Using hand signals with your dog is a fun and smart alternative to using spoken commands or a clicker to train your dog.
Once a dog has been trained to respond to hand signals, you can communicate with your pet without saying a word. As an added benefit, hand signals can be easier for foreign house guests who are not fluent in your native tongue, and they definitely come in handy for an older dog who has become slightly or very hard of hearing.
While you can use almost any hand signal to train your dog (as long as you’re consistent!), there are some commonly accepted ones that can be useful.
For sitting down, there are two signals that can be helpful. The first is to hold one finger pointed directly up. By telling your dog to “sit!” at the same time as holding up this finger, and then rewarding them with a food-based treat as soon as they do, you can, after repetition, get your dog to respond to the hand gesture only. Another common gesture to make a dog sit down is to start with your hand, enclosed around a treat, at your dog’s nose, and then raise your arm straight up. When their nose rises to follow the treat, their hindquarters should drop as you tell them to “sit.” With both methods, after enough repetition, the treat can eventually be removed and then the voice command, until the dog responds only to the motion of your hand or arm.
Another good command sequence to teach hand gestures for is “come” and “stay.” A clear curl of one finger, with the arm outstretched, can be used for “come.” For the opposite effect, raising one arm, hand flexed flat out like a traffic guard, can mean “stay.”
Again, the method for associating these hand signals with the verbal signal comes through repetition and plenty of rewards. When your dog begins to catch on, you can practice the signals and sharpen their responses by alternating between the signals for “come” and “stay” in a silent game of red light green light.
“Lie down” is another helpful hand signal command to teach. Starting with your dog sitting in front of you, you can start with a treat in your fingers and your hand all the way above your head. Bringing the arm down to your side and brushing the treat past your dog’s nose at the same time as saying “down” or “lie down” to your dog will naturally incite them to follow your hand down and into a lying position. Make sure you reward them with the treat once they do so, and make sure to have patience with any of these signals and make them as a clear and simple as possible.
Non-verbal training is most effective with a dog who already knows the basic commands that you want to teach them to respond to non-verbally. Once your dog knows how to “sit” or “lie down” then you can begin to add on the next step of the hand gesture, and take training between you and your dog to a whole new level. Being able to work with your dog without speaking commands can enhance your bond and level of communication with your pet, and can be a great skill to teach and to learn!
For more on training your dog with hand signals, we recommend checking out YouTube. You can find great instructional videos like this one from Texas-based dog trainer, Lillian Sikorski: