Several months ago, I was browsing coffee mugs in a department store when, suddenly, I heard a man whistle two distinctive sounds. I looked up and saw a woman startle up in the aisle behind me — “Yes?” — as she was looking where the sounds had come from. Her partner waved her over to meet with him and she followed his nonchalant command.

What happened? … The man used a dog whistle on her.

Usually, dog whistles are used by dog trainers to send a trained command to a dog. The sounds dog whistles make are of such high frequency that they cannot be heard by humans though. The dog will fulfill the command that he associates with the dog whistle every time he hears its distinctive sound.

Just like the dog, the woman in the department store was trained by her partner to respond to his distinctive whistling sound and follow his command.

Dog-whistling is a form of control and coercion in abusive relationships. Over time, victims are conditioned to respond to certain sounds, facial expressions, gestures, or words; a code that only they understand. This way, abusers are given the opportunity to covertly abuse and control their victims in public places without anyone else noticing it.

Dog-whistling is not only a way to manipulate a victim’s behavior as in the example above but can also be used to have an emotional impact on the target. It acts like a subtle inside joke that nobody in the room would understand, except for the victim, but instead of making him/her laugh, it is meant to induce negative feelings, such as fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, or inadequacy.

The best response to being dog-whistled is to give no response at all. However, if the victim knows that his/her non-reaction will result in punishment, it can be a very difficult pattern to break; especially if intermittent reinforcement is at work that will reward the victim if he/she is responsive and acts according to the abuser’s expectations.