A dog photo from April, not August.

Today’s lesson is inflation.

Katya, one of our dogs, knows many sign lanugage words. That in and of itself is not unusual, we use hand signs with our livestock guarding and herding dogs. But what is unusual is Katya signs back. She converses. She will even use multiple words, stringing them together to form simple sentences. I keep adding more words to her repertoire and she has even made up a few signs of her own, sometimes novel signs and sometimes combining others to mean new things like “small-puppy nose-pusher-in-dirt” to mean piglet.

Since Katya can communicate back and forth she ended up getting chores so she could earn things she wanted. One of her chores is picking up trash, socks, shoes, etc from the cottage floor. She does this with vigor and of her own instigation. At first, with each item she picked up I gave her a tiny reward, typically her choice of a small piece of meat or bread/cracker. Given a choice she would specify by signing what she wanted. Later she had to pickup more and more to get her treats. Scalloping. I was producing a work-aholic.

This game is done by her own volition – I don’t have to start her going or encourage her. She knows the value of hard work. In fact, when the cottage is too clean she gets frustrated because she can’t find anything to pickup so she can get treats. Then she comes and tells me all about it. Maybe teaching her how to talk wasn’t such a good idea after all!

Katya’s much younger brother Remus, who I showed a while back working the piglets, noticed how Katya got her treats so he started picking up trash-for-treats. This creates a bit of competition between the two of them. He’s been doing this for months. Today he got a bright idea. He took a piece of pink foam and broke it up into three pieces and set them down in a pile. Rather than bringing me the whole thing at once he brought me each piece of foam to get a treat. He’s raised the price of trash! Now I’m paying more for picking up. Next thing I know they’ll unionize!

Doggy Economics.

Outdoors: 75°F/54°F Sunny, Hazy, Spot of Rain
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/64°F

Daily Spark: I’ve worked My way all the way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty. – Groucho Marx

PS. As I finished writing this down at the butcher shop work site Remus brought me a steel hex nut and a piece of PVC pipe down on the job site. He’s not just a pig-dog, he’s a construction site janitor too. He’s doing second shift!

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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22 Responses to Doganomics

  1. Beth Stoneking says:

    Loved the story. Dogs are the most amazing creatures, it seems way smarter than most people give them credit for. When I give treats to mine (4 of them-2 pups, 2 adults) I make them sit and wait until I say each one’s name. It helps them to learn patience and that they’ll get theirs when it’s their turn. Not that big a deal but it’s a good start for the pups, they no longer try to hurry and take another’s treat, they wait.

    I would love to see a video of your dogs working and interacting as they move through the livestock. I love to watch dogs “think”, if you know what I mean. I can almost pictures Remus with the three pieces. Was Katya there that she might try and steal his extra two pieces?

    I was wondering where you were lately but figured you were so busy with the shop and all. Glad to see a new post. I usually check every day.

    • The training you do with the wait for name is a very important tool. We do that too. It makes a big difference in later training for other things including telling the dogs what to do by name when working.

      Holly was just talking the other day about making a video of the dogs working as well as some others – after we get finished with our current big project which is…

      We have been cranking at high speed on the butcher shop construction. The weather has been so incredibly wonderful that we’ve been starting early in the morning and going late into the evening. We’re making big progress. We are currently setting forms for the rooms in the refrigerated two thirds of the building and then the curved vault ceilings. We’ll be doing it all as one unified pour which will be a big concrete day. This always involves weeks of prep-prep-prep followed by a big pour day. Then all of a sudden the building is dramatically advanced to a new stage. It is a good feeling.

    • Katlin says:

      Beth — Most creatures are much more capable than we give them credit for. We tend not to see it however, because those innate capacities don’t reveal themselves as meaningful skills unless they have an educator who knows how to develop their inherent potentiality.

      Bravo, Walter, for showing a little more of what dogs can achieve under the right conditions.

      I wonder when we’ll be ready to believe a little more in the inherent capabilities of human beings?

      • One thing that I suspect makes it so we see more of the capabilities and range of behaviors in our dogs is that:

        1) We are with them so much of the time;

        2) They are in a social pack with many dogs and people; and

        3) They are in a multi-generational pack that has passed down information, culture, from parents to children.

        We have also selected for intelligence. Just like with humans there is variation between individuals in dogs and any other species.

  2. Jessie N says:

    I second the request for a working/signing dog video. I would love to see Katya talking!

  3. Sheila Z says:

    Remus has the concept of bargaining, so forming a union is not far off. Only a matter of time before they do a wild cat (dog) walk out and go on strike. Dogs on the picket line, alert the press!

  4. huck says:


    I too would be very curious to see these ‘signing’ dogs on video. The attributes you describe in your dogs are not known to exist. So a video explicitly showing this would be quite novel.


  5. Susan Lea says:

    I can’t even begin to imagine how Katya can sign with just paws and a nose. I can’t wait to see a video! Amazing how smart Remus was! What he did shows some really advanced reasoning, and I am in awe!

