Using Hand Signals for Successful Communication in Dog Training

An older dog I have been working with is experiencing some health issues that have resulted in diminished hearing. Luckily, her owners have kept up with the training they learned in class and continued to use hand signals to communicate with their dog, so she has the opportunity to go on with her normal daily behaviors without trouble.

Hand signals can be an important part of training, mainly because dogs respond very well to body language. That’s how they talk to each other. When I am teaching a behavior (we’ll use SIT as an example), the first thing I do is pretend the dog has never heard the word. I show him what behavior I want from him using a food lure to put his body in place. For a sit, that involves placing my fingers with the food close to his nose and moving my hand up and back behind his head, trying to keep his nose “attached” to my fingers, until the dog’s rear hits the floor. At that point, I mark the sit with a “Good!” or “Yes!” and give him the food. I will repeat that motion several times until I am getting the sit quickly.

Down starts with a food lure

Once the behavior is established, I use an empty hand in the same way I did with the food, making the same motion over the dog’s head. I do this rapidly so the dog doesn’t have a chance to really figure out there is no treat in my hand. When I get the sit, I reward from behind my back with the other hand. I will repeat this phase until I am willing to bet money that the dog will sit 90% of the time I use the hand signal.  This is when I will add the verbal cue, telling the dog to “Sit!” and then giving the hand signal. Eventually, a dog that can hear will sit when I say the word, not waiting for the hand signal.

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Down is eventually achieved with a small hand signal at waist height

When a dog is trained this way, they can perform the desired behaviors like sit, stay, or come whether they can hear you or not. You also gain the benefit of a stronger behavior, because the dog definitely knows what you are asking him to do.  Hand signals are useful not only for dogs that lose hearing for whatever reason, but also for when the dog is in a situation where the environment makes it difficult to hear. Maybe your dog is on the other side of the yard or park. Perhaps your dog got loose in a dangerous situation like a high traffic area and you need to signal him to stay put until you can get to him with the leash.

No matter what the case, following this specific order of training (lure, hand signal, then finally adding a verbal cue) is the most efficient and effective way to train any dog any desired behavior.