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Training Corner

Training with Hand Signals

by Barbara DeGroodt

Training Corner

I recently had my dogs on a walk at Marina Dunes State Park, and as I was getting “the boys” (as they are known) out of the car, I watched a man yelling at his dog to “sit.” After several minutes of the dog not responding he pulled and pushed the dog into a sit. Although no physical harm was done to the dog, I wondered what was being done to the relationship between this gentleman and his dog. I had to remind myself that when he was ready he would ask for help from a good trainer and kept my opinion to myself. As I began to walk by with my three, the man yelled to me, “Wait a minute; I want to speak with you.” I asked “the boys” to sit as he approached and asked me how I had taught my dogs to sit. I smiled and thought….he’s ready!

I told him I worked with the behavior before I added the word “sit.” Using a treat as a lure, I showed him how I raised the treat above my terrier Bob’s head. As Bob’s head came up, his little bum went down. It is simple physics, with the added bonus of teaching a hand signal. He asked me to repeat the luring process with Bob, then with my Rottie, Tune, and finally with my other Rottie, Cane. Each time I just used a hand signal. No words.

The man then asked somewhat sheepishly if this would work on his out-of-control young Lab. I said we sure could try and I put “the boys” in a “down,” then walked over to his car. It turns out Honey, a black Lab, was about eight months old and had not had any training up to this point. All of the man’s friends had said, “Why bother? Labs don’t mature until they are two.” I explained that Rottweilers do not mature until they are three, but I was not going to live with an out-of-control 80-pound dog for three years. Training and bad habits begin the day the dog comes into the house. Hopefully in three years, you have more training than bad habits!

I lured a treat over Honey’s head, but she was too busy jumping around and ignoring everyone. Patience.. I put the treat right on Honey’s nose and BINGO! I had attention for a brief minute. I repeated it again and again and each time Honey stayed with me a bit longer, until she was only paying attention to the treat. As I raised the treat, her guardian said “sit” just as she jumped up. I told him not to say anything and to let Honey figure it out herself. She didn’t get the treat for jumping. We began again.; treat raised, head up and bum down, treat given. I explained that, at this point in the training, the treat is a lure and that you don’t need treats all the time, but it is nice to reinforce (reward) behavior you want.

Next, I showed him how to use the process with down; raising the treat high with his hand, palm facing the dog, then slowly bringing the treat down past the dog’s nose and all the way to the floor…Honey followed the treat all the way down, thus developing the hand signal for down. First time! No words.

I explained that dogs respond to body language much sooner than they do to verbal cues since that’s their main method of communication. Recently, in an intermediate class, I asked my students to give a “sit” hand signal but verbally say “down.” Of the 15 dogs in class, 13 did a sit, one did a down, and one didn’t respond, looking a bit bewildered.

Hand signals for “sit” and “down” are the most common, but other behaviors that you can use hand signals for are “come,” “stay,” and “quiet.”

Lastly, the man asked when to add the words. I usually don’t add them until my dogs respond to a hand signal nine out of 10 times; then I can very quietly ask for the behavior instead of always yelling. I asked him if he heard me ask my dogs for a sit or down, and he said “No.” I told him I did ask, but almost in a whisper because they were following my hand signals. I let him know I really needed to walk my boys, and as I left, I watched him practicing with Honey, and they were working together. (Sidebar: When I got back to my vehicle there was a $20 bill under my wiper blade and a thank-you note. The gentleman and Honey have since begun private lessons and “the team” is doing well! I use the term “team” because now they are.) Hug your pups!

Barbara De Groodt is the owner of From the Heart Animal Behavior Counseling and Dog Training in Salinas, CA and has been an animal behavior counselor for over 30 years. Barbara was one of the original founders of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, APDT (under the guidance of Dr. Ian Dunbar); she’s a professional member of International Association Canine Professionals and several behavior organizations, as well as a certified animal trainer. She is a regular speaker at Western Career College’s Animal Health department and lectures around the world to veterinary groups, law enforcement agencies, trainers and pet owners. From the Heart is located in Salinas, CA. Barb De Groodt can be contacted at (831) 783-0818. www.fromtheheart.info.


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