They couldn’t see each other, but I could see them — the skunk and my bird dog — on a collision course on opposite sides of a little rise. This won’t be good, I thought. I whistle-stopped the dog and raised an outstretched arm, pointing left, away from the skunk. The dog made a U-turn, heading straight away from certain and smelly disaster.
That was just one of many times I’ve been glad I taught my dog hand signals. Obeying hand signals is essential for waterfowl retrievers seeking shot birds that they can’t see, before the birds drift off too far or escape wounded into thick cover.
Upland dogs also need to handle in this way to be directed on retrieve, into birdy cover, or away from roads, thin ice, skunks, and porcupines. Your dog naturally watches you for visual clues. It reads your movements and takes direction from them, whether you’re aware of it or not, so you might as well develop this natural tendency into a vital skill.
Dogs can learn short voice commands, but they lock onto hand signals even better. In wind, waves, or at long distances, dogs can’t hear voice commands clearly, and excited dogs don’t respond to them as well as they do to hand signals. Plus, while hunting you don’t want to scare off incoming ducks with a lot of yelling. So, a short voice command with a hand signal is the surest way to communicate where you want your dog to go.
The goal: to direct the pup with hand and voice commands
• straight away (from you), hold your arm straight up over your head and give the command “Back.”
• left, hold the left arm straight out and say “Over.”
• right, hold the right arm straight out and say “Over.”
Here’s how you do it
Now you know the commands, you’re ready to help your dog learn them. When it’s old enough and trained to sit or stay reliably, you’re ready to begin.
1. Place three bowls on the ground in your yard, arranged like a ball field with a first, second, and third base, but just four or five steps apart.
2. Have the dog sit on what would be the pitcher’s mound, with you at home plate. Keep the dog on a check cord. Place a treat the pup really likes in the bowl behind it on second base.
3. Go back to home plate and get the dog’s attention. Raise your arm straight up and say “Back.”
4. Release the dog to get the treat.
5. Bring it back to the pitcher’s mound and repeat several times.
6. Practise this command daily for a week or two before switching to the bowls on your left or right, then use the appropriate hand signal while saying “Over.”
The next step
When the pup has all three directions down, change the drill by walking to each of the bowls and pretend to place a treat in each one, but only leave one treat in the bowl behind the dog. Give it the signal to go back and release it to get it. If the pup goes to the wrong bowl bring it back to the middle and re-do it until the dog gets it right, then reinforce that with a lot of refilling of the back bowl. When the pup has that down, do the same with each of the side bowls.
Next, the pup needs to learn to obey you everywhere, not just in the yard, so, on its daily walk, toss treats at marked locations a few steps off the road, without your dog seeing them. On your way back along the same route, sit the dog on the roadside near the treat and give it the hand signal toward it, then release the dog to get it. If it doesn’t go to treat the first time, walk the pup to the treat with your outstretched arm pointing the way. Do several of these drills on each walk and your pup will become convinced that you always know where the goods are and it’s in its best interest to follow your direction.
When the pup has been trained to retrieve reliably, start tossing out retrieving dummies instead of hiding a treat. When the bases are loaded, signal which dummy the dog is to retrieve. Increase the distance as your dog matures. Keep at the training, because nothing beats the feeling of seeing your gun dog emerge from the thick weeds with a game bird in its mouth that you couldn’t have recovered on your own.
Originally published in the July 2019 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine