Have you ever wanted to sit down and have a conversation with your dog? Or just ask your dog “Why are you barking?” Well, that could be possible according to Sean Senchal. In her book “Dogs Can Sign, Too,” she presents a method for communicating with her canine: a system of gestures she calls “K9Signs” that could allow her dog to “talk” to you. . The goal is to teach dogs to use this sign language to ask for things, ask or answer questions, and respond to your commands or comments.
Senechal has established an “academy” (the AnimalSign Center) where people work with dogs and other animals every day to see what their limits are as “language learners.” The author emphasizes that it will probably be years before definitive conclusions can be drawn about the ability of non-primate animals to communicate with us, but she does offer a number of examples of what she has achieved by working with her own pets.
One example involved his dog Chal, with whom he has worked for several years. Chal walked into a room where Senechal was talking to a friend and banged his nose into a storage drawer, then raised his right front paw, which is the K9Sign for an object. When Senechal made the “What?” sign, Chal raised his right front paw and moved it slightly, the “keys” sign. The author opened the drawer and there was the key to the patio door; Chal immediately ran to the door and waited for Senechal to open it.
That story may not seem all that unusual or interesting; after all, I had a border collie whose parents herded cattle and sheep and could 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, but she offers her own canine signs. If you thought Lassie was brilliant, imagine a sheepdog that could come up to you and sign “Lamb caught under a branch in a ravine over there; bobcat sneaking up on her, hurry up.” That’s the fascinating part of K9Signs; not only the ability to communicate, but the complexity of the information that can be exchanged in a few signs.
K9Signs training, as Senechal points out, is fundamentally different from obedience training. It requires encouraging your dog to display creative behavior rather than obedience. Your dog should be instructed to initiate communication and make requests rather than just responding to commands. Conversation involves give and take, a two-sided method of communication, and that means your dog has to feel free to “talk back.”
Perhaps 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 he seems frustrated or losing interest, he backs off and tries to break the lesson down into simpler steps and rewards the accomplishment of each smaller step. Or go back to something your dog has already learned and enjoys (like playing with his favorite toy) and give that signal. Later you can go back to work on the new sign. Senechal constantly emphasizes the importance of patience, rewards, and slow, easy steps in teaching K9Signs.
I’m not sure I have the patience for K9Sign training and really, like most dogs, my two already communicate with me without any animal signals. For example, my labrador will bark and let me know if someone knocks on the front door. But if he and I could use K9Signs, who knows, maybe he could tell me “Pat at the front door, he’s got pizza” or “Two strange men at the front door, they smell good.” Or instead of just fidgeting, maybe our Rottweiler could tell me “I feel bad, I need to get out and eat some grass.” It would take a lot of time and patience, but maybe one of these days I’ll work up the courage to try K9Signs (and find out what my dogs really think).
If you are interested in learning more about Sean Senechal’s K9Signs system or his animal signing method in general, his books “AnimalSigns To You” and “Dogs Can Sign Too” are available at http://www.amazon.com .