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Do Dog Whistles Work?

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz December 16, 2020

The invention of the dog whistle can be traced back to Francis Galton in 1876 (Joyce and Baker, 2011). Galton was conducting research on the hearing range of humans and had developed a whistle with a slide that allowed him to easily control the pitch of the sound produced. He would adjust the whistle until he landed upon a pitch that a person could hear. After testing on humans, Galton expanded his research to test the hearing ability of animals, including dogs. Since dogs can’t talk, Galton would use the dog’s reactions to the whistle to determine the pitch the dog could hear. Results from Galton’s tests indicated that dogs could hear much higher frequencies than humans. Many versions of similar, high pitched and often adjustable whistles are used today when working with dogs.

What Is A Dog Whistle Used For?

If you’re like me, the thought of a dog whistle conjures up images of a dog returning gleefully to their owner when they blow on an almost magical silent whistle. While this is one potential use of a dog whistle, getting a dog to return at the blow of the whistle requires training. Whistles are commonly used for two main purposes with dogs. First, whistles may be used as a training aid. The sound of a dog whistle can travel upwards of 400 yards making them a great tool for training out in the field. The use of a whistle during training has a long tradition in the United Kingdom where farmers use them while working with their herding dogs (McConnell and Baylis, 1985). This training has been adopted by others such as Australian dog handlers in which 43.9% report using a whistle during training (Payne et al., 2015).The high frequency of the whistles makes them less likely to annoy nearby people or to spook wildlife. Dog whistles can be easily incorporated into positive reinforcement training and are supported by respected dog professionals. On the other hand, when dog whistles are used at a high frequency in close proximity of a dog can cause discomfort. The second major use of a dog whistle is as a form of punishment, either for unwanted behaviors such as barking or to try to scare an aggressive dog away.

Do Dog Whistles Work?

Dog whistles work wonderfully as a training aid when used properly. On the other hand, their use as a form of punishment is debated, both in its efficacy and its ethicality. A critical aspect to using a dog whistle is ensuring that your dog can hear its sound. A dog’s hearing abilities depend on their breed and age. Many dog whistles are adjustable for this reason. In general, smaller dogs are better at hearing higher frequencies than larger dogs. Whistles should be adjusted for each dog on an individual basis. You can determine the optimal frequency for your dog by slowly adjusting the whistle until your dog responds to it, either by turning their head in the direction of the whistle or by reliably twitching their ear when you blow the whistle. Another test is to start when the dog is asleep and determine which frequency will wake the dog up. Finally, whistles will only work if quality training is invested alongside their use. Afterall, whistles are a tool to accompany training, not a replacement for it.

How Does A Dog Whistle Affect A Dog?

The affect a dog whistle has on a dog is largely related to how it’s used. If your dog has been trained to associate the whistle with receiving an award, the sound of the whistle becomes a positive stimulus and can lead to happiness or excitement. However, if the whistle is used as a form of punishment the dog may react adversely to its sound. Some dogs, regardless of the context, may find the sound of whistles to be too intense and will become fearful when they are used.

Can Humans Hear A Dog Whistle?

While we often think about dog whistles as being completely inaudible to humans, this isn’t always the case. The upper limit of a human’s hearing range is 20 kHz in children and 15 kHz in adults. Dogs can hear upwards of 45 kHz (Krantz, 2009). It is believed that dogs evolved this excellent sense of hearing so they could hear the high-frequency sounds emitted by their prey, such as small rodents (Krantz, 2009). The frequencies of most dog whistles range from 23 to 54 kHz (Coile and Bonham, 2009). This means that when a whistle is set to its lower frequencies, they may be audible to humans. In many cases though, they will sound more like a quiet hissing that an actual whistle to us (Weisbord and Kachanoff, 2002).

Are Dog Whistles Painful To Dogs?

Dog whistles, when used improperly, can cause pain or hearing damage to dogs as well as to humans. Since many are out of our hearing range, we may underestimate how loud the sound is to our dogs. High intensity sound is well known to cause injury to the inner ear. This may result from a single loud blast of sound, or repeated exposure to high intensity sound. High frequencies are known to be more damaging than lower frequencies. In one study, a hunter who frequently used a dog whistle while working with his dogs was found to suffer from auditory “stuffiness” and ringing in his ears for several hours after use. Over several years of this exposure, the hunter developed mild, permanent hearing loss (Schuknecht and Van Den Ende, 1961). Based on this knowledge, dog whistles should be used with care to protect the hearing of our dogs and us. Never blow the whistle loudly in close proximity to your dog’s ears. Always remember that what may only sound like a quiet hissing to you may sound like a shrill, piercing sound to your four-legged friend.

When Is Using A Dog Whistle Appropriate?

When whistles are used as a conditioned reinforcer (i.e. they have been paired with a positive reward) they can be a great training aid to signal to the dog that they are doing the right thing. Dog whistles can be used just like a clicker. The trainer would use the sound signal (either the whistle or a click) and then immediately reward the dog with a treat, verbal praise, petting, or play time. Whistles are commonly used for positive reinforcement training in zoos, especially with marine mammals. You’ve probably seen them used by dolphin trainers (Pryor, 2000).

Some advantages of using dog whistles for training include:

  • Can be heard from long distances
  • Less likely to startle wildlife when hunting
  • Will not disturb the people around you
  • Can be operated without the use of your hands
  • Allows you to reinforce your dog even when they are turned away from you or out of sight
  • Offer precise and consistent rewards for your dog
  • May be heard by dogs that are hard of hearing

It should be noted that whistles can be intense sometimes, especially when used at a high frequency setting. Consider using a lower frequency whistle when training. They may be audible to humans but are less likely to cause pain or hearing damage. Additionally, whistles may be too intense for some dogs and may invoke fear. In these cases, consider using a clicker or other signals such as a finger snap, mouth click, verbal ‘good’ or ‘yes!’ during training instead (Feng et al., 2017).

When Is Using A Dog Whistle Inappropriate?

It should be considered inappropriate to use dog whistles as a form of punishment. Some sources recommend dog whistles as a way to make a dog stop barking, to stop aggressive behavior, or to discourage unwanted or annoying behaviour. In these cases, the whistle would be used in a manner to create discomfort or pain for the dog, causing them to stop what they’re doing or to attempt to distance themselves from the sound. There are better ways to deal with problem behaviors than causing pain, and therefore dog whistles used in this way should be considered inappropriate. In addition to whistles being inhumane when used for punishment, in many cases they are not effective. Some peoples have experienced an increase in negative behaviors when using a whistle. For instance, when using a whistle to stop a dog’s barking, you take the risk that the high intensity sound may actually trigger more barking to occur.

Conclusion

In summary, dog whistles may be a bit different than what we might think of. Some are silent, while others are completely audible to humans. When used as positive reinforcement during training, they can be great training aids that allow handlers to work with dogs from a distance while keeping their hands free. Like any tool, whistles can be used improperly. Whistles should never be used as a form of punishment as they can cause pain or hearing loss.

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Works Cited

Coile, D. C., & Bonham, M. H. (2009). Why do dogs like balls? ; more than 200 canine quirks, curiosities, and conundrums revealed. New York, NY: Sterling.

Feng, L. C., Howell, T. J., & Bennett, P. C. (2017). Comparing trainers’ reports of clicker use to the use of clickers in applied research studies: methodological differences may explain conflicting results.

Joyce, N., & Baker, D. B. (2011). The Galton Whistle. APS Observer22(3).

Krantz, L. (2009). Power of the Dog: Things Your Dog Can Do That You Can't. Macmillan.

McConnell, P. B., & Baylis, J. R. (1985). Interspecific communication in cooperative herding: acoustic and visual signals from human shepherds and herding dogs. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie67(1‐4), 302-328.

Payne, E. M., Arnott, E. R., Early, J. B., Bennett, P. C., & McGreevy, P. D. (2015). Dogmanship on the farm: Analysis of personality dimensions and training styles of stock dog handlers in Australia. Journal of Veterinary Behavior10(6), 471-478.

Pryor, K. (2000). A dog and a dolphin: Training without punishment. In A. Rebmann & E. David, Cadaver dog handbook: forensic training and tactics for the recovery of human remains (pp. 26-34). CRC Press.

Schuknecht, H. F., & Van Den Ende, H. (1961). Acoustic trauma from a dog training whistle. Henry Ford Hospital Medical Journal9(3), 374-378.

Weisbord, M., & Kachanoff, K. (2002). Dogs with jobs: Working dogs around the world. Toronto: CNIB.