Monday, October 25, 2010

AnimalSign Workshops in Beaverton, OR - helping animals and people communicate in new ways!

Mid October Amber at ForwardStride Barn ( hosted (with Laurel's help) both dog K9Sign and horse EquineSign workshops. It was fun and rewarding for all of the humans (myself included) and the animals. Landing in the Portland airport was a blast. I enjoyed fabulous food, sampled great coffee, and interesting shops. I see why the Portland Airport is considered one of the best in the nation. Arriving at the barn, I saw the beautiful landscape of Beaverton.

I enjoyed meeting everyone, with very diverse personalities, business women, artists, adolescents, horsewomen, and more. Participants (riders, trainers, volunteers, supporters) came from various locations, 2 flew in from Washington, one was planning a science project for school on this 'AnimalSigning'. Several were barn members, volunteers, and riders. A few trailered their horses in from their home. All wanted better communication with their animals. And that they got!

There were several companion dogs, the barn dog, some dogs previously trained for service for blind people, each with distinct personalities. All were very interesting and had cool stories to tell of their relationships with their dogs and horses. Some dogs had interesting stories to tell as well. We listened!

During the dog class one black lab dog kept trying to communicate something to us (and to another dog), initially we tried to quiet him. But we soon realized that he was really communicating something special. So, his communication became part of the class lesson. The dog really wanted to be with another black lab, but his behavior was atypical. He let out a unique vocalization that his person hadn't heard before. So, with the other dog's person she logically traced his history and figured out what he was saying. It turns out that the black lab had been school mates (at a dog's for the blind school) with another black lab in the class. When we figured out what he was saying (and why he so wanted to play with his previous buddy) we gave him time to do so. We reinforced and labelled that sound as his word for 'FRIEND'. (Of course, he already knew that, WE had to realize it.) Now that his person knows that, the next he makes that sound, she'll reinforce it, and know what he is saying. Simple!

AnimalSign is the umbrella term that includes signing, gesturing, vocalizing, tapping, touching as a means of communications (beyond natural). We work with the form of communication dogs prefer. Though the class was focused on gesturing, we had the opportunity to work with the some surprize gestures and vocalizations, thanks to the friendship of two dogs. Signing on the spot!

There were companion, service, and therapy animals of all sizes. Each day we started with the human learning part of the workshops. That is most of the work. People gained insight into what communication is really all about, and how once you have improved it with your animal, life gets easier for both of you. We covered basics of conditioning and feedback and practiced skills.

Fascinating watching each dog learn to sign Food, Toy, or Water! Each animal's learning curve was unique. People took delight in observing the dogs thinking and learning style. Everyone learned something! I was thrilled with the learning progress of people and animals.

The next day, we moved on to horses. We started with the 'Shhh' human sign to calm the horses. We taught the horses to understand the sign YES! (followed by reward). Then we began to teach Food, and some horses Carrot and Apple. The horses learned very fast, and all were VERY interested in the new interaction. One horse became more centered after apparently realizing this 'game' involved taking turns. Another horse offered the signs for Food, Apple, and Carrot sign on his own. Everyone showed off and was proud of the progress their partners made.

Finally, I taught everyone the necessary human sign 'LATER' to be used when the animals decide tbey really get what we were doing (encouraging them to communicate). Surely, the animals will be communicating (all too often) that they want Food, Food, and more Food. They must do so politely and do need to learn limits, too.

A few people requested techniques for improving bad behavior (a horse with rider diving for grass). I offered ideas on how AnimalSign can be used to improve behavior through communication! I'll do that in person on the next trip. We'll be planning another round of beginner workshops, and follow-up classes and private lessons on my next trips. They've only JUST begun to communicate!

After the workshop, I was tired, thrilled, and off to the airport for a nice dinner and reflection on the fulfilling weekend helping people and animals connect in new ways.

Thank you and you are very welcome! See you soon!

The AnimalSigner!
Sean Senechal

No comments: