There are many benefits to teaching your dog hand signals. Whether your dog is deaf or not, this kind of training is a worthy endeavor and is typically no harder than teaching a verbal command.
There are many reasons why you might want to teach your dog a hand signal:
- Your dog is hearing-impaired.
- You yourself have a disability that affects speaking.
- You want to stimulate your dog mentally with new activities and ways to learn.
- You would like to be able to communicate with your dog subtly.
- You want to avoid sounding angry, worried, uncertain or indifferent while training.
- You are training in an area where loud noise is an issue.
- You are working in an area where silence is important.
This comprehensive article from Petful will guide you through different scenarios so you can teach your dog hand signals, so keep reading below.
Training a Deaf Dog to Respond to Vibration
If your dog is deaf, it can be useful to teach them to look at you when you vibrate a remote training collar.
Once your dog is looking at you, you can then use the hand signals you have taught them to give them further instructions.
This combination of a remote training collar and hand signals allows deaf dogs to learn and participate in our lives more — with fewer safety issues related to not being able to communicate with a deaf dog during times of need.
How to Teach Your Dog Hand Signals
Teaching your dog hand signals is very similar to lure reward training.
In lure reward training, a dog is taught to do something, such as “sit,” using a treat or a toy to encourage the dog into the position or into doing the action being trained.
Once the dog sits down or completes whatever action is being trained, the dog is praised and the lure is given as a reward.
When you’re teaching hand signals, one of the easiest ways to train is to turn your luring motion into a hand signal when it comes time to phase out the treat from your hand.
Here are some general tips for teaching your dog a hand signal:
- If your dog isn’t deaf and is also being taught verbal commands, you can start by giving the hand signal at the same time as the verbal command.
- When your dog can perform the command consistently when you give the verbal command and hand signal at the same time, rotate giving the verbal command by itself and the hand signal by itself.
- When you give the hand signal, wait 7 seconds to see if your dog can figure out what you want them to do. After 7 seconds, if they don’t obey, give the verbal command, too, as a hint. When you practice the next time, change the order and give the verbal command first, followed by the hand signal if your dog needs a hint. Practice these routines until your dog can consistently obey both the verbal command and hand signal by themselves and together.
Which Commands Can You Teach Your Dog Using Hand Signals?
You can teach a hand signal for almost any verbal command.
Most dogs benefit from knowing at least basic obedience commands, such as:
Once your dog knows basic commands, you can teach intermediate/advanced obedience by practicing those same commands around distractions and eventually on a long leash to transition to off-leash skills.
Your dog will typically need to be taught to look at you first when you call their name, whistle or use a vibration collar — so that you can get their attention before giving the dog a hand signal as needed.
How to Teach a Hand Signal for “Sit”
To teach your dog a hand signal for “sit,” you’ll need a treat or toy that your pup finds interesting, a calm area and some patience.
Ideally, practice this on a surface that isn’t slippery, such as a rug or carpet.
- Get your dog’s attention by showing them a treat. Slowly touch the treat to their noise then move the treat toward the back of their head over their muzzle — so they look up to follow it. If your dog tries to back up when you do this, practice “sit” with their back against a wall.
- While watching the treat, your dog should sit down while trying to follow it. If they don’t sit, try moving the treat more slowly or slightly higher over their head and repeat the entire process until they sit one of the times.
- When they sit, praise them and immediately give the treat.
- Practice the training until they can consistently sit as soon as you start to move or show the treat. If you want to add a verbal cue to this command, say, “Sit” as soon as you begin moving the treat.
- Once they can sit as soon as you begin to move the treat, remove the treat from your luring hand and hold it in your other hand behind your back. Pretend that you are still holding the treat in your now-empty luring hand and move your empty hand over your dog’s muzzle as you did before while holding the treat.
- When they sit, praise them and give them the treat from behind your back.
- If teaching a verbal command as well, practice the hand signal with the spoken word “Sit” until your dog consistently responds to the movement of your hand and the spoken word. Then give only the hand signal and wait 7 seconds to see if they will obey just the hand signal. If they need help, say, “Sit” at the end of the 7 seconds as a hint. If they sit during the 7 seconds, praise them heartily and give the treat. Practice the hand signal until your dog can consistently obey it without the verbal command.
- When your dog knows the hand signal, gradually transition to a simpler version. For example, instead of holding your fingers together like you are holding a treat, point one finger and make a similar but smaller sweeping motion toward your dog with your finger — the motion should resemble the previous lure hand signal but be simpler and involve less movement.
- Practice this new hand signal until they can consistently obey it.
