Before you panic we aren’t talking about any rude gestures. Hand signals are actually a great form of nonverbal communication that dogs respond to well. In fact dogs are actually more responsive to our body language and hand signals than our use of words.  Many of us teach hand signals to our dogs without even realising it. Dogs learn visual cues like hand signals faster than they learn verbal cues, yet we often rush through trying to speak to them and forget they’re very visual learners.

In this article, we’ll dive in and explain why you should teach hand signals to your dog, what we feel the 6 essential hand signals for dogs are, tips on teaching your dog hand signals, and some suggestions for using hand signals with dogs.

For much of the Zigzag training, we teach hand signals first and then transfer them to a verbal cue to learn both. Download a trial now and start your training journey. We have a team of professional experts to help you along the way and answer those middle-of-the-night questions, we’re worldwide, and our experts are here for you via the in-app chat 24/7.

Why should I teach my dog hand signals?

Hand signals for dogs are a great way of communicating silently when you need to be quiet, or when you’re in a noisy environment, like on public transport or during agility. Hand gestures are also great for deaf dogs or for senior dogs whose hearing may be failing them.

Dog walking next to owner
Photo by Evieanna Santiago on Unsplash

6 essential hand signals for dogs

Many of the following hand signals begin with the lure reward method, in which we lure our dogs into the position we want them to be in, then use a marker word like ‘good’ to indicate that they’ve done the right thing.

After some practice, we can remove the food lure and make the luring motion more of a subtle hand signal.

We believe the following list of dog commands and hand signals are useful for dogs and us, as they’re things you’re likely to use in everyday life.

1. Watch me

Teaching your dog eye contact is a great way for them to give you some focus, and it can also help to lower arousal and calm them down. Great to use if your dog loses their marbles around other dogs on walks.

Using a food lure, take it from your dog’s nose up to your face, and when your dog follows the treat and looks up at your face, say ‘good’.

Repeat this two or three times, then take the treat out of your hand and use a smaller hand signal instead. When they look at your face, say ‘good’ and give them the treat.

Moving on, you can start adding some duration and extend the eye contact; don’t forget to treat!

2. Hand Target

Come and boop the snoot for a treat. This one is easy to teach dogs, as they’re used to sniffing and licking our hands, so they’ll generally be interested in them. Hand targets can be used to give dogs direction, but once they’ve learnt to come and target from quite a distance, it also works great as a recall

Hold your hand out, side on, close to your dog’s face, as they sniff it or touch it with their nose, say ‘good’ and give them a treat.

As you practise, move the hand a little further away when you present it, so your dog learns they need to touch the hand for their marker word and a treat.

3. Down

Follow the steps in our article on teaching your puppy to lie down. Once your dog is lying down for the food lure, take the food out of your hand and do the same motion so they’re following your hand moving down to the floor. 

Say ‘good’ and reward them when they get it right. Over time make the movement down to the floor smaller, so it ends up with you just pointing to the floor.

4. Wait

Follow our full guide to teaching your puppy to wait or stay, the hand signal will look like a stop sign. 

You can use the wait cue before you cross the road, get on the tube or a bus, or to go and get a towel to wipe those muddy paws when you come in from a walk.

5. This way or with me

When teaching your dog loose lead walking, there can be times that you’ll want to signal them to come with you in another direction. It might be that they’re distracted by sniffing, or they might be pulling on the lead, so the ‘this way’ hand signal teaches them ‘come on let’s go’!

Tapping your thigh or calf will likely get your dog’s attention, and when they look toward what you’re doing, hold a treat by your leg for them to collect. You can then start walking again and teach them how to walk nicely or heel.

6. End of the session or all done signal

If you’ve been training your dog, whether it’s basic obedience commands, tricks, or a nice ‘leave it’ cue, you’ll want to tell them that the training session is over.

We like to teach this hand signal to dogs because it gives them a clear visual indication that we’re done for the time being. This signal can help your dog feel less frustrated.

With your hands flat, make a sweeping motion away from one another horizontally, throw some treats on the floor for your dog to hover up and put your treats away. That’s it! Job done for now!

dog giving paw
Photo by Fabian Gieske on Unsplash

6 top tips for teaching your dog hand signals

Teaching dog training hand signals should be fun. Here’s our tips to help make training your dog with hand signals a breeze.

1. Start slowly with hand signals

Don’t try to teach your dog multiple hand signals in the same training session as it can get confusing (except the ‘all done’ hand signal as we recommend you use that one for each end of training session). Start with just two or three basic commands that you’re using the most.

2. Keep it light and fun with plenty of treats

Using positive reinforcement training our aim is for dogs to enjoy the training sessions, so keep your training sessions short and sweet and leave your dog wanting more, rather than being fatigued and brain frazzled.

3. Make your hand signal obvious to your dog, get in their eye line

We often try to give our hand signal to our dogs too high up, and out of their field of normal vision. Get low to make sure you get that signal in their eyeline, no not in their face or looming over them, but low enough that they can easily see it from standing.

4. Be consistent with your hand signals

Try your hardest to always make the same signal, and if teaching it to someone else, try to make sure they do exactly the same as you so it’s not confusing for your dog.

5. Give your dog thinking time

Sometimes we get impatient and frustrated if our dog isn’t following our hand signal, so give them thinking time after you use your hand signal to respond. If they’re not getting it, go back a step in training and build up.

6. Learn to read your dogs body language

Your dog can tell you a lot about how they’re feeling by their body language, so learn to figure out when they’re confused, stressed and, of course, when they’re delighted and happy!

German Shepherd sitting down
Photo by John Tuesday on Unsplash

How do I use hand signals with my dog?

You can use hand signals in any scenario with your dog, but they really come into their own when you need to communicate silently or at a distance. For example, if you’re talking to someone, you might want to ask your dog to lie down or wait while you speak to the person. 

If you’re training agility, your dog will respond to your body cues and hand signals as you probably can’t be heard over the hubbub of the crowds, or you’re too far away and don’t want to shout yourself hoarse.

Hand signals are also a very calm and clear way of communicating with a dog, particularly if they get stressed by voices or are a recent rescue pup.

Puppies who are born deaf, or dogs who go deaf in later life also benefit from hand signals, so even if your dog’s hearing is fine now, you can future-proof your training by preparing for unexpected senior-age issues.

Overall, we think it’s worthwhile training hand signals to dogs, because they learn this form of non-verbal communication quickly, and it’s done without any force or emotion behind the cue. Dogs pick up on our body cues and body language really well, so hand signals are just easy and clear for them to interpret.

We recommend you teach them so that they can be used in noisy and distracting environments, or when you can’t speak yourself because you’re doing other things, or perhaps you’ve lost your voice.

Like any training, use positive reinforcement and plenty of praise, treats, and toy play to teach your dog that learning hand signals is fun. Be consistent and patient when training, especially when moving to new environments where you haven’t taught the hand signal previously. 

Want to learn more? How about learning some basic obedience commands or tricks (you can use hand signals here too) or for the herders amongst you, what about some sheepdog commands?
To learn more, download a trial of the Zigzag puppy training app. We have a complete programme to teach you to teach your puppy all of those important life skills, and a team of professional dog trainers to help you along the way, 24/7 via our in-app chat. Yippee.