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Do You Use Hand Signals for Basic Doggy Commands?

Commands such as come, sit, down, and stay are more fun when you pair them with hand signals. Don't know any? We'll teach you!

Nikki Moustaki  |  Oct 8th 2015


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The house is quiet. The yard is devoid of flying discs. There are no Cheerios on the floor. It must be the first day of school.

Your dog has spent two months reveling in the presence of his pack, especially the little ones, who tend to have food on their hands and faces and never tire of throwing a tennis ball or allowing Fido to sit in their laps while they play video games. Now they’re gone all day, and Fido’s routine has gone from constant action to a Zen-like stillness. And he’s not happy about it. Maybe it’s time to take your dog back to school, too.

Most adult dogs already know some basic commands, like come, sit, down, and stay, but it’s always good to give your dog a refresher course. To make it even more fun, I’ll show you how to add hand signals to each command. There aren’t any universal hand signals, but these are easy for both you and your dog to learn.

Hand signals are useful for communicating with your dog in both noisy and quiet public places, and they are essential for senior dogs who may become hard of hearing (which very often seems to happen overnight). Plus, a dog who’s trained with hand signals is sure to impress your friends and neighbors. He’ll look like a genius.

1. Recall (come)

The hand signal used in conjunction with the recall command (your dog’s name and “come!”) is a pat on the outside of the thigh. Holding a treat in your left hand, pat your right thigh with your right hand and ask your dog to come. Make the hand signal movement generous so that your dog sees it. When your dog complies and reaches you, give him the treat and a scratch on the head. Every time you ask your dog to come to you, repeat the hand signal.

Dog running toward person by Shutterstock.

Dog running toward person by Shutterstock.

2. Sit

The hand signal used for sit is a raised palm in an upward motion extending from the elbow from about mid-thigh level to about chest level. To draw your dog’s attention to your hand, hold a treat between your fingers (you may have to show him the treat), ask him to sit and, as he does, raise your palm toward the ceiling. When he sits, hand him the treat. Eventually, you won’t need to use a treat when your dog responds to just the hand signal.

3. Down

The hand signal for down is the opposite of the sit signal. With your palm down, move your elbow from about chest level to mid-thigh (depending on your dog’s height — lower for shorter dogs). Again, you can hold a treat between your fingers to gather his attention onto your hand. This hand signal tends to be easy to learn, because most people training down initially train by luring the dog’s nose to the ground with a treat, so there’s sort of a hand signal already associated with this command.

4. Stay

The hand signal for stay is a raised palm facing toward your dog. This hand signal is typically taught in conjunction with the command, so most dogs have seen it before, but it’s a good one to reinforce. Start with your dog in a sit position and ask him to stay, holding your palm away from your body, facing your dog. Stay is a tough command to learn, since it involves inaction rather than action. Don’t ask your dog to hold the stay position for very long at first — just a couple of seconds — and then use a release word and hand signal (see below) and call him to you. Give treats and praise.

5. Release

Sit, down, and stay are useless without a release command. The release cue ensures that your dog will only break the sit, down, and stay when you ask. I use “OK” and then a hand signal. Over the years, I’ve used a variety of different hand signals, but I’ve settled on “jazz hands” as my favorite. Hold your hands around torso level, elbows in toward your body and hands at a 45-degree angle, fingers apart, and wave your hands back and forth as you say “OK” or “free,” or whatever verbal release cue you’ve chosen.

6. Bonus: No!

Dog digging by Shutterstock.

Dog digging by Shutterstock.

The hand signal for no is the making of a fist. When your dog is misbehaving (barking, digging, chewing, licking, etc.), say “no!” sharply, try to make eye contact with your dog, and make a fist in front of the center of your chest. Then ask your dog to come to you, and praise him for that behavior. Remember, your dog only understands a sharp word or praise as being attached to the last behavior that he has performed.

Read more by Nikki Moustaki:

About the author: Nikki Moustaki is a dog trainer, dog rescuer, and pet expert. She splits her time between New York City and Miami Beach, Florida, and is the author of the memoir The Bird Market of Paris. Visit her on Twitter at @nikkimoustaki and at nikkimoustaki.com.