Q: Is it possible to teach dogs to communicate in sign language -- not just understanding signals we give but using signs themselves to communicate with us?
A: This interesting question was prompted by an entry posted several months ago on the Columbia Dog Talk blog (www.columbiadogtalk.blogspot.com) about a 2009 book called “Dogs Can Sign, Too: A Breakthrough Method for Teaching Your Dog to Communicate.” Author Sean Senechal has created a system she says can be used to teach domestic animals to not only respond to sign language but to be able to express themselves using gestures, too.
Most dog owners can point to actions their pets do, seemingly intentionally, in order to elicit a desired response from their humans -- ringing a bell at the door to go out, scratching at the pantry where their treats and food are kept, even bringing a leash to their owners as an invitation to go for a walk. If dogs can learn to give those signals, it’s certainly possible they can be purposely taught other specific, goal-oriented gestures beyond what they may work out on their own.
Dogs have proven capable of independent thought and decision-making, as when a guide dog leads a blind person around or under an obstacle, such as a low-hanging branch that the dog can walk under but that would hit a blind human companion in the face. Teaching sign gestures is likely to be more complicated than teaching a dog to sit, but if you’re willing to be patient, dogs have shown they can learn some pretty amazing things.
Companionship with humans -- 100,000 years of it -- has shaped the dogs we live with today. Natural selection and intentional breeding have evolved in domestic canines a unique ability -- unequaled by other animals, including chimps and the dog’s wild wolf cousin -- to interact with and seek out information from humans. So Senechal may be on to something with her belief that dogs can learn a simple gestural language enabling them to more precisely express themselves to their human friends.
You can read an excerpt of Senechal’s book at Amazon.com. And you can find out more about teaching sign language to dogs and other animals at www.animalsign.org.
David Tayman, D.V.M., has practiced veterinary medicine in Howard County since 1974. E-mail questions to Dr. Tayman at David.Tayman@vcahospitals.com.