The Ins and Outs of Dog Whistles: What You Need to Know

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Training your furry friend is an important part of being a dog parent; plus, it has many benefits, including socialization and obedience. If you're looking to incorporate a training tool, a dog whistle may be a good option for you and your pup.

But as a pet parent, you may be wondering: How does a dog whistle work? Do dog whistles hurt dogs' ears? What are the advantages of using a whistle? These are important questions to consider when looking into using a dog whistle.

How Dog Whistles Work

Whistles have been used for dog training and communication for generations. Prior to that, humans communicated with their dogs by whistling the old-fashioned way, with their breath. You can use a whistle to "talk" with your dog and establish a behavioral routine, just as you do with verbal commands or clicker training for "sit" and "stay" or playing fetch.

Dogs respond to even the quietest of whistles because they hear at a much higher frequency than humans. "Dogs and people hear about the same at low frequencies of sound (around 20Hz). This changes at high frequencies of sound, where dogs hear up to 70-100kHz, much better than people at only 20kHz," say scientists at the University of Adelaide in Australia, and dogs "hear sound frequencies at least three times as high compared to people." It may seem as if dogs react to a noise that's not there when, in reality, they're highly sensitive to something we can't hear.

Pet Owner Training Dog Using WhistleYou may have to try out a few different types of whistles to see which one offers you the range of sounds you (and your dog) prefer. Start by learning how to use the whistle properly (practice, practice, practice), and then play around with the sounds to figure out which tones will work for which commands.

Audible and Silent Whistles

There are two types of whistles to choose from: audible or silent — with "silent" in this case meaning silent for humans, not dogs. Some whistles are equipped with adjustable pitches, too.

Audible whistles are helpful when you're working out the sounds you want to use and ensure that you're being consistent. This style looks much like a whistle used at sporting events and, in fact, it's used during herding dog events.

Many dog parents prefer silent whistles because there's less noise interference for people. This type of whistle, invented in 1876 by Sir Francis Galton, was used to test hearing levels in humans, cats and dogs. The term "ultrasonic whistle" is more accurate because, as noted above, the whistle isn't silent — it emits ultrasonic sounds to which dogs respond. According to researchers at Psychology Today, the advantage of this type of whistle is that these sound signals travel farther than the human voice and, therefore, can reach dogs at farther distances.

Do Dog Whistles Hurt Dogs' Ears?

A dog whistle won't harm your dog when used properly. Read the manufacturer information carefully and speak with your veterinarian about any questions you have.

Because dogs hear at a much higher frequency than humans, they're naturally more sensitive to sounds. Don't use the whistle close to their ears, and avoid blowing it at full strength. As Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, writes for Petful, these "noises to the top of the dog's ability to hear can cause pain if they are loud enough. It's like the difference between a referee blowing a whistle on the football field versus blowing that same whistle directly in your ear." That's a big difference.

Be mindful of other animals in your home and surroundings, too. Cats hear high-frequency sounds even better than dogs and will respond accordingly. Always remember that what seems like a benign noise to you can be disruptive and uncomfortable for your dog (and cat).

As with any behavior training, using a dog whistle consistently and patiently is the key to success.

Contributor Bio

Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien

Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is an award-winning writer, researcher, and long-time pet mom. Find and follow her on Instagram @brovelliobrien