How to Train Your Dog to Wave Hello and Goodbye

Are you looking to bulk up your dog’s trick repertoire? Training your dog to wave “goodbye” with one paw and “hello” with the other is a simple way to add two new tricks to their catalog for the price of one.

Of course, anytime you teach your dog two similar tricks, you must spend some time training them to distinguish between the two commands. As long as your approach training the cues correctly, your dog should easily be able to distinguish between similar commands, even if you find yourself occasionally getting confused.

Before we get into the steps of training your dog how to wave, we first need to look at the importance of verbal cues versus hand cues. And why it may be that your dog is more likely to remember the difference between the “hello” and “goodbye” cues than you are.


Using Verbal Cues with Your Dog

Humans love verbal cues. It’s almost impossible to find a dog owner that doesn’t automatically resort to verbal cueing during training. Whether that means shouting “come!” or “sit” at your dog, or just constantly filling the silence with praise and chatter (“You almost did it! Try again. What a good boy!”).

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There’s no size limit when it comes to trick training! The key is all about finding out what motivates your dog and how to get them to offer an array of different behaviors that you can shape into something fun. 

For humans, this kind of communication makes the most sense. We are an incredibly verbal species. You wouldn’t walk into a room to meet a friend and just posture at them. You would say hello and ask how they were doing and then commence with physical communication like a hug or a handshake.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that we like to communicate with our dogs the same way.

While verbal cues do have their place in dog training, such as with recall commands or any other signal meant for a dog not looking at the trainer, the truth is, they help us more than they help our dogs.

How Dogs Communicate

All canines communicate through body language with very limited vocalizations. They can tell if another dog is friendly or threatening just by looking at their eyes. Similarly, dogs use our body language to interpret what we are asking them. Study after study has proven that a handler’s unintentional “body cues” play more into how accurately a dog performs a behavior than the actual verbal command being used.

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One look says a thousand words when it comes to doggy communication. Dogs are pros at reading the body language of humans and canines, even when the conversation is more subtle.

Don’t believe me? Take a verbal command you think your dog knows well, like sit or down, and ask them to do it. But, before you give the verbal cue, turn your back to them. Did they do what you asked? Or did they act like they had no idea what you were saying?

Most dogs will fail to comply with the command given during this test. That’s because your dog doesn’t rely on your words to figure out what you want of them. When you ask your dog to sit, you probably do so by standing in front of them, straightening your shoulders, lifting your arms or giving a hand signal, and changing the tone of your voice. All these signals you probably aren’t even aware of are what communicates to your dog that you are asking them to sit. Not what you actually say.

Another test you can do to check your dog’s understanding of verbal cues is to switch out the word you normally use with another. But present the command in the exact same way otherwise. For example, stand in front of your dog as you would before asking them to sit, but instead of saying sit, say something else, like “clown” or “potato.” Make sure you do everything else the way you normally would. Most dogs will sit as quickly as they would if you used the actual word.

The Benefit of Hand Cues

Hand cues are a useful compromise between verbal cues that humans love and body language that dogs understand. They allow you to give each behavior a specific “name” while communicating more clearly with your dog.

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Think your dog is smart enough to recognize verbal cues used in a vacuum? Most dogs rely more on our body language than we realize. Combining verbal cues with hand cues and other body posturing can help your dog identify what you are asking them to do.

But, in order for hand cues to be effective, you need to make sure each one is unique to each behavior. Some common hand cues you’ll see in training are a flat hand for stay, two fingers and the thumb pressed together for sit, a fist for wait, and a flat palm gesturing to the side for heel. Any additional tricks you train your dog should have novel hand cues. Luckily, because dogs are so good at reading body language, even slight differences in a cue, like one finger up versus two, are usually easily distinguished.

Combining Cues for Success

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should get rid of verbal cues altogether. Well-trained verbal cues can help guide your dog if they are far away from you or have their backs turned to you. They can also act as another piece of the puzzle that your dog uses to figure out what you want. And they can help you keep your intentions clear for yourself.

Odds are, even if you are only giving hand cues, you’re probably saying the word in your own head. If it helps you be more clear about what you want your dog to do, it’s perfectly fine to say the word out loud.

But no matter what kind of cue you’re using, your dog won’t respond to it unless you have trained it correctly.

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Before you teach your dog to wave, make sure they have a strong sit behavior. Knowing how to shake, high five, or sit pretty can also make teaching the wave behavior easier. (self-taken)

A cue is simply something that your dog has learned to associate with the behavior they are already being reinforced for. In order to build this association, you must combine the cue with the behavior enough times for your dog to make the connection. The average dog will need 40 repetitions before they build that connection.

So, whether you are asking your dog to wave by saying “wave goodbye” or by waving your hand at them, you’re dog won’t know what to do unless you have built a strong association with that behavior and the cue(s).

How to Teach Your Dog to Wave

Before we get started, make sure you have a good supply of tasty treats, your treat pouch, and a quiet room to train in. This training is easiest to do while sitting on the floor, so a soft carpet or mat is a plus.

A clicker works great for this behavior, but if your dog is not clicker trained, you can just use “yes” or “good dog” as your positive marker each time they complete the behavior you are looking for. Make sure to also praise your dog while you reward them. Trick training should be fun!

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Did you know that your dog has a dominant paw just like you have a dominant hand? Your dog will probably offer this paw first when learning how to wave hello. Make sure you reward them for using the same paw throughout the training. They’ll learn to use their other paw to wave goodbye. 

