Bark Columnist and Blogger
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Pet Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 12 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs. Karen writes the training column for The Bark and blogs at Dogbehaviorblog.com. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, teaching a tropical field biology course in Nicaragua. Karen writes an animal column, “The London Zoo,” and is coordinating editor for the “High Country Running” column, both of which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Love Has No Age Limit: Welcoming An Adopted Dog Into Your Home.
I’m sympathetic to many dogs
We all know that dogs and children can be a volatile mix, and that we must take care to protect kids from dogs. Regrettably, some kids are bitten and even more are scared or hurt by dogs chasing them or jumping up on them. As both a parent and as someone who works with dogs professionally, I see this as an important issue that we as a society must continue to improve.
Still, many times the interactions between kids and dogs leave me more concerned about the dogs than the children. Though far too many dog bites to kids happen, sometimes I think it’s amazing that there aren’t more considering what dogs have to put up with. While I think the majority of kids are kind to dogs, such good behavior is far from universal.
I’ve heard many people over the years praise their dogs by saying, “The kids can do ANYTHING to him.” I always respond by asking, “What are the kids doing to him?” while inside I’m crossing my paws and hoping it’s not too bad.
The answers range from the relatively benign (they follow him to pet him constantly, they dress him up) to the deeply concerning (they make a game of jumping over him, they use him like a pillow, they carry him around a lot) to the truly horrifying (they poke him in the eye, they pull his tail, they scream in his ear to wake him up, they try to ride him like a horse.)
My years working with clients as well as observations of dogs outside of work leave me with tremendous gratitude to the enormous numbers of dogs who react peacefully to kids. Some dogs are dealing with kids who are a bit rough, totally thoughtless or even downright cruel.
Without excusing dogs who have bitten kids, I think we’re asking dogs to put up with an awful lot considering what goes on in many households with kids. Almost every day, I silently thank the millions of dogs out there who have refrained from biting kids who bother them relentlessly. We’re very lucky as a society to have so many amazing canines as pets.
I wonder if it makes them feel bad
Marley had jumped up on our bed, as he is allowed to do, but the rule is that he has to get down if he is asked to do so. On this particular night, he seemed exhausted and eager to go to bed. Once ensconced in his favorite spot, he avoided eye contact with all of us. Wherever our faces were, he was looking the other way.
I proposed the idea that perhaps he was trying to avoid being told to get down off the bed, in an “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me” kind of way. This was pure guesswork, but the rest of my family thought it was funny because it really seemed to fit.
We began to act like him, looking away, pretending that nobody could tell us it was bedtime or anything else we didn’t want to hear, and we were all laughing. I caught a glance at Marley, and he looked really unhappy, which is when I said, “I wonder if he feels bad because we’re laughing at him.”
In truth we found Marley endearing and funny, and meant no disrespect, but how did he perceive it? Dogs are so in tune with our emotions and actions, and they are obviously intensely social beings, so it seems possible that he felt himself the object of derision where none was intended.
It made me sad to contemplate the idea, and my husband and kids felt the same way. We stopped laughing immediately and began to pet Marley as we usually would when we’re all about to go to bed. Soon Marley looked happy again, though still tired.
It’s no fun being laughed at, and it does happen to dogs, whether our intent is hurtful or not. Do you think your dog can tell if others are laughing at his expense?
How to wear one with style
I’ve never liked the term “cone of shame.” That’s in part because a medical device that helps keep dogs safe has no business being associated with derogatory names. It’s also because I see no reason that dogs should ever be ashamed or made to feel so.
Perhaps that’s why I was especially delighted to see these examples of pets whose time in a cone was treated light-heartedly. Decorating these accessories made each and every one of the dogs (and cats) look charming without a trace of the woebegone, pathetic images so often presented in such situations. These dogs really know how to rock the cone!
I must admit that few of the dogs look thrilled. They may be out of sorts because of the cone or whatever issue caused them to need one in the first place. The extra decorations may be unwelcome, especially for the dog whose cone is full of stuffed animals. Some of the dogs may simply not like being stared at and photographed.
My favorite photos are of the dog who is part of the Pixar logo, the one in couture Burberry, and the dog with a top hat and pipe. The assorted coneflowers are pretty endearing, too. Making the cones fun and decorative definitely affects the way people view the dogs, taking shame out of the situation, which I like.
You’ve got to love the last photo of an absolutely cheerful dog with a bare cone. This dog needs no decoration other than that happy face. Some dogs can’t be brought down!
Dogs rest in the weirdest positions
I don’t understand how dogs can possibly be comfortable in some of the positions they choose to be in. Take Marley, for example, in this picture. Even with every effort to remember that he is not a human and that I shouldn’t project my preferences on him, this makes no sense to me. He looks like a “before” picture in an ad for a chiropractor.
