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Have you ever wondered whether you should teach your dog with verbal cues or with hand signals? Does it make a difference? While for most pet parents it may just be a personal preference, there are a lot of great reasons to consider training hand signals to our canine friends, with scientific studies to back them up.
Why Use Hand Signals for Dogs?
The most obvious reason visual signals work so well is that dogs are themselves body language communicators, and readily read body cues. Because of this, dogs will usually respond more reliably to visual prompts, and will have a tougher time with verbal cues. One study looked at a group of dogs that had been taught standard cues with both visual and auditory signals. It was found that the hand-only cues reached up to 99% reliability while voice cues only reached 82% reliability.
In addition, hand signals are useful in a noisy environment. It is much easier for a dog to focus on their handler’s body positioning amongst these types of distractions. It can also be easier for your dog to read gestures during times they are a distance away from you. And if your dog loses their hearing as they get older you will still have a way to communicate with them.
If another person is with your dog, they can also use your dog’s visual signals with more reliability than with an auditory dog cue. Dogs may get confused by different intonations, accents or even tones of voice. Research shows that hand signals are much easier for dogs to understand when given by different people.
Training Hand Signals for New Behaviors
How to Add Hand Signals to Already-Trained Behaviors
If your dog already responds to an auditory cue for basic obedience behaviors, the training process for teaching hand signals is easy! And because dogs respond more reliably to body language, teaching hand signals can actually help you build a better response to your verbal cues.
Anytime you want to build a new prompt for a behavior, you can use the same training process. First, perform the new visual signal, then follow up with the known verbal cue. With enough repetition, your dog will start to see your physical gesture as a predictor that the verbal cue is coming. You should start to pause for longer periods of time to give the dog a chance to start responding before you give the verbal cue.
When this happens you will now have two ways to ask your dog for a behavior: both a visual and a verbal cue.
Training Hand Signals for New Behaviors
When you are teaching a new behavior cue with your furry friend’s favorite treats as a lure, Then you can turn that lure right into a hand signal. Hold the treat in your hand while luring for the behavior that you would like. The trick here is to hide the treat with your fingers in your hand so it does not become a visual part of the cue. Then you want to start trying repetitions without the treat in your hand. Does the dog respond? If not, try luring again and take note to make sure your hand looks exactly the same. Is the treat visible? Is the dog’s nose busily sniffing to see if there is a treat? If so it will be better to keep the lure until you notice the dog responding faster.
Important: the training process for new skills should always begin in a distraction-free environment. Keep training sessions short and fun to accommodate our furry friend’s short attention span. Training without distractions is key in the beginning. As behavior becomes more fluent, you will want to practice with your dogs in a variety of situations, including stimulating situations, like outside or at the park. This will help to proof behaviors.
Dogs can learn these body cues at any age. So you can start training with hand signal non-verbal cues to puppies as well as your adult dogs!
Mistakes to Avoid
One of the most common mistakes people make when teaching hand signals is that they will give the verbal and visual cues together. If you give them simultaneously your dog won’t be able to separate them and will focus on the more salient, or obvious prompt. For dogs, that will always be the physical prompt. What happens then is they learn the words you keep saying to them have no meaning and it all becomes background noise.
So when training the new cues, wait a second or two in between the known and new prompts. Keep them separate in order for your dog to respond to them separately.
The other mistake people make is that they keep the food tucked in their hand. Make sure to fade the treat from the hand so you are truly teaching the dog hand-only cues (not just rewarding them for following the treat). You can still mark (click or say “yes”) and treat the behavior with a snack from your pocket. You are still rewarding the behavior, but the dog will learn to perform without seeing, or smelling, the treat.
By teaching hand prompts to your dog, you are avoiding one of the biggest mistakes humans make while teaching basic obedience: talking too much to your dog. Humans like to talk a lot, and when we do that, our dogs start to zone us out. We become nothing more than background noise. So avoid that mistake by teaching a visual prompt!
What Are the Common Hand Signals for Dogs?
Here are a couple of steps for teaching your dog hand signals for some basic obedience cues.