Step 1: Reinforce your dog for pawing at your hand

Start with your dog in front of you in a sit. Take a tasty, smelly treat in your hand and let your dog sniff it. Then ball your hand into a fist around the treat and hold it down near your dog’s paws.

Your dog should paw at your fist in an attempt to get at the treat. The moment the paw comes off the ground, use your positive marker and reward your dog.

Note which paw your dog used. Most dogs will have a dominant paw just like humans have a dominant hand. This is the paw you will be working with for this first behavior. From here forward, only reward your dog for using this paw and make sure you are using the hand directly across from the paw your dog is using.

TIP: If your dog doesn’t lift their paw to scratch at your hand, you’ll have to get more creative. Dogs that have played a lot of impulse control games are less likely to paw out of frustration. For these dogs, it may be easier to teach them to shake first and then shape their shake into a wave using the remaining steps.

Repeat this process, rewarding your dog every time they paw your hand with the correct paw. Continue until they immediately lift their paw each time you put your fist down by their feet.

>>>If your dog won’t paw your hand and doesn’t know shake either, teaching them to target with their paw is another way you can build the wave behavior.

Step 2: Raise your hand and reinforce your dog for lifting their paw higher

Once your dog understands they are being rewarded for pawing your hand, it’s time to shape this behavior into something that looks more like a wave.

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Is your dog’s wave looking a little limp? Shape the paw lift into something that resembles a wave by reinforcing them for lifting their paw higher and higher.

The first step is to get your dog to raise their paw higher.

With your dog in a sit, present your fist with a treat (or your flat hand if shaping out of a shake), but this time raise your hand higher off the ground. The moment your dog paws your hand, mark and reward them.

>>>Looking for more simple tricks? Sit pretty is fun and easy for your pup to learn.

Raise your hand slightly higher on each successful repetition until your dog will happily paw at your hand at around the height of their chest or neck.

Step 3: Pull your hand back and reinforce your dog for pawing the air

Once your dog is comfortable pawing your hand up high, it’s time to remove your hand from the equation.

Present your flat hand or fist as you were before, but this time, when your dog goes to paw it, pull it away before they make contact. Use your positive marker and reward them.

What you are trying to communicate to them at this point is that they are not being rewarded for touching your hand, but instead, for simply raising their paw up.

Repeat this process multiple times, rewarding your dog each time they lift their paw. With each rep, present your hand farther and farther from their body. If you are still using a fist with a treat, transition into presenting a flat hand instead.

In this video, you will see how to train your dog to paw at your hand, raise their paw higher, and eventually paw at the air. 

Step 4: Add your verbal cue and build an association

Once your dog will readily swipe the air when you hold your hand out to them (but out of reach), it’s time to give this behavior a verbal cue. We will call the wave done with this first paw the “wave hello” behavior.

This time, before offering your hand, say “wave hello” and then immediately put your hand out just as you were before. Your dog should swipe the air with their paw. Mark and reward them.

Repeat this, saying the cue and reinforcing your dog for pawing the air a few dozen times so your dog can build an association between the behavior and the verbal cue.

Step 5: Add your hand cue and build an association

Now that your dog has built a connection between the words “wave hello” and the waving behavior, it’s time to add a hand cue. This hand cue will be vital in helping your dog to distinguish between a wave hello and a wave goodbye.

Say your verbal cue as you were before. At the same time wave to your dog with the same hand you have been using to get them to lift their paw (the hand across from the paw they are using).

Since your dog has been repeatedly reinforced for lifting their paw, they should respond by doing it again. Use your positive marker and reward your dog when they do.

If your dog doesn’t lift their paw, you may have to fade the lure more subtly. Give your verbal cue, extend your hand toward your dog as you were before, and as they lift their paw, pull your hand up and wave. Repeat this, but gradually reduce how much you extend your hand until you are only waving at your dog.

In this video, you will see how to add a verbal cue for “wave hello” and a hand signal to distinguish this from the next behavior, “wave goodbye.”

Step 6: Repeat these steps for their opposite paw

Once your dog will readily wave at you with their dominant paw when you say “wave hello” and wave your opposite hand, you are ready to teach them how to “wave goodbye” with their opposite paw.

Begin the way we did before with a treat balled in your fist. But this time, make sure you are using your opposite hand. When you present your fist to your dog, present it just to the outside of the paw they have not been using.

>>>Looking for a more complex trick to teach your dog? Try the place behavior.

They will likely raise their dominant paw in response. Ignore this behavior. Wait to see if they will switch paws. You may have to push your fist closer to their other leg.

TIP: If you used the shake method for the first paw, you may need to train your dog to shake with the opposite paw before teaching them to wave with it.

Once your dog paws at your hand with the opposite paw, use your positive marker and reward them.

Continue moving through the steps as you did before, but only reward your dog for using their opposite paw this time. When it comes time to add cues, call this behavior “wave goodbye” and use your opposite hand (the one across from the new paw) to wave at your dog.

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High five, you did it! Speaking of, now that you know how to train behaviors specific to each paw, you can easily train your dog how to high five with both the right and left paw. 

Continue Practicing Each Command in Sequence

While some dogs may pick up on the difference between the verbal cues “wave hello” and “wave goodbye,” most dogs will distinguish the two behaviors by which hand you cue with. But getting the right response on the first try every time will take some practice.

Once your dog has learned both waves, spend some time asking them to do each type back to back. If your dog lifts the wrong paw, use your negative marker (a quick “eh-eh”) and wait for them to offer a wave with the other side. Reward and praise them only when they do it correctly.

Continue working and rewarding until your dog will quickly respond with the correct paw each time you ask.

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