Hand signals vs. visual signs: Which is better to train your pet?

No matter if you choose hand or visual signs for dog training, do not do both at the same time or you’ll never know what the pet is reacting to.


Q: I saw a trainer using hand signals with his dog. Our pet learned verbal commands in dog training class. Which is better: hand signals or verbal commands?

A: Hand signals are visual signs used in place of verbal commands. Both are useful for communicating expectations to pets. One is not necessarily better. They are just different, like a hammer versus a screwdriver. Each has distinct advantages and purposes.
Dogs seem to prefer hand signals. Thousands of years of selective breeding has created an animal that reads human gestures better than chimps do.
Since dogs gravitate toward visual signals, training in silence has benefits. Pets learn to pay closer attention. They realize, “If I do not watch carefully, I’ll miss a command and possibly miss a reward.”
Signs offer a convenient way of communicating when otherwise occupied. When chatting with friends, owners can give a subtle hand signal without missing a beat. Silent commands work well when engaged in a phone conversation. Should the dog lose its hearing at some point, the lines of communication remain open.
On the other hand, verbal commands require more effort to teach. Human language does not come naturally to our pets. It can even be confusing. For example, dogs struggle with mixed messages, such as “sit down.” They may see this as two separate commands: sit and lie down, which are impossible to execute simultaneously.
Verbal commands are the clear choice when the dog is out of sight. They allow owners to call a dog that is running through a forest or in another room. Vocal instructions work for pets that are losing their sight.
Both approaches have a purpose. Do keep hand signals separate from verbal commands. In other words, do not speak commands while simultaneously signing. While it won’t ruin the dog, mixing them together means you will not know which the dog is responding to.

Q: We have a Border collie puppy. She has lots of energy. We recently started jogging with her. We would like to try biking with her and some agility. While out running, a bystander yelled out that our dog was too young for this. Are they correct, and, if yes, when can we start vigorous exercise?
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