Canine Sign Language
A local professor teaches dogsto better communicate.
Thursday, December 7, 2006
The dog is counting. She looks at the four dog biscuits laid on the table and then proceeds to lift her right paw four times. Once she’s completed her count, she looks up at her owner to signal she’s finished.
Her owner then changes the number of biscuits several times. The dog is never fooled, each time accurately nailing the total.
The talented 3-year-old German Shepherd is Chal; her owner and math coach is Sean Senechal, a Hartnell physiology professor who lives in Prunedale. Senechal is working to advance the language skills of animals, primarily dogs, by teaching classes and individual lessons based on years of personal research.
“We need to teach them a productive language and see where they take it,” says Senechal. “It’s an extension of what they already know.”
Chal can perform around 20 signs, including everything from requests for toys, water and different foods, to identifying people and communicating specific alerts. In place of a bark or anxious pacing, the signals are distinguished through movement of the paws, legs, and head. To request water, the dog places its left paw on its mouth. To ask for chicken, Chal rapidly kicks her front left leg in a fast backward motion—a signal clearly different than the signs for cheese or dog biscuits.
Skeptics point out that their dogs communicate desires just fine—the dog goes to the door when he wants a walk, or nudges a dish when he wants water or food. Senechal says having a more dynamic avenue for communication reduces the dog’s stress.
“This [communication] will make them happy and less frustrated, since they’re not barking at you to get something for them,” says Senechal.
Just as importantly, Senechal maintains, it reduces stress for the dog owner. She says Chal barks much less frequently since she has learned to relay her desires with specificity.
Senechal, who has a master’s in biology from CSU San Francisco and earned a doctoral candidacy at UC Davis’ Animal Physiology Department, first became interested in animal language training in the mid-1990s through a desire to better communicate with her horse. (She later appeared on Animal Planet with her signing equine.) Interestingly, she believes horses learn language faster than dogs, but are not as creative or useful with their signs.
“It all started with [my horse] Princess, to understand her, and then it was so successful, and it turned scientific,” she says.
She has trained dogs in language for two years, and recently published the book AnimalSign to You: Imagine!
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Every animal person consulted for this article expressed satisfaction about their own animal’s language training, including Dr. Laura Pasten, a local veterinarian and one of nine members on the California Veterinary Medical Association’s Board of Governors. “Companion animals have very bright minds and they need to be stimulated,” she says. “If we took 1/100th of the time we take to train our kids to train our animals as well, it would be amazing how much we could learn.”
Candice Masters, a client of Senechal’s, is very satisfied with her dog’s new behavior. “My dog has changed absolutely for the better, she is less likely to get into mischief because the attention is on her,” says Masters. “Something huge is going to come from this in the world of animal communication.”
Senechal agrees. “In five years [dogs] are going to be doing extraordinary things,” she says. “They get concepts, they just need someone to teach them.”
In the field of health, she says dogs can be trained to detect low blood sugar levels—by recognizing the scent humans give off when their blood sugar levels dip—and inform their owners. According to her client Marilyn Greenberg, whose husband is a diabetic, “The work Sean is doing for low blood sugar is really cutting edge.”
And while dogs are vital in current search-and-rescue missions, dog-ASL advocates anticipate that sign language will greatly enhance their utility.
“For example, there’s a landslide and you don’t know how many people are buried,” Dr. Pasten says, “the animal can give a number.”
“[Animal language training] really is going to alter the minds of people,” adds the veterinarian, “The paradigm is shifting. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
SENECHAL OFFERS A FREE WORKSHOP at Raw Connection, 26549 Carmel Rancho Blvd. in Carmel, at 11am on Saturday, Dec. 9. for more information and further workshop dates, visit animalsign.org.