How To Teach Your Dog Hand Signals

It’s funny how so many people think that because a dog knows hand signals, that it’s a “really advanced” dog obedience training exercise for the dog to know. But in reality, it’s much more impressive for a dog to respond to vocal commands than it is for a dog to respond to hand signals.

Here’s why: When a dog has to respond to voice commands, he must do so… regardless of whether he’s looking at you. And because the dominant thing in a dog’s mind is WHATEVER he happens to be looking at, the ability to get your dog to listen to your commands WITHOUT looking at you becomes much more of a task to teach.

Here’s my approach to training:

Get the dog to respond under all circumstances to your voice commands, first. To do this, you must first have a relationship with your dog that is based on respect, response, bonding and understanding. (Shameless plug– Wanna learn how to do this? Take a look at my book, at: Once you have this, your dog will work for you… regardless of what he may be looking at.

Now, when do I use hand signals? Well, if you think about it… the only reason you would use hand signals is if you’re working with your dog at such long distances that he can’t audibly hear you. Or, in some cases, for tactical training for police dogs. But remember this: If you’re that far along in the game that the dog is already working at distances for you reliably, then you’ve probably already got his attention.

So incorporating the hand signals at this point is pretty easy. Some people ask, “Why not teach both at the same time?” Well, you CAN do this… but you’ll run into one problem. In most cases, the dog will not respond to ONE or the OTHER command and will only respond when BOTH COMMANDS are given.

For example, many amateur dog trainers teach their dog to lay down by saying the vocal command, “Down!” at the same time they bend over to place the dog into the down position. But once the dog starts to form the association, guess what happens? Usually, I ask the trainer to issue JUST THE VOCAL command WITHOUT BENDING OVER… and the dog DOES NOT UNDERSTAND… because he doesn’t see his owner bend over… which is what he’s come to associate with the command.

However, when I ask the trainer to not utter ANYTHING verbally, but instead to stand in front of the dog and bend over… the dog goes into the down position. So, in essence, the amateur trainer has inadvertently taught the dog a “hand signal,” albeit with their whole body.

What’s the best way to train hand signals, the right way?

First, make sure your dog responds ONLY to verbal commands, without any body cue. A good way to test this is to make the dog sit, facing away from you. Then, standing behind the dog, whisper commands. If the dog responds, and also does this in the face of distractions, then it’s a good bet that you’re doing your job well.

Next, WITH the dog facing you, your task will be to link the NEW command to the old command, and then enforce the command. So, to teach “Sit” with the hand signal, you’ll:

1.) Lift your forearm from the natural position, up to a 90* angle.

2.) Say the command, “Sit”.

3.) Enforce the command with a light pop on the leash in an upwards direction. (Slack, tight, slack).

Now, give your dog your release command, and repeat several more times, over the course of the next few days, and you’ll see the commands link. Then you can stop issuing the verbal command and simply give the hand signal.

The cool thing about the way dog’s learn through association is that you don’t need to limit yourself to JUST hand signals.

I once worked with Stephanie Taunton, author of the book, “The Trick Is In The Training” who had a dog that would come on command… to the sound of her (Stephanie) patting her hands against her knees. This kind of stuff works great for training movie dogs, which Stephanie does a lot of.