Why Dog Hand Signals are Better Than Verbal Commands
Dog training hand signals have been around as long, in time, as dog obedience and dog training. Verbal commands are not always “where it is at” when it comes to dog training and dog behavior.
And, having been a successful professional dog trainer for over 25 years and working with everything from Service Dogs, to Police Dogs to Cheetahs; I am a firm believer that to teach your dog basic hand signals is crucial to having a well trained companion or good dog.
Let us acknowledge that sometimes you are going to be in the middle of a conversation with your significant other, or a friend, or anyone and you are going to need to impart a hand signal to communicate with your dog; rather than shouting an inappropriate verbal command or cue. And, you are going to want good behavior to follow without that loud verbal cue. No one wants to shout “QUIET” or “DOWN” when they are the phone involved in a serious conversation with someone you care about.
So let us begin by explaining a little more to the point about why your dog needs to learn some dog training hand signals and why it will actually improve your dog obedience.
Dogs Understand Dog Hand Signals Better
I know, I know… I have said this before in other dog training articles; but it is important to remember that dogs do not actually speak Human, or English or Dutch or French (pick your poison here).
They do not spring from the womb understanding whatever our chosen language is in the country we live.
I know, that seems like common knowledge, but you have no idea how many people during my in home training that I have to remind of this simple “fact”.
Just yesterday I was at the home of a 10 week old Shetland Sheepdog puppy. His new lovely dog owners have only had him for a week and he is admittedly still adjusting! Thankfully, they employed me, a dog trainer, to help them set him up for success.
Dad was excited to show me how he was working with the new bundle of fur, and mom was over the moon in love with him already. But both were shouting English commands at him. I personally like to sit back and evaluate the current situation and see how dog owners interact with their pup before I come to too many conclusions. Then we sit and discuss problems and questions and finally get around to the problems or concerns I have witnessed or am having.
After getting to know one another for a bit of time, I asked if they had trained him with the words they were using? One of which was the husband saying, “stay, stay, stay, stay, stay” as he hopelessly tried to back up to call the puppy. They both admitted that they really had not.
You don’t need a professional dog trainer to tell you that this puppy doesn’t understand the verbal commands and verbal cues his owners are trying to teach him. Will he learn? Eventually, probably, yes. But it will be a difficult and confusing path for him. First he needs to be helped and taught our language through markers and positive reinforcement.
If you want to communicate with better and more accurate skill right away, with a new pup or an adult dog that has had no training. Employing visual cues and basic hand signal and hand gestures s is the fastest most effective way to help them learn and succeed.
Dogs Speak with Body Language
Another reason that dog hand signals are more important while effectively communicating with them is because dogs and puppies communicate with each other through a complex body language.
Sure, dogs bark and verbally communicate; but it is fairly rare with and in the presence of one another. Most of the time all it takes is a look or a body posture for one dog or puppy to communicate with another.
Some dogs are more vocal than others, but growls and barks are often reserved for an escalation when body language and body posturing is not working effectively.
It is simply natural for a dog or a young pup to ignore verbal commands and verbal command (in the beginning, before you effectively teach your dog) but thrive on visual cues, eye contact and verbal commands.
Have you ever noticed how much time and how often a young puppy will look you in the eye? If you are not using positive reinforcement to reward this and teach your dog this behavior on cue, you are missing out on a major way that he is hard wired to communicate with you. And, if you don’t add this to your dog obedience training regimen (on cue) you will lose it completely because the dog learns that this is not how you communicate and this behavior is not rewarding to him.
Be sure to reward attention and eye contact! Then, as your next step put it on, at least, verbal command!
We Don’t Give Hand Signals with No Meaning
And, yet, one more reason that training dogs with sign language or hand signals is that we do not tend to give hand signals that have no meaning to the dog.
How often to you talk randomly or babble to your dog?
Do not misunderstand me, I am by no means judging, because I do it all the time.
