Have you ever wanted to sit and chat with your dog? Or ask your dog, “Why are you barking?” ask. According to Sean Senchal, that might be possible. In his book “Dogs Can Sign Too,” he offers a method for communicating with your dog – a gesture system he calls “K9Signs” that can let your dog “talk” to you. The goal is to teach dogs to use this sign language to ask, ask or answer questions, and respond to your commands or comments.
Senechal has set up an “academy” (Animal Sign 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 likely take years before any firm conclusions about the ability of non-primate animals to communicate with us are reached, but he provides a few examples of what he has accomplished when working with his own pets.
One example concerned his dog Chal, with whom he had been working for several years. Chal came into a room where Senechal was talking to a friend and banged his nose on a storage drawer, then lifted his right front leg, which was K9Sign, for an object. Senechal “What?” When he made the sign, Chal raised his right front leg and shook it slightly, the “keys” sign. The writer opened the drawer and there was the key to the courtyard door; Chal rushed to the door and waited for Senechal to open it for him.
This story may not seem 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 sound signals. The main difference is that in the Chal’s case it does not just react to various cues, it presents its own canine cues. If you thought Lassie was smart, imagine a pack of dogs that could come to you and write, “The lamb is stuck under the branch in the sewer over there; the wildcat is sneaking up on him — hurry up.” That’s the fascinating part of K9Signs; not only the ability to communicate, but also the complexity of information that can be exchanged with just a few signs.
K9Signs training is fundamentally different from obedience training, as Senechal points out. It requires encouraging your dog to display creative behavior rather than obedience. Your dog should be asked to initiate communication and make requests rather than simply responding to commands. Talking, giving and receiving is a two-way method of communication, and it means your dog should avoid “talking out”.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in K9Sign training is to make the signature fun. If your dog is clearly having trouble understanding what you are doing and seems to be getting angry or losing interest, step back and try to break the lesson into simpler steps and reward the success of each little step. Or go back to something your dog learned and enjoyed before (like playing with a favorite toy) and make that mark. You can then return to work on the new sign. Senechal consistently emphasizes the importance of patience, rewards, and slow, easy steps in teaching K9Signs.
I’m not sure if I’ll have the patience for K9Sign training, and really, like most dogs, they both communicate with me without animal signs. For example, my Lab will bark and notify me if someone comes to the front door. But if he and I could use K9Signs, who knows — maybe he’d tell me, “Pat’s at the front door, he’s got pizza” or “Two weird guys at the front door, fragrant.” Or, instead of just wandering around restlessly, maybe our Rottweiler can say to me, “Feel bad – I need to go outside and eat grass.” It takes a lot of time and patience, but maybe one of these days I’ll get the courage to try K9Signs (and find out what my dogs really think).
If you want to learn more about Sean Senechal’s K9Signs system or animal signing method in general, you can find the books “AnimalSigns To You” and “Dogs Can Sign Too” at http://www.amazon.com. .