In our article Why we don’t go out without a dog whistle, we already explained to you the reasons why we see the dog whistle as a super practical tool. Many people were interested in how we trained our dogs to recall and what to look out for. So, we wrote a detailed article about it, showing how we approached it.
Recall from any situation, that is our goal.
Before we explain how we have built up the recall with the dog whistle with our dogs, we would first like to remind ourselves of the exact goal of this command. The dog should come to us on the whistle reliably, without hesitation, and above all joyfully. He should not weigh up and not briefly finish what he is doing, but turn around and come.
Later, when the recall with the whistle is perfect, it will not matter from which situation we call the dog. We will be able to call him to our side, even from play or other situations that are particularly appealing to the dog. The goal is set – now comes the big question: How do we achieve this goal? The answer is quite simple: With clean conditioning and lots of practice, practice, practice.
Yes, unfortunately, even we do not know a magic formula by which the dog will listen to the whistle overnight. Nevertheless, we will show you that the effort will be worth it and that the whole thing is not so difficult. The biggest and basically only mistake is not to have your own impatience under control and to assume after a few successes that the recall will always work from now on.
As is always the case in dog training, it is not only the dog that trains, but also ourselves. The reason why impatience prevents training success is that a failed whistle can ruin the previous 50 successful recalls, or at least weaken the recall signal. So, really start at zero and increase the difficulty slowly.
Which signal should it be?
By the way, we have chosen the double whistle (“beep beep”) as the recall signal. This is probably the most frequently used signal. Other signals are of course possible, but keep in mind that you have to give the signal quickly – so a little song is less suitable.
Also, in dummy training, for example, certain whistle patterns are common. So if you use one of these signals differently, you might get confused when training with a group. However, the final decision is up to you and there are no fixed rules. Finally, remember that you must use the signal consistently for it to work.
If you have been using a certain signal for a while, you should not change your mind. This confuses the dog, and you are basically starting all over again. We started training at our house. There the dog feels safe and above all has no distractions. This is crucial because only without distraction we can build up the signal specifically and bring it to a level where we can increase the difficulty and practice the recall with a whistle also outside.
In the beginning, please use the dog whistle only during training. No one should use the whistle outside of training just for fun.
Choosing the right reward
We achieve conditioning through positive reinforcement. So, the dog receives a reward for desired behavior. This can be a treat or even a favorite toy. If you choose a toy, it is important that it must be really special for the dog.
So, it should be a toy that only comes out when the dog has really earned a reward (in general, toys should not be permanently just lying around and constantly available to the dog, but more on that later). The dog must want to do everything to get to the toy. You know best what your dog reacts well to. Of course, you can also praise the dog with your voice and extensive petting. Here it is to be noted however that not all dogs feel it as a reward to be stroked. Also, because you often unconsciously bend over the dog, which is basically a threatening attitude.
If you want to try it without a “material” reward, then only if you know that there is already a close bond and the dog appreciates the praise with voice and body contact very much. With our always hungry Labradors, the choice was not difficult. They always eat with the greatest passion and would do anything for a crumb. Therefore, we have chosen the reward with treats. Nevertheless, we reached a little deeper into the treat trick box because the food reward must also be special.
Because the dog comes of course not because the tone of the whistle sounds so nice, but because he knows after sufficient training, what awaits him after the whistle, or could expect. The type of reward should therefore depend on what else you use as a reward. Just add a little bit more to it. When it comes to food, the top of the list for dogs is probably cat food, though we saved that for another signal. Raw ground beef should also work well. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Since we usually give some regular dry food as treats and rewards, meat sausage was special enough.
Training with the dog whistle begins.
Now, however, “butter on the fish” [or whistles]. This is how we trained recall with a whistle: For a few days at the very beginning, we used the double whistle immediately before each meal the dog ate. Just whistle the signal and then immediately put the food down. The dog learns this way that the whistle basically means something pretty great, and that it is worth being near you when the whistle sounds. And that is the basis for a stable recall. After that, we started additional targeted training. Training in pairs makes it much easier to build up the exercise.
Maybe you have someone who enjoys helping you with the training. By the way, you can keep the whistles before feeding for the time being. This is how the exercise was structured in the beginning: We each sat at the end of our hallway. The hallway helps because it usually offers little distraction and little space to “digress”. Of course, it also works in any other room, but the distance between the people must not be too small (otherwise we get problems with our timing).
Cooper was with one of us, the other lured her to him with a high-pitched voice. We crouched down and opened our arms invitingly. When Cooper came clearly and briskly, we gave the double whistle. On arrival, there is then the mega reward. If the dog seems restrained or hesitant, it helps to cheer him on with your voice. You can also tell by the dog’s gaze what he is focused on. Train your perceptiveness and sense of observation here. Whistle only when the dog is really about to come to you. The initial luring and cheering is necessary because the dog doesn’t really know the whistle yet.
Although the first few days and the whistles before giving food should have already made an impression, here every dog is different. Some have it out after a few times and therefore need little or no prompting, others need a little more training until the whistle shows its effect. It is not a problem that you still lure at the beginning if you notice that the whistle itself does not yet lead to a clear reaction. On the contrary, it is very important. If you use the whistle too early “alone” and the dog does not come (which is very likely), he learns that the whistle is basically meaningless or at least not very relevant for him.
Alternative to luring: “capture” behavior shown by the dog
For the very patient, or if the dog generally comes running to you frequently without prompting, you could do the exercise without curling. In this case, you would wait for the dog to show the desired behavior (i.e., coming) on its own. Especially puppies and young dogs often show this behavior and run exuberantly towards their owners. If this is the case with you, you should take advantage of it.
If you try it in this way, however, one thing is critical: The behavior must be clear, and we need perfect timing. If the dog is loitering somewhere in the room and takes two steps in your direction, it does not mean that he intends to come to you. If you blow the whistle now, you may not be conditioning what you actually wanted. Here, you have to observe exactly and estimate whether your dog has just one thing in mind: To run to you.
If you manage to whistle at this exact moment, bravo! Otherwise, it is better to help a little. There is no shame in that! Back to our training with Cooper. If he came briskly, we gave her some ham sausage (just the smell of the ham sausage made her come, which facilitates learning). And then the whole game back again. About 4-5 times. We repeated this step 2-3 times a day. Remember: better frequent, short training sequences than practicing once a month for three hours.
The dog should not be overstrained. This is especially true for puppies and young dogs, as they can not yet concentrate for very long. Who trains in this way, will notice after a short time that the dog has understood that at the place of the whistle a great reward is waiting. This is the basis for further training.
If this simple training works, one of you can keep the dog with you and the other one can go to another room to give the double whistle. If the dog comes quickly, there is again the super reward – if not, you have to go back a step and continue to practice with smaller distances and visual contact.
Off to the outdoors – recall outside your own four walls.
If the recall in the apartment works reliably, we can continue with the next training step. We have chosen a meadow that Cooper knows and where no other dogs were at the time of training. Remember that the meadow alone with its smells can be a great distraction! Therefore, observe the behavior of your dog closely.
If you notice that the distraction is too great, try another location, or perhaps another day. If in doubt, continue training indoors for some time. We have positioned ourselves on the lawn again opposite and just as in the hallway alternately whistled (of course with appropriate pauses for reward and until the dog was apparently receptive again for a command). Cooper learned very quickly that there is something really fine when he comes. In addition, we were always enthusiastic beyond measure and praised her profusely.
When this step works really safe, you can start to call the dog from the free-run. Here, too, there is the super reward and a little dance of joy. Now it is even more important that you learn to read your dog and quickly give your command at the decisive moment. If the dog has just the super scent cloud in the nose, he will certainly think twice whether he comes. The signal is, even if it seems so, not yet really conditioned, hundreds, some say thousands, of repetitions, are necessary. Whistle only when you are sure that your dog is coming.
Increase the distraction step by step, but with patience and caution
In the following, the distraction can be increased more and more. If your dog does not react to the whistle, the distraction was too big, and you should go back to a training step. This can always happen, but try to minimize these situations. And do not get discouraged. You should not let yourself get away with, “Oh, it doesn’t matter now”. After a failure, go to work all the more consistently.
Question yourself, pay even more attention to the body language of your dog. Then it will soon work better again. Until you can call your dog off safely from a game with dog buddies, you need many repetitions and also time. It is of little use to “chase through” 500 repetitions on 5 days. On the one hand, because the dog is then guaranteed overstrained and loses the desire. And on the other hand because the behavior can not really consolidate in such a short time despite many repetitions.
Do not use the recall whistle only when it becomes serious
Even if your dog has mastered the recall with the whistle, you must continue to practice it, again and again, even in neutral situations. If you only use the whistle when you want to keep the dog away from the rabbit family, the dog will quickly recognize this and the whistle will soon mean to him “Oh fine, there must be something really exciting here somewhere”.
Therefore, call your dog off every now and then when nothing at all is happening. The conditioning on the whistle should also be “charged” again and again in between. Even if it already works outside from the free run, you should go back a step now and then and practice the recall at home without any distraction.
Also, not unimportant is what happens after the recall. Yes, of course, the dog is properly rewarded. That’s for sure. But if we always recall the dog only to leash him shortly after, he will remember that. So, it is crucial to be a little unpredictable. With time, we can reduce the rewards. Sometimes there is only praise with words, sometimes a small treat, and sometimes a “jackpot”. This way the dog never knows what is waiting for him after the whistle. This prevents him from weighing and deciding for himself: Digging in the mouse hole or 3.54 grams of liverwurst.
What the program with the “Zonk” has to do with the dog recall
Do you know the show with the Zonk? People gamble for something they have already won for sure, without knowing what they will get in exchange or if they will end up empty-handed. Just the thought that there might be something even more amazing behind the door makes them gamble with what they’ve already won, even if they might end up going home without a prize. That’s exactly how it is with our dogs. Surprise them every now and then, and they’ll remember it perfectly!
And now, good luck and have fun training!
This is how we taught our dogs to recall with a dog whistle, there are certainly many other methods and approaches. In any case, this approach has worked very well for us. If you are unsure, ask your dog trainer. They can help you with the training. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment. We are looking forward to your results.