“Handy” tips to help you and your dog stay in touch through the years

When you start training your new puppy, and while you are performing your daily routines with your adult dog, remember that your dog will not always have acute hearing as aging occurs. Teaching hand signals for certain basic commands will be easy while your dog is able to hear, but pretty difficult after hearing loss has already occurred. It doesn’t really matter what the words or the gestures are – but they do need to be consistent and clear. All you need to do to teach hand signals to pair with those commands is to perform specific, very easy-to-see (as your dog’s vision may become somewhat less acute with age as well), and very distinct gestures at the same time that you are teaching your dog the verbal commands. Just perform the hand signals just before you say the commands, and always, always, always follow the dog’s successful performance of the desired behavior with a food treat – behavioral studies in dogs show that dogs learn more quickly with the use of food treat rewards along with praise, than with praise alone. Dogs, as a species, have a very strong food drive (they wouldn’t survive long in the wild without it), and you can take full advantage of that throughout your own dog’s life. Make the food rewards for training especially desirable for your dog – after all, most of us would perform somersaults for great chocolate, but maybe not try so hard for a celery stick – and make those rewards small and frequent. Remember that dogs can “count” (they know that they will get a treat every time for something they have done well), but they can’t do fractions (they won’t comprehend that they are only getting a fragment of that great treat!). In this case, size truly doesn’t matter!


Here is a short list of commands and hand signals that you will find useful for the years to come, and having these signals securely in your dog’s repertoire may save you some annoyance, if not grief, in the future. When my dog, Jersey, lost some of her hearing as she grew older, she gradually started to do things that she would never have done before – like getting food off a table, or grabbing an expensive shoe and running off with it. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that she had started to “misbehave” for two reasons: first, she could no longer hear anyone in the house, so she thought she was alone when she got food off the table or grabbed my shoe; and, second, she could no longer hear the word ”No!” so she had free rein to do anything she wanted! The flip side of hearing loss for Jersey, I also realized, was that she also never heard me say “Good girl!” anymore, or any of the chatty things I always said to her as I did things around the house. I realized then that the loss of hearing for a dog, who does not have the ability to understand that it is a normal part of aging, would be very isolating. I was regretful at that time that I had not thought ahead when Jersey was a puppy and taught her the hand signals for “Good girl!” and “I love you!” (as well as “No!” and “Drop It!” of course!) – but I have certainly done so with Jersey’s successors ever since.

Here are some general guidelines for teaching hand signals, as well as a list of what I consider to be the most important commands and hand signals for you to teach your dog while hearing is still acute – by the way, these signals will come in “handy” in situations where there is a lots of background noise, or when you don’t want to make any noise at all, like when someone is sleeping. Your dog may already know the association between a certain command and the action to be performed – if so, teaching a hand signal involves the creation of a new association between an unfamiliar hand signal and the familiar command/action. If your dog does NOT know any of the verbal commands listed below, teach the verbal commands at the same time as the hand signals – you can easily speak the command while your hands are busy performing the signal.

First, pair the verbal command with a hand signal, giving the hand signal just before the verbal command, and when your dog performs the desired action, immediately give him a treat. Dogs readily make associations between things – but timing and repetition are the keys. Dogs live in the here and now, and if you wait too long between the command, the action and the reward, an association may be made with something totally unrelated that just happened to occur at the time of the reward, such as the backfiring of a car or a knock on the door! After you have repeated and promptly rewarded the correct action several times, you may start eliminating the verbal command and sometimes use the verbal command alone and sometimes the hand signal alone, rewarding your dog each and every time it is done correctly. Once your dog reliably performs the correct action in response to either the verbal command or the hand signal, you may also gradually eliminate the food reward, although I think it is best to use treats often, in order to continue to solidify the association as well as the good (and fun!) consequences of performing this repertoire in the years to come. After all, most of us like to be paid for a job well done!

Please remember to be consistent about which hand is used for the signals, and be sure that all that are involved with this training, its reinforcement and future use remain consistent as well. Stable use of body language, eye contact, and “tone” of command, whether it be tone of voice (loudness, firmness, happiness) or tone of hand signal (the gesture’s clarity, emphasis, enthusiasm), is also very important.



List of Commands And Hand Signals:

