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Training a dog with hand signals works well for some breeds and dogs, but not as well for other dogs and breeds. It is important to keep things in mind if you have a toy breed or a breed that has partially obstructed vision due to long hair on the face or even a dog that has poor eyesight, hand signals may be more challenging to teach. Dogs that are highly distracted and puppies that are not able to focus will usually need additional training before starting hand signal training. Some breeds are very easy to teach hand signals and these typically include the gun dogs and herding breeds that have a natural instinct for a particular type of work or activity as well as an ability to understand hand signals and respond.
Pairing Signals with Verbals
One of the most common methods of teaching a dog or puppy to respond to hand signals is to work on pairing a verbal command that the dog or puppy already knows with a hand signal. This means that the dog or puppy must already know the command and respond with a high level of accuracy. Pairing a hand signal with the command means that the dog must actually understand that you want him or her to respond to the hand signal. To start this process cue the dog that you want him or her to look at you, usually through some sort of cue such as a clap or saying the dogs name. Once the dog is looking at you, use the pre-determined signal in a very obvious and easy to see location for the dog, typically about mid-body. You may wish to exaggerate the movement slightly. Say the verbal command at the completion of the hand signal and then immediately reward the dog with a treat or a lot of praise. Don't overuse this technique and have the dog repeat the command numerous times, especially if you are working with a breed that becomes easily bored with repetitive training methods.
Basic Hand Signals
Most of the basic hand signals are fairly common sense and are typically what you would use even if you were not familiar with the traditional hand signals. The following are the most common signals, however there is nothing to stop dog owners from developing their own signals, as long as they are easy to read and understand by the dog.
Good dog - one of the first things you want to teach your dog is how to signal they have been a good dog. This can be a one or two thumbs up signal that is paired with treat.
Sit - a flat open hand turned to the side and drawn up from the side to the middle of the body by bending the elbow. This is sort of a sweeping motion across the midsection of the body.
Down - bend the elbow and hold the hand open, palm down, at about the chin level, then lower the open palm down to the waist. This will be done in a downward sweeping motion, resembling a downward motion.
Stay - a hand moved across the front of the dogs nose or away from the face, with the flat, open palm towards the dog's head. This is very similar to a moving "stop" sign. Many trainers prefer to simply use a signal hand movement, without the sideways motion.
Heel - a hand led down beside the leg and full extended. This does not mean tapping your legs or snapping your fingers, it is just a flat hand signal.
Come - teaching come includes using a flat hand, sweeping motion side ways from the outside of the body towards the center of the body. This is similar to a come here motion that you would use with another person.
Any hand signal can be used as long as it is significantly different than any other hand signal that is being used. Many owners make their hand signals to similar or too minimal to allow dogs to be able to see the difference in the signals. Hand signal can also be problematic if the dog is not significantly aware than you need them to watch your hands.
Transitioning to Hand Signals
Switching the dog from responding to verbal cues to responding to hand signals is really not difficult once the dog understands what you want. Reward them for watching your hand signals and then also start giving verbal cues less frequently and rewarding with treats and lots of praise when the dog responds to the hand signal. The pairing really is the key, but this can only work after the dog is trained in the command. Some dogs for deaf or hard of hearing people are only trained with hand signals, which can also be effective but typically takes some training experience in working with these types of training programs.
If the dog does not respond to the hand signals it is important to look at the training program. Does the dog understand that the hand signals are important or relevant or do they need to be trained about this? Is the dog able to focus long enough to see the hand signal? In addition it is important to check and see if the hand signals are being made in a clear line of vision for the dog. Remember dogs are not at the same height as humans, so it very important that either they are cued to look up at your arms and upper body or that hand signals are made at an appropriate level.
Start by using hand signals and commands that are very positive and highly rewarding for the dog. This may mean only teaching the come and sit command and using lots of praise and treats until the dog becomes very familiar with what is happening. After the dog has learned the "easy" commands with hand signals it is then time to transition into the more challenging commands. Remember that treats and lots of praise and attention will be essential in reinforcing the new behavior.
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