- Once you have settled on this new, simpler version of the hand signal, keep that command the same to avoid confusing your dog.
How to Teach a Hand Signal for “Down”
“Down” is one of the most convenient and useful commands to teach your dog.
- Once your dog knows it, when they are underfoot during a dinner party, you can tell them, “Down.”
- When you are trying to pay for your purchases at the pet store, you can have your pup lie down.
- When your dog is pacing, begging or demanding your attention, you can tell them to lie down.
- The “down” command can also help nervous dogs learn to relax, excitable dogs learn self-control, aggressive dogs learn tolerance and puppies learn self-regulation.
In other words, this one obedience command makes life with a dog more peaceful and less stressful for both you and them. (I teach the verbal command for “down” step-by-step here.)
Here’s how to teach your dog a hand signal for “down”:
- Begin by teaching “sit” first.
- With your dog in a sit, hold a treat on their nose and then slowly move the treat toward the ground. Once the treat is touching the ground, with your dog still licking it or sniffing at it, slowly move it away from them along the floor so your dog has to lean forward and lower themselves to the ground to reach it. If they try to stand up to follow the treat, gently hold your hand against their lower back to encourage them to stay in the sit position so that they have to lie down to follow the treat.
- When your dog’s chest touches the ground to lie down, reward them with the treat.
- If teaching a verbal command as well, then say, “Down” as soon as you begin to move the treat toward the floor. Practice until your dog consistently lies down as soon as you begin to move the treat toward the floor.
- When your dog consistently lies down when you start to move the treat toward the floor, remove the treat from your luring hand and place it in your other hand behind your back. Pretend that you are still holding the treat in your now-empty luring hand and make the same motion toward the floor with your hand as you did before while holding the treat. Praise and reward your dog with the treat from behind your back as soon as they lie down.
- Practice the luring motion until they can do the command consistently.
- If teaching a verbal command as well, when you give your hand signal, don’t give the verbal command with it — then wait 7 seconds to see if your dog can figure out what you want them to do. After 7 seconds, if they don’t obey, give the verbal command also as a hint. When you practice the next time, change the order and give the verbal command first, followed by the hand signal if your dog needs a hint.
- Practice until your dog can consistently obey both the verbal command and hand signal by themselves and together.
- Gradually give the “down” hand signal from farther away — standing more upright as your dog improves. When they obey your hand signal while you are standing upright, you can begin to make the hand motion smaller. For example, instead of holding your thumb and index finger together and motioning all the way to the floor, use just your palm to motion toward the ground with a smaller movement.
- Practice this new hand signal until they can consistently obey it.
- Once you have taught the new, simpler version of the hand signal, keep it consistent to avoid confusing your dog.
How to Teach a Hand Signal for “Come”
“Come” is one of the most important commands you can teach your dog. It ensures your dog’s safety in a variety of situations and allows them to have more freedom.
- When teaching your dog to come, you can use the same methods that you would use to teach a verbal “come” command — such as running away from your dog to encourage chasing, reeling them in with a long leash, or calling them back and forth between at least 2 people.
- When you encourage your dog to come to you, clap your hands together while calling, reeling them in with your long leash or running away from them. The clapping will become a second audible command, as well as a visual hand signal.
- When you want your dog to respond to clapping without you making any noise, make the clapping motion but don’t let your hands touch each other — so that the clap is silent. Practice with and without the noise, so your dog learns to respond to it both ways.
How to Teach a Hand Signal for “Stay”
You’ll find it especially useful to be able to give your dog the “stay” command silently. When guests are visiting or things are loud, a silent “stay” can keep your pup calm and out of the way of others without drawing attention to your pet’s behavior or interrupting guests who are speaking.
- First teach “sit” and “down.”
- With your dog in the correct position, briefly hold your hand out toward them like a stop sign, with your palm facing the dog. Say, “Stay” while holding your hand out if you are also teaching the verbal command.
- Calmly praise and reward your dog for maintaining the position. At first, reward frequently — every few seconds. As your dog improves, space your rewards further apart. Progress from seconds to minutes. For a long stay, you can gradually work up to 1 hour for “down” and 20 minutes for “sit.”
- Whenever your dog breaks the stay, hold your hand toward them again with your palm facing them. Quickly move toward them with your hand facing them to encourage them back. Reposition them and do not give them a treat until they have held that position for a few seconds or minutes, depending on how far along they are with the training. You do not want to reward them for breaking the command.
- If you are teaching your dog the verbal “Stay” command as well, once they can stay awhile in a calm location, give them the hand signal without the verbal command and wait 7 seconds to see if they obey. Reward when they stay after being given the hand signal alone. If they break the command and get up, verbally tell them to “Stay” as a reminder.