  1. Sit: Start with your dog standing in front of you. Hold a treat on or in your fingers (with your palm up) and, starting with your hand at your side, bring it up slowly, folding your arm as if you were going to toss something over the same shoulder. Do this slowly, bringing the treat past your dog’s nose. Say “Sit” at the same time. You’re leading his nose upward as you say sit, and the body’s weight will naturally shift towards the back end so sitting often occurs automatically. When it does, enthusiastically praise and give the treat. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat….You will, eventually, be able to signal-command your dog to sit with just the gesture of raising your hand from side to shoulder with the palm up and fingers straight, without the verbal command and without the treat.
  2. Down: Start with your dog sitting in front of you. Hold a treat in your fingers and, with your hand raised above your head, bring it down, keeping your arm straight until it is hanging at your side. Do this slowly, bringing the treat past your dog’s nose as you signal. Say “Down” at the same time. You’re leading the nose down as you say down. When your dog lies down, praise and give the treat. Repeat, repeat, and repeat….and the gesture will eventually become the command.
  3. Come: Start with your dog in front of you. Hold a treat in your fingers. Start with your arm held straight out to your side parallel with the ground. Now sweep your arm forward so your hand touches your opposite shoulder (as if you were throwing salt over your shoulder for luck!). Do this slowly at first, bringing the treat past your dog’s nose as you signal. Say, “Come” and back up a few steps at the same time. When your dog comes toward you, praise and give the treat. Repeat – well, you get the idea.
  4. Good Dog: This one is the easiest to teach, but also one of the most important to have in your repertoire for later on when your dog can’t hear your praise! Start by choosing any sign you’d like to use, such as “thumbs up”. Then teach it by sitting with your dog while holding a handful or so of really tasty treats. Use your “Good” sign, and give the dog a treat. That’s it – except for the repetition part! Once you give your “Good Dog” sign and your dog looks at you as if to say: “Hey, where’s my treat?” you’re solid!
  5. Watch Me: Teaching a command for, and rewarding your dog for, eye contact is one of those investments of time that pays off now as well as later. Now is a good time to get your dog in the habit of looking at you for direction, so your dog will still pay attention to you during distractions. Later, due to decreasing hearing, it might otherwise be difficult to get your dog’s attention for the hand signals/commands, unless your dog has already developed the habit of watching you. Start by taking a treat, put it up to your dog’s nose, bring it up to your nose, sign and then say: “Good Dog!” and then give the treat. The idea is for your dog to look you in the eye. Practice this for a few days. Then hold the treat away from you (start out a foot or so from your face). Your dog will probably look at the treat. Wait until your dog gets impatient, and looks at you to say “well, where’s my treat?” Quickly sign “Good Dog!” and give the treat. At first, all you will get is a quick glance, but you can slowly build up the time that your dog will look you in the eye. You should also hold the treat in different places (use the other hand, hold it in front of you, and at full arm’s length, even behind your back). You want your dog to learn that no matter where the treat is, the only way to get it is to look at you.
  6. Free Dog: Teaching a release command is very important, especially if you plan, as I recommend, to teach the “Stay” command later. If you do not tell your dog that it’s OK to move or do something else, your dog will make the decision, not you. It is a fairly simple thing to teach. Whenever you finish practicing one thing, sign “Free Dog” before going on to the next. Do this by making a circle with you forefinger and thumb, extending the remaining fingers upward like the “OK” sign. When you end a training session, always sign “Free Dog”, and then put away the treats.
  7. Stay: Have your dog sit, and sign “stay” using your hand held with the palm in front of the dog’s face. Quickly give a treat, then sign, “Stay” again, another treat, “Stay” and one more treat. Then say – and sign – an enthusiastic “Free Dog!” and you are both done – for now – since you both need to change positions. Gradually make the time between the treats a bit longer, so your dog will stay sitting for longer periods of time (still use 3 treats, and then a “Free Dog!” when done working). Once your dog seems to understand, move on to the next step. Gradually add some distance (keeping the treats near you, pick each one up and bring it to the dog). Do not try to do distance and duration at the same time. If you want your dog to remain in the “Stay” position longer, you should stay nearby. If you want to increase the distance between you, keep the duration of the “Stay” short. Be sure to use your release sign, so that your dog knows when to move. Once this command, the sign and the desired response are well established, add in some distractions during the “Stay” period, like having another person come into the training area or tossing around some tempting toys.
  8. Stop It: Since “No” is a very overused word in dog training, what you really want to teach with this hand signal is “Stop It Now!” and it should only be used for very serious infractions of good behavior, since you want your dog to REALLY pay attention to you at the time needed. This is a command that you will have to teach when something happens spontaneously that you do not like, and you should accompany the gesture with a firm verbal command of “Stop It!” along with body language and a facial expression that indicates your deep displeasure. DO NOT physically punish your dog. The best, in my opinion, gesture to use for this command is something like the “Safe” signal that baseball umpires use – for this, they start by crossing their arms at the wrists, and then quickly uncross them in a very broad, dramatic motion.
  9. Drop It: Teach this command/signal so your dog will let you take an object from the mouth. This is a very important safety command for the (hopefully) few times that something dangerous is taken, like a chicken bone or a bar of chocolate. Gather a few of the safe things that you know your dog likes to chew on. Have a piece of food ready in your free hand, held in your fingers with your palm up, as you tempt your dog to chew on one of the items held in the other hand. Once the item is taken, put the treat very close to your dog’s nose and firmly say, “Drop it”. Give praise when the object is relinquished. Feed the treat as you pick up the item again with your other hand. Return the item to your dog. Repeat (of course!) through several repetitions and with several different objects. However, after the verbal command is well engrained, occasionally “pretend” to offer the treat once the test object is dropped, using the now-empty fingers of your free hand, with the palm up. Do this without the treat more and more often and – presto: the hand signal for the command “Drop It!” (your empty fingers with your hand palm up) will have already been learned!
  10.  I Love You: This, of course, is my favorite. After all, as the song says: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, Is just to love and be loved in return”. You and your dog learned THAT a long time ago, but this way you can both learn how to continue to show it and, therefore, know it, over the years. This signal is one of the American Sign Language (ASL) signs:


This one will be VERY pleasurable for you to teach and for your dog to learn! Just give this hand signal just before saying “I love you!” and then do whatever you want to show it – this is the one signal that will not need a treat to reinforce it! That will happen by the very nature of your relationship. How easy is that?


Above all, the training periods should be pleasant, fun, fairly short, and extremely rewarding for both of you. Don’t train for so long that either of you gets bored or frustrated and reward early and often. All dogs really care about, and what most dog owners care about, is the act of giving and receiving something that makes their loved ones happy. The more often YOU can remember and act on THAT principle, the happier you and your dog will be – like I said before, this is another way to age-proof the both of you.


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