Training a dog with hand signals

Using Non-Verbal Cues with Your Service Dog

Training a service dog takes, on average, 2 years. It usually starts with regular puppy antics and potty training with more involved training slowly being added as the puppy grows and matures. Socialization, advanced obedience, and task training are all important pieces of service dog training.

While there are no specific training requirements per the American’s with Disabilities Act other than the dog being in control and housebroken, there are still basic obedience behaviors that service dogs are generally expected to know. You would be hard-pressed to find a legitimate service dog that is unable to perform a down-stay on command, ignore dropped food, or stay in an appropriate position next to their handler unless performing a task.

Tasks Will Be Unique to Each Team

Beyond the basic foundation of appropriate service dog behavior, the tasks trained will be different for every service dog team. No two teams will have the exact same tasks, even with the same diagnosis. Each dog is trained specifically for their handler which means there are slight differences in training even when the tasks are similar. Some tasks can be used in different ways for different diagnoses, while others are specific to a single disability. 

No two teams will have the exact same tasks, even with the same diagnosis.

This is why it is so important for a handler to first determine what their own limitations are due to their disability as they are choosing tasks to train and NOT go right to asking others with similar diagnoses what their dogs do. That said, there are some aspects of training that can apply to all service dogs. The one that will be covered here is the area of non-verbal commands.

The Importance of Training Non-Verbal Cues

While the frequency of non-verbal cues is increasing, outside of service dogs for those who are hard of hearing, it is not a commonly trained skill. But it should be something all handlers consider as they are training their service dogs (or after receiving a dog from a program).

So why would non-verbal commands be important outside of service dogs for people who are hard of hearing? There are many situations where a dog is either unable to hear or when a handler may be unable to speak. Crowded malls, concerts (especially since ear protection is typically used which further dulls a dog’s ability to hear), storms, emergency situations, the list could go on. All of these are situations where the dog’s ability to hear a command from their handler may be compromised.

Now, as most service dogs are trained to check-in and stay in a close heel position, simply maneuvering around a crowded area may not be an issue. However, if there are any tasks or commands that are only used as needed or with specific cues, it may be difficult to communicate that without a non-verbal command.

Being Able to Communicate When You Are Unable to Speak

Also, consider situations where a handler may be unable to speak. This could be during an anaphylactic reaction where breathing is compromised and the handler’s throat is swelling. If a handler has disabling anxiety, some situations may trigger a panic response where they are unable to speak. Someone with autism may be unable to say anything in situations where they are overstimulated or on the verge of a meltdown.

All of these situations could leave a handler unable to give any task commands when some of those tasks could be needed and helpful. This is why non-verbal commands should be a tool that all handlers use to some degree.

Which Cues Should I Also Train Non-Verbally?

Not all trained commands need a non-verbal counterpart. Only those that could be important during some of these situations where oral communication is limited.

As an example, my service dog does medical alerting for severe allergic reactions and low blood sugar. During episodes of anaphylaxis, I am unable to speak due to difficulty breathing and throat swelling.

My service dog does not know every single task with both an oral command and a non-verbal command. I only trained non-verbal cues for the ones that are used during some of my anaphylactic reactions when I am unable to speak. She was trained to retrieve my EpiPens with both an oral “epi” command and with a signed command (we use the ASL sign for emergency). If I have a rapid onset reaction, my throat swells very quickly. The non-verbal epi command means I can send my service dog to retrieve an EpiPen even if I’m already unable to speak. Also having the verbal command means that if someone else is with me, they can send my dog to get an EpiPen while they stay with me or call 911.

She also knows cover (similar to DPT), sit, down, stay, and okay (her release word) in both verbal and non-verbal commands. These are the commands that are most often needed during emergency situations when I may be unable to speak, such as being transported to the hospital in an ambulance. Having the non-verbal commands means our communication does not break down when speaking is not an option.

So How Do You Train Non-Verbal Cues?

Step 1:

First, choose which tasks need a non-verbal command along with the verbal command. Not all tasks will need both, so you can decide if you want to only train non-verbal ones for those you will need or if you do want to train non-verbal commands for everything.

Step 2:

Next, choose your non-verbal commands and how you will get your dog’s attention. Some people choose to use actual ASL (or the sign language of their country). Other people prefer to make up the signs entirely. I use a combination of ASL and made up signs. Figure out what works best for you and your dog.

Single hand signs (vs. those that require both hands) are generally better options as it is easier and requires less processing by your dog.

Finger snapAlso, remember that if you are in a situation where you cannot speak, you may need another tactic to get your dog’s attention other than “focus” or “watch me”. I chose to use a finger snap. This is also her “come” command if we are at home and I cannot speak. (This will not work in an environment that is too loud to hear. You may also need a gentle touch that gets their attention for those moments.)

Step 3:

Then just start training! If you are at the beginning stages of training, you can incorporate the non-verbal command into your basic training by working with it just like you would a verbal command.

Note that training non-verbal cues will require a higher level of focus from your dog. They have to actually be looking at you instead of just listening while maybe looking out the window.

Working With a Program Dog

If you received a trained dog from a program, you can still add non-verbal commands to their repertoire. As you continue to reinforce your dog’s training, you can add in the non-verbal commands along with the already trained tasks. It may be a bit confusing at first if your dog is not used to non-verbal commands, but service dogs are smart and most will pick up on it with regular training.


Non-verbal commands require a higher level of focus from the dog and handler as there are new dynamics to consider when oral communication is not used. Handler positioning, dog focus, and visual processing skills are all much more important in using non-verbal cues. A breakdown in just one of these factors can result in the command being missed. Non-verbal cues can be a fun challenge for service dog teams to tackle while also providing additional communication skills when oral communication is not an option.

Kylene Boka
Kylene is a grad student living in Ohio with her husband and two dogs, Bonk and Leni. Leni is her service dog and is scent trained to alert to severe allergic reactions and hypoglycemia due to Kylene’s mast cell disease. To learn more about life with mast cell disease and a service dog, you can check out Kylene’s blog,