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Training Your Dog
     The Whistle Sit      
by Joe Law
29 April 2010

When competing in Retrieving Ability Tests for Gundogs (RATG) and Retrieving Trials (RT) as well as all Field Disciplines, there comes a time when a dog has to understand it is part of a team and must work with its handler in a cooperative manner.

It is part of the dog’s pack instinct to take direction from a social superior and it is here that we must show good judgement in establishing a good working relationship with our dog.  Fortunately for us our canine friends in the Gundog Group were originally bred to carry out tasks of finding game and also retrieving fallen game for the hunter. In these situations it is obvious that there must be times when a dog is under the control of its handler. The control that is needed will depend on the handler’s ability to have taught and drilled the skills needed for this work.

After a dog has learnt its basic commands of sit, stay, come when called and walk at heel it must also learn to stop and look to the handler whenever the handler wishes to give further directions. So let us talk about the Whistle Sit before attempting to move on to the more complex handling skills that can be required. Unless your dog has learnt to stop, look at you and watch as well as listen for your commands, then any subsequent skills needed for control become irrelevant. So how do I teach my dog to Sit to the Whistle?

WhistleAs you already have your dog sitting on command, the easiest way to begin whistle work is to have the dog associate the whistle with the sit command. Initially begin with your dog on lead and then give a short sharp whistle blast after giving the dog a sit command, reinforcing the sit command again if necessary to gain compliance. Reward the dog for sitting in the usual manner you would use in your training. It should be noted however that if you normally use a food reward it will make things a bit difficult when requiring the dog to sit at a distance, but by that time the dog should see praise as a reward. Continue to work through this until such time as you are sure that the dog is beginning to associate the whistle with the sit command. Then begin to introduce the whistle first and use the sit command as reinforcement only when necessary. This way we are clearly explaining to the dog that the whistle does in fact mean sit with or without a command. Build on this by graduating to off lead work whilst still in the heel position. From here we can begin to work on getting the sit to the whistle when the dog is returning to us. The easiest way to begin this is from the stay and then recalling the dog, stopping it on the whistle when it is about half way to you. Care does need to be taken here so as not to over work the dog and have it begin to anticipate a sit command and thus spoil your recall. It is probably better to allow your dog to complete the recall without stopping on more occasions than not and on some of those occasions when you do choose to stop your dog go to him and praise and reward his response. We also need to have the dog take the sit to the whistle command when it is moving away from us. The simplest way to achieve this is through play. Have the dog playing a fetch game with an easily thrown toy or dummy and then fake a throw, the dog will move out and that is the time to whistle for a sit. Once the dog does sit, throw the dummy and begin playing again. This method also has the additional benefit of teaching the dog to watch your arms and this you will need when you progress on to casting. Arguably the biggest benefit to using play is that it can allow you to throw in a whistle sit under so many different circumstances, not just in formal training sessions, building all the time on the dog’s need to sit to the whistle and look at you.

Remember that the whistle sit is a foundation on which control is built and the more time spent on conditioning your dog to this response will be time well spent. Only when you are confident that your dog will sit to the whistle and look to you for further direction can we move onto the many other skills that will need to be taught before your retriever’s education is complete. 

Photo by Lara Sedgmen

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Dogs NSW magazine, July 2010.
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