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How to Train a Dog to Use Hand Signals

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Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He also trains dogs, mostly large breeds and those that suffer from aggression problems.

Dogs respond to hand signal best when they are treated in a positive manner.

Dogs respond to hand signal best when they are treated in a positive manner.

Hand Signals for Dogs

Have you ever wondered why your dog is not responding to your voice commands? It may not be her fault. Some dog breeds respond better to visual signals, and some only respond to visual signals. If you do not use the same body language or symbols each time you train your dog, she has to figure out what you want, and sometimes she gets things wrong.

I have trained my pooch to respond to both verbal and hand signals because at times the wind is blowing and she cannot hear my verbal signals, and at other times (like when she is looking at an interesting dog walking down the beach), she is not looking at me and only responds to me if I speak, LOUDLY! “Pay attention” may be all she will listen to.

The hand signal for "stay."

The hand signal for "stay."

Important Hand Signals

There are standard hand signals that almost all trainers use. but the ones that I use are simple and easy for the dog to understand.

  1. The simplest is “sit,” and I hold my fingers together as if I am holding a treat and move them over my dog's head. This is the way many dogs are trained to sit.
  2. For “down” I place the palm down and move the hand down towards her as I am giving the voice command.
  3. “Stay” is just a hand pushed into the face, emphasizing what she needs to do. My wrist is pointing up so that she does not confuse this with any other command.
  4. “Come” is nothing more than a wave of my arm, just like all of us use when calling someone over.
  5. Tricks can also be taught and perfected using hand signals. My dog can tell her left paw from her right paw (when she is given the right-hand signal!), bows, spins, and of course, she will roll over and play dead!
In the hand signal to motion a dog down, the palm is held down.

In the hand signal to motion a dog down, the palm is held down.

There are some trainers that will tell you that a dog needs to learn oral commands first, and then hand signals, so that she will not become confused. This is wrong.

Dogs can and should be taught both at the same time. If you do not use your hand signals when teaching your dog she will pick up on your body language and train herself. Sometimes she will be wrong.

The hand signal for "shake," the palm up.

The hand signal for "shake," the palm up.

How Do I Start Teaching Hand Signals?

  1. Make sure she is looking at you. Achtung!
  2. Use a treat as a lure and teach your dog to sit. This is easy and almost all dogs will be able to master this command the first time out, so use your hands. When she sees you holding your fingers together and moving them over her head, even without the lure, she will obey her first-hand signal command. You have started. Teach more commands today or if your time is up, start again tomorrow.
  3. Teach “down”, and as you are using the voice command put your hand out, your palm down, and move it down towards the ground.
  4. If your dog already knows “stay”, give her the command and put your hand in front of her face—at the same time that you give the oral command.
  5. To call her, use your hand to motion her over to you.
  6. Always teach new tricks using a new hand signal. If you need to, make up new hand signals. Just use the same signal every time.

Hand signals are especially important as your dog grows older. She may become deaf but will never feel lost if you use the same signals she is used to.

The "tchau" command (bye-bye) has allowed my dog to differentiate right from left.

The "tchau" command (bye-bye) has allowed my dog to differentiate right from left.

You can use hand signals with any type of training. I use treats and positive reinforcement, but if you use a clicker, hand signals will be great.

Be sure to incorporate hand signals into your training. Your dog will thank you for it.

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Read More From Pethelpful

Can a Hand Signal Save Your Dog's Life?

The hand signal I feel is most important is the “touch” command. I use it as a safety command; giving it rarely and only if the situation requires 100% rapid response.

The hand is held out, palm in, and my dog knows that she needs to come over and touch her nose to my hand.

You can use this hand signal in noisy traffic when it is important that your dog come next to you instead of crossing a dangerous road.

© 2013 Dr Mark


Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 28, 2013:

That is great. Ajej already knows to touch with her left paw, but now I need to get her used to touching objects that I point at.

Bullet sounds fun to train.

BulletRescue on February 28, 2013:

First we offered him to touch the end of a bat and when he placed his paw on it, we rewarded him (he knows "paw" already so he learned quickly what we wanted him to do with "touch"). Once he knows the command with one objects, its easily to incorporate additional objects with the command. The video we currently have up in just a first stage with the additional objects added, with us just offering the objects to him to touch. The next stage is teaching him to touch when we point at an object, so we'll add another video when we teach him that. :) He follows the hand naturally because he is used to it offering him treats.

Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 28, 2013:

Your comment got me am I going to teach my dog to put a paw on something I point at? I am looking forward to seeing your video!

BulletRescue on February 28, 2013:

We actually just started teaching a different version of "Touch" for Bullet to touch objects we point to with his paw. But we are now also working on "nose" which will be your version of 'touch' and his safety command. Will put up a video shortly, he is such a fast learner! Thanks for the suggestion Doc!

Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 27, 2013:

Hi BulletRescue be sure to teach "Touch" if you have the chance. He may never need it, but it will be worth it if he does.

BulletRescue on February 27, 2013:

Great article. My dog responds very well to hand signals and now I have some more ideas to train him with! Thank you for writing!

Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 27, 2013:

I love that comment about crossing your arms for sit. That is even better than a hand signal!

Dogs who learn to respond that way are really fortunate-and yes, horses too. My Arab would do a lot for me even without asking, but it was not that she could read my mind; she was good at reading my body language.

Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 27, 2013:

Hi Mary, I worry about that issue with the car (a lot!) since I usually walk my dog off leash on the beach. She knows to come stand next to me if a dune buggy comes but sometimes she is playing in the ocean and does not hear. The hand signal is the best bet at that moment.

Thanks for the compliments on Ajej. I will go give her a scratch for you!

Marcy J. Miller from Arizona on February 27, 2013:

I'm a big believer in hand signals for all my dogs and horses. (And the husband, too, come to think of it.) It has paid off in many situations -- now that my Papillon is quite hard of hearing, we can still communicate very well.

One of my favorite cues for the sit command is to cross my arms while making eye contact with my dog. People were often amazed and bemused to see my dogs promptly sit in certain situations, and they never realized it was because I was giving a subtle cue. I'm so used to incorporating non-verbal cues into my animal work, I do it subconsciously at this point.

Personally, I believe non-verbal cues are far more effective with the vast majority of mammals, particularly with herd animals; in their world, it's everything. As humans, we tend to overemphasize verbal communication, but we all know at heart that even for us, non-verbal is the more important "instinctive" part of our communication, and what we are programmed to respond to more quickly. People who utilize signals or "sign" into their relationships with their animals have so many more subtle ways of truly communicating.

Mary Craig from New York on February 27, 2013:

This is such a good article and such good advice. I agree with your assessment of the 'clicker'...nothing beats good old man to dog interaction and hand signals work wonders. One example given was if your dog runs across the street and cannot hear you, putting your hand up for him to stay may save his life if a car is coming and he decides to come back to you!

Your pictures are great and I love your dog!

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 27, 2013:

Clicker training is in vogue at the moment and the proponents do not believe any other system will work. Something else will come along, as it always does.

I enjoyed your story about Magz. I was training a two-year old Fila Brasiliero last winter (your summer) and he had never even learned to sit on command. It is very hard to train such basics at that age.

Thanks for coming by and commenting!

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on February 27, 2013:

This is the exact way in which we taught Magz to sit. Head up bum down :) Now all we have to do is point while moving our hand over her head, and in the downward motion, and she sits. We had trained her to do this before her first obedience class and the instructor was quite impressed.

I prefer the hand and voice commands myself rather than the clicker training.

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