On Whistles and Whistling
by Connie Brannen

I remember the first time I put a shepherd's whistle in my mouth--a silent little bubble dribbled out one side while my eyes nearly popped from the unreleased pressure behind the instrument. By day two, a reedy pitiful note would moistly eek out on occasion if I held my mouth just right. A few days later I had coordinated my tongue on the whistle a bit and could control a random note. As weeks went by, I kept the red plastic whistle in my car and attempted to accompany the radio tunes as I drove. As my tonality improved, my mentor Jerry told me I should start to consider what notes I wanted to use for my flanking, stop and walk up commands. I settled on those initial whistles and began integrating them into the training of my first herding dog--a young Border Collie who was as green as I was. I was amazed at how quickly Cricket (HC Cricket Ann Brannen HXBs HXAsd CDX AX OAJ) took to my strange screechings, responding to them after just a few days of a verbal command followed by a whistle command.

I have been participating in dog sports since 1993 when I started in obedience, and in 1999 I added both agility and herding. While I enjoy all three venues, I've found herding to be the most difficult, the most fun and the most fulfilling. It's so satisfying to see my girls working at what they've been bred to do for centuries. Initially it was so confusing to be a part of that sheep, dog, experienced person, dumb person (that would be me) mix on the field. Once I finally got a clue on where to stand and what to say, it felt like we were going back to square one to learn to say it all over again with a whistle. But we continued to practice and I got better at whistling and my dog got better at interpreting.

In the meantime, Cricket and I began competing in AKC, ASCA (Australian Shepherd Club of America) and USBCHA (United States Border Collie Handlers Association) trials. In my very first weekend of AKC trialing on the Started A course, we lost a 2nd place by half a point. When I looked at my score sheet, we'd lost a point for "disobedience"--I'd flanked her incorrectly "away" to the right and Cricket covered my mistake with a "comeby" flank to the left. It was just the kind of disobedience we needed to get the repen, but our astute judge picked up that we weren't in sync. Suddenly the idea of whistling on a course where the dog was easily in hearing range seemed pretty attractive. It was quite obvious when I said "away" and the dog went "comeby". But it would be much more difficult for the judge to understand my whistles in just the few minutes we would be under her scrutiny during a run. Yup, she'd have a bit more of a time figuring out whether my dog went "bobwhite" or "pretty girl"!

While at an ASCA trial, I overheard a very well known Australian Shepherd handler make the comment that she didn't whistle because she never ran a course where the dog wasn't in earshot. While the "disobedience" penalty isn't looming on the ASCA score sheet, I thought about what a useful tool the whistle was becoming and how foolish it would be not to include it in the training toolbox. My dogs appeared to really like the whistle and I noticed that using it seemed to temper any anger or excitement I might be feeling. When I do get upset or excited, I HAVE to calm down to get the whistles out properly, so it tends to have a calming effect on me too.

In the fall of 1999, I trotted out my whistles at a trial for the first time. Cricket was having her inaugural run on the AKC Intermediate B Course at the Border Collie Specialty at Purina Farms. I sent her out to the right and when she looked like she was starting to pull up a little short on her outrun, I gave her a good strong "away" whistle. Leastwise that was my intention. What actually blasted from my finely tuned diaphragm was the "That'll Do, Come Here" trill. She stopped and looked at me like I was from Mars--meanwhile the sheep took the scenic route. Cricket realized that I, once again, needed saving so she dug in, got the sheep back to my feet and squeaked out a qualifying run.

It could only go uphill from there. I started to learn that I could whistle the same notes, but sharpen them, soften them, quicken them or lengthen them to indicate the speed and attitude of action I want. Because I didn't thoroughly think through my first set of whistles (and the fact that I'm tone deaf), I ended up changing those whistles in the spring of this year. The first notes of both of my flank whistles where too close and my partner would have to hear the second note to really feel sure of which direction I wanted. This caused a minor hesitation that disturbed handler, sheep and dog. Now my flanks start with high note (away) and low note (comeby). The next discovery was that my very hotfooted young dog Trip (Triple Fudge Treat HXBs HXAs NA) found my steady whistle much too exciting to have a steadying effect! The new steady whistle has more monotonous sound.

Most of the time, the first whistle is a $2 plastic job on a $2 nylon lanyard. As the addiction kicks in the expenditures rise systematically, $10 metal whistle, $25 bone whistle, $75 sterling whistle, $18 kangaroo leather lanyard, $25 horsehair lanyard, $30 glass beaded lanyard. If we ever hit the lottery I envision some stone encrusted custom job.

Realistically most people simply have to experiment to see which whistle is just right. This discovery may end up taking your lifetime. I have been watching some of the big hats that have been around for a long, long time and they seem to switch whistle preference with some regularity. And, you must consider the season. A metal whistle that has served you well over the spring, summer and fall, may have to be extracted from your lip with a blow-dryer on that first subzero morning.

There are several very good whistle instruction tapes/CD's available that can be found with a little searching on the internet. Another way to learn whistles is to watch the handlers you admire and listen closely to their whistling throughout their runs. You will start to pick up on the subtleties that are possible. It's also interesting to watch their different dogs react to the whistles. Amazingly, some handlers have different whistles for individual dogs. It is especially important when running a brace competition (two dogs simultaneously) so that the dogs understand which command is meant for them.

So go ahead and make that first $2 whistle investment and you might add a whole new dimension to your herding training. Hoping to entice you to make that purchase, we'll review why the whistle is worth its weight in gold:
1. Keeps emotions out of commands.
2. Dogs readily pick up the whistle instruction.
3. Carries better in uneven terrain and windy conditions.
4. Looks cool even if you don't use it--well worth $2 right there!
About the Author:

Connie's introduction to herding was a herding instinct test with her 9-year-old rescue Border Collie, Willow at the BC National Specialty in October of 1998. The following year she began herding with her year-old Border Collie, Cricket, who is currently running at the Open level in USBCHA trials and became an AKC herding champion in September of 2001. In April of 2000, 8-month-old Trip came to live with Connie and begin her herding career. She benefited for the lessons Connie learned from training Cricket and she also runs at the Open level in USBCHA trials and is qualified for the National Nursery Finals in November of 2002. Trip is one win away from her AKC herding championship. Trip's baby brother, Quillo, born this August, will be joining the Brannen family in early October.

Border Collie