I love the looks of awe I get when Nero responds to my hand signals. True, he is a very intelligent breed but any dog is capable of this challenge! Using hand signals helps your dog learn focus, comes in extremely useful and is a pretty impressive party trick!
To begin teaching hand signals, your dog should already be familiar with basic verbal obedience. Down, sit and stay are the three most important commands so I suggest introducing hand signals to these first.
- Find your training treat.
You want something super smelly that is easy to retrieve from your bag/pocket. You want to appeal to your dog’s sense of smell as much as possible without keeping them waiting for the reward while you fumble about searching for it. I use tiny bits of ham or dried chicken bites to gain Nero’s focus. I also use the trusty tennis ball in replacement of a treat. Find what your dog responds to best and use it to your advantage.
2. Choose the hand signal.
Deciding what sign language you wish to teach is the easy part . You can use a flat palm, a point or even a fist. Personally, I use a combination of everything as it keeps Nero on his toes. When initially training your pooch, it’s important to not keep switching signals. Stick to one and keep repeating until you can introduce a different one. Once your dog is accustomed to looking to you for direction and reacting to a few signals then you can begin mixing it up.
3. No speak sit.
Okay, you’re armed with a tasty treat and know what signal you wish to teach. Begin by simply telling your dog verbally to sit (whilst facing you) and present your signal as you speak. I raise my hand upwards with a flat open palm (facing my face) till my arm is at 90 degrees. It may be worth putting the treat in the hand you are using to portray your commands as this will keep your dogs attention on the movement of your hand. Once your dog sits, reward them with a treat. Use your voice as little as possible (even when rewarding) as this exercise is all about visual response. You want your dog to use his sight and smell senses as much as possible. Repeat this three to five times depending on your dogs ability. If your dog becomes frustrated, take a break for half an hour before trying again. Remember, patience is a virtue and dogs get bored just like us humans!
Once your dog has successfully sat multiple times with a verbal and hand command, it’s time to drop the vocals. Get your dogs attention with the treat, look at him and slowly repeat your chosen hand signal. If your dog resumes the sit position, reward this behaviour immediately with a treat. Repeat three to five times and your dog should remember! If not, take a break from training and resume a bit later. Dogs learn at their own pace so it may take a few attempts before they understand what you are asking of them.
4. Palm talk.
Next, you want to teach the stay command. For me, the most effective and obvious way was to use the palm of my hand in a ‘stop ‘pose. Nero recognises this from a distance and I use it often whilst playing fetch to help reinforce sign language obedience. Begin by asking your dog to stay. You should be able to move at least three meters away whilst keeping your palm facing your dog (with the treat concealed in your other hand) without them following in pursuit. Their whole attention should be on you the entire time you are retreating. If your dog follows, simply redirect him (with the collar if needed) back to the same position at the same spot and repeat your vocal command.
When you stop, take a second then begin walking back towards your dog. Reinforce the hand signal if they make a move towards you and only reward with the smelly treat once you reach them at the position you left them. If three meters is too much distance to begin with just reduce the space and gradually build it up until you can cross the local field without your dog moving.
Make it more fun by hiding and then calling your dog to come and find you (hide and seek with your hound is hilarious.) Remember to not rely on sound when you praise your pup. You are giving a command to wait before receiving affection. This is teaching your dog patience and self control and is a brilliant foundation for further training. Once you’re dog is used to ‘stay’ with a vocal and physical signal, drop the sound all together and repeat until your dog knows to wait with a quick show of your palm.
5. Down for you.
The last of the three commandments! (That’s a joke, I know there’s more.) So your furry four-legged can sit and stay with no vocal direction. It’s a cool achievement, huh? Now to learn ‘down’ without a word leaving your lips. For this action, you can either use a flat palm facing the ground and slowly lower your hand or (for further training in the future) use a finger point. I found this signal to be the best for training Nero. I point to the floor just in front of him and down he goes. I can also point in various directions and he will follow wherever I point. ‘Down’ is easier to teach with your dog already in the ‘sit’ position. Once you have their attention, repeat your vocal ‘down’ command alongside your hand signal up to five times. As long as your dog listens, reward every time. Now, just as you did in your previous training, stop using your voice and rely solely on your hand gestures. You may find it easier to conceal the treat in a tight fist to help direct your dog to the floor to start with. Follow through with the same procedure as previously used and there you have it! Your dog can now respond to your hand signals. How ‘handy’ is that?