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Sign language a new trick for old dogs

Mon., June 17, 2013, midnight

Buster Brown, my big mutt from the dog pound, is now 10 years old. Perhaps because he’s a senior citizen, it took him a full week to learn how to operate the dog door I had installed last winter. He was used to going to the back door and barking to be let in or out. Once the dog door was there, I held it open, showing him the great outdoors, and encouraged him to go through it. I had to repeat this maneuver many times, patiently making happy noises when he ultimately would hop through the small door.

I thought back to that weeklong effort when I was reading Sean Senechal’s book “Dogs Can Sign, Too.” Senechal believes dogs can do much more than operate a simple dog door. Using signs a person can make coupled with ones a dog can make, the idea is that people and their dogs can communicate with one another in a much richer way than we are used to with basic commands like “come” or “sit.”

The system that Senechal has developed is called K9Sign language. Even with a young and willing dog teamed with a dedicated teacher, Senechal warns, it takes a long time for a dog to learn signs it can make to communicate with a person. But of course it’s also true it takes humans years to learn language.

Although nothing about teaching animals a full language is uncontroversial, many people have thought that primates can learn sign language. Koko the gorilla and Washoe the chimpanzee are well known animals that mastered at least the basics of a sign-based language. But I hadn’t thought about a similar language for canines until I read Senechal’s book.

K9Sign language is taught to interested people and their dogs at the AnimalSign Center in California. Skeptics can joke that only in California would there be such an institution, but Senechal takes the approach that she will presume our canine friends can learn language until it’s proven that they can’t. And it seems to me pretty clear that whether or not dogs can be taught a “true language,” any signs they can give us of their thinking are useful – and quite fun.

Because dogs stand on their four feet, not having anything like hands available to make signs, the K9Signs have to differ quite a bit from American Sign Language. K9Signs are relatively few and simple. Foods are indicated by movement of the front left leg. Living animals are indicated by moving the rear left leg. Toys and other smaller movable objects are denoted by moving the right front leg. Large, inanimate objects are represented by movements of the hind right leg.

Teaching dogs to use the signs is an art Senechal tries to explain in her book. Maybe if I read it aloud to Buster Brown we could get started learning how to communicate better – and about a wider range of topics than the dog door.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard universities. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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