    • Her signs are simplified because she lacks fingers. Many human signs use fingers and our more flexible shoulder joints since we’re primates. However signs can be adapted to her physical abilities or we simply make up a sign. An example is the sign for meat. It started out as the human sign for “eat” which is hand up to the lips. But of course Katya can’t twist her wrist and cup her fingers together the way we do for that sign so she does it by raising her right paw up to her mouth for eat. However, I’m up above her since I’m massively taller than her so she prefers to be looking up at me so her paw rarely actually comes right to her lips since her head is tipped back when she signs it. Later this sign was made more specific to mean just meat and we developed other signs that were variations of it for water (Human=W@lips, Dog=LeftPawEat) and bread/cracker (Human=land up,fist of other hand hits elbow, Dog=RightPawRise,Left PawSnapfast). Katya and I were trying to find a way to do the cracker one and she came up with her way. It is very distinctive, looks a bit like my way (ASL Cracker) and is doable for her. The human way requires crossing the chest and such which is hard for a dog to do as their shoulders and wrist are structured differently. With inter-species communications we need to be a bit adaptable. Some time I would love to do a video of the dogs. One of those fun projects for when we get the butcher shop done and who knows what else under control. We also have some really cool video footage of building the butcher shop I need to edit down and put up on YouTube. Ah, to be bored…. :)

  6. I’m going to pay more attention to my dogs today. See what they tell me about our farm, its animals, its owners.

    Wealth of info you are Walter. Wealth

    Enjoy the great weather but don’t forget to enjoy the non-work times as well !

  7. CarolG. says:

    I’ll put in another request for video of your dogs communicating with you. Your skills in instruction as well as your dog’s ability to learn are remarkable. I enjoy all of your posts.

  8. Nicole says:

    I guess teaching her how to talk should be the next one. Your story is fun and your dog is really lovable.

    • It depends on what one means by “Talk”. I had an uncle and aunt who were deaf, blind and mute. They talked by touching hands using a finger alphabet. Think “Helen Keller” style. They lived to a ripe old age and were very functional as adults.

      With dogs, they talk in their own language to each other – it is fairly extensive. I know a little of their language. They know far more of our language. I work at learning more and together we’re working at mutual common language we can share with in the limits of each other’s abilities. They tend to only have one ‘word’ per concept which makes poetry difficult. :) Fortunately they’re functionalist more incline to focus on the day to day work. I don’t think they appreciate Shakespeare or Poe. Different strokes…

  9. Margot says:

    Hi, firstly (and I bet you get this a lot) I would just like to say, what you have with your dogs is amazing. I just have a few questions about the dynamics of your pack though. Do your dogs interbreed- just out of curiosity as I was wondering if naturally they wouldn’t do that? Also, how do you keep your male dogs from not wandering after female dogs in heat or is the area you live in too far away from other dog owners. Thanks.

    • In a pack only the alpha pair mate. Others might get lustful but they don’t breed. All the pack members work to support the alphas, feeding the pups, team hunting, babysitting, etc. This is perhaps a difference between a pack social culture and dogs who live in one or two dog groups in modern human households. Since our pack has been around for so long the, perhaps innate, social structure is evident. As to other dogs, we’re a long ways from anyone else plus our pack views outside canines as predators – this is another pack behavior – territoriality – and part of what makes them good guardians.

  10. Nicola says:

    I double checked after I started reading this that it wasn’t an April Fool’s post. I’m fascinated and impressed with your dog communication skills!

  11. Erica says:

    Hi Walter,
    I was totally captivated by this article. And like the other commenters, I’d LOVE to see a video someday. I have a few questions:
    -What breed are your dogs?
    -What’s the minimum number of dogs you’d need to constitute a pack?
    -It sounds like your dogs provide a guarding AND a herding function, and I’m really intrigued by this. I had been told by numerous people that you must have separate breeds of dogs for these 2 functions. We have a small flock of sheep and are pretty new livestock guardian dog owners (we had an Akbash and are just about to get a Great Pyr). Would your dogs be good guardians if there were only a couple of them, or is it necessary to have a pack for them to develop that guardian mentality?

    • Our dogs have a pinch of German Shepherd, a pinch of Black Lab and a lot of Other in them.

      I don’t know an official definition of pack size but a lone wolf is just that, a lone wolf and not a pack so I guess two would be a pack. Generally packs are formed around a breeding alpha pair.

      Yes, our dogs do both guarding and herding. Some breeds have been hard selected to just one function but there are also working dogs like German Shepherds and the like which do more general work, crossing over to both sides of the fence.

  12. Megan says:


    I originally visited your blog to read about rotational grazing hogs when I came across this post. That is amazing! I’m going to add to the requests of a video. But, I understand that you all are busy and to make a video that doesn’t benefit you in any way is probably not a good use of your time. The thing is that if you have a video that goes viral on youtube, and this sounds like it would, you can add an advertisement to it that will earn you money every time someone clicks on it. I’d really love to see your dogs conversing with you. Have they learned any new signs?

  13. Daniel says:

    I found your site and this post from your Slashdot(pubwvj) comment on the “Crowbar” article. It really is fascinating what dogs are capable of given the right nature/nurture. I got my wife a couple border collie pups for her birthday(not a hasty decision) and they have really honed in and picked up our vocabulary in their 8-9th week. I’ve been considering getting into herding competitions out here in Colorado, but don’t have any experience with it. I think I would enjoy training them and they would get fulfillment out of it. I have about 17 acres but no livestock to speak of right now. Any ideas as to where someone not born into this lifestyle can get started?

    • Good news: I wasn’t born into the farming life style either so there is hope. :) I would suggest lots of reading over the winter months and then over the years gradually implementing things in the direction you want to go. For the dog start with basic training and see if you can work on establishing a yes/no communication back and forth. That was a critical point in the development of cross species language in our family-pack. For herd dog training there are many excellent books and videos. Amazon may have a list – a great resource due to the reviews.

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