I have long drawn out conversations with my dogs about the weather, my job, my relationships, and everything else I am thinking. Of course! Because I am a verbal mammal and they are my near constant companions. Who else would I tell my deepest secrets too?
But, you have to understand from your dog’s perspective (since he really doesn’t understand you) he begins to ignore your loving babbling with loving stares in the distance or just enjoying the moments of being with you. By verbally communication with our dogs, often, we desensitize them a bit to speech and therefore verbal commands.
It is not the worst thing in the world as long as your commands sound slightly different than your dissertation on what happened at work that day. But you can understand that when training dogs, basic hand signals can be more effective with your dog.
The other quick mention, where you will simply HAVE to learn basic hand signals or even American Sign Language is when you are working with a deaf dog! Your dog training commands will teach your dog, nothing.
These dogs thrive on physical touch for attention, stomping of feet (also to get their attention) and hand signals or sign language.
Do not worry if you end up adopting or buying a deaf dog or deaf puppy. You can still talk to them and impart all of your deepest secrets, just like the rest of us do. But using your hands, your left hand, your right hand and your training hand will become crucial to effectively communication between the two of you.
We have a few deaf dogs that come into the veterinary clinic, where I am a vet tech. Each time to go to take one of these dogs to the back for diagnostics or a nail trim, their owners will remind us that the dog can not hear and is indeed deaf. I always reassure the owners that we do know that information and keep it in our computers but we will still talk to them along the way! Because when you are talking kindly, you are also smiling and using the body language that they have come to know at home with their loving owners, without even thinking about it.
If you are struggling with a deaf dog, finding a professional dog trainer that uses positive reinforcement will be a great investment to investigate. Do not fall prey to the dog trainers who want to use shock collars on these very precious dogs, these techniques can scare your dog and teach your dog not to trust you.
So now that we have discussed the “why’s” of using hand signals and you are excited and ready to move forward and to teach your dog basic hand signals, let us discuss the “how’s”! Training your dog may take some time but with positive reinforcement, teaching and guidance you will love these new “hand commands” or hand signals!
The Two Biggest Rules of Hand Signals
In order to teach your dog these are the two rules, according to me and my experience as a professional dog trainer who has competed successfully and won titles and trophies, worked with deaf dogs and been a trainer for so many years. Learn from my ample experience.
Size, to me, is one of the most important aspects to teach your dog basic hand signals or even advanced hand signals.
I often work my dogs off leash at a distance (especially when doing dog agility or other dog sports) and even in places that allow off leash training and dog walking (like dog friendly hiking trails and dog friendly beaches). If my hand signals are small, like using one finger, my dog can’t see that when he is off leash and from a distance.
Most often I see this with the “Down” hand command. People begin teaching their puppy with rewards and positive reinforcement and luring them to the ground with their hand and their finger. Naturally, for the human, the hand signal becomes getting in the dog’s face to get his ongoing attention and gesturing to the ground. The dog learns and is conditioned that the dog owner has a reward and he learns to drop to the ground when he sees this visual cue.
However, I will be the first to tell you that if your hand commands require that you get into the dog’s face up to your dog’s nose to get his attention and then the hand gesture is as small as drawing your dog’s nose to the ground, you will not have an accurate “Down” hand signal when he is off leash! In order to teach your dog, the hand signal must be large.
If your dog is 50 yards away he can’t see your visual cue. He might be able to hear a shout or a whistle to get his attention… but from there you are at a loss.
Let me explain from experience. I used to have to dogs that were very social and good off leash. At the time, I lived in Georgia and near several beaches they were allowed to be off leash on during certain times of day and season. One day they were out playing in the waves with their ball, probably 100 yards away, and I saw a car coming. It was not coming directly toward them… but I was worried that they might inadvertently run in front of it and get run over. I didn’t expect the owner or driver of the vehicle to notice them frolicking in the waves. There was no way I could make it to them even if I had ran. And, I didn’t want to call them for fear they would veer in front of the vehicle and both be hit by the car.
