Katya Gambling

Katya Examining Roll of the Bones

Katya is a disabled dog. She had white muscles disease as a puppy due to a lack of selenium in her diet. Unfortunately the vet misdiagnosed it and Katya almost died of this simple mineral deficiency. Watching her decline over a period of weeks was horrible.

Fortunately I figured out the problem from reading the Merck Veterinarian Manual, the web is good for something. I gave Katya human vitamins which supplied the selenium she needed. That saved her from death and she improved although she’ll never fully recover as the disease fundamentally changed the form of her bones and muscles. Now she can walk again but she’ll never be a fast runner or leap tall fences like her pack. She has a funny stout body shape – characteristic of the disease – and her back legs are bowed and weak.

Recently Katya has started herding pigs when we load each week. The other dogs do this routinely. Herding is a little bit of an iffy situation for Katya since her bones are fragile. I worry about her safety but she’s very excited to participate and imitates my chuff-chuff to tell the pigs to move along. She weighs about 35 lbs. They weigh about 250 to 600 lbs. It is quite the contrast.

Since Katya doesn’t have the superior gymnastic abilities of her brethren she has devoted herself to a life of intellect. When she isn’t following me around, or bossing the other dogs like a little Napoleon, she studies physics, mathematics and other ivory tower stuff. Game theory, or the dog equivelant.

Quite seriously though, she has developed a remarkable vocabulary of signing and uses some of it back to us. All of the dogs understand a lot of our language and hand signs. There are a couple hundred words we use in our work with them. Katya has taken it to a new level, she signs back and talks to us this way. Clear, learned, two way communications that is not part of her natural canine language.

Katya has daily chores which include cleaning up the floor of the cottage. She picks up bits of paper, shoes and other trash she finds lying around and takes them over to the sink. Its her way of helping out and yes, she gets an allowance for her work. Unlike Remus though she has not yet figured out to negotiate and inflate the price. Or maybe she’s just nice. Or maybe I’m onto that trick.

In addition to her chores, each day we play games like Large vs Small, Shell Game, Name that Object and such. She’s gotten quite good at these. They are intellectual stimulation that both explores her boundaries and pushes them. It’s about the level of playing with a three year old, no E=MC2 but it is fascinating to see how much she can do.

Large vs Small is where I hold out two items. Then I ask “The Question.” Her job is to pick the large one Large or Small – my choice. To win she has to get it right. I switch hands, sizes, object types and other controls. She’s quite good, although she wants the Large, after all it is more, she knows she has to pick the correct one to get anything.

Another game is simply naming things. She knows and will say back using signs, the names of various objects like meat, not-meat (fat), cheese, bread/cracker, egg, etc. I show her something and ask the question “What’s this?” If she gives the right response she wins a treat. When she gets really excited sometimes she’ll flash through all of her treat words in rapid succession and say “Good! Good!” to me. Chocolate gets this. Then she has to calm down and name it correctly.

For Shell Game, think of the classic street corner gambling. I hide a peanut under a cup or in one hand and then switch my hands back and forth (my hands never leave my wrists). She has to remember which hand or cup the peanut was in and track it. She’s very intent. If she picks the wrong one she loses. “Eeee! Wrong answer!” If she gets it right she gets the treat – “We have a winner!”

She’s gambling, intellectual game playing rather than heavily physical, and she really likes winning. Our son Will commented that I’m a game show host and she’s a contestant. She’s a beautiful contestant with claws and sharp teeth.

Well that is all fun and good but there is a practical side to communicating. Katya will tell me when the whey truck is coming round the mountain, a pig out of the field, that she hears ravens (they prey on piglets), when Holly is arriving home, when there are coyotes over the ridge and many other things. She also speaks for the other dogs, telling me that Lili, who tends to be very quiet wants something. All the dogs ‘talk’ to some degree but Katya’s ‘speech’ has gone further, probably because she is not as physically enabled so she focuses more on the things she can do, thinking things. I doubt she thinks of herself as disabled. She’s just differently enabled.

