My just-turned 14-year-old dog Otto has lost most of his hearing. Our communication is very limited now. He can no longer hear me tell him what a good dog he is or how much I love him. True, I can shout these things at him, and speak them right into his adorably fuzzy ears, but a loving tone just isn’t the same when you have to raise your voice, or someone is speaking to you with their lips on your head! But thank goodness we have hand signals so I can help him understand what I want him to do.
He can still hear the loudest of hand claps, and this is what I still use to get his attention when I need him to look at me – we won’t discuss how much these claps tend to make my husband jump out of his skin and swear under his breath. When I clap loudly enough, Otto will look at me for information. Then I can signal, “Stay!” with a crossing guard’s “stop” gesture; this now means everything from, “Don’t try to follow me outside, you’re not coming with me to the store,” to “Wait there for a second, I have to run back inside to get my coat.” (I’ve started using the “stay” signal followed by holding up my index finger in a “We’re number one!” gesture to mean something more like our old verbal “wait” cue.)
He’s always been rock-solid on the hand signals for “sit” and “down” and “stand” – but I honestly don’t ask him to do these behaviors much anymore. His arthritis makes it increasingly difficult to stand up from a down and to lower himself into a sit. Now he gets treats just for showing up and standing with us attentively when I ask my younger dog to sit, down, and stand. He likes that a lot!
I never really taught him a hand signal for “Come.” My cue has always been a verbal “Here!” or a whistle. That was a bad oversight, because “come to me” is something I ask him to do many times a day, especially now that it’s cold and I no longer leave doors open for him to come into my office or into the house whenever he gets around to it. Sometimes he stands outside 50 yards away, trying to decide if he’s going to hang out outside (he’s got the run of our fenced two acres) or follow me into my warm office. I stand in my office doorway grumbling. “All the heat is escaping! What are you going to do?” So I’ve started teaching him a physical recall cue. Spontaneously, it turned into something a bit theatrical. I reach my arms out toward him, and then pull them back to my chest, like an endangered woman in a silent film, imploring the hero to come back and save her. It looks a little silly, but he can see it from a good distance away, and he’s picked it up quickly.
I’ve long used a “thumbs up” gesture as an alternative to a click or “Yes!” to mark the moment he does a behavior I’ve cued or, to be honest, anything else that I like. I’m so grateful that I taught him that alternative to ”Yes!” because, basically, in my eyes, he can’t do anything “wrong” anymore. He’s always a good boy, and I give him the “thumbs up” and a big smile many times a day. Again, thank goodness he knows that one, because it’s one of the few things I can do now to make his “concentrating” expression soften and his tail wag.
Don’t wait until it’s too late to teach your dog hand signals – if for no other reason than as a hedge for his or her old age. You can thank me later.
Here are just a few of the many articles we’ve done on teaching hand signals for your cues: