Sunday, December 26, 2010

Been Awhile

Life has a habit of getting in the way of things I'm doing and documenting our training has been one of the things to suffer. The training/teaching itself has continued but finding time to write it up has been difficult to say the least.

Our weather has been rainy and nasty so there's been a lot more time spent hanging out on the couch and playing "what is it?" I have toys and food and show one to Ranger and ask him "What is it?" He signs toy or food and is right way more often than chance; In fact he seldom makes a mistake. Maybe I need to get an observer to count how many times I ask the question and how many times he gets it right. I have noticed that mistakes are more common after we've been playing for awhile.

It interests me that it doesn't matter which toy it is he signs "toy." I don't know if that means he has a generic category labeled Toy and meaning "things I can play with" or if he's simply dividing it into things he can eat and things he can't eat. I'm going to have to offer him some non-toy items and how he reacts when asked to identify them. Perhaps I should work on teaching him the sign he can use to ask for the sign for an item so he can use that as a sort of "I don't know." I'll have to think about that.

Ranger has also invented his own sign. The pawing the air twice with the right paw means he wants petting. Interestingly it is always twice not one or three but two pawings of the air. It seems to me that he uses this request for petting with clear intention. I haven't tired "saying" it to him. I'll have to try that and see how he responds. It's lots of fun and quite interesting working on cross species communication like this. It helps a lot that I have a dog that knows he can communicate to people and have them respond appropriately.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Effective Communicators

Last night Ranger jumped up next to me and sat. I knew he wanted something so I put a toy on one of my knees and a chew on the other. I signed this is toy and this is food and asked him to tell me what he wanted. I was hoping he'd sign a reply but his method of communication was just as effective as a sign would have been. He jumped down and touched the chew with his nose. The more I think about it the more I realize that that's what this whole experiment is about, establishing clear and effective communications across species lines. The first step, of course, is making sure both species understand that such communication is possible. As I've spoken to people about my experiment in teaching Ranger K9Sign everyone has accepted that I'd be able to communicate with him and he'd be able to understand me but it isn't automatically assumed that Ranger would in turn be able to communicate with me and I'd be able to understand.  I'm confident that we both recognize that such communication is possible. Now we're working on finding the places where understanding already exists and how to establish more communication intersections.

My in-laws frequently hosted foreign visitors as part of the Friendship Force. Often their visitors would speak little or no English. Watching how they communicated across the language barrier has informed some of how I'm working to establish communication with Ranger and how I perceive his efforts to communicate with me and others. Ranger is an effective communicator both with other dogs and with people. He "speaks" clearly and distinctly--actually touching the chew with his nose rather than simply pointing it for example. He makes eye contact with the person to whom he is communicating so they know he is addressing them. He waits for people to understand what he is communicating and if they don't understand he tries again.

It's nice for both of us that Ranger is able to tell me whether he'd rather play with a toy or have a chew. And every time he's able to tell me and I'm able to respond appropriately it deepens our bond and strengthens our ability to communicate.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Signing toy? Maybe

I didn't have the chance to post this yesterday but there was an interesting occurrence. We were playing fetch with squeaky toys and I was signing toy then throwing it. At one point it Ranger dropped it in his wading pool. He jumped in after it and using his right paw, remember he's left pawed, dunked the toy up and down in the water using the motion/gesture for toy. It was a beautifully formed gesture repeated over and over dunking the toy. He was using the paw that is designated for signing toy even though that isn't his preferred paw. It could have been entirely random or perhaps it was meaningful. It was certainly suggestive of intentional signing. I'm glad I'm in this for fun rather than true science the question of how you know with real certainty that it is intentional signing would drive me wild.

Something interesting I'm discovering as I talk to people about teaching Ranger to sign. No one has any doubts that he can learn to read signs but for many people the idea that he could learn to make intentional signs to communicate to the humans through a shared language doesn't even register even when you're explaining that that's exactly what you're doing. For a large number of people communication with a dog can only flow one direction.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I'm enjoying this journey and the process of thinking about why I want Ranger to learn to sign and how I'll know if he gets it. I have many examples of Ranger communicating his wishes to me and to others and how clearly he manages to make his point with the tools he has. I like the idea of giving him more tools with which to communicate. And I like the fact that I'm doing this simply for us.  I don't have to prove anything or consider scientific standards. That's part of the reason I'm not worried about doing this according to the book but am willing to take a more organic approach and simply make it part of the fabric of our life together. Even if he never learns anything we had fun together.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Definitely Getting the Idea

Visiting Grandma's house today Ranger nudged the bait bag I was wearing with his nose and signed food. Much praise and of course treats. The context was not one in which treats would be expected. We were stretched out on the floor and he was getting tummy rubs. Tummy rubs are their own reward so he wouldn't automatically expect treats in that context. Of course, he's a dog which means an opportunist. Treats were right there in front of his nose why not point them out to Mom and make that paw wave that she gives treats for. Or perhaps he really has figured out that a lift of the left paw means food. I can't tell how much he grasps or how he processes information. Still, I found it very encouraging.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Progress? Maybe

Ranger is definitely getting the idea that he can trade the left paw lift (food sign) for treats but I'm not sure  that he recognizes it as a "word" or label for food items. We spent part of the day signing food and giving treats; Ranger signs with us or "fills in the blank" and signing toy and tossing his favorite squeaky toys. Ranger has yet to offer the sign for toy without prompting.

We went to our favorite pet store today and while one of the clerks was fishing in the bottom of the bag for the elusive last treats Ranger sat politely and signed food. I praised him and the clerk delivered the treat. He volunteered the "sign" but it was in the context of someone being slow to provide the treat he expected. I'm going to be more convinced that he understands it as a word when he comes in and asks for something to eat when there's no context other than him wanting to "tell" me something.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


We spent some time signing toy and tossing Ranger's toys this afternoon. Later we took him to the park and signed this/that is food before giving him treats. I've realized that this and that are going to be a single sign. When I signed this is food to Ranger he responded by lifting his left front paw and was rewarded with a treat. He still doesn't seem confident that raising his left front paw is what he needs to do in order to get food but I think he's beginning to grasp the idea. At one point I signed this is and before I got further Ranger signed food. Once he offered the sign for toy and was gently told no. He offered the other paw in a sign for food and got a treat. It's progress albeit slow.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Just like kids

Just like when your children are learning to talk and you're not sure whether the sound was an intentional effort at a word or a random sound it's really hard to tell whether Ranger is intentionally signing or at least trying to sign or not.

We'd gone for a walk as a family but Ranger and I had gotten ahead and stopped at a picnic table to wait. I was trading him treats for tricks. When I stopped delivering treats Ranger hesitantly gestured with his left (food) paw. I want to say he tried to communicate that he wanted more treats but I all I can say for sure is that he lifted his left paw and put it back down. It didn't look like a high five gesture or a march in place Gee Paw, Haw Paw routine but more like he was trying to imitate the gesture I make when signing food. He was praised and rewarded and about then the rest caught up and we walked on.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Doing some Thinking

The problem is that Ranger doesn't just interact with me and with people who know K9Sign. He's a therapy dog so he interacts with lots of people. In some ways it will be no different than a foreign language speaker with a translator but then there is the rest of the family. Between signing toy when food is meant, making random gestures in the middle of trying to sign something and a general reluctance to commit to this experiment it's a challenge. Fortunately, Ranger is a very smart dog and has already figured out that when other people are telling him confusing things he can check with Mom and she'll give him the  cue he understands. We'll see how things go.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Doing my own learning

There was some leftover breakfast that I decided to use for training food. I signed class and went to the class area. I signed that is food and gave Ranger his reward. Then I held the other food and waited to see what he'd do. He lifted his right paw. I did nothing but realized later that I should have handed him the toy I had sitting there. When he lifted his left paw I gave him his reward. It's going to take me awhile to get the hang of all this. And I really do need to take more time to plan the lessons and not just try to wing it.

Today was not a productive day. My head wasn't in the game. Note to self: don't try to teach anything when you're sleep deprived; you make too many mistakes and miss too many opportunities.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Teaching Food and Toy

Ranger already knows that one paw (right) is used for shaking hands and the other (left) is used for giving high fives. He knows that the paws have different names Gee Paw is right and Haw Paw is left so I think he has a jump on learning that left is the food paw and right is the toy paw. Our first lesson of the day I went out with a chunk of leftover steak that I'd saved for this purpose and signed that is food then gave him a taste of steak. He was definitely watching the patten of movements that make up the signs but how much he was taking in is hard to guess.

Later I went out and gathered several of his toys into the area I've decided will be our outdoor classroom. I called him over and signed Ranger Attend class, Then indicating each toy signed that is toy. Then I took his favorite of the toys and a bag of treats signing that is toy before holding the toy out to him and that is food before handing him a treat. When he offered a left paw lift (food) when I was holding the toy I gave him a treat (food). Then I pointed at his right paw and told him Gee Paw when he lifted it I offered him the toy. Then pointed to the left paw and told him Haw Paw when he lifted that I gave him a treat. You could almost see the wheels going round as he tried to work out the rules of this new game. When we finished the treats in the bag I signed finished. After that we had a nice session with the brush. He relaxed into the grooming and in the sunshine his coat was glowing. Individual hairs looked like they'd been dipped in copper or silver. Some looked like spun crystal.

If he didn't already know that each paw had a different purpose I don't think I'd try teaching food and toy together. As it is I'm betting that having the distinction of one for one thing and one for another means he'll grasp food and toy fairly quickly.

This evening we went to the launch party for the Buddy Brigade. Having other dogs around that he can't play with and people that aren't petting him is somewhat stressful for Ranger. Ranger tends to act a bit silly when he's somewhat stressed. One of the behaviors he offered was to wave his left paw in the air (I'm pretty sure he is left pawed) ; I gave him a treat and he looked a bit surprised. Later when my husband had taken him for a walk and I caught up with them holding a couple of miniature cupcakes Ranger sat and waved his left paw in the air. He got most of one of the cupcakes.

I'm pretty sure I'm still just rewarding the canine equivalent of infant babbling but I have video of myself telling my mother that "if I didn't know better I'd swear [my daughter] was trying to say cat." After all everyone knows 8.5 month old babies can't talk and yet by 9 months she was making herself understood by other people.  With that cautionary tale ringing in my head I won't rule out the possibility that he's beginning to understand left paw means food and right paw means toy. When they were taking photos and trying to get all the dogs looking the same way using a squeaky toy I wish I'd paid attention to whether he moved either paw. Something to look for in the future.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Day Two of Language Lessons

Much like when teaching an infant I've begun trying to establish a link in Ranger's mind between certain gestures and meaning. He still "Attend"s very well. He even looked away from ice cream when asked to "leave it" and then "Attend" He was rewarded with the little bit of ice cream that remained in the cup.

Anthropomorphizing here I'd say he definitely knows Mom is up to something but has no idea what it is yet.

We began adding, that, is, toy and food to the vocabulary. I find it almost impossible to sign that (pointing with right index finger) is (ASL letter I moving from shoulder to waist) word (insert name of whatever object here) without signing something for the word. Rather than confuse him with random gestures  I picked things that could either be labeled toy (right arm) or food (left arm). Ultimately the goal is that he will be able to ask for toy or food himself with specific gestures made by the right or left paw.

Ranger understands the gesture of pointing to the extent that he flicks his eyes in that direction so he is responding to that. I don't think is has any meaning except something weird Mom is doing but a couple of times he did glance at the object I was identifying as food or toy.

It's interesting thinking about how much he already communicates--asking for a chew, indicating he needs a walk, asking to come in, asking to play, etc. I wonder if he really needs more communication tools. Still, training time is always good. He loves training and I do best if I have a goal I'm training toward so really we've nothing to lose: he gets the training time and I have a specific goal in mind.

Later in the day I was playing with Ranger and before giving him a treat signed to him that is food. Ranger who was sitting facing me lifted his right paw in return. On the same principle that I would respond positively to a baby that babbled at me when I spoke to him I praised and rewarded Ranger.

When I was teaching my children to talk I ignored all the expert advice about only using one word for a thing until they were older. I used, cars, automobiles, autos, SUV, pickup, vehicular transport and anything else that occurred to me. I had toddlers with huge vocabularies. I'm likely to take the same sort of tack with Ranger. My goals at this point are to 1) establish the habit of signing to him, 2) begin associating labels with objects and 3) keep an open mind about how to proceed.

First Language Lesson

I've started reading Dogs Can Sign, Too by Sean Senechal. Senechal has created a signed language which can be used by both dogs and people. The idea that using a gesticular language would allow Ranger and me a broader range of communication intrigues me a great deal. I haven't completely finished reading the book but decided to skip ahead and look at the first language lesson. Just as with any program the first step is to get your dogs's attention; rather than the "watch me" that Ranger and I learned in basic manners class Senechal uses "Attend." The gesture I use for "watch me" is the first two fingers of the right hand tapping my chin twice. The gesture for "Attend" is right hand in front of you, first two fingers form a V shape and you bring your hand up as if you intend to poke out your eyes. Ranger's name has never had a gesture associated with it. In Senechal's K9Sign his name is associated with the gesture of a slight bow with head, neck and top of shoulders.

Sitting on the couch with string cheese--a particularly high value treat--I spoke and gestured Ranger's name followed by the word and gesture for attend. I expected to reward any flick of his eyes to mine but he seemed to get the replacement of his familiar "watch me" with the new "Attend" with no trouble at all. The instant my hand finished the gesture his eyes snapped to mine he was praised and rewarded. We repeated it several times both with and without the spoken component and he always directed his attention to me when asked. Out of curiosity I tried signing/gesturing "Ranger, Attend" while he  was nearby at the dog park and got the same focused attention. At least on day one of trying this idea Ranger seemed to grasp the "Attend" sign and meaning quickly and easily. His name, however, has no meaning attached when gestured/signed. Sometimes he looked at me as if wondering why I was twitching but other times he didn't even seem to notice it, looking at something else and not turning his head until he saw or heard "Attend."

We have a number of names for Ranger and I've decided to sign/gesture his name each time I say one of them to him. I'm not entirely persuaded by Senechal's program of how to teach K9Sign. Much of it I agree makes sense but I've taught two children to communicate and taught Ranger labels for objects and actions and think that immersion is an important component so rather than just during class/training time I intend to use the signs I know in all conversations with him and when we reach the point where he's beginning to sign his own words to teach/train those the same way I did with the children.

This is going to be a fun adventure.