Katya Gambling
Porcupines & Stock Car Racing
Communicating Complexities
Bilingual Dogs
Makes Me Want to Gag!
Speaker for the Dogs
Dog Names

Outdoors: 78°F/48°F Cloudy, Rain all last night
Tiny Cottage: 70°F/67°F

Daily Spark: Without deviation from the norm there can be no progress. -Frank Zappa

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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17 Responses to Katya Gambling

  1. SharonZee says:

    I would love to see a video of her talking to you.

    Because I have been clicker training my mare, it has taught me to pay attention to the details of communication with my dogs. I understand when Grace, the border collie, is telling me something. She herds the chickens in at night. It is a marvelous thing to behold. She still makes some mistakes like blocking them from going forward, buy she’s getting better at it. Now she is teaching Sprout, the 122 lb, 18 month old Black Lab how to get the job done.

  2. Nance says:

    love it; love the post. I have not communicated with an animal like this but I know my Dad did — with plow horses and a collie he had.

  3. Susan Lea says:

    I always love hearing how your dogs communicate, and I, too, would love to see a video. I love your expression “differently enabled!” What a lovely way to put it, focusing on her gifts, not what she can’t do.

  4. David lloyd sutton says:

    I remember you blogging about Katya when she was a shirt riding puppy. Why did she have a Selenium deficiency sufficient to cause white muscle disease? Has this occurred before in your pack?
    Concur that at some point not only do you have to do a book on this, but a high quality set of training videos. Your human-canine interactions are up there with the best trained service dogs for complexity and subtlety. Not something to let slip. I’d certainly buy them!!

    • We’ve never had it occur before. When she weaned it was mid-winter. Katya was Lili’s first puppy and Lili was not happy about having a puppy so she weaned Katya early. Since then Lili has been a great mother to her other puppies but that first time she didn’t do well.

      When Katya weaned she was eating pure meat, no organs or guts and I think that is what caused it. The sudden drop off from mother’s milk to just meat with no offal. Normally the dogs catch mice at the very least and that provides vitamins and minerals from the guts. The result is that at a critical high growth phase Katya didn’t get the selenium she needed.

      I took her to the vet to try and diagnose what was going on but the vet missed it. More reading on the Internet finally pinned it down as selenium deficiency so I gave her human vitamins which have the necessary selenium. Katya stopped going downhill and began recovering. By then she already had some of the serious bone twisting which is why her hind legs are bowed, she has the weak leg muscles and she has the characteristic very large chest of selenium deficient animals.

      I think what happened was a freak occurrence of situations that came together to make her vulnerable. It’s never happened to us before or since but now I’m aware of the issue and make sure that new puppies get guts – complete animals to eat. I later talked about that with the vet and she concurred. Hopefully next time the vet sees the symptoms she’ll be able to spot it in time for another dog. It is rare since most dogs get only commercial dog food rather than meat.

      Lesson: be a good girl and eat your gut soup. It is filled with minerals and vitamins that will make you grow up strong and straight like Popeye. (Hmm… maybe not such a good dietary example…)

  5. Amy says:

    Walter – another general pig question if you dont mind. We have two separate large wooded, pasture areas for our pigs. On one area is 2 sows that farrowed about 7.5 weeks ago, their piglets and our boar. In the other area is a barrow we are raising for meat, a young boar we are going to raise for meat, a gilt that is not bred and a sow that just farrowed this week. We are planning on moving the 2 sows and the boar from the first pen into the second pen with the other pigs- will there be any issues with the new piglets?



    • I would leave the new sow where she is and move the others out of that area instead. She needs time to have some privacy. Not knowing how big the areas are it is a little hard to say. I would also suggest having four or more paddocks that you can rotate the herd through for growing. Then also ideally have a few paddocks where farrowing sows go to have privacy. If the paddocks are large enough, several acres, then the latter is not as necessary and you can just leave the sows behind in the rotation.