- Practice giving your dog the hand signal by itself until they can obey it consistently without needing the verbal command, too.
How to Teach a Release (“OK”) Using a Hand Signal
Although it’s a critical part of basic obedience, the release command often gets overlooked.
“OK,” “Free” and “Release” are commonly used release words that tell your dog when a command is over. It’s important for them to have a release command so they learn to hold a command until released and know when they are no longer working.
When teaching a release signal, keep the following in mind:
- When your dog is finished with a command, give a hand signal to let them know they may move or stop preforming that command. For example, you can open your hands — showing both palms where a treat would normally be, to indicate the command is over, or wave your hand in the air excitedly to encourage them to get up.
- Typically, the hand signal should be something that encourages your dog to move or is associated with the delivery of a treat.
- If your dog doesn’t get up or stop performing their command when you give the release hand signal, encourage them to move. To do this, lure them with a treat, act excited or gently move them out of the position while praising them. Doing one or more of these things can help them realize that it’s OK to stop performing the command now and to associate your release hand signal with them being able to relax.
How to Teach a Hand Signal for “Heel”
A structured “heel” can prevent leash pulling; teach respect; and help with leash reactivity, overexcitement, aggression and a host of other behavior issues.
It can stimulate your dog mentally during walks, giving them a much-needed outlet for their excess mental energy to help them feel calmer and less frustrated, in addition to the physical exercise they get during the walk.
For a standard “heel,” the dog walks on a person’s left side, with the dog’s muzzle slightly behind the person’s leg and the dog close to their body and not arched away from them. For the average pet parent, a Heel can also be taught on a person’s right side or both sides. The important thing is for the dog to walk on whichever side they are instructed to, without weaving back and forth, changing sides mid-walk.
Teaching a hand signal for “heel” is very similar to teaching the verbal version:
- Teach it silently or in addition to a verbal command using body language, lots of turns, changes in speed and gentle leash pressure. Typically, you add in the “heel” command during turns and changes in speed so your dog begins to associate behind right beside you, paying attention and following you with the command. Reward when they stay in the correct position during those changes.
- To teach a hand signal, instead of saying, “Heel,” or when you say, “Heel,” during turns, changes in speed and when first beginning the walk, clap the hand nearest to your dog against your thigh — typically your left hand if the dog is heeling on the left. With practice, this movement of your hand against your leg becomes a signal to your dog to stay next to your leg on that side and to follow you.
Milo is a deaf dog whose previous family thought he was “untrainable.” Not so! Check out Milo’s progress with hand signals in this video:
What If Your Dog Is Deaf?
If your dog is deaf or you don’t wish to teach verbal commands with hand signals, keep training sessions quiet, and use motions to communicate instead.
- First, use your treat to lure your dog into the correct position, such as “sit.” When they get something right, let them know by giving a hand signal — such as spreading your hands open, which also offers the treat in your hand at the same time.
- As the training progresses, remove the lure from your hand but pretend you’re still holding it. Place the reward in your other hand — which is hidden behind your back.
- Using your luring hand, make the same motion you did before with your now-empty hand. When your dog moves into the correct position, let them know they did something correct by spreading your hand open and then quickly deliver the treat from your other hand that’s behind your back.
- Practice the command using the same luring motions without a treat in your hand until your dog can do it consistently while in that location.
- When they can obey without a treat in your hand, start to turn your lure motion into the hand signal you would like them to know.
- For example, if you are teaching them “sit” and you are moving your hand from their nose toward the ground while holding a treat, make that same sweeping motion toward the ground with your hand but raise your hand a few inches higher and give it from that position. As your dog improves, gradually stand more upright, until you can make a sweeping or pointing motion toward the ground while standing completely upright and the dog will obey.
- You can also slightly change your hand signal during the training. For example, if you are currently making a sweeping motion with a flat hand to indicate “sit” but you would like to point to the ground instead, practice the command over and over, gradually tucking all your fingers except your pointer finger in, so that the hand signal morphs into a point toward the ground over time.
- Once you have finished teaching the hand signal for that particular command, stay consistent with the signal to prevent your dog from becoming confused.
- Remember, always let your pup know as soon as they get something right by spreading your hands open or giving another reassuring cue.
Teaching hand signals to your dog has a number of benefits for you and the dog.
Surprisingly, hand signals are often just as easy to teach as verbal commands. Certain dogs and breeds of dogs may even learn hand signals quicker than verbal commands.
Good luck with your training!