Dogs, Long Sentences & Altruism

Katya Reading Local Newspaper

The dogs generally don’t string more than two words together but occasionally they’ll go further. Katya and Remus tend to be at the vanguard of complexity. This afternoon Katya used a mix of sign and vocals (my name) to say:

“Walter Attention Come Food Dish All-gone.”

That’s a six word sentence. That’s pretty amazing – I’ve never seen any of them go that long. All-gone is only one word in the sign language we use so that just counts as one word. We communicate with a mix of Dog, English and a version of ASL that has been pidginned to work with their paws and bodies.

Her dish was right there but it was empty. I had never seen her use “All-gone” before but she clearly adapted the hand sign I use to something she can do. Even though she had eaten up her food already, why the dish was empty, I gave her a treat, a sliver of cheddar cheese, for being so communicative. I use what ever motivates to encourage learning and thinking.

This morning Romula also used more words than usual. She is normally very quiet, rarely using sign language although she’ll speak in dog. You almost wouldn’t know she knows sign language, at least not expressively. We use sign language and speech to talk to her – she is receptive but rarely expresses herself in sign. But, it is clear that she has been paying attention because every once in a while she’ll speak up, or rather sign up. This morning she signed to me:

“You Quills-Out.”

I told her to go in the cottage and she did so immediately. I followed to get my forceps and a cup of warm soapy water. Once inside she repeated the request. She didn’t say “Please” but I’ll excuse that as the sign involves her tongue which was covered in quills at the time.

There is one sign for Quills-Out so that just counts as a two word sentence but that’s long for Romula. She and her twin brother Remus, who is very communicative, had found a porcupine last night. Remus only had three quills in his lip which he had asked to have removed but she had a mess in her mouth. Clearly she had bitten the porcupine. It is hard to imagine why she does that since she’s not dumb and she’s done it before. I would think she would learn not to bite porcupines but something about them is highly appetitive, or maybe this is simple bravdo and dog dares. I obliged, pulling about 20 quills from her lips and the roof of her mouth. It’s been six months since they last did this so it is not an often used but a well remembered sign.

It’s not a good sign where there is a dedicated sign for something that bad… I don’t use this sign and didn’t teach it to them. The dogs made it up and all use it consistently demonstrating it is in their common language, the point where behavior becomes language because it communicates. Looking carefully at the sign’s structure I see that what they’re doing is mimicing them holding their mouth open and a quick paw motion that I think mimics my quick pulling of quills. It’s very distinct and never used for anything else.

I never saw this sign prior to Katya picking up and expressing back sign language. I think our dogs made up the sign once they knew I was receptive to communications. We’ve used sign language with our working dog pack for decades but she was the first one to sign back. Once she and I started signing regularly together the flood gates broke and the other dogs joined in too. Was it that they were waiting for some signal that I would respond appropriately? Perhaps it wasn’t worth talking to me until they knew I would listen.

In any case, after twenty five years the fifth and sixth generation all of a sudden went from understanding perhaps several hundred words of our shared pidgin to them quickly becoming highly expressive, when they want to as Romula demonstrates. We started with the word “Meat” and “Please”, then adding the simple “Yes/No”. Once that was solid we rapidly added other words to communicating fairly complex ideas with verbs, nouns, names and more. Most of them will answer simple Yes/No questions, if they’re so incline, especially if they want something but often just to converse. Romula the least communicative occasionally demonstrates that yes indeed, she has been paying attention and knows how to ‘talk’ when she has something to say and wants to say it. I suspect her reluctance has to do with being the Omega, the lowest dog on the totem pole. That social position can change and I’ve been expecting her to rise so maybe her frequency of communications will rise accordingly.

This is very basic communications about wants, needs, what predators are out there, status of stuff on the farm, things to do. It revolves around farm work and our daily lives for the most part. We don’t discuss deep philosophy or higher mathematics – although they can count and do very basic math like A is more than B. They haven’t talked with me about God or any great plans to take over the world. But we talk – And we both listen.

On a closely related note of mental ability, yesterday I saw a good example of altruism in the dogs. Altruism is something that sets us and the dogs apart from the pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks and geese. We and the dogs will do something for someone else without any direct benefit – this builds social bonds. Pigs don’t do that. They’re self centered, something which is fundamental to their psychology and physiology. Pigs don’t feed their young other than nursing – they never give food. Humans and dogs actively feed their young which creates very different social interactions. Pigs don’t pick their young up and cuddle or carry them either. Dogs and humans do both. Altruism and helping each other out may have evolved from this caring for, carrying, feeding behavior set.

What happened yesterday was Hanno, another of our livestock working dogs was inside the cottage and he wanted to go out. The door opens inward but even though it was unlatched he couldn’t open it because it was too closed for Hanno to be able to get a claw hooked around the door to pull it toward himself. He said “Out Please” to me. Before I could respond, Remus came up to the door from the other side and reached out with a paw, pushing the door inward so that Hanno could exit. It was very clear that Remus had no intention nor desire to come in and was merely opening the door for Hanno to come out. Remus did Hanno a favor, a service by opening the door, with no benefit to himself other than the joy of having done it. And he was happy to oblige. Altruism at it’s purest form.

Outdoors: 73°F/38°F Sunny, Light Rain
Tiny Cottage: 68°F/64°F

Daily Spark: If I was perfect that would be boring.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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6 Responses to Dogs, Long Sentences & Altruism

  1. Tim says:

    “Altruism and helping each other out may have evolved from this this caring for, carrying, feeding behavior set. ”

    “this this” should be changed to “this” or an alternate correction.

  2. Melanie says:

    You have something so unique happening on your farm with the way you and your pack communicate and work together. It would be fascinating to see it in action. Could you record some of your dogs speaking in sign language on video some time? I think it would be so beneficial if it was more widely known that this sort of relationship is possible between people and dogs. It would make an amazing documentary or book!

  3. Ryan DeVries says:


    Several people are sharing videos of their dogs and cats using word buttons. What to do when the buttons are not around.

    I notice my own dog uses specific actions with only with specific family members. Is the same true with your dogs? Do all the humans know all the dog words or are specific words for specific people?

    • I’ve seen that with dogs and other animals. It’s a good method of developing communications. For us it is better not being bound by the Ouija board since we’re all over the mountain and need to talk all the time to each other. The pack uses the same words with everyone, human and dog. There are English words and ASL words that they use even between each other. Perhaps they simply don’t have a word in Canine for that or maybe they just got used to using the ASL and English. Or maybe they’re just being polite. They are very polite, unlike cats.

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