Over the years, I’ve seen dogs resting with their necks bent at 90-degree angles, with their paws straight up in the air and with their faces smashed against the wall. I’ve seen them sleeping in their food bowls, tangled up with each other and with cats on top of them. Some dogs stretch out completely flat in way that seems impossible for canine joints while others are curled so tightly in boxes that I would have bet good money they would be unable to squeeze into them. I’ve even seen a few who have actually fallen asleep with their bodies suspended between the couch and coffee table.
Marley, and many other dogs, put themselves into what look like contortions on a regular basis. They do it on the floor, on the couch, and in bed. About the only place I don’t typically see dogs in odd postures is in their crates, but there are exceptions to that, too.
In what unfathomable position have you found your dog?
Gentle help from Charlie the Beagle
I strongly believe that when you have a new baby, you should accept all assistance available to you. “Turn down no offer of help” was some of the best advice I ever got, and I frequently pass it on to other parents.
One family’s dog is able to offer rocking services to keep a baby swinging gently in her crib. In this video, you can see that the dog looks at the camera operator, who I presume is the guardian, after each push to the crib. He seems to be checking in, and I like to imagine him asking, “Did I do good?” (I never imagine that dogs consistently speak with proper grammar.)
This activity combines a happy baby and time for the dog to work on a specific skill, which is no different than training any other trick or action. It looks to me as though the dog is being cued to rock the crib each time, based on how he continues to look at the person operating the camera. I hope the dog gets reinforced for responding correctly, because he really does a nice job gently contacting the crib so it rocks in a controlled way.
The dog does look nervous, but it could be that it’s the camera rather than anything else about the situation that is upsetting to him. Even if the dog showed signs of being completely relaxed, I would never want this to be an unsupervised activity. There’s too much risk of the dog overdoing the swinging or of the baby reacting with crying or other distress. It’s hard to say how the dog would react. It is easy to say, though, that this behavior is cute as well as having a practical component.
More evidence that dogs attend to human emotions
Science is subject to trendiness, just like fashion, language and entertainment are. So, just as we are all facing an abundance of mid-calf boots, abbreviations and post-apocalyptic films, there is no shortage of studies on the influence of human emotions on our dogs. One of the latest studies, Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behaviour, in the journal Animal Cognition, is just one of many recent works to explore this topic.
The purpose of this study was to address two questions: 1) Can dogs discriminate between human expressions that indicate happiness, disgust, and neutrality? 2) Do dogs prefer objects eliciting the more positive human emotion in the owner?
In this experiment, dogs had to choose between two bottles, each of which was associated with a human emotional expression of happiness, one of disgust or a neutral expression. The bottle associated with a more positive expression had food inside it while the other one contained a stone. (Though this is potentially a problem in the experimental design—the objects are not identical, meaning that the contents of the bottle as well as the guardian’s expression could be influencing the dog’s decision—the researchers conducted some control trials in an attempt to eliminate this potential glitch.)
The researchers measured dogs’ choices in two ways. They recorded which bottle the dog approached first and which they retrieved. They argued that positive emotions in humans may be linked with a corresponding emotion in the dog because what people feel positively towards—going for a walk, starting to play or dinnertime—may also trigger positive feelings in the dog. On the other hand, negative emotions in people may not correspond to the dog’s response to something. That is, when humans express disgust, it may be related to objects that dogs find appealing such as trash or poop. That’s why, in this study, the experimenters looked at a task (fetching) rather than just an approach to an object. They wanted to see how dogs responded to human requests rather than simply making a choice based on their own preference. The goal was to get a better measure of dogs’ responses to human emotions.
The overall findings of this study are that yes, just like in so many other studies recently, dogs are attuned to the emotions of their guardians. They preferentially retrieve the object associated with a more positive human emotion. So, when their guardian expressed happiness over one bottle and disgust or neutrality over the other bottle, they were significantly more likely to retrieve the bottle associated with happiness. Similarly, if their guardian expressed disgust over one bottle but was emotionally neutral about the other, the dog was more likely to retrieve the neutral bottle.
What I find most interesting in this study is that dogs preferentially retrieved the object associated with a more positive emotion even though they didn’t necessarily show a preference when measured as first approach. In other words, they acted according to human preference when told to do something—“Fetch!”— even though it was sometimes in contrast to their preference about which object to approach. We all know that dogs find many things appealing that revolt us. I’m personally thinking of how often I had to bathe my dog after he rolled in fox poop when I lived on a farm. I found it disgusting but it was clearly very appealing to him even with the threat of a bath hanging in the balance.
If the researchers had only looked at approach, they might have concluded that dogs could not discriminate between the various human expressions of emotion. Their more complex design provides evidence that dogs can do so, but that they don’t always behave accordingly.
Everybody left these transmitters alone
Over the winter break, my family visited the Washington D.C. area, and like my children, I find myself writing the “What I Did During My Vacation” essay. At the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the great displays include the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay, a Concorde airliner, and the 1903 Wright Flyer that was the first plane ever to take flight. Despite these historical marvels, the item I remember most from our hours in the museum was much smaller and far less impressive in appearance.
