Have you ever wanted to sit down and have a conversation with your dog? Or just ask your dog “Why are you barking?” Well, it just might be possible according to Sean Senchal. In the book “Dogs Can Sign, Too” she presents a method of communicating with your dog – a system of gestures that she calls “K9Signs” that can allow your dog to “speak” to you. The aim is to teach dogs to use this sign language to ask about things, to ask or answer questions and to respond to your commands or comments.

Senechal has established an “academy” (The AnimalSign Center) where people work every day with dogs and other animals to see just what their limits are as “language learners”. The author emphasizes that it will probably take years before any firm conclusions can be drawn about the ability of non-primates to communicate with us, but she gives a number of examples of what she has achieved in working with her own pets.

One example had to do with her dog Chal with whom she has worked for several years. Chal entered 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 K9Sign for an item. As Senechal made the sign for “What?”, Chal lifted his right front leg and flicked it slightly, the sign for “keys”. The author opened the drawer and there lay the key to the farm gate; Chal immediately ran out to the gate and waited for the Senechal to open it for her.

That story may not seem that unusual or interesting; after all, I had a border collie whose parents herded cattle and sheep and was able to respond to a variety of hand and voice signals. The main difference is that in Chal’s case, she doesn’t just respond to various signs, she offers her own dog signs. If you thought Lassie was brilliant, imagine a pack dog that could come up to you and sign “Lamb caught under branch in yonder gully; feral cat sneaking up on her – hurry up”. That’s the fascinating part of K9Signs; not just the ability to communicate, but the complexity of the information that can be exchanged with just a few characters.

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 needs to be asked to initiate communication and make requests rather than just responding to commands. Conversation involves give and take, a two-way way of communicating, and that means your dog needs 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 are doing and seems to be getting frustrated or losing interest, back up and try to break the lesson down into easier steps and reward the completion of each smaller step. Or go back to something your dog has already learned and enjoys (like playing with a favorite toy) and do that sign. Later you can return 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’d 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 use K9Signs, who knows – maybe he could tell me “Knock on the front door, have pizza” or “Two strange men at the front door, smell friendly”. Or instead of restlessly moving around, maybe our Rottweiler can tell me “Feel bad – need to go out and eat grass”. It would take a fair amount 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 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 .

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