional. If you’re hollering at your dog, you’re basically doing one of two things: creating unhealthy tension or conditioning him to ignore you.”