I remember way back in the beginning, standing on the sidelines watching a guy work his dogs in the obedience ring. He was way up there as far as levels go and there was no speaking going on. "Cool," I thought to myself, "how cool is that?" He went through his paces, silently motioning to his dog. His dog understood everything and it was poetry in motion. I was spellbound. Little did I know it at the time, but teaching a dog hand signals is very easy. The part that is not so easy is attention; of course your dog must be watching you to "get" the signals right?
Watching is the key and one that dogs are far more equipped than us to perform. It's what they do, how they communicate is through body language and to communicate in this way one must watch. We humans do a lot of babbling, often we aren't even looking at one another when we speak. But dogs are always watching us, I love watching dogs watch humans. The other day I was walking behind a woman st the park with three toy poodles, they were adorable. One of the dogs was constantly seeking eye contact which she was not getting. Her owner was busy talking to a friend but the little one never gave up and as they left the park she was still trying to connect with her owner.
Teaching hand signals is most easily done by luring. Ever see the Frisbee dogs, how everytime they are about to get a toss they run around their owner with a simple sweep of their owners hand? A Frisbee in the hand motioning around your back and then quickly throwing as the dog comes around accomplishes this. A sit is taught almost immediately by luring food from the dogs nose up over their head. They quickly respond to this hand motion by sitting. Same with down, as the dog is in a sit lure your dog to the floor by bringing the food from above their head to the floor. This hand motion soon becomes the signal to "down."
Sometimes a behavior has a very common hand signal, sit is a swoop, down a motioning downward, stay the all familiar hand out in front. But what if you want to teach something that doesn't have a hand signal? Consider how you are going to teach the dog the particular behavior, what hand motion will coincide with it nicely? Will you remember the hand signal? Is it different enough from other signals so your dog will not become confused? Choose your signal and cast it in stone.
Now many people say that there dog will only do behaviors if they have food in their hand. I can't tell you how many times I've heard this. The big secret to get rid of that annoying food prerequisite is to get rid of the food. After several luring repetitions our dogs recognize a hand signal, take the food out of the signal hand and continue to signal exactly the same way. Put the food in your other hand behind your back, or on a shelf beside you . Deliver the food reward with your other hand, not the signal hand. So even though you have not lured your dog with food they will still follow the hand signal because they got the reward. Then you ween off the treats intermittently.
Teaching hand signals helps to keep your dog constantly watching you. If they aren't watching they might miss something. It is helpful when your dog grows old and possibly loses their amazing hearing. I have always used hand signals with my older dogs. It's also very impressive, stand proud, you spent a great deal of time teaching your dog and it shows.