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Using Hand Signals with Gun Dogs

Whether for stealth or a balanced communication, integrating these non-verbal cues can help improve your dog's performance in the field.

Using Hand Signals with Gun Dogs

Because our dogs rely heavily on non-verbal communication, they can easily take to using hand signal commands in the field. (Photo By: Jordan Horak)

From the outside looking in, owning and training a gun dog may appear to be a very straight-forward proposition. However, once that pup comes into our home and we start to care for it and train it, dog ownership often feels not so straight-forward. When it comes to training, while we may not be trying to train the next “Lassie” that knows seemingly thousands of tasks, most, if not all of us, want a companion that performs well in the field and makes our hunts more productive and satisfying. This will only come from hours of training, and this training process is full of small details that can make all the difference between a formidable hunter and a dog that spoils hunts. Let’s discuss one of those details: non-verbal communication with our dogs. 

Isn’t Verbal Communication Adequate Enough?

Verbal communication is typically our default mode of communicating with our dogs, and with good reason. We are accustomed to verbally communicating with our fellow Homo sapiens, so it’s natural for us to use verbal communication with our dogs. Verbal communication also can be highly effective because it’s easy for us to add emotional inflection (happy, angry, excited, urgent, etc.), and it doesn’t require that our dog can visually see us while we’re communicating with them. But verbal communication has its limitations when it comes to communicating with our canine friends.

Some of the limitations that come to mind are: 1) Distance: Whether it’s a retriever on a long mark or a pointer running on the horizon, sometimes long distances make it hard to connect verbally with our dogs. 2) Background Noise: Wind can make it hard for our dogs to hear us, even at moderate distances. I’ve seen this happen on the prairies of the Dakotas especially. Howling winds quickly drown out our commands and make audible communication difficult. 3) Stealth: Whether it’s chasing ringnecks in the cattails, crawling for chukar on a scree slope, or jumping ducks off a pond, sometimes verbal communication isn’t the best choice because it will spook birds. 4) Clarity: Verbal communication sometimes lacks clarity because our dog’s understanding of vocal vocabulary is limited. 

young female dog trainer with english cocker spaniel on place board
Place training provides an effective way to get your dog started with directional commands, including the use of hand signals. (Photo By: Jordan Horak)

Non-Verbal Communication Is Key

Thankfully, when verbal communication falls short, there’s another form of communication available to pick up the slack. Oddly enough, while we may consider verbal communication to be the primary form of communication with our dogs, they likely have a different idea. While amongst other dogs, body language is a dog’s primary form of communication, and they’re very good at it. Little nuances of posture, gaze, lips, tail, etc., all are used to communicate, and typically are very quickly understood by other dogs. 

Knowing that, it would behoove us to use a dog’s aptitude for body language to our advantage. Dogs are typically very easily taught the meaning of different gestures and can quickly respond to body signals just as readily as verbal commands. 

Communicating Through Hand Signals

Let’s take a closer look at some of the specific commands that I use hand signals for, what they look like, and when I use them. 

dog trainer using over hand signal with english cocker spaniel
Cast your dog left or right with an "over" hand signal. (Photo By: Jordan Horak)

Over - A strong understanding of the non-verbal “over” command is crucial for both a waterfowl dog and an upland dog. It’s a very intuitive gesture (as all non-verbal commands should be) and is simply a matter of putting one arm straight out to the side of the handler’s body. For a waterfowl dog, this command would be used for handling on a blind retrieve, or even a marked retrieve when the dog needed a little assistance. I also use it for my upland dogs as it allows me to direct them into an area that I think they missed while hunting a field. 

dog trainer using back hand signal with english cocker spaniel
Send your dog farther away from you with a "back" hand signal. (Photo By: Jordan Horak)

Back - Sending your dog on a retrieve but need to get him to go farther? The “back” hand signal is what you need. When I give this command, it looks like I’m pushing my hand up in the air. The best visual I can give is imagine you’re pushing the dog farther away from you—that’s the motion that you want. You’ll also want to make sure you put your hand far enough above your head that your dog can clearly see it. 

Sit - “Sit” may be the most used command of all time, so having a hand signal for this action can be extremely helpful. It’s a simple gesture: I hold my hand up at about chest-height and hold it stationary. I’ll use this hand signal for a number of situations: when I’m handling on a retrieve I like to sit the dog down before giving a directional command (“over” or “back”). If I use my hand for the sit, the dog is now focusing on my hand, so when I give the directional command, they immediately see the motion of my hand (up for “back” or to the side for “over”). A silent “sit” in the duck blind can be super helpful too!

dog trainer using closer hand signal with english cocker spaniel
Bring your dog back toward you with a "closer" hand signal. (Photo By: Jordan Horak)

Closer - I like having a hand signal that lets the dog know I’d like them to work in closer to me. I might use this when I’ve sent a dog on a retrieve and the dog has gone out too far and I’d like them to work back in closer toward me, or if I’m upland hunting and the dog is pushing down the field too far from me. This command lets the dog know he doesn’t need to come all the way back to me (that would be a recall), but that he does need to come back in part way. The motion is simple; I drop my hand and bring it back toward my leg.

Quartering - My personal hunting dogs are spaniels, and I want to be able to hunt them without a lot of whistling or other verbal communication. I also don’t want to be walking through the woods and fields waving my arms back and forth—that just sounds tiring and ridiculous and would also be hard to do while carrying a gun. Instead, the majority of the time while I’m pursuing upland birds with a flushing dog, I’m using subtle body motions to direct the dog when necessary. This is typically a lean of the shoulder or a flick of the hand, but sometimes it’s as subtle as a slight turn of the head. 


Making it Happen

Now that we’ve identified some of the ways that hand signals and non-verbal communication can be used with our hunting dogs, training them to understand visual cues becomes the next step. Many books have been written on dog training, and I’d never be able to do the topic justice in a few short paragraphs, but here are a few principles to keep in mind as you go through the training process and begin using hand signals with your dog. 

If they look, offer help. If your dog looks to you for help, reward them for the eye contact by giving him a hand signal, even if it’s what they’re already doing. If we fail to give a non-verbal signal when our dog looks at us, eventually they’ll stop looking, and we don’t want that. Although in everything, balance is important, so if a dog becomes too dependent, we may need to stop offering too much help.

Be consistent. I’ve identified several non-verbal signals that we can use. We need to treat these signals as well-defined “commands” and make sure that we use them consistently. Inconsistency with commands leads to frustration (for both handler and dog). Consistency is going to make for a more confident dog that does its job better. 

Be balanced. I don’t ever want my training to become too one-sided. Sometimes I use verbal commands only. Other times, I use visual commands only. Most of the time, though, I use both of them together. There’s a good reason for that. By using verbal and visual commands simultaneously, they’re reinforcing their meanings, and making it easier for the dog to respond to the commands independently. 

If you haven’t started formally training hand signals with your dog, I’d recommend you give it a shot in your next session. Most likely your dog will take to it faster than you’d expect, and ultimately, you’ll end up with a more efficient hunting companion. Dog training can be an awesome journey, and we should enjoy every step of the process. Good luck with this piece of the puzzle!

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Once you begin using hand signals, your dog should be regularly checking in with you and awaiting your next command. (Photo By: Jordan Horak)


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