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July 6, 2009 / Research
Dog Language Boards for improved interspecies communication with canines
Left Board Right Board
Gorilla Companion Dogs, Redd and Rikki, both use a Language Board
The Language Board for canines evolved over time in an effort to improve communication with the Foundation's gorilla companion dogs. Most people who take care of dogs know that they understand quite a bit of spoken language, and can often demonstrate what they want through actions, vocalizations or gestures with their paws, heads or whole bodies. We thought we'd extend their communication range by giving them a new tool — a Language Board (see above figure). The Language Board is fashioned from magnetized plastic with a white coating, cut into squares that adhere to surfaces such as refrigerators.

Using a magic marker, we printed frequently-used words — such as hungry, yes, now, out, play, food and drink — with a simple illustration on each square. We refer to these as icons. Alcohol applied with a tissue will remove ink from the plastic surface and allow easy changes to icons.

You can engage your dog with the Language Board by pointing to the appropriate icon as you say the word (under the appropriate circumstances) and encourage the dog to point too, usually with his/her nose. Initially, a treat held in the hand to get the dog to follow your pointing action may be helpful.

The above 43 icons started as a set of about a dozen for the dog Rikki Power. As new situations arose, more icons were added. Note that the sketches can be very simple as long as the set is logically consistent. Feel free to use our language icons (we provide a standardized set in the figure below).

You may be wondering if the idea for a Dog Language Board was influenced by our interspecies communication research with gorillas (Project Koko). The answer is yes. Koko has been exposed to words since the beginning of the project, and even as an infant was quick to discriminate identical objects marked with different words.
Recently, the gorillas have been using plastic container lids or cards with printed words and phrases to augment their sign language communication with their humans caregivers.

It seemed natural to try it out with dogs too. The Foundation's puppy Redd is particularly adept at communicating with phrases on plastic lids. These have the advantage of portability.

On a few occasions, Rikki and Redd have also removed icons from the Language Board to leave a "note" or make a point. Interestingly, as puppies, both removed and attempted to destroy the bad icon (note the teeth markes in the upper left corner of this icon, above) even though we only use this word in conversation (and never say "bad dog").

Learning occurs easily and very quickly with puppies from the time they are mobile until about 4-5 months, but older dogs can learn too.

We'll be posting occasional updates on this topic in the interspecies communication research section of our new website which is scheduled to launch later this year.

(PS: If you're interested in exploring teaching your dog to use a form of gestural sign language adapted for canines, you may want to consult Sean Senechal's web site animalsign.org.)

If you have any questions, or would like to share your experiences using a Dog Language Board, please email us at:


Standardized Dog Language Board:
Std Left Board Std Right Board

If you'd like to download a larger, hi-resolution PDF version of the above Standardized Language Board, click here

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