Hand signals are fun to teach and easy for most puppies to understand. All you need to get started with your puppy are a few kibbles of food. There are several ways to teach your puppy hand signals.
The first thing to do is to get your puppy to associate a hand gesture with one of your command words. From there, getting your puppy to react to the hand signal alone is a matter of repetition.
Replacing verbal commands with hand signals
Let’s assume that your puppy already knows the association between a verbal command (“sit”) and the action you want him to perform (sitting). The next thing for you to do is to create a new association between an unfamiliar hand signal and the verbal command and action that he already knows.
To get started, pair the verbal command with a hand signal (see below for examples of common hand signals). When the puppy performs the correct action, immediately reinforce this behaviour with a kibble. You’ll have to repeat this many times to ensure your puppy understands the association.
While still using the food reward, gradually eliminate the verbal command. For a while, you might use the verbal command and hand gesture together half the time and the hand gesture alone half the time.
Once your puppy reliably reacts to the silent hand gesture when you have the food, gradually remove the piece of food from the equation. Soon your puppy will sit, lie down or come with just a motion of your hand.
Start with your puppy standing in front of you. Hold a piece of kibble in your fingers and, starting with your hand at your side, bring it up slowly, folding your arm as if you were going to toss something over the same shoulder. Do this slowly, bringing the kibble past your puppy’s nose. Say “Sit” at the same time. You’re leading his nose upward as you say it. When he does, praise and give him the kibble.
Start with your puppy sitting in front of you. Hold a piece of kibble in your fingers and, with your hand raised above your head, bring it down, keeping your arm straight until it is hanging at your side. Do this slowly, bringing the kibble past your puppy’s nose as you signal. Say “Down” at the same time. You’re leading his nose down as you say it. When he lies down, praise him and give him the kibble.
Start with your puppy in front of you. Hold a piece of kibble in your fingers. Start with your arm held straight out to your side, parallel with the ground. Now sweep your arm forward so your hand touches your opposite shoulder. Do this slowly at first, bringing the kibble past your puppy’s nose as you signal. Say, “Come” and back up a few steps at the same time. When he does, praise him and give him the kibble.
Repeat these basic signals, paired with verbal commands some of the time, for as long it takes to get your puppy associating them. Be patient with your puppy, and be as consistent as possible with your praise so he doesn’t get confused. Soon enough, you’ll be able to add more signals to your repertoire as your puppy grows.