Features February 2009 Issue

Dog Training With Hand Signals

How to cue your dog with hand or other body signals.

When I was a young girl, my parents dropped me off at the Milwaukee Coliseum every January, on the last day of the big benched dog show. I spent most of the day in the stands overlooking the obedience rings, mesmerized by the magic of well-trained dogs working in close partnership with their humans. I was particularly impressed with the hand signal exercises in the advanced obedience classes. Amazing, I thought, that you can communicate with your dog without even talking! What I didn’t realize then but I know now, is that hand signals are actually quite simple to teach to dogs - much easier than getting behavior on verbal cue. And hand signals can be used in many situations where a verbal cue just won’t work. The general dog-owning population today is much more aware of the fact that dogs are, first and foremost, body language communicators, thanks to the work of people like Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., and Turid Rugaas. Dogs need to make sense of our movements in order to survive. They depend on reading us to make their world work for them. As Dr. McConnell writes in The Other End of the Leash, “All dogs are brilliant at perceiving the slightest movement that we make, and they assume that each tiny movement has meaning.” This makes teaching hand signals incredibly easy. Our dogs already assume our movements have meaning; we just have to make sure they’re attaching the meaning we want them to have for our particular signals. You’ll realize how truly brilliant your dog is when you see how quickly she comes to understand the meaning - and offer the requested behavior - for your body language cues for sit, down, come, and anything else you want to put on a nonverbal cue.

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