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How To Teach Your Dog Basic Sign Language

How To Teach Your Dog Basic Sign Language - dog seen through hands making a heart

Does your dog rush to the door when they notice you putting your shoes on? Do they always seem to know when you’re happy, and rush to your side when you’re upset?

Your dog is always paying attention to your body language, maybe more than you even realize. 

Understanding hand signs and gestures is a wonderful addition to your dog’s skillset. You can build upon your dog’s natural fluency in nonverbal communication, and understand one another on a whole  ‘nother level.

Why Your Dog Should Know Sign Language

Hand signals can be used anytime your dog cannot hear you. Loud public parks, hiking trails and other noisy areas can make it difficult for your dog to understand your verbal cues.

Deaf dogs are typically taught with hand cues, and even hearing dogs may eventually lose their sense of hearing as they get older.

Sign language can also be a useful skill to have if you have a therapy dog, particularly one who might go to schools or nursing homes that may have deaf or nonverbal children or adults who would love to communicate with your dog without having to use words.

A University of Naples study suggests that dogs are significantly better at understanding gestures than verbal commands. What’s more, when given conflicting cues (being told to “sit” while offering a “lie down” gesture) the dogs consistently obeyed the gesture, not the verbal command. 

Dogs must use nonverbal communication to read their doggy peers, so it makes sense that they’re better at picking up hand signals. Of course, you can still use verbal cues, too; it just may be more effective to use a combination of the two to ensure that your dog always understands you.

Universal Dog Training Hand Signals

Do you want your dog to be able to understand most people? This could come in handy if they are ever lost, if you’re raising them as a foster dog, or if you just prefer the universal hand signals. 

Images from Dog Training Excellence, a great resource to learn more about positive dog training and behavioural science.

Watch Me

Before you can ask your dog to do anything, you’ll need to be able to get their attention. Teach the “watch me” cue to encourage your dog to make eye contact with you. Teaching this skill makes your dog more apt to check in with you. Use the verbal cue when you’re not within  your dog’s line of sight, and use the hand signal in noisy areas.

To teach watch me, just point at your eyes. At first, you might need to use a treat to help train your dog’s gaze. The moment your dog makes eye contact, praise them and give them a reward. Practice watch me every time you have a training session, and at random times throughout the day. See if your dog can make eye contact with you in distracting environments, like a park. 

Sit

The universal hand signal for “sit” goes like this: hold your hand at your side, palm facing forwards, then bring your hand up as though you’re about to throw something over your shoulder. 

To teach “sit” you can place a small treat between your fingers, and let your dog have it once they sit, as you bring up your hand. Luring your dog is an effective way to get your dog’s attention and get them into the correct position, but you shouldn’t depend on it too heavily. Wean off the lure as soon as you can, so your dog learns to watch your hands for directions, rather than always looking for a treat to follow with their nose. 

Stay

The hand signal for “stay” is about what you’d expect – you put your palm out in front of your dog like a crossing guard. Start with very short intervals, and gradually up the challenge. 

Come

The hand signal for “come” is to hold both arms out wide, then bring your palms to your chest. Easy-peasy, right? Work on “come” and “stay” to reinforce a good recall if your dog is ever off-leash. 

Work on distance or duration at once, rather than simultaneously, to help set your dog up for success. If your dog gets up too soon, it means you’ve progressed too quickly. Just “reset” your dog into a stay again, then give it another try. 

Images are a little difficult to format properly on this document. They’ll appear next to their corresponding passages in the WordPress doc, credited to the website.

Some people prefer that their dog only listen to their owner, and may even teach cues in another language, and make up unique hand signals. This is perfectly fine – it’s up to your preference. 

American Sign Language Inspired Hand Signals

If you live or work around anyone who is deaf or nonverbal, it can be fun to teach your dog hand signals inspired by American Sign Language.

If your dog knows “speak” try teaching them to bark when you give them the sign for “talk”.

Images from LifePrint.com, a wonderful resource for learning more about American Sign Language.

Also try teaching your dog “eat” by using the eat sign. Just put your fingers together and move them towards your mouth right before giving your dog their meals.

Teach Your Dog To Communicate Nonverbally

Though your dog can’t really learn to do sign language with their paws, you can teach them skills that they can use to communicate with you.

If your dog has accidents, or you just want to make sure they communicate when they need out, it can help to have potty bells hanging from your door that your dog can ring when they need to go outside. 

You can also teach your dog to paw at their bowl when they’re hungry – a skill they’ll surely abuse, but you might appreciate it if you tend to lose track of mealtimes. Just wait for your dog to approach their bowl, drop a single piece of food inside, and wait for them to approach it again. They will quickly realize that going near the bowl, and then pawing at it, will prompt you to drop in another piece of food. Be warned, this little skill can turn into an annoying habit, but can be stopped if you simply ignore it. 

Learn More With Healthy Houndz!

Ready to learn even more ways to communicate with your dog and teach new skills with the help of positive reinforcement? Get private, in-home dog training for Toronto and North York from Healthy Houndz! Contact us to get started. 

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