      • Amy says:

        Okay, thanks. We were worried that if we moved the sows we are weaning in with the new sow and piglets we might have fighting problems. Our pasture areas are several acres large. We have a 3 or so acre section, separated by a section that is probably 5-7 acres where we have sheep and two llamas and then another 2-3 acre pig area. We figured we could not put them in the pen next to the piglets (where the sheep are) because the piglets would try to get through. Sounds like we will construct another pig area…:-). Thanks for willing to share advice- it is so helpful.


        • The new sow needs the privacy. Can you make her a sub paddock that includes the area where she farrowed? That would work well. The number of animals and rate of pasture has a lot to do with determining the paddock size when doing managed rotational grazing. The basic idea is you want to move the animals off a paddock within a week or so and after they’ve eaten it down to within a few inches of the soil but you don’t want to come back to the same area for about a month to break parasite cycles and give the plants time to grow. Having four paddocks is about the minimum for doing good rotations. Ideally they animals return when the plants are up high enough to provide a large mass of food but not so over grown that they become tough. It’s important to do it based on observation more than the calendar.

          That’s the ideal. Realize nothing will be ideal due to different animals, animal sizes, animal counts, seasons, soils, etc. Just have a bunch of paddocks and then rotate. You’ll get the hang of it.

          Aside from weaning and gardens we don’t worry too much about where piglets roam since they tend to stick close to their mothers and then the herd. If you have roads and nearby neighbors this can be more of an issue thought. Electric fencing with something outside, even sticks laying on the ground, a stone wall or brush, works great.

  6. Mark Hamilton says:

    I love the stories of your dogs. Katya is very special! Your obvious close relation with them both engaging and working is great. I believe that you probably see a lot of things that most people and most scientists miss because you are working so closely with them over many generations with such a large social group. Its a pack where things will show up that don’t appear in dogs like mine that are just alone in a famly.

    I have a question on your mission small business thing. It relates to the wonderful way that you share information. Arent you afraid that your setting up your own competition? You give out so much free information about how to do what you do that other people could setup in competition with you. That could take away from your sales. Dont get me wrong. I think it is wonderful how generous you are! I just wonder.

    • Virtually everyone benefitting from my sharing of information is outside our normal market area so my helping them isn’t really creating competition for us. It doesn’t take away from us. If it helps our nation, and the world, have more small farms that is a good thing from which we all benefit. We are better off with 10 million small farms providing disperse sources of food than the current system where a mere 10,000 to 100,000 mega farms provide nearly all the food. Small farmers can feed the world far better than Big Ag.

      There are many small farmers who have told me that the blog and my writings elsewhere have helped me with their farm. It’s always great to hear. I know of a few farmers that have set themselves up modeled on how we farm. One even is working to setup their own on-farm processing. That’s a great thing. Hopefully more people will do that. The market is huge. We can’t supply everyone with pastured pork. Then there’s beef, chicken, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, cereals, etc. Quite frankly, we don’t even want to try. We would have to grow too big and that would take away the joy. We farm not just to pay the mortgage but also for the lifestyle that it gives us. I don’t want to give that up by getting too big.

      I share. In turn other people share what they have learned. I learn from them too. This too is good. We all benefit from open dialog.

  7. Lisa Enders says:

    Your dogs are so amazing! I love these stories.

  8. Brian Devroe says:

    I to would love to see videos of your dogs doing their work and communicating. I think it is so amazing that you have established communications with another species!

    • Maybe someday. I have one hesitation about that sort of video and that it simply looks like one more trick dog movie like on Hollywood or YouTube. I don’t know how to get across the fact that these aren’t tricks, this is real communication, real working dog activity, etc. I’m afraid it would just look like movie magic and lose the realness.

      • BBC is known to capture the most difficult things, just think of the stuff David Attenborough puts on the screen. Rebecca Hosking sometimes does some work for BBC and since has started farming the family farm (look up “farm for the future” , nice introduction to permaculture) and she’s familiar with working dogs too. Rebecca is on twitter each day @Rebecca_Hosking .

  9. Ellen says:

    That was the most wonderful story. You made me cry. I love how you are with your animals. How intune you are to them. These stories about the animals are my favorite part of your blog. Its all good but these stories really get to my heart.

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