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.
Just like a baby (and maybe cuter)
Years ago, my husband brought our seven-month old son to an all-day seminar I was giving on dog aggression so that I could feed him during the breaks. In many situations, a man carrying a baby would attract a lot of attention from women, but not in this case. There were about 200 people at the seminar, and approximately 180 of them were women. During the course of the day, only a handful of them approached my husband, and all but two of them came over to share puppy photos with him. (“Look! You have a young animal in your life. I have a young animal in my life, too!”)
I’ve noticed over the years that in the world of dogs, there are many people who are just not that into kids. It’s especially true for people whose professional lives revolve around dogs. I’m fond of saying that as a group, we dog people are not very “breedy.” Of course there are tons of exceptions (I myself have two human children), but many dog people are not as child-oriented as the rest of the population.
Any couple who does not have children has probably faced questions and criticisms about that, which is obviously rude. It’s thoughtless, narrow-minded, and potentially hurtful (not to sound judgmental or anything) to ask people personal questions about when they are going to have kids or why they don’t have kids. It’s nobody’s business, and it’s impossible to know if a couple has decided not to have children or if perhaps they have been unable to have children even though they want them very much. Either situation may involve a couple who is very focused on their canine companions, and that is a beautiful thing.
One couple took an unusual approach to letting their families know that they should not expect a human grandchild. They had a photo shoot with their puppy that mimicked the popular “new baby” photo sessions. The result was a gorgeous set of photos by Elisha Minnette Photography. It looks like they enjoyed themselves and judging by the response, many people share their sense of humor.
>Are you tempted to do a “new dog” photo shoot with your best friend?
Overwhelming a dog is not good socialization
There were easily 300 people in the school building that Saturday morning, all milling around and signing their kids up for various after school activities. There was also one very young puppy being carried through the crowd becoming more and more exhausted and increasingly overwhelmed.
When I say “very young,” I mean that I suspected that they had just picked up their new Lab puppy within the last few days even before they told me. (In fact, they had just brought her home the night before.) The dog was so small that she was outsized by over half the purses there. In addition, she had that loose skin look of brand new puppies. You know what I mean—it looked as though if you blew up that skin like a beach ball, there would be room for at least one and maybe two additional puppies in there with her.
Her new guardians were carrying her in their arms and everyone was touching, petting and leaning in at the puppy, whose eyes were wide until she was so tuckered out that they closed for an involuntary nap. She seemed like a stable enough puppy and never looked downright fearful, but she did look overwhelmed. That’s no surprise really—she was in a big crowd with too many people getting too close to her, and many people were hugging her guardian so that she got wrapped up awkwardly in the squeeze.
It breaks my heart to see a puppies dealing with such situations during the first few days or weeks in a new home because I know the guardians think they are doing right by their dogs. Everybody knows you have to socialize your puppy and get her to meet new people, but many people think that having a puppy around large numbers of people is the right way to do it. That’s perhaps a reflection of how misunderstood the concept of socialization is.
Socialization is an important part of becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. Socialization is the exposure to potential social partners during the early part of dogs’ lives, and typically occurs when puppies are three to 16 weeks old. That time is a critical period of development during which dogs learn who their potential social partners are. A critical period is a stage during which an animal is especially receptive to learning something.
For example, a critical period for learning language exists for humans, and if we are only exposed to a language after that critical period, we are unlikely to ever speak it like a native. It will always be a foreign language to us with perhaps an accent or grammatical difficulties, however slight. Similarly, dogs who are not properly specialized during the critical period may always have social skills that are not natural to them, but have an “accent” or various difficulties with social behavior.
For dogs, socialization requires providing puppies positive experiences with people in the first few months of life. Note that I specifically said, “positive experiences.” If a dog has negative experiences with people early on, they learn not to be comfortable and social with people, but to be nervous or afraid around them. That’s why bringing a puppy to a large crowded place the day after being adopted is potentially damaging and not recommended. It’s far better to meet people one or two at a time and have those people provide treats, toys and gentle touching in a calm setting. Exposure to people and other dogs that results in positive experiences for the puppy provides proper socialization. Being in a large crowd and becoming overwhelmed does not.
