There is perhaps nothing more satisfying than watching a busy spaniel or HPR mid-hunt, or a labrador galloping out on a retrieve, immediately stop what they’re doing, remain still, and look back at their handler, eagerly awaiting their next instruction, all after hearing the simple “peep” of the stop whistle.
Whether you have a pet or working retriever (e.g. labrador), hunting retriever (e.g. spaniel), or HPR (e.g. vizsla or pointer), you will need to teach your gundog to stop on the whistle.
One of the primary reasons for this is being able to work as a team at a distance. It can also be an emergency stop for safety reasons.
On a shoot day, we don’t always want to recall our dogs, but we do need a way of keeping them out of the way of firing Guns and we need a way to handle them at a distance and keep them hunting in the right areas to ensure that game birds aren’t unnecessarily disturbed.
We also want to ensure that all shot game can be delivered to hand to be humanely dispatched and put on the kitchen table as part of a delicious and healthy meal.
Even if you don’t plan to work your dog in the field, the stop whistle remains incredibly useful for your pet gundog’s safety. When you’re out walking your pet gundog off lead in the countryside, it’s another tool (along with your recall) that you can use to prevent them from bogging off on a scent or chasing wildlife.
In this month’s blog, we’ll explore the common scenarios in which you’ll need a stop whistle, the biggest pitfalls novice handlers face, the debate over sitting and standing, and finally, some exercise and games you can play with your gundog to get your stop whistle training underway.
When do gundogs need to stop on the whistle?
When dogs are working on a shoot or in a competition, there are three main scenarios for the stop whistle.
Retrieving and picking up:
After you’ve sent your dog on a retrieve, they might need help finding the dummy or bird. There are tons of reasons why they could have gone off the line or ended up out of the area of fall.
While we could recall them to try and send them back out on the line, there is still no guarantee they will find the dummy or bird. This approach of constantly calling the dog back would also be timely, inefficient and unnecessary hard work for the dog.
Instead, the stop whistle lets us get their attention and handle them from a distance to where they need to be. They can be re-directed left, right, back, over or in, and then be cued to hunt, or if still unsuccessful in finding, be asked to return to the handler. In this context, the stop whistle interrupts the retrieve chain so the handler can assist the dog.
Hunting and the beating line:
If you’re hunting in the beating line or with a walking Gun, there might be times when there’s a pause in proceedings. This is usually when there are directions to be taken or hesitation required while birds are flying out.
In the same way we don’t want our dogs to have to return to our side during a retrieve, the stop whistle is crucial in ensuring that we’ve got our dog’s attention and that they remain paused until it’s time to move on.
Flushing and rough shooting:
When you’re rough shooting, you must stop your dog after they have flushed a bird or bolted ground game. This is imperative as it allows the Gun to take the shot safely, knowing where the dog is at all times.
Later, we will want to teach our spaniels and HPRs to ‘stop to flush’, where the flush cues them to remain still and steady. The stop whistle will be used to teach them this more advanced behaviour, so it must have been trained properly and thoroughly.
The key problem handlers face when training the stop whistle.
The stop whistle is effectively an interrupter given by the handler while the dog is engaged in another activity, mainly retrieving or hunting.
The issue is that these activities are what we have been selectively breeding gundogs to do for generations, and so they are highly intrinsically rewarding to our dogs.
Firstly, these intense hunting and retrieving instincts, which are part of your gundog’s genetic makeup, make it incredibly challenging to stop your dog mid hunt or retrieve, or chase, as you are effectively trying to override their automatic behaviour.
Secondly, if they choose to ignore your stop whistle cue, they are immediately rewarded, as they get to continue doing something they love.
And finally, it means that when they do listen to you and stop, you have effectively taken away their reward, and so the stop whistle cue quickly becomes punishing to our dogs.
Therein lies the biggest pitfall during the training process and the key reason why so many handlers struggle to crack the stop whistle and why even the best-trained dogs can “go off the whistle” over time if training is not kept up.
Therefore, we must ensure that the stop whistle cue has a strong reinforcement history right from the start. If we can do this, we can get our dogs to stop not only reliably but also with genuine enthusiasm.
Does my gundog need to sit on the stop whistle, or can they stand?
This is a hotly debated topic that you must decide based on what works best for you and your dog.
When we stop our gundogs on the whistle, we want them to remain still until we give the next cue.
It is a common belief that a sitting dog is steadier than a standing dog. Logically, you may reason that more “effort” is required for them to get up and then move instead of just moving. But does this really make them any steadier?
Some dogs are very happy to offer a sit without hesitation. But some find it uncomfortable. And I am also sure that intelligent dogs know it is a waste of energy, for the stop should signify that their handler is about to give them another cue.
In my 30-plus years as a dog trainer, my experience is that handlers who insist on a sit often put undue pressure on the dog. The result is often a slower, much more reluctant response to the stop whistle cue.
When you are working your dog out in the field, they are often in cover and on uneven ground, which may be wet, muddy, snowy, or prickly. More often than not, they will not want to sit in these conditions, so why waste time getting them to sit in a training scenario only to accept a stand in real life?
For that reason, it is much more productive to focus on the stillness of the dog than whether they are sitting or standing.
If you need your dog to wait a few seconds while you prepare your next cue or reinforcement, you can ask for a sit after you have given them feedback for the stop but try not to pressurise them to do so if they’re reluctant.
How to train your dog to the stop whistle
My labrador Otter was introduced to the stop cue at 12 weeks, and we only played stop whistle games for fun and in training for a very long time.
The first time I used the stop whistle ‘for real’ was when he hit some fresh scent, and I could tell he was about to follow the trail of deer, which I saw running, but he had not.
He responded immediately with commitment and got to chase a ball instead - he was eighteen months old.
I am very proud of his stop, but it is the investment in practice and reinforcement history that makes and keeps it strong.
The first thing you will need to do is to capture the stillness behaviour.
Place two marker posts about one and a half feet away from each other - this creates a zone or an invisible line, which you’ll later use to see if your dog is creeping towards you on the stop whistle. You’ll be on one side of the posts, your dog on the other.
Throw a treat to your dog’s zone/side of the invisible line and let them eat it. Immediately get another piece ready in your hand and flick your hand up in the air as soon as your dog is about to lift their head. This should attract their attention, and as they glance up at you, you can click and reward their stillness. Repeat this for a couple of repetitions, getting into a rhythm.
When your dog gets used to this new game, you can add your whistle cue. Throw a treat, blow the stop whistle, flick up your hand, click the stillness and reward with another thrown treat. Repeat this for 10 to 20 reps.
You can now stop using your hand as an extra visual cue. When you’re working your dog, you will still raise your arm, especially if you’ve stopped your retriever to re-direct them, but for now, we need to make sure that your dog knows that the whistle alone means stop. If they learn ‘whistle and hand’ means stop, they might not realise they need to stop on the whistle alone, which will be problematic when they are running away from you or are nose-down hunting.
So your new game will be throw food, whistle, click the stillness, throw food, etc. Keep repeating until you get fluency and consistency in this exercise.
Now you’ve got your initial stillness behaviour paired with the “peep” stop whistle, you can start to progress, adding distance between you and your dog. Remember to use the marker posts to identify your invisible line. Don’t reward them if they start to creep toward you; just reduce the distance again and build it back up.
In this video, you will see me practising with Otter:
At Teach Your Gundog, we start teaching the stop whistle in our Beginner Gundog Classes, which are held on Saturday mornings at our training ground in Haslemere, on the Surrey, West Sussex, Hampshire border.
📸 Photographs 1, 2 and 4 credit Alice Loder Photography