You may also hear this cue called “watch me” or “look”. You are teaching the dog to look at you, or give you attention.
The physical gesture is your index finger pointing to the outside side of your eye. You can use either your right or your left hand and eye, but once you pick a side, stay consistent. This will help your dog make the connection between your body movement and what you are asking them to do.
When your dog looks toward you, mark and follow up with a tasty treat.
Release: You’re Free
This releases your dog from any position your dog is in. Start with your hands in front of you, palms down, right over left. In a sweeping motion, move the right hand to the right, and the left hand to the left to tell your dog they are “all done”.
As your dog is learning what this means, you may need to encourage him to move from the position he is in.
With your palm up, start with your arm in a natural position and sweep it in an upward motion over your dog’s head. As your dog watches your body movement, their head will naturally look up, which will make many dogs sit naturally.
If you are luring this behavior, hide the treat in the hand, but cover it with your thumb so it does not become part of the visual cue for your dog. Remove the food after just a few successful repetitions.
The hand signal for down is almost the exact opposite of the sit. Hold your hand at your dog’s nose, palm down, and sweep your hand in a downward motion, almost between your dog’s feet. Imagine there is a string from your fingers to your dog’s nose, and you are guiding him to the down.
If the down is new to your dog, tuck a treat under your palm out of sight and slowly lure the dog into a down position.
Imagine that string from your dog’s nose to your fingers again! Hold your hand with your palm facing his face. Move it out a few inches, so if your dog follows it they have to get up from the position they are in. The moment your dog stands up and has four still feet, mark and treat!
The physical gesture for stay is a hand brought forward toward your dog’s face (without touching him) and immediately pull back and relax your hand. Think of how you would gesture at a person to tell them to stop.
The most common mistake the average person makes when teaching the stay is that they want to hold their hand in their dog’s face for the duration of the stay. This will hinder the dog’s performance because he will become dependent on that hand being in his face, making it hard for the handler to move away or go out of sight while building the stay. So making this cue short and sweet can help you build a better stay.
Coming when called is the most important cue for your dog to know, and you will want to teach both a verbal cue (in case your dog is running the other way) and a visual cue (in case he can’t hear you). Be sure to read our full post on Reliable Recall Training for more thorough info.
With your hand open at your side, sweep it in a diagonal motion until your hand is on your opposite shoulder. When your dog gets to you, throw a party with treats and praise.
A target is always initially taught as a hand signal. You present your hand, and when your dog sniffs your hand, you will mark and treat. The hand signal will simply be your open hand.
So what is the point of teaching this? It can become an alternative to the come cue. But you can also use the target to get your dog into a position (such as on the scale at the vet’s office). Or you can use the hand target to get them to greet people. This makes a fun cue to start with when first getting started in teaching hand signals to your dog.
The hand signal for the heel tells the dog where his starting position is. You tap your left hip. When your dog goes to that side to investigate you will mark and treat. While on a walk, if your dog gets out of position you can use this body language to get your dog back in the right position again.
Place teaches the dog to position himself on a target. This can be a bed, a crate or a platform. Point to the object. Studies show that dogs actually have a rough understanding of what the gesture means. So when they go to investigate where you are pointing, mark and treat their interaction with the object. Eventually you will tighten up criteria, and they will need to have all four feet on the target. But start easy to keep the game fun, motivating them to keep playing.
You can probably guess the hand signal for quiet. It is a body language cue even humans respond to! Your index finger in front of your nose. Practice using this hand signal with your dog in low distraction areas. Give the physical gesture and the moment your dog is quiet, even if just for a second, mark and treat.
Dogs are tapped into our body positions, so it makes sense that they respond well to body signals. By taking just a couple of steps, your canine buddy will be looking to you for visual direction with hand signals.
Make sure that while beginning these steps, train in an area free of distractions. Give your dog your undivided attention and use the power of positive reinforcement. Before long you will have a whole new way to communicate with your dog.
Trainer that reviewed this article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Olivia Peterson, CCS
Owner – Sound Connection Dog Training WSU Bachelors in Animal Science Business Management. Northwest School of Canine Studies (NWSCS) Certification