I was able to whistle to get their attention and then deliver my hand signal so that they would remain in place and safe while the car passed. And, I could get to them.
If you ever want an off leash dog, you need to have BIG and substantial hand signals.
Consistency is also imperative with any dog training behaviors or dog training commands but especially with hand signals.
Because dogs are such visual creatures and rely on body language to communicate, this makes it even more difficult for them to understand and teach your dog if you are not being consistent with your hand signals and your meaning therein. They are much more forgiving if you occasionally get a word wrong.
I remember having my first police dog in training living with me, his language of choice was German and he was quite good (having been imported with a lot of skills). I took him home one weekend to meet my parents. I was pleased to exhibit his training and commands to them and even catch him in the bite suit. My parents eagerly asked about his commands and I ran through them with excited accuracy. Then my mother almost died ha ha. Although she didn’t realize it at the time. I will spell his commands phonetically for you so you can see how close they are; his down command was “platz” and his bite command was “pocken” very similar if you aren’t working the dog or paying attention. She got up in his face and whispered “pocken” “pocken”. His face was priceless as he realized she was misinformed and he laid down.
Let’s get on with some basic hand signals so that you may use your newly learned information in a constructive manner.
Basic Hand Signals
My hand signals often differ from those you see in AKC obedience or other types of obedience. It doesn’t really matter what you use as long as you are consistent!
I will mention, if you want to compete in high level AKC or UKC obedience trials, you can use hand signals OR verbal commands, but not both. So train both hard and decide which your dog excels at the best before you compete.
Now grab some tasty rewards and treats and your dog and his leash and let’s get started.
Teaching your dog to sit should be pretty easy.
The “sit” signal is one of the few hand signals that most dogs know, without their owners really knowing that they have taught it.
It starts by using the treat and putting it to your dog’s nose and slowly drawing the treat, upward. As the dog follows the treat with his nose, his rump will naturally descend into the “sit” position.
Of course as he sits tell him what he is doing and release the treat. This hand signal is fairly natural, except as you begin to use it as a visual cue and as he understands the verbal command, you should make it bigger for him to see by keeping your fingers together, palm up and making a sweeping movement up toward the ceiling or toward the sky and using the verbal command that you already taught him. The two together will solidify that this slightly different visual cue is the new hand signal for “Sit”.
It doesn’t matter if you use your left hand or your right hand.
I talked about this before but didn’t go into great detail about the hand signal. I figured I would get to that now so that it is in a concise area for dog owners to review at a later time if needed.
As mentioned, I do use tasty treat rewards and get my puppy’s attention by putting it by the dog’s nose. If he is not sitting, I recommend that you try and get him into sit position because that will make it easier on your pup and you. Putting his rump up directly in front of a wall helps too. From here I use the reward to draw the puppy or dog’s nose down and slightly in toward his elbow. This should help
him crumple down and in. Once he learns the behavior and the cue with your help. Or learns the cue with capturing I begin to add my hand signal. I use the hand signal with my hand directly in front of him palm down but fingers toward the ceiling. It should look like STOP or some people use the hand signal for STAY. But I like it for Down because it is big and easy to see. Want to make it more impressive in size, you can sweep that hand toward the ground so that your dog sees the motion from a distance.
Again, it doesn’t matter if you use your left hand or your right hand.
Come is another important hand signal for a dog that is a distance away! Most puppies are hopefully learning this command or cue early in life. To make it this fun, I like using my right hand and arm. I make a 90 degree angle parallel with the floor and sweep that hand, palm facing toward my tummy in and toward my body. I use the right hand to hopefully encourage the dog either in front of me or to my left side for heel position.
Remember that we talked earlier about consistency. Be sure that your STAY hand signal looks different than your down hand signal, or you will confuse your dog!
I use my palm, facing toward my dog but with my fingers pointed down toward the ground. And I use a quick but tight movement toward my dog’s nose as I give the cue in a no nonsense fasion!
Hand signals, when executed with accuracy and good timing, will turn any dog into a good dog.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.