Mastering Dog Training Hand Signals

Updated on April 30, 2018
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James Livingood has been a dog sitter for several years. He has written numerous articles and a book about the topic because he loves dogs.

Dog watching hand signals
Dog watching hand signals

Dogs are very intelligent, there’s no doubt about that. They can learn to respond to basic obedience commands, perform silly tricks at a freestyle competition, and search for drugs and survivors, amongst many other things. During the training process, you can choose to use verbal and non-verbal cues such as hand signals. These are not mandatory—you are free to choose which type of cues you want to use with your dog!

Hand signals can be very useful if your dog is deaf, and trying to use verbal cues would be a waste of time. They are also highly recommended if you’re planning on participating in obedience or freestyle competitions. Any freestyle routine would lose its “wow factor” if the owner chose to use verbal cues! Hand signals are also very intuitive by nature: they can be used by most people, they’re extremely easy to teach, and they certainly speed up the training process. Did you know dogs are more likely to pay attention to our body language rather than the sounds we make? This is the reason why dogs respond so effectively to this training tactic.

Woman training dog
Woman training dog

The Process of Hand Signal Training

How does this process work? Simply put, the hand signal becomes associated with a certain behavior. This is classical conditioning, plain and simple. If you’re not familiar with this concept, classical conditioning tells us dogs (and many other animals, including humans!) can pair a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus; as a result, the neutral stimulus becomes conditioned. This may sound extremely confusing but, in fact, you see it happen every day.

Let’s imagine your dog, Mr. McNugget. The first time you grabbed Mr. McNugget’s leash, he looked at you and probably thought, “That is one weird looking piece of furniture!” The leash is the neutral stimulus. On the other hand, Mr. McNugget loves to go for a walk; going for a walk is the unconditioned stimulus. Something funny started to happen, though. Every time you grabbed that “funny piece of furniture,” Mr. McNugget went to the doggy park. After a few repetitions, the leash became a conditioned stimulus, which means Mr. McNugget would jump out of his bed and run towards the front door as soon as you grabbed the leash.

The hand signal is the conditioned stimulus. Before the training process, it didn’t mean anything to the dog; however, through classical conditioning, it acquired meaning and became associated with a certain behavior.

In your opinion, which verbal command pairs best with a hand signal?

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Dog receiving a treat
Dog receiving a treat

Three Rules for Hand Signal Training

Here are the three rules for hand signal training:

  1. Consistency
  2. Hand Signal vs. Lure
  3. Positive/Reward-Based

Consistency

These few basic rules should be followed when using non-verbal cues. Consistency is the number one rule! Before starting the actual training, you need to choose which signal you’ll be using; choose a very specific gesture and don’t attempt to change it a few training sessions later; you need to stick to it! Otherwise, your dog won’t understand what you’re trying to teach him, and you may increase his frustration level.

Hand Signal vs. Lure

Second, you need to make sure you know the difference between a hand signal and a lure. Although most hand signals may start as a lure, but they’re not the same! Luring is a training method in which we grab a piece of food (or a toy) and use it to guide the dog into the desired position. After a few repetitions, we remove the food, but the hand movement mustn’t change; it should then gradually evolve into the chosen hand signal.

Positive/Reward-Based Training

The third rule is to use positive, reward-based training methods only. Your hand should be associated with training, food or petting; not with punishment! If you physically punish your dog, he’ll learn to fear your hands and, henceforth, won’t be able to focus and relax during the training session. Remember: if you’re getting frustrated with your dog, interrupt the training session and try again a few hours later. Every dog has his own pace and it’s vital you respect your dog’s learning rhythm. Training is supposed to be fun!

Owner and dog holding hands
Owner and dog holding hands

How to Verify Training Progress

Keep your training sessions short and frequent, instead of long and occasional. Fifteen-minute sessions should be able to help your dog maintain focus; keep him motivated by offering him the appropriate rewards on the right timing. If your dog is not showing any progress, try to answer the following questions:

  • Are you sending your dog mixed signals? An open hand is completely different than a closed one. Are you pointing a finger? Do you always point that finger? Is your hand signal changing throughout the training session?
  • Does your dog know why he’s being rewarded? Are you using a marker? If you are, how’s your timing skills?
  • What kind of reward are you using? Are you sure that’s the best option for your dog? What if he prefers a completely different type of reward?
  • How often are you training your dog? Several times a day? And how long are the training sessions? Is your dog losing his motivation and acting distracted during those sessions?
  • Are you training your dog inside, in a calm, familiar environment? Or you chose to go outside, where squirrels run, and children scream?
  • Are you using a hand signal and a verbal cue simultaneously?

These questions should help you understand why you’re having problems with your training process. Although it may seem like a lot, it’s not that hard. Dogs can effortlessly survive our training mistakes; once they notice and understand our behavioral patterns, the learning process will run smoothly.

If you wish to bring your training skills to a whole new level, ask for help! A positive dog trainer will gladly help you improve your timing, create a reward hierarchy and choose the appropriate training technique. He will also help you choose the best hand signal for each behavior and how you can use them in your day-to-day life.

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    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      5 months ago from Houston, Texas

      We had to have our last dog Skippy euthanized last December and only have a cat right now. Will use your suggestions should we get another dog. Dogs are smart and can learn quickly if consistency is utilized in training. Ours certainly understood many cues through the years.

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