Using hand signals with gun dogs

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

From the outside, owning and training a gun dog may seem like a very simple proposition. However, once that puppy comes into our home and we begin to care for and train it, owning a dog often does not seem so easy. When it comes to exercise, while we may not be trying to breed the next “Lassie” who knows a thousand things, most, if not all, of us want a companion that performs well in this area and makes our hunts more productive and productive. satisfactory. 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 great hunter and a dog that spoils the game. Let’s discuss one of those details: non-verbal communication with our dogs.

Is verbal communication not adequate enough?

Verbal communication is usually our default method of communication with our dogs, and for good reason. We are used to verbal communication with our colleague Homo sapiens, so it’s only natural that we use verbal communication with our dogs. Verbal communication can also be highly effective because it’s easy for us to add emotional impact (happy, angry, excited, urgent, etc.) and doesn’t require our dog to visually see us when we’re communicating with them. However, 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 lead or a pointer running on the horizon, sometimes long distances make it difficult to verbally communicate with our dogs. 2) Background Noise: Wind can make it difficult for our dogs to hear us even at moderate distances. I have seen this happen especially in the Dakota prairies. Howling winds quickly drown out our commands and make voice communication difficult. 3) Hidden: Whether it’s chasing holes in cattails, looking for chukars on a hillside, or duck jumping across a pond, sometimes verbal communication isn’t the best option because it scares the birds away. 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 board
Ground training provides an effective way to train your dog with directional commands, including the use of hand signals. (Photo: Jordan Horak)

Non-verbal communication is key

Thankfully, when verbal communication is poor, there is another form of communication to overcome the weakness. Ironically, although we consider verbal communication to be the primary form of communication with our dogs, they have a different idea. Body language is a dog’s primary form of communication with other dogs, and they are very good at it. Posture, gaze, lips, tail, etc. Small nuances such as barking are used to communicate and are usually picked up very quickly by other dogs.

Knowing this, it would behoove us to use the dog’s ability to learn body language to our advantage. Dogs usually learn the meaning of different gestures very easily and can respond to body signals as easily as verbal commands.

Communication with hand signals

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

Dog trainer using hand signal with english cocker spaniel
With a hand signal, throw your dog to the left or right. (Photo: Jordan Horak)

already – A strong understanding of the non-verbal “over” command is crucial for both waterfowl and mountain dogs. This is a very intuitive gesture (as are all non-verbal commands) and is simply a matter of placing one arm to the side of the operator’s body. For a waterfowl dog, this command can be used on a blind search or even on a marked search if the dog needs a little help. I also use it for my mountain dogs because it allows me to direct them to an area I think they may have missed while hunting in the field.

A dog trainer using the rear hand signal with an English cocker spaniel
Send your dog farther away from you with the “back” hand signal. (Photo: Jordan Horak)

Back – Sending your dog out on a quest but need to get him to go further? A “back” hand signal is what you need. When I give this command, I seem to push my hand in the air. The best visualization I can give is to imagine pushing the dog further away from you – that’s the action you want. You also want to make sure you place your hand far enough above your head that your dog can see it clearly.

sit down – “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 raise my hand at about chest height and hold it still. I’ll use this hand signal for a number of situations: I like to sit the dog before giving a redirect command (“up” or “back”) when I’m doing a search. If I use my hand to sit, the dog now focuses on my hand, so when I give the direction command, they immediately see my hand move (up for “back” or sideways for “up”). Silently “sitting” on the duck blind can also be very helpful!

A dog trainer using the closer hand signal with an English cocker spaniel
Bring your dog back to you with the “close” hand signal. (Photo: Jordan Horak)

Closer – I like to have a hand signal that tells the dog that I want them to work closer to me. I can use this when I’m out hunting and the dog is too far away and I want them to work closer to me, or if I’m hunting in the mountains and the dog is pushing it. the field is far from me. This command lets the dog know that he doesn’t need to come back to me completely (that would be a recall), but he needs to come back partially. The move is simple; I bring my hand down to my leg.

a quarter – My personal hunting dogs are spaniels and I like to be able to hunt them without too much whistling or other verbal communication. I also don’t want to walk through woods and fields swinging my arms back and forth – it just sounds tedious and ridiculous, and it would be difficult to do while carrying a gun. Instead, most of the time when I’m chasing upland birds with a red dog, I use subtle body movements to direct the dog as needed. This is usually a shrug of the shoulder or a movement of the hand, but sometimes it is as subtle as a slight turn of the head.

To implement it

Now that we have identified some of the ways 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 could never do the subject justice in a few short paragraphs, but here are a few principles to keep in mind as you go through the training process and start using hand signals. your dog

If they are watching, offer to help. If your dog looks at you for help, reward them for eye contact by giving them a hand signal, even if it’s what they’re already doing. If we can’t give a non-verbal cue when our dog looks at us, eventually they will stop looking and we don’t want that. Balance is important in all things though, so if a dog becomes too dependent, we may need to stop offering too much help.

Be persistent. I have identified several non-verbal cues that we can use. We must treat these signals as well-defined “commands” and make sure we use them consistently. Inconsistency with commands leads to frustration (for both the handler and the dog). Consistency will lead to a more confident dog that does its job better.

Be balanced. I never want my training to be too one-sided. Sometimes I only use verbal commands. Other times I just use visual commands. I often use both together. There’s a good reason for that. By using verbal and visual commands at the same time, it reinforces their meaning and makes it easier for the dog to respond to commands independently.

If you haven’t started formally training hand signals with your dog, I would recommend that you give it a try at your next session. Chances are, your dog will pick up on it faster than you expect, and 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 puzzle piece!

Once you start using hand signals, your dog should be communicating with you regularly and waiting for your next command. (Photo: Jordan Horak)


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