With new DVD, even old dog can learn new tricks



Kristen Thompson/for Metro Vancouver


Selena Lohan, co-creator of Mimic Mutt, communicates with her neighbour’s dog, Sophie.


Sometimes you really can teach old dogs new tricks. At least you can teach them a new language.

Last month, Selena Lohan — the brainchild behind Mimic Baby — an interactive DVD that teaches sign language to pre-verbal children, released the next chapter of her Mimic series — Mimic Mutt.

Mimic Mutt, she says, helps bridge the gap between people and their dogs, by teaching pet owners 40 American Standard Sign Language signs for commands, praises and tricks.

“I think you can get more deeply into communicating with ASL (than with verbal communication),” says Lohan, adding it’s also an improvement over the limited number of signs used in dog training.

“This way you can say anything to your dog. And it can be better than voice commands because it can be used in situations when you’re not in hearing range.”

Lohan, 39, was introduced to signing when she met her husband, Max Fomitchev, a deaf performance artist. They now have two children with whom they sign.

One day, Lohan was walking along Vancouver’s seawall with her kids when she had a light-bulb moment — dog owners, she realized, could also benefit by teaching sign language to their own barking babies.

“I had seen deaf friends signing with their dogs,” she said. “Dogs respond to body language faster than they do to verbal language. You’re gesturing already (when you’re talking), so they’re responding to your body language already.”

Her neighbour, she said, came home one day and could see his dog in the window several storeys up, barking and scratching at the window. From the courtyard he signed, “Down. Stay. Wait for me,” and his dog sat down quietly.

Lohan put a year and a half into research and production, and in February the Mimic Mutt DVD was finished.

She got four dogs to star in the video, and after only one day they could remember the signs and were reading for filming.

“It doesn’t matter if your dog is old, trained, un-trained,” she said. “You really can teach old dogs new tricks.”

Lohan and Fomitchev’s DVD were selected as part of the gift bags given to the presenters and nominees at this year’s Academy Awards.

She included a hand-written note in a gift bag given to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, which said, “I don’t know if you have pets, but when your kids get older, they might follow your example and ‘adopt’ an animal.”

“Signing has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” Lohan said. “One thing that really motivated me is that we’re really becoming ambassadors for sign language. I’m teaching people to communicate with their babies, their pets and with other deaf people.”

For more information, visit www.mimicmutt.com.