Today’s field triallers rely on their whistles but go back a century and gundog owners had only pipes between their lips. Are we over-reliant on the devices, wonders David Tomlinson
Today, the gundog whistle is essential kit, but look back to a century ago and all that is to be found clamped between the owners’ lips are pipes. David Tomlinson wonders if we are over-reliant on gundog whistles.
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I recently looked through a fascinating series of photographs of field trials, taken in the early years of the past century. Though old and faded, most were remarkably sharp. They revealed the favoured dress of the time: for the men, tweed shooting suits with baggy plus-fours, always topped by a hat. On wet days a long raincoat, no doubt called a mackintosh, was clearly acceptable. For women, who are much outnumbered by the men, extravagant hats and ankle-length skirts were the norm, sometimes with a fox-fur stole draped around the shoulders.
What, however, is missing is any sign of a whistle. Lots of the male handlers have a pipe clamped between their teeth but definitely not a whistle. In contrast, go to any field trial this season and I guarantee you will not see a single handler without at least one whistle hung round his or her neck while your chances of spotting a puffing pipe are remote.
The absence of whistles raises a number of questions. How did those handlers communicate with their dogs? Did they whistle through their teeth or shout commands? It seems more likely that they allowed their dog much more freedom than we see today, expecting the dog to use its natural instinct and ability rather than rely on its handler. I’m sure that there are many handlers today who simply couldn’t work their dog, or dogs, without the aid of a whistle, so much is it relied upon.
The next pertinent question is when did the whistle make its first entry into the gundog world and how quickly was it before everyone had one? If you know the answer, I’d love to hear from you. Joseph Hudson invented the silent dog whistle in 1935 and this may well have been the moment when the whistle started to make its mark. The silent whistle is still manufactured today by Acme, the company Hudson founded. Whistles, silent or otherwise, were certainly in widespread use by 1952, when the first edition of Peter Moxon’s classic, Gundogs: Training and Field Trials, was published.
THE COMMON ERROR
Moxon noted that there were many types of whistle to choose from but warned his readers not to fall into the common error of using the loudest available. “Dogs have very sensitive ears. They can hear sounds which are inaudible to us, and a loud whistle is neither necessary or desirable.” Moxon used an Acme silent whistle. “I usually tune this whistle to the loudest pitch, not because it will help the dog but because I like to have the satisfaction of hearing the whistle I am blowing.” I used a silent whistle with my first spaniel but eventually abandoned it because the dog ignored it and I couldn’t hear it.
I now use what has become for many the standard dog whistle, an Acme No 210.5 (the number indicates the pitch; you can also buy a 210 or a 211.5, but not a 211). Mine is rather boringly black but today Acme sells its whistle in a great variety of cheerful colours, from baby blue to lime green, while the cost is still less than a tenner. I used to think that my spaniel knew the tone of her whistle when I blew it but I think I was being naive. I remember shooting days when a number of us put our spaniels into a thick wood to hunt it through. We would all blow our near-identical whistles in a bid to stay in contact with our dogs, which didn’t take any notice whatsoever.
Noisy handling is a fault in trialling, while my observations suggest that the noisier the handler, the less likely is the dog to respond. Moxon also made a valid point about volume, though there is a natural tendency to blow a whistle harder if the dog continues to ignore you. The best handlers are sparing in their use of the whistle but they do still depend on it.
Watching at the retriever championships last year, it was apparent that the technique of most top handlers is to send their dog out in a straight line, then whistle it to stop and seek directions, which are usually given with hand signals.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE WHISTLE
An old friend of mine has abandoned his whistle altogether. Instead, both his spaniels are equipped with electric collars. No, they’ve never had a shock in their lives but my pal communicates with them remotely by buzzing them – most electric collars have a buzzing facility. He has found this works effectively, while it is also worth noting that he is a sympathetic handler who loves his dogs. The downside, of course, is that he always has to explain why his dogs wear electric collars, and not everyone believes him.
Perhaps there’s a case for a collar carrying a recording of instructions, with a button for each. You could, for example, press the “Stop!” button or the button to get the dog to turn right, or left, though training it to respond correctly might be beyond most of us, let alone our dogs. Moxon only recommended using the whistle for two commands: stop or drop, and return. I am sure that is the secret of success with a whistle: keep it simple and let the dog use its initiative.