Traditional dog training usually involves teaching a dog to respond to a spoken command through repetition, words of praise and some kind of reward. Not every dog responds well to such training, however. Very young dogs and deaf dogs often respond better to hand gestures, known in the dog obedience world as “signals.” Fortunately for these dogs, training with hand gestures is not as complicated as it sounds.
Dogs rely heavily on physical cues to communicate. They also watch their owners for similar cues. Early training provides an example of how gestures can contribute to training: Trainers will pat their left legs to bring dogs into the “heel” position or gesture toward the floor to demonstrate that she should lie down. Dogs will often understand gestures first and will pair the spoken command with the action later.
Human beings rely on spoken words to communicate, so our gestures are not always crisp or directed. During early training, hand gestures should be broad and slow. Gesture speed can increase as the dog becomes more familiar with the command. Training your dog to lie down should start with the dog at the trainer’s side. The gesture should start in front of her nose, proceed to her chest and sweep down and forward along and past her forelegs. Her body will follow the motion of her head, causing her to lie down. Similarly, when training her to sit, the hand gesture should begin in front of her nose and sweep up over her forehead. As she looks up, her bottom will approach the floor.
Dogs are not often taught to stand, but this command is useful at the veterinarian’s office or groomers. The stand is often taught, beginning with the dog in the sitting position, by the trainer placing his palm horizontally in front of the dog’s nose and drawing the hand forward. The gesture for the stay command consists of the trainer placing his or her palm in front of the dog, fingers facing downward. Because all previous signals have told the dog to do something with her body, this signal can be difficult to teach.
Gestured commands are useful at a distance. These gestures also need to be broad to be seen from far away. The hand gesture for come involves the trainer bringing his hand up and sweeping it in front of his body to touch his chest with his palm. This gesture mimics reeling the dog in with the leash while teaching the dog to come during early training. The gestures for stop and down are different at a distance than at the trainer’s side. The gesture for “stop” at a distance is the arm held out in front of the trainer, palm out, fingers facing upward. The gesture for down consists of the trainer raising his hand above his head and swinging it down toward the ground.
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