Teach Your Dog Sign Language; You’ll Learn a Lot About Your Dog

Last month I asked a question in a blog post I wrote about the upcoming movie, Dogs of Babel, in which a man tries to...


Last month I asked a question in a I wrote about the upcoming movie, Dogs of Babel, in which a man tries to teach his dog to talk: Would you want your dog to be able to talk to you?

We had more than 100 responses. Many readers said they wouldn’t want idle chitchat, but they would want their dog to be able to tell them if they were sick, in pain, or sad. A pipe dream, I figured. And then I ran into something called AnimalSign Language. Its founder, Sean Senechal, a cognitive physiologist and behavior specialist for humans and animals, contends that dogs can communicate more than most of us could dream possible. We just have to find a common language. That language: A special sign language she says is easily learnable by most people and dogs. (After all, if babies can do it, why can’t dogs?)

This sign language, which she calls K9Sign for dogs, may have recently been responsible for saving her dog’s life. She writes about this, and the other benefits of K9Sign in today’s guest post. In another installment next week, Senechal will give you some practical ways to get started signing with your own dog. Move over, Dr. Dolittle!

Maria Goodavage

Dogs Can Sign, Too! (And They Have So Much to Say)

By Sean Senechal

An amazing event occurred last week at AnimalSign Center. There, I teach dogs, horses, and cats enhanced communication skills. I use AnimalSign Language, which is much like Baby Sign or Gorilla Sign, but it’s made for domestic animals. I think nothing of seeing dogs K9Sign that they need water, want specific foods, or naming people at the door, or on the phone. But few weeks ago, I was awed by Chal, my German Shepherd, who K9Signed a startling communication.

Chal had been limping on her right hind leg. I couldn’t find her problem, nor where her pain was. I wanted to know where the problem spot was, to fix the problem, make her more comfortable, and to be able to tell the vet at our upcoming appointment. So, I simply asked Chal to tell me where she hurt. I signed to her ‘Where’s Your Ouch?’ I fully expected Chal to answer by tapping a spot on her right leg. She didn’t! Instead, Chal signed ‘Here’ by pointing to her right, lower nipple area. She tapped it, and then looked right back up at me. (I have a video of this below.) I listened to her response and checked the spot. Near her slightly red nipple was a small bump. This tumor surely must be cancer, just like the left-sided tumor (low-grade malignancy) I discovered (and had removed) a few years before. Now, I wanted her complete right-sided mammary chain to be surgically removed. Read more about the situation and Chal’s status in my blog. I’ll be tracking her progress physically, and cognitively as we learn more K9Signs to keep her mentally stimulated during recovery.

Chal and I had begun K9Signing since she was 1 year old. One exchange we worked on (when she had an infection) was the K9Sign ‘Where’s Your Ouch?’ where Chal responded with ‘Here.’ She learned to tell me where she hurt. Now, Chal has demonstrated that dogs can not only tell you where they hurt, but also can detect and communicate the location of their own tumor spots. They have done this for humans, now we know they can do this for themselves, too.

Dogs can tell you what they sense in as much detail as they’ve had training to. Imagine what your dogs could communicate with K9Sign training, perhaps: A mouse is in the wall, Smoke is in the hall, Francois has fallen and has low blood sugar!, Basement all water, I am thirsty, My hip hurts, Blood under the rock, or Jacque is coming home! Dogs have their own natural communications that needs to be respected, but they can expand and build on that core skill. Doing so would stimulate their minds and develop their brains-as it does in humans. We humans are provided years of language education; dogs should get some, too!

K9Signing is useful for many dogs: Working, Assistance, Service, Shelter/Rescue, Companion, Older, those in rehabilitation, or with special needs. K9Sign is now used by companion pets, dogs aiding the deaf or hard-of-hearing, and by therapy and other working dogs (for mold detection, etc.). Dogs have K9Signed to indicate Water, Food, Chicken, Liver, Toys, Play, Go Potty, Keys, Help, and many other objects, and discomfort/pain. The K9Sign gestuary includes signs for Fire, Names of people, Position of people (on the ground or up), Bed, Crate, Phone, household objects, and more. The K9Sign Gestuary is 100 words long and growing.

