Becoming Dr. Dolittle: Your First Lesson in Dog Sign Language

Last week I ran a post by animal sign language expert Sean Senechal on the importance of being able to really communicate with your dog....


Last week I ran a post by animal sign language expert Sean Senechal on the importance of being able to really communicate with your dog. She has taught her dog and many others sign language, and her dog may have even helped save her own life recently when she was able to point to an “ouch” spot that was cancer. Today, Senechal, founder of AnimalSign, and author of the book, Dogs Can Sign, Too!, gives Dogster readers a primer in doggy sign language.

Maria Goodavage


Dogs Can Sign, Too! Here’s How

By Sean Senechal

Imagine being able to ask your poodle, Who’s at the door? and having her respond, Katy. Or asking your golden retriever, What do you want? and him responding, Water. Or asking your Border collie, Which toy do you want? and getting the response, Stick.

If you’ve ever wondered what dogs would tell us if they could, now you can find out. The K9Sign system teaches dogs to communicate TO us-making it a first in dog training and communication approaches. My book Dogs Can Sign, Too! is the first book dedicated exclusively to the K9Sign system for teaching dogs to communicate to their humans using a learned gestural vocabulary. (Previously, I wrote AnimalSign To You. Signing Is Not Just for Primates Anymore, which focused on both horse and dog.) Sample K9Signs range from general concepts, such as Food or Play to identifying special treats, such as Liver or Cheese and specifying a favorite toy, such as Ball or Frisbee. Signs also include useful questions such as Who’s that? or What type? to naming a particular friend or family member, or even indicating a stranger.

Learning K9Sign is a fun, challenging, and rewarding experience for both you and your dog that is sure to deepen the human-canine bond, while expanding our ideas about interspecies communication. So, how do you get started teaching K9sign? Much like babies learn to Baby Sign, toddlers learn simple language, of Koko learned Gorilla Sign, dogs can learn K9Sign. I incorporate learning theory and protocols (many in applied behavior analysis used with children with speech-delays), operant conditioning principles, and lots of positive reinforcement, molding, modeling, and imitation.

Before you attempt to learn K9Sign, both you and dogs should have some skills. You should be observant of your dogs moves and know how to give feedback. I use a guided system which uses Ya,..YeahYes! You should be agile with clicker, or the next best marker words, Yes or Good. You should know how to give a reward, quickly. All together you should be able to spot the behavior you want, mark it, and then reward your dog. Behavior -> Yes Click Reward. Your dog should know how to attend to you when you call her name. She should understand and adjust her behavior from the feedback you provide. She should wait for you to deliver the treats, rather than grab them.

Starter K9Signs:

You should start teaching the fun and easy signs that are meaningful to your dog. This way you get her attention and buy-in, assuring success in the first signing lessons. The more fun and successful the first signing lessons, the more your dog will want to learn other signs.

The steps for teaching K9Signs involve 1) teaching the move, 2) getting it on cue, and then 3) teaching the meaning. (In my book, I explain how to test the sign.) The K9Signs Play or Food are usually the easiest to start with. Below, I guide you through simplified steps. (I explain much more in my book and deal with some typical issues that arise). View some K9Signs on here and here.

PLAY: Teaching the K9Sign Play is a great sign to start, since your dog probably already knows the move and the meaning. You just need to get it on cue. The move is the play bow, where the dog pounds with her front paws to the ground, while her hind is up, tails wagging. Starting with this sign affirms and clarifies to your dog that you are really listening and that you will clearly respond when your dog communicates. (You probably already do this to some degree, but you will exaggerate your message in this lesson.)

The Play Lesson Steps:

1. Have a play toy within reach.

2. Inspire your dog to sign Play. Do this by performing the play bow yourselfplayfully dropping your hands (with toy) to the ground.

3. After your dog play bows reliably, get it on cue. Entice your dog to sign Play, but just before she actually signs it, you say to her, Sign Play. Repeat this sequence several times.

4. When she signs Play, you immediately imitate the sign back, and say Yes! Play Click, then reward by playing with her.

FOOD: Teaching the K9Sign Food is easy because the move is common, getting it on cue is simple, and the reward IS the meaning–the food itself. The move involves the dog lifting (in any way) her left front paw.

The Food Lesson Steps:

1. Have some plain, generic, food treats. These should be desirable, but not the most wanted (which you’ll name at some later date).

2. Show the food, and inspire your dog to lift her left leg (any way, any intensity).

3. When she does, say Yes! — then Click — Reward with the food. Repeat this sequence several times. until your dog lifts her foot on seeing the food.

4. Get this move on cue. Entice her to sign Food (show the food), but just before she fully signs it, you say, Sign Food. Repeat this sequence several times until you can say Sign Food, and she does.

5. No need to teach the meaning formally, that is already done!

For the first week, when your dog signs Play or Food, say Yes and give her what she asks for quickly. Don’t worry about the possibility she will be signing Play or Food all the time. After the first week, when you don’t want to be a playing all day or be a food slot machine, just say Later, and then do something else. With repetition, she’ll get the meaning. In my book, I explain in more detail how to teach Later.

You’ve been started! I hope you and your dog eagerly await learning more signs.

How You Can Learn More

My website,, 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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