Have you ever wanted to sit down and have a conversation with your dog? Or just ask your pooch “Why are you barking?” Well, that just might be possible according to Sean Senchal. In her book “Dogs Can Sign, Too”, she presents a method for communicating with your canine — a system of gestures that she calls “K9Signs” which could allow your dog to “talk” to you. The goal is to teach dogs to use this sign language to ask for things, to ask or answer questions, and to respond to your commands or comments.
Senechal has established an “academy” (the AnimalSign Center) where people are working every day with dogs and other animals to see just what their limits are as “language learners”. The author emphasizes that it will probably be years before any definite conclusions can be drawn as to the ability of non-primate animals to communicate with us, but she offers a number of examples of what she has accomplished in working with her own pets.
One example had to do with her dog Chal who she has worked with for several years. Chal came into a room where Senechal was talking to a friend and tapped a storage drawer with her nose, then lifted her right front leg which is the K9Sign for an object. When Senechal made the sign for “What?”, Chal lifted her right front leg and flicked it slightly, the sign for “keys”. The author opened the drawer and there was the key to the yard gate; Chal immediately ran out to the gate and waited for Senechal to open it for her.
That story may not seem all that unusual or interesting; after all I had a border collie whose parents herded cattle and sheep and were able to respond to a wide variety of hand and voice signals. The main difference is that in Chal’s case she not only responds to various signs, she offers her own canine signs. If you thought Lassie was brilliant, imagine a herd dog that could come to you and sign “Lamb caught under branch in gully over there; wildcat sneaking up on her — hurry”. That’s the fascinating part of K9Signs; not just the ability to communicate but the complexity of the information that can be exchanged in just a few signs.
K9Signs training, as Senechal points out, is fundamentally different from obedience training. It calls for encouraging your dog to show creative behavior rather than obedience. Your dog has to be prompted to initiate communication and make requests rather than just respond to commands. Conversation implies a give and take, a two-sided method of communicating and that means your dog has to feel free to “talk back”.
Maybe the most important thing to remember in K9Sign training is to make signing fun. If your dog is obviously having trouble understanding what you’re doing and seems to be getting frustrated or losing interest, back up and try to break the lesson down into simpler steps and reward the accomplishment of each smaller step. Or go back to something your dog has already learned and enjoys (like playing with a favorite toy) and make that sign. Later you can go back to working on the new sign. Senechal constantly emphasizes the importance of patience, rewards, and slow, easy steps in teaching K9Signs.
I’m not sure I would have the patience for K9Sign training and really, like most dogs, my two already communicate with me without animal signing. For example my Lab will bark and let me know if someone comes to the front door. But if he and I could make use of K9Signs, who knows — maybe he could tell me “Pat at front door, has pizza” or “Two strange men at front door, smell friendly”. Or instead of simply moving around restlessly, maybe our Rottweiler could tell me “Feel bad – need go out and eat grass”. It would require a good deal of time and patience, but maybe one of these days I’ll work up the courage to give K9Signs a try (and find out what my dogs are really thinking).
If you’re interested in learning more about Sean Senechal’s K9Signs system or her method of animal signing in general, her books “AnimalSigns To You” and “Dogs Can Sign Too”, are both available at http://www.amazon.com.