Give Them a Hand: Visual Signals for Dog Training

By Joe Fucini, President, Fucini Productions

Unlike humans who rely on verbal communication, canines experience life through visual connection and body language before sound. In fact, they're so in tune with human gestures that besides primates and African elephants, they are the only animals we know that can follow pointing. Dogs' natural responsiveness to visual cues makes hand signals an excellent option for replacing or accompanying vocal commands while training.

About Dog Vision
Dogs have excellent vision—though very different from our own. Despite popular belief, our domesticated canine friends are not colorblind—at least, not in the traditional sense. Dogs have dichromatic vision, meaning that they see only two colors, yellow and blue, along with identifying shades of grey, according to canine color vision researcher Dr. Jay Neitz, PhD. Although dogs see colors in more muted, pastel-like hues than we do, bright, primary colors can still induce a sense of excitement in our canine companions (especially those in a bright orange-yellow or blue). The illustration below presents a dog's view of color spectrum compared to a human's.

Although dogs do not see as “clearly” as humans in broad daylight, their sight is far superior to ours in low-level light. Dr. Neitz also discovered that although dogs have fewer color-perceiving cones than humans, they have far more rods in the cells of their eyes for night vision. They can also identify moving objects from long distances, recognizing their human from a half-mile away.

Their ability to identify moving objects so easily means that motion-based hand signals are the clearest and easiest for dogs to interpret. Since there is no complete, universal hand signal language for dog training, having an understanding of dogs' visual abilities will make it easier to create and establish recognizable signals dogs can follow.

Dog Communication
Dogs naturally communicate in different ways than their humans. We relate through sound, then sight, then scent when greeting someone. Our canine friends, on the other hand, communicate with each other through body language, then scent, then sound. Despite their superior hearing, barking is just an additional form of communication for dogs, not the primary one. They do not understand language and learning to recognize vocal commands is less natural for dogs than grasping a visual cue. When communicating with humans, our furry friends might be more vocal because they learn that it wins them attention.
When two dogs greet each other, the initial greeting is usually quiet, involving first body language cues and sniffing. A canine's body language speaks volumes to its own kind. Even a tail wag, or lack thereof, can be essential for friendly encounters with other dogs.
A study by biological researchers Steven Leaver and Tom Reimchen of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, compared canine reactions to a robotic dog with a long or docked-length (about 3 inches) tail. The research showed that when the long-tailed robot pooch wagged its tail, other dogs approached it in a friendly way—however, when the short-tailed robot wagged its docked tail, other dogs approached it cautiously and in a guarded manner. This study backs up research by Dr. Stanley Coren, PhD, which also suggests that docking a tail impairs the range of canine communication, which is based largely on body language.

Not only do dogs have good vision, they also have an uncanny ability to empathize with and understand human gestures. An excellent example of this is their understanding of human pointing. Even primates do not respond to this cue as accurately as our canine counterparts.While scientists can agree this is quite an amazing trait, they can't seem to agree on whether or not the ability is genetic or has been learned through socialization with humans. Research from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) claims the ability of dogs to follow pointing is genetic.
However, according to a study by Brian Hare and Michael Tomasello at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, these social skills are not inherited from wolves nor are they simply learned as a result of exposure to humans in ontogeny, but rather they have evolved as a result of domestication.
No matter how the trait was developed, the canine ability to understand human body language and visual cues is useful when it comes to dog training.

Hand Signals and Training
Hand signals are not just the method used for training deaf dogs; in fact, many trainers would agree that their canine clients learn and respond to visual cues faster than vocal ones. Some might argue that vocal signals are better, since you can call dogs from a distance or when they're looking away—but remember that dogs can recognize objects in motion from long distances, and even while running away, they often look back to see if their owners are chasing them.
While the idea might seem more challenging initially, when you consider it, the training methods for using hand signals are very similar to those using vocal signals. They don't require any more time or effort to teach, just different cues.
There are, unfortunately, no universal hand signals used for training dogs, but resources such as provide a visual list of basic commands. Many trainers use the signals in ASL (American Sign Language) to fill in other cues. Trainers can also create their own signals. As long as dogs are able to easily distinguish the hand motion, it can be used. The most important key to this training style, just as with vocal commands, is being consistent.

Well-Rounded Training
Using both a hand signal and a vocal cue in unison is a great way to build understanding. Dogs who learn both training signals will still be able to take vocal cues given from another human, if necessary. If the dog loses their hearing, they will still have the ability to communicate with their owner. Since deafness falls more often to elderly dogs, retraining at that age can be more challenging, meaning that hand signals should be taught at an early age, if possible.

The benefits of visual training are clear.  Since dogs are visually oriented animals, hand signals are a more natural way for them to communicate and a training cue they learn from faster. Whether you're training a client's new pup, or a family dog in need of a refresher course, grab a bag treats to draw their attention and try out a simple hand signal to cue their next trick. You might be surprised by how quickly the student grasps the new training concept.

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