I’m referring to a military transmitter that was used successfully during the Vietnam War to help soldiers in need of rescue, to help pilots determine where to deliver military strikes and to monitor activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This homing device is officially known as the T-1151 Radio Transmitter, but was more commonly called the Doo Radio Transmitter. Many of them looked like dog feces, although others resembled feces from animals that were native to the area such as monkeys.
The genius of this piece of military equipment is that because it was disguised as feces, nobody was likely to mess with it. It could be put in place even weeks before a mission and remain undisturbed. They lasted as long as the battery power allowed, with discovery being an unlikely reason for them to cease being operational.
I never knew dog poop served such an important function—making the camouflage of military equipment possible.
Does everyone see my need for lint rollers?
My stocking this year was full of little treasures that tell me that my relatives on the Christmas-celebrating side of the family really get me. Among the great diversity of gifts, the majority fit into three categories—chocolate (oh how I love it!), lotions (oh how my skin hates living in the high desert!) and dog related.
The thing that really made me laugh was that I received three lint rollers. Yes, apparently everybody in my family sees my need for them. I wear black a lot, and that can make dog hair especially noticeable, but I thought I was pretty good at removing it much of the time. Not so. Rather than be offended, I’m choosing to be entertained that so many people thought to help me eliminate the fur that accessorizes all of my outfits.
What about you? Did you receive lint rollers or other practical items for dog lovers? Perhaps you received other things relating to your dog passion—jewelry with a canine theme, hiking or travel gear for your dogs, a matched serving set with a dog bowl for your best friend and a mug for you or clothing with a dog on it.
Was a dog theme apparent in your gifts?
No need to compare it to other grief
Naturally, I don’t consider losing a dog to be LIKE losing a family member, because I know it IS losing a family member, and I’ve always shared deep sympathy with anyone who has had to say good-bye to a dog. Lately, friends mourning dogs, (including Scout, pictured here) have had a tendency to say in response to my condolences, “But I know what you’ve gone through lately,” or words to that effect.
It’s clear that since my mom died in August, some of my friends have been hesitant to express their grief about losing a dog. (Many of my friends who I know through the Mommy network have been losing dogs lately because we adopted dogs before we had kids, and now so many of those dogs are elderly.) I keep hearing them say, in different ways, “I don’t mean to say this is as bad as what you’ve faced.”
I appreciate the respectful kindness behind these statements, but I don’t think we need to compare pain. In my particular case, the death of my Mom was far worse, much more sad and hugely more horrible than the death of any dog I’ve lost, but my experience is not necessarily the same as other people’s. I imagine that in some cases for some people, the loss of a dog was worse than the loss of a parent.
And even if we could rank the pain, that doesn’t mean that lesser pain doesn’t still hurt. I don’t feel the need to apologize for experiencing less pain with the death of my mom than those people who have lost a child endure, though I’m aware that they have suffered more.
Grief is grief, and loss is loss. It’s always sad and sometimes even tragic. All loss should be acknowledged and honored without apology. I feel just as deeply as ever for those who are mourning the loss of a dog. I’m grateful that our society has come a long way from the days when the response to the death of one’s best friend was, “Well it was just a dog. You can always get another one.” I’m also grateful to have such thoughtful friends, who, even in the face of their own grief, remember that I, too, am in mourning.
I love it when my clients know the equine set
When I pull up to a new client’s house and see a barn with horses, a rush of optimism washes over me. The same feeling arises if at any point I learn that they have experience with these large animals. People who have worked with horses often do very well when working with dogs, and there are a number of reasons for that.
They realize that you can’t force a horse to do something. They are simply too big to be pushed around physically. Having developed other ways to influence a horse’s behavior, they don’t tend to try a coercive approach with dogs either.
They probably have a lot of patience and are willing to put in the time. Horses are high maintenance, so people who have cared for them are often the type of people who are willing to put time and effort into other animals, including their dogs.
People who are skilled with horses have become so over time with great effort. They realize that training an animal is not intuitive—that you actually have to learn how to do it. It’s commonly thought that training a dog should be natural for people, even automatic in a sense, but people don’t expect to be a natural with horses. Horse people know they need to learn how to work with them, and they carry that attitude over to dogs.
Many people who work with horses know that it is essential to treat each horse as the individual that it is. Understanding that each animal has a different personality is relatively common in all fields involving animals, but I find it to be nearly universal among horse people. They are almost guaranteed to understand this fact of life about their dogs.
Because they are prey animals, it is easy to understand and accept that many horses are fearful to some extent, but people don’t often realize that dogs are fearful, too. Yet, in my experience 80 percent of the aggressive dogs I work with are primarily behaving aggressively because of fear, and that fear must be changed before their behavior will change. Many fearful dogs bark, lunge or bite rather than act shy and skittish or show obvious signs of flight that are easy to associate with fear. The fact that they are scared sometimes goes unrecognized. People who know horses are often more likely to realize that a dog is fearful and be open to treatment options that focus on that.
I’m always looking for reasons to have hope about every dog I work with, and when their guardians are horse people, it’s so easy to be optimistic!
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