Whistle While You Work

Author Jane Rothert

1st Published in September 1999 Malinois Performer

Herding commands and whistles. There is something magical about watching a shepherd and his dog communicate through the use of whistled commands. It really sends a chill up the spine! At least it did before I started to train my own dog to herd. It's still impressive, but now in a totally different way! Years ago I set out to learn how to whistle commands to my dogs. These are some things I've learned along the way:

The best kind of whistle you can use is the kind you are born with. As a kid I admired my dad's ability to whistle any tune and have it on key. I could get sound out, but it generally ended up as a monotone. Now normal whistling won't work. You have to be able to whistle the loud shrill wolf-type whistle to be heard effectively at great distances. Many people, my self NOT included, can get this type whistle by using their fingers in their mouth. This doesn't work either for use around sheep as who wants to stick their fingers in their mouth right after they've taken a header in a manure pile? So ideally, the first test to be a shepherd should be whether you can whistle properly just using your mouth, tongue and teeth. This is really important. If all herding trainers required this test, a lot fewer people would look like total idiots out on the field with sheep!

For those of us who can't whistle without help, some devious person, now long dead, designed the shepherd's whistle. This instrument of torture is designed to punish those of us who are already handicapped and can't make proper whistle noises with our mouths. It comes in plastic, acrylic, or metal. The basic shape is generally a half-moon.. They look innocent enough until you stick one in your mouth and blow. Nothing happens! Every whistle I tried at first was broke. Absolutely NO sound came out. This is how they are designed. The inventors figured that if you couldn't whistle without help, you really shouldn't be herding, so they designed this gadget to not work intentionally! On average, unless you really DO know how to whistle without the use of a mechanical whistle, it probably takes about 2 years to get any sound to come out of the shepherd's whistle. I'm not sure, but maybe this is the age the whistle needs to be before it can actually make sounds. I do know that when first bought, most whistles, at least those bought by neophytes to whistledom, do not work. There definitely needs to be a breaking in period

The first step in learning how to use a shepherd's whistle is to tie it on a string. Actually the correct string to tie a whistle on is a lanyard, but most of us just use a string at first. If you are clever and creative, you can make your own lanyard, but don't go to the trouble at first unless you think just wearing the whistle on a spiffy lanyard will make you look like a shepherd. A warning here, if you wear a whistle for looks, be careful because as soon as you do, someone will ask you to demonstrate it. For some reason people actually expect you to be able to USE the silly thing just because you are wearing one! But I digress. After you have tied a string or a ribbon to the whistle, take it out to your car and loop it over your rearview mirror. Leave it hang here for several months. This is so when you are driving to work every day you will look at it and say "I should learn how to use that thing!" This is a critical part of learning how to blow a whistle. Staring at it every day is very important. Eventually you get tired of seeing it hanging there and then you are ready for the next step!

You are driving down the road and finally take the whistle off the mirror and put it in your mouth. Since these things don't usually come with instructions, how do you put it in your mouth? The only wrong way to put a shepherds whistle in your mouth is to put the end tied to the string in first. This tastes funny which is why you don't do it. There is no other rule. Up or down, as long as you stick the thing in with the string hanging out of your mouth, any way is correct. Now clamp down hard with your teeth and blow like crazy! This won't get any sound out, but you'll feel like you've accomplished something. Only hold on to the whistle with your teeth if you have a perfect scissors bite. If not, you won't be able to do anything with it once you figure out how to get sound out of it. Hmmm, maybe this is a conformation test for humans. Any person without a correct bite need not try herding! Ok. You've been blowing and blowing. You hold the whistle with your hand, you hold it with your perfect teeth, you turn it upside down. Still no sound comes out. What no one tells you is there is a trick to this whistle business. IF you could blow without the shepherds whistle, then you can use the shepherds whistle. What this means is you have to take your tongue and put the tip on the bottom of your mouth. You then curl your tongue up and put the middle of your tongue on the back of the whistle. In this way you can force all your breath through that little pin hole on one side of the whistle. As the air exits the open end of the whistle, it should make a noise. "Should" is the operant word here. Some trial and error even once you try the proper tongue placement will be necessary. The different sounds will be made by manipulating your tongue and your lips. Holding on to the whistle with your teeth is helpful although holding on to the whistle where you tied the string will work. It doesn't look as cool though, so using your teeth is preferred. If you don't have a perfect bite, you may want to go to the dentist first and have yours adjusted. False teeth probably won't work as well as your own teeth, but I haven't tried that yet.

BLEAT! Finally some noise has issued forth! You jump, the driver of the car next to you looks around for the cop, and the girl on the other side glares at you! If the first time you try this it doesn't work, hang the whistle back up on your rearview mirror for more conditioning. You obviously rushed that step. Meanwhile try to learn how to make ANY sound like a whistle sound come from your mouth without the shepherd's whistle. If you can accomplish this, it will be a big help. If you succeed in making noise with the whistle, try to repeat that noise. It is very important to learn how to make noise come from the whistle EVERY time you blow into it. If you can't manage that step, you really won't be able to use it when around sheep. Odds are the second sound that comes from the whistle won't sound at all like the first sound you got out of it. That's ok, for now. At this point it is just important to get sound out of the silly thing!

Once you have successfully learned how to consistently pick up your whistle, stick it in your mouth and make sound come from it, you need to start playing songs on it. Yes, that's right. I find jingle bells to be particularly helpful, mostly because there's a lot of monotone sections in it and I'm still best at monotones. You may eventually want to move on to something more complex, but I don't recommend something by Tchaikovsky. Probably a little too complicated for what is needed here. The recommendation at this stage is to play songs on your whistle as you go to and from work every day. Do NOT use the whistle when there are dogs in the car. The noise tends to upset them. Kids and spouses quite often object, too, which is why a long solitary drive to work is the best time to whistle.

Once you can whistle a tune that is not only clear to you, but can be recognized by the people in the cars stopping at the lights with you (you notice the other drivers starting to sing along), you are ready for the final step in whistle blowing. Now you need to do a test. Have someone play a note on a piano. You must be able to hit the exact note each and every time you blow the whistle. If you are very good, have someone just tell you to play "A", "b flat", "e sharp" or whatever. If you can hit 10 out of 10 notes correctly, you are ready to start learning the whistle commands to give to your dog. When giving commands it is critical to give the exact note each time. Some theories state that the dog responds not to the entire command but only to the first note so it is critical to have a different note or at least a different octave if you like one note better than others for each command. That is why the test is so critical. Until you can hit any note the first time, you are not ready to whistle commands.

If you decide you need more practice, you can still start to work on what notes you will use when you finally start whistling commands. Remember what notes you use aren't as important as being consistent and hitting those exact same notes each and every time. Because humans don't work on one note, it is also a good idea to have different little clusters of notes to represent each command. Decide how you want to do this while you are polishing your whistling techniques.

Most whistle commands actually sound like the verbal commands. Probably where some of these strange verbal commands came from, actually. Common whistles are:

  1. one long steady whistle to mean stop or down (a frantic SSSTTTOOOPPP! command.
  2. 2 sharp crisp toot toots of the same note for the walk up (sounds like walk up!)
  3. a bobwhite's call for the go by (bob WHITE, or come BY) This is a low to high note.
  4. the reverse of a bobwhite for the away to me or high to low. Some people actually do a sort of trill for the away to me, getting all syllables and then some in the whistle.

This is really all you need for the dog. When the dog is close you'll use your verbal commands, unless you really want to impress people and then soft whistle commands are awesome! Whistles are mainly to impress novices and to be used the next time you send your dog out into a 100 acre field to round up your 1000 head of sheep. Besides the four commands above, you might want a few others, just to impress everyone with. I think I counted about 20 commands I use when I herd. You could get really clever and come up with a whistle command for all of them, but I think that might be overkill.

Now you have mastered the whistle. You can drive down the highway and get any command out you want at a split second notice. You can also whistle the 1812 Overture while you are at it. Now it is time to teach your dog. You step out into the field and send your dog. Since he's sitting by your side, you use the verbal. You want your dog to stop, so you put the whistle in your mouth and blow. Out pops the whistle and smash right into that convenient manure pile again. You forgot to put the string around your neck in your haste and of course you weren't using your teeth. The dog and the sheep are now bolting towards you over the hill and you start screaming for all your worth! Yes, you now are a master whistle blower and can whistle while you work!

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