Why dogs respond to hand signals

My family’s black Lab is good at reading body language. In my previous world of teaching and research, I would have concluded that Teddy was effective at interpreting nonverbal cues.

Over the past nine years, I’ve watched him respond to both my positive and negative body motions, paying attention to whether he communicates back the appropriate physical response.

Just before I start laughing, for example, I clasp my hands together, smile broadly and tilt my head backwards. Teddy never fails to react correctly to these movements.

He wags his tail, providing a dog-positive response to a positive human action.

Canine behaviorists and dog owners would not be surprised by Teddy’s response to visual cues since body language is his basic form of communication.

Janet Bowley at goodpuplife.com writes, “Because dogs are adept at reading body language, they respond well to hand signals. These are also helpful in communicating with deaf dogs as well as aging ones that are likely to lose hearing.”

“Furthermore, dogs don’t understand words themselves. Instead, they respond to the sounds. So they discern the unique tones from other words that sound similar and react to them over ambient noises in the environment. In contrast, they are quite adept at reading body language, so learning physical gestures like hand signals is second nature.”

When we adopted Teddy as a 9-month-old puppy, I combined visual and verbal cues in his basic training. Now, when he’s 9 years old, I use visual cues more than verbal ones for the basic commands.

That decision wasn’t made by relying on canine behavioral research, but more on my training in verbal versus nonverbal communication among humans.

Simply put, we believe nonverbal communication over verbal communication. Humans can manipulate words and even their vocal tones. They have a much more difficult time manipulating their non-verbal communication.

There are multiple columns on dog nonverbal training explaining with words and pictures the nonverbal symbols to use for basic dog training. Again, I didn’t use this research, even though it explains the commands very well. I used my own training in human nonverbal communication.

There are seven basic nonverbal commands that dog behaviorists and owners believe are essential for well-trained dogs to learn: sit, stay, down, come, off, heel and no. Teddy knows sit, stay and down, plus the command for up.

Sit, the command most dogs, including Teddy, learn first, is by far, the most universal command for getting a dog to focus on its owner. The nonverbal signal is to hold your hand in front of your chest, palm open and facing up while moving the hand upward.

I do a similar motion, only my hand, at similar chest height, is flat, palm up, as I move it upward.

Stay is another universal command for stopping a dog from going any further. It is also a universal command for humans. The hand signal for stay is holding your hand away from your chest with the palm facing your dog.

My motion is the same.

Dogs of any age can learn these signals. Cats probably can’t, although Pip, our 4-year-old tuxedo, knows the signal for stay. He knows Teddy must wait until we tell him it’s OK to go after a treat we’ve just thrown.

Pip also knows it’s his chance to steal it before Teddy can track it down.

Additional hand signals to teach a dog.

1. Roll

2. Speak

3. Come

4. Crawl

5. Spin

6. High five

Karin Spicer is a member of The Dog Writers Association of America. She lives in Greene County with her family and two furry pets who inspire her. She can be reached at spicerkarin@gmail.com.

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