How Do Dog Whistles Work?

A dog whistle does not have to be silent or ultrasonic to be effective as a supplemental training method. Learn more about dog whistles here!

Melvin Peña  |  Nov 12th 2014


When you hear the term “dog whistle,” chances are you are thinking of a so-called “silent” whistle. Silence is not the only “sound” a dog whistle makes, nor is it necessarily the most effective when it comes to dogs. The fact is that dog whistles run the gamut of sound, from those inaudible to human ears to the sound you make when you pucker your lips and blow.

Do dog whistles work? Used in a responsible, consistent, and positive manner, any kind of dog whistle sound can provide a useful supplement for dog training. They can be constructed in any medium, from metal, wood, and plastic to the inevitable smartphone app. Let’s look into the history of dog whistles, how they work, and their range of potential applications for dogs!

A brief history of the “silent” dog whistle

In a fun historical twist, the device we now commonly call the silent dog whistle was actually first tested on humans. In 1876, Sir Francis Galton, a relative of Charles Darwin, and a curious genius in his own right, wanted to test the range and limitations of human hearing. A small brass tube with a slide to alter frequency was the first of the Galton whistles.

In his 1883 publication, “Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development,” Galton details the processes and results of his experiments into differential hearing, or the capacity, primarily of humans, to process sound. Galton’s curiosity led him to repeat these sonic experiments on a range of animals, including dogs. He reported that the prototype whistle “made nearly all the little dogs turn round, but not the large ones.”

From its inception, the Galton whistle, now better known as the dog whistle, produced a range of sounds. In light of Galton’s early discoveries that no single pitch provokes the same response in every creature, even contemporary silent dog whistles tend to be adjustable or available across a spectrum of ultrasonic frequencies. Ultimately, it is not the dog whistle sound that matters, but rather the way a dog is acclimated to it.

How do dog whistles work?

As Francis Galton noticed with his prototype whistle in the late nineteenth century, a dog’s size is one mitigating factor when it comes to the sounds it can perceive and potentially respond to. At peak functioning, human ears can hear sounds at frequencies up to 20 kilohertz. Depending on size, breed, and age, the high end of a dog’s hearing ranges from 40 up to 60 kilohertz. The sound of the typical ultrasonic dog whistle varies between 23 and 54 kilohertz.

Dog whistles work in the same ways that any other modes of training do, and for the same reasons; to wit, dogs are consistently trained to respond in a certain fashion to their use. Whether you are a fan of vocal commands, clicker training, or rewarding with delicious treats, even the most practiced dog-whistle advocates recommend a dog whistle be a secondary and supplementary training technique.

Startling a dog with an ultrasonic frequency is one thing, but dogs will only reliably respond to a whistle as a result of familiarity and training. This is perhaps the most important thing to recognize about dog whistles of any kind; there is no innate quality to a dog whistle sound that can impel a dog to sit, stop barking, or return to you from a distance. Your dog’s response to a dog whistle depends entirely on what your training goal is.

Why use ultrasonic dog whistles?

Even the cheapest plastic whistle used by your kid’s soccer coach can prove an effective dog whistle if used consistently, sparingly, and for a specific purpose or set of simple purposes. So what makes a silent dog whistle special? What are its practical applications? Dog whistle with an ultrasonic frequency are used as a final stage of training with working dogs, such as shepherding or hunting dogs.

A hunting dog’s hearing is much more sensitive than that of deer and birds, making an ultrasonic dog whistle an effective way to signal a dog without alerting game. For other working dogs, such as shepherds and police dogs, dog whistles are useful in recalling dogs over great distances. These uses are always dependent on proper training.

People who keep their dogs indoors may employ a dog whistle sound, or lack thereof, to avoid excess noise that can disturb neighbors, roommates, or family members. Some dog whistles are marketed as deterrents to keep dogs from barking, but as with any application, consistent training, not the sound itself, is key to its long-term effectiveness.

Do you use a dog whistle?

Given differences in dog hearing based on age and size, dog owners in multi-dog households may use as many different whistles as they have dogs. The most important factor when it comes to a dog whistle of any kind is consistency of use. Regardless of its intended function, dog whistles are not an instant fix. They should be used sparingly, in short bursts, and never blown directly into a dog’s ears.

Any mode of dog training interaction, whether deterrent- or reward-focused, can be counterproductive when misappropriated. Overuse of any kind of dog whistle can, over time, provoke resistance, aggression, or apathy. Have you ever supplemented a dog’s training with the sounds of a dog whistle? What was the context? Did you find it effective? Share your experiences with dog whistles in the comments!

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