K9Sign benefits people (personally and scientifically), dogs themselves, and the human-canine relationship and bond. People benefit by improving the communication with their dog for companionship, play, work, or services. Instead of dogs just alerting by fetching, barking, sitting, and pawing to signal something, K9Signing dogs can be specific and tell you what they are alerting to. This enhances the dog’s skills. Imagine what details a dog might express about the environment. A dog for a blind person might sign Ground has big step-down, a Search and Rescue dog might sign Number of people, Dead, Alive, or Blood about people trapped under rubble, or your companion dog might sign Fire, Heart Attack, Seizure Type, and who is in trouble.

K9Signing gives us a tool to further understand and study canine communication potential. Many organizations examine canine expressive communication-vocalizations and natural body language. AnimalSign Center is the only organization that educates, trains, and studies dogs who are in intensive communication (especially expressive) training, or better education.

Dogs benefit from K9Sign. Imagine how empowered dogs might feel if they could tell you what they want and need, where they hurt, why they bark, what dangers are, or what they smell (that could fill a book). Successful communication reduces frustration, enhances joy, and provides mental clarity, stimulation, and brain development.

The benefits of enhanced communication include a deepened human-animal bond, as well as increased wellness for humans and animals. These alone are worth the effort.

Most dogs can learn to K9Sign, if they want too and can move (at bit). Dogs with movement issues or in rehabilitation can do this, and it keeps them mentally active, while reducing boredom. The most challenging dogs to teach are those who don’t have respond to typical reinforcers. They may not consider food or toys rewards. I’ve met only a handful. Dogs with IBD (irritable bowel disease), who can’t eat much, can be rewarded by licks, or even just smells, of food. Non-food rewards such as scratches and pats sometimes work. Very obedient dogs tend to take a longer to teach spontaneously use of K9Signs. These dogs wait for instructions to Sign, rather than spontaneously offer signs. Once they realize they are free to offer signs, they do, and love it!

Dogs can learn as many signs as they can differentiate thoughts and make moves. I predict that in the next year my Border Collie, Starlight, will have learned 100 K9Signs. She now knows 10 K9Signs, but will surely out ‘sign’ Chal soon. Most clients are happy with less than 10 signs, other clients are going all the way and adding to their vocabulary regularly. They send me Signing Stories often. Read more on that in my book and blogs.

Chal helped me create K9Sign and has known 50 signs. With her hind leg problems, she now K9signs mostly with her head, front legs, and body movements. My horse Princess knows how to EquineSign, and she has 100 up her hoof! She was the one who got me started with AnimalSign in the mid 1990s!

How You Can Learn More

Read my next Dogster guest post, called Dogs Can Sign, Too. Here’s How. Maria will publish it next week.

My website, AnimalSign.org, has a great deal of information.

My book, Dogs Can Sign Too: A breakthrough method for teaching your dog to communicate to you, explains the background, foundations for, and history of K9Sign. It also includes a how-to section with 25 K9Signs and elaborate instructions on how to teach each sign. Each sign includes tips to help you get through typical challenges and milestones.

I offer workshops/seminars which you can attend and/or host in your area. Several are scheduled in April/May in the North/South Monterey Bay Area. These cover topics on K9Sign: the Foundation Signs and Teach Your Dog to Tell You Where She Hurts. Check my website for events often.

WORKSHOP EVENT: Teach Your Dog to Tell You Where She Hurts. Santa Cruz, Ca April 23, 2011 2-6 pm.

WORKSHOP EVENT:K9Sign: the Foundation Signs in April or May in the North Bay Area. 2-6 pm. Stay tuned.

I offer Live/Interactive TELESEMINARS for those who can’t make it the live worshops.

TELESEMINAR EVENT: How to Teach Your Dog to Communicate Better on April 23, 2011 at 9 -10:30 am. Telespace is limited, so sign up soon, then call in to listen and ask questions.

For those wanting more individual guidance I consult by telephone, and provide private coaching in person (in your home).

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