BOOKS: Dogs Can Sign, Too

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2009:

Dogs Can Sign, Too: A Breakthrough Method for Teaching Your Dog to
by Sean Senechal
Random House (1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019), 2009.
224 pages, paperback. $16.99

Sean Senechal, founder of the AnimalSign Center in Monterey,
Calif-ornia, would probably quickly endorse The 100 Silliest Things
People Say About Dogs author Alexandra Semyon-ova’s view that instead
of punishing dogs, people should “help them when they don’t
understand what we want.”
Suggests sales literature for Senechal’s book Dogs Can Sign,
Too, “Imagine being able to ask your poodle, “Who’s at the door?”
and having her respond, ‘It’s Katy.’ Or asking your golden
retriever, ‘Do you want a treat?’ and him responding, ‘No, water.’

Or asking your border collie, ‘Which toy do you want?’ and getting
the response, ‘Stick.’ The K9Sign system,” developed by Senechal,
“teaches dogs to communicate to us,” the promo says.
Senechal developed the K9Sign system, she explains, after
studying animal communication with Penny Patterson. Patterson,
founder of the Gorilla Foundation, has over the past 38 years taught
several gorillas to use American sign language and even communicate
via the Internet, using a specially adapted computer key pad.
Senechal contends that the main reason why dogs do not “talk”
in a combination of barks and language that humans understand is that
humans do not take the time and trouble to teach them how.
Otherwise, dogs seem to welcome the opportunity to converse, in
basic ways, with almost everyone of comparable intelligence of any
Having witnessed canine efforts at interspecies communication
including Simon, a newly arrived Taiwanese street dog, teaching
recently rescued feral burros to play-bow, I have no doubt that dogs
can both learn and teach rudimentary language. Senechal’s
theoretical basis appears to be sound, the K9Sign system appears to
be within the capacity of most dogs to learn, and Senechal has shown
credible results.
However, the whole exercise strikes me as being more a
matter of teaching humans than of teaching dogs. The K9Sign system
works, I suspect, because teaching it by rote impresses upon the
human trainers that dog behaviors have specific meaning. Otherwise,
dogs already tend to have ways of communicating whether they want a
treat or want water, which toy they want, and who is at the door,
if they know.
The hard part, for humans, is understanding as well as
other dogs do what the dogs are saying, in terms which may vary from
dog to dog. Some gestures, such as the play-bow, are seemingly
universal. Others are an improvised patois.
When a new dog enters a home, some of the ensuing cacaphony
appears to me to be a process of synchronizing the meanings of
communication. Soon, though, the new dog learns–and appears to
learn specific variations used in particular places.
My pointer Madeira, for instance, who is no rocket
scientist, barks for food at the ANIMAL PEOPLE office. She never
does at home.
At home, a single quiet bark at the door means “Let me in,”
or “Let me out.” No response brings a slightly louder bark, but
never more than one bark at a time. At the office she is able to let
herself in or out, so she never uses that modulated single bark
At the office, Madeira learned from the other office dogs to
bark furiously at the sound of a car, or the presence of a deer in
the yard. At home, where she arrived three years ago to find that
none of the six resident cats barked at either cars or deer, she has
yet to bark at cars, and–though she barks often at my one
tomcat–she will quietly watch as many as three deer at a time as
they graze just a few yards away.
On walks, every dog I have ever had would identify the
presence of wildlife, with different signals for animals who were
potentially dangerous and animals who might be chased–if I allowed
it, which I don’t. However, the first few dogs I walked with had
difficulty teaching me that they were signaling at all times when
they did such-and-such, in part because dogs respond primarily to
scents, and what they smell is not necessarily visible, even if
alarmingly close. Thus I once nearly jogged into a collision with a
bear, whom two dogs were frantically warning me to avoid.
Fortunately the bear was also eager to avoid the encounter.
Senechal, I suspect, has devised an approach for people who
want to understand their dogs without really paying attention. It
works, but will take a great deal more effort than simply observing
more carefully what dogs are already trying to tell us.

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