A mess that made us laugh
I’m in favor of keeping dogs safe when they are in moving vehicles, and that includes not allowing any part of their bodies to be outside the car. There are many dangers to dogs when they ride with their heads hanging out the window, yet seeing dogs enjoy themselves in this way nearly always makes me smile. Recently, I saw one particular dog riding with his face out in the wind looking thrilled with the experience, and it did more than make me smile.
In fact, it did two more things. One, I laughed out loud, as did my sons who were both with me in the car. Two, it made me aware of yet another danger of having dogs stick their heads out of the window. Namely, they could cause an accident by making a nearby driver (me!) laugh too hard for too long.
If I had to guess, I’d say the dog was a St. Bernard crossed with an English Mastiff, and I’m sure he weighed one-and-a-half times what I do. His lips were blowing in the breeze in that delightful way that only happens to dogs with big flews.
What really made us laugh was the enormous amount of slobber on the outside of the dark blue car in which he was riding. The door underneath him was covered with layers and layers of drool lines, some of which went down to the bottom edge of the car. Most of the lines were at an angle towards the lower back end of the car, suggesting that the wind had blown the slobber. It looked like a frozen waterfall except that it wasn’t nearly as shiny.
If you have a drooling dog, has that dog decorated either the inside or the outside of your car?
Recognizing individuals’ poop
At The Bark, we regularly share dog stories with one another, often just for fun. When Editor Claudia Kawczynska told me about one of her latest experiences out on a walk, I just had to blog about it. It deals with two wonderful topics in the canine world: 1) poop and 2) the amazing olfactory abilities of dogs.
Claudia’s dog Charlie sometimes like to try to pee on Kit, who is another of her dogs, while she is peeing or pooping. Claudia usually intervenes to prevent Kit from ending up with a yellow stain on her back. Of course, life being what it is, sometimes it happens anyway. Charlie will also pee on Kit’s poop, a behavior which is called “overmarking.”
One day in an off-leash area, Claudia couldn’t find Kit’s poop to pick it up, so she asked Charlie (who is always by her side) to help her find it, which he did. He peed on it, and then Claudia picked it up. On another occasion, Claudia asked him to do the same thing, and he did. This time, he ignored at least three piles of poop that were not Kit’s, but finally peed on hers. Claudia knew it was Kit’s because she and her dogs were the only ones at the park and the pile of poop was too fresh to have been anyone else’s. (In case you’re curious, Claudia bagged up the other three piles of poop, too. Some people do more than their share in all areas of life!) It’s hard to know whether Charlie was responding to Claudia’s cue to find Kit’s poop, or he was just seeking it out because that’s what he likes to do.
As a practical person, I love the way the detection of individual poop by Charlie allows Claudia to be sure she cleans up after her dog if she happens to miss “the event.” It’s so easy to have that happen in off leash areas, especially if you have more than one dog with you.
Given that dogs can use their noses to smell whale poop underwater, to detect low blood sugar levels in a person with diabetes as well as cancer in people, bacteria in diseased bee hives and a whole host of weapons and drugs, it’s hard to be surprised by what dogs can do. It also makes sense that dogs would be able to tell which poop comes from their housemates. The components of the odor of any pile of poop is going to include chemicals related to that dog’s diet, intestinal flora, sex, reproductive status and a whole host of other factors that create an individual odor signature. Social animals of all kinds are adept at recognizing individual members of the group, and dogs can do this through olfactory, auditory and visual means.
Still, just because I’m not surprised doesn’t mean I’m not impressed. I’ve not lost the admiration for dogs and their amazing abilities that began when I first focused on them professionally, and hopefully never will.
Do you have a dog who has demonstrated the ability to identify the poop of another one of your dogs?
Lucky Flat-Coated Retrievers
“We just lost our other Flat Coat a few weeks ago,” she said when I asked if I could meet her young dog, Sally.
I have many fond memories of training members of this breed, though most of them are from long ago. In the 1990s, when I started dog training, there were quite a few Flat-Coated Retrievers in training classes, and I met some absolutely lovely ones. Then, the breed became less popular and for years now, they’ve been a rarity among my clients.
Breeds do ebb and flow in popularity, sometimes with the inexplicable whims of any fashion. In the case of Flat-Coated Retrievers, though, it was the high likelihood of an early death that was primarily responsible for the decline in the number of these dogs chosen as pets. The average lifespan in the United States is currently about 8