A dog at the keyboard: using arbitrary signs to communicate requests

Anim Cogn. 2008 Apr;11(2):329-38. doi: 10.1007/s10071-007-0122-3. Epub 2007 Nov 14.


As a consequence of domestication, dogs have a special readiness for communication with humans. We here investigate whether a dog might be able to acquire and consistently produce a set of arbitrary signs in her communication with humans, as was demonstrated in "linguistic" individuals of several species. A female mongrel dog was submitted to a training schedule in which, after basic command training and after acquiring the verbal labels of rewarding objects or activities, she learned to ask for such objects or activities by selecting lexigrams and pressing keys on a keyboard. Systematic records taken during spontaneous interaction with one of the experimenters showed that lexigrams were used in an appropriate, intentional way, in accordance with the immediate motivational context. The dog only utilized the keyboard in the experimenter's presence and gazed to him more frequently after key pressing than before, an indication that lexigram use did have communicative content. Results suggest that dogs may be able to learn a conventional system of signs associated to specific objects and activities, functionally analogous to spontaneous soliciting behaviors and point to the potential fruitfulness of the keyboard/lexigram procedure for studying dog communication and cognition. This is the first report to systematically analyze the learning of arbitrary sign production in dogs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Association Learning*
  • Concept Formation*
  • Dogs / psychology*
  • Female
  • Human-Animal Bond
  • Language*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology