Often when I’m working with training clients, they seem impressed that their dog can respond to a hand or arm motion alone without a verbal cue accompanying it. I get it; it must seem like magic! I especially love seeing children get excited about having their dog follow their hand signals like a remote-controlled toy. But the truth is, dogs are highly attuned to our facial expressions and physical movements, so hand signals are actually easier for dogs to follow than verbal cues.
Beyond the fact that it’s cool to communicate without words, there are good reasons to teach hand signals. Imagine that you and your dog are at the park, and he’s wandered a distance away while exploring off-leash. You’ve trained a solid recall, of course, but he’s so far away that yelling to get his attention might be difficult. Instead, when he pauses for a moment to look back and check where you are, you give the hand signal for, “Come!” and he comes bounding to you. The same applies if your dog isn’t far away, but there’s just too much noise in the environment for him to hear your verbal cue.
On a personal note, sadly, hand signals have been very useful lately with my own dog Bodhi. He’s 13 or 14 now and has lost a great deal of his hearing. Fortunately, when I first trained him, I used both verbal and hand signals and also made sure he could respond to hand signals alone. Thanks to that training, I can still communicate clearly with Bodhi to where he will understand when I ask him to do something. Really, it’s no different with completely deaf dogs. People think deaf dogs must be very hard to train, but they’re not; it’s all about the hand signals.
When communicating with another species, especially when trying to teach a new skill, we need to understand how that being thinks and learns. Once we do, we can communicate clearly and work cooperatively. For many animals, and most certainly for dogs, hand signals allow us to do just that.
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