A Dog’s Eye View: The power of hand signals
October 4, 2012
My older dog, Zoey, learned basic obedience using a clicker, voice cues and hand signals. Throughout the years we've had ample opportunities to proof them all, especially the hand signals. Some of the experiences where I used them were pedestrian; some left me parent-proud and awed, with my mouth gaping in an unattractive oval; still others left me grateful for their powerful effectiveness. Hand signals are a beautiful sign language of sharp, fluid gestures that cleanly cut across the chaotic field of potentially confusing verbal language.
At Total Teamwork Training, when teaching basic behaviors like "sit" or "settle down," we use hand signals before words. A word, depending on how it is spoken, can have many interpretations. For example, think of how many ways you can say "hello." Hand signals, though possibly varying slightly in the actual gesturing, tend to be very clear and more easily understood by our dogs, who are master observers of their world.
Communication between dogs relies heavily on what they say to one another with their bodies, using subtle changes in posture and movement to signify intent. Although dogs can and do learn to understand our words, they're keenly alert to what we're saying with our bodies. Hand signals, if fully ingrained, can be used to have your dog perform a behavior without any words, and at a distance, which can be impressive and fun — or even vital and life-saving.
As she grew, Zoey and I practiced our hand signal language often, particularly the "down" signal, at varying distances. We played this game on the Jersey Shore, where I'd periodically stop as we walked off leash. Letting her get ahead of me, I'd wait until she turned back to look for me, and then I'd give her our signal for "down" or "sit" before calling her back to me. Each time, aside from the pure pride and joy I felt at her accomplishment, I was working to strengthen this signal-at-a-distance behavior.
I taught "Fun Agility" to people like me, who although not interested in competing had enough inner competitor wanting to excel that we challenged each other for fun. Zoey joyfully "talked" as she tackled the courses. In agility, you direct your dog to perform a specific behavior or run a certain path at a distance. Calling out commands wouldn't work because of the distance, so hand signals are employed to instruct your dog "down" or to "go left." Zoey's hand signal savvy served us well and made me look good as an instructor.
Most times when I used hand signals, it was for something fun. But once when I mindlessly left the car's side door open as I searched for her leash, Zoey jumped out and tore across the (luckily empty) city street to a friend she'd seen. Rather than run after her, I got her attention and signaled a "down/stay," which she performed and held until I could cross to her. It was a huge potential bullet dodged and a heart-stopping lesson learned.
Recently, as Zoey's hearing has diminished, I use our hand signals to communicate with her, keeping us "talking," if you will. This I find invaluable and it reminds and makes me thankful for the clarity, simplicity and effectiveness of our hand signal language — a powerful, useful and easy-to-learn tool.
Lisa Mason is an experienced dog training instructor with the Total Teamwork Training group. Her specialties include new puppy owner education and management.