One of the most common mistakes amateur dog trainers make is wanting to communicate with their dogs like they communicate with people—by talking. Verbal commands are a must with dogs, but just because your pup learns to plant its butt on the ground when you say “sit” doesn’t mean that approach will work for everything. Pups actually have an easier time learning hand signals than English.
That dog can and will learn some words and expected behavior through verbal commands, but it will also learn to read your body language—which carries plenty of communication weight. This is partially why you see so many professional trainers working hand signals into all types of commands and tasks, and why these motions are so important to understand.
Most commonly, hand signals are associated with blind retrieves, particularly in the waterfowl world. Teaching your dog to cast right, left, or back with exaggerating pointing is a good thing, but that’s advanced-level training and will come after basic obedience is established with puppies. According to professional dog trainer Tyce Erickson, this is also the time when hand signals should come into a dog’s life.
“When you interact with a puppy, you can use treats to start casting the dog,” Erickson said. This can be as simple as a 5-foot fetch drill in the hallway with an 8-week-old dog. It begins to establish the reality that not only will you command the dog to do something with your voice, but you’ll also direct the dog with your hands. This should be done with all types of obedience commands like sit, stay, come, and place.
To take this a step further, treat training with a young puppy also allows you to develop the dog’s interest in your hands (where the treat is located). When the pup sniffs the good stuff, it’ll follow the direction of your hand no matter where you put it. This is obviously a good idea when working on hand signals, but also allows you to start building eye contact with the dog by placing your hand by your face. A pup that learns to look to you for direction has a head start on learning all types of verbal and non-verbal commands. He or she will be light years ahead of a dog that doesn’t engage in eye contact with its handler.
Not only does this allow you to better communicate with your dog, but it will translate to a better hunting experience. No one loves yelling at a dog in the field when it’s pin-drop quiet and a single shout could let every ruff within the section know the hunt is on. Using a short whistle or a tone on the e-collar to get the dog’s attention and then hand signal for the next command is always preferred over a screaming session.
The key to getting your body language to match the verbal command in a way that your dog will understand, according to Erickson, boils down to consistency: “Whatever training program you adopt, stick with it. Daily training is so important, and it really depends on you being consistent. You are teaching your dog a new language, and that needs to be simple, easy to understand, and always consistent.”
Veering from the program, or only using hand signals every fourth time you offer up a command, will not only confuse your dog, but also diminish the value of your commands. If you don’t buy this, spend some time afield with a few poorly trained dogs and watch how quickly they ignore a command. There are a lot of reasons for this, but most likely it’s because they learned that there’s no consistency to the directive and no follow-through if they don’t perform.
You might think you don’t need hand signals if you’re strictly an upland hunter or have a brand new e-collar, but neither is true. The best, most well-mannered dogs in the field and at home learn to fully abide by verbal commands as well as hand signals. The foundation for that starts with day-one puppy training.
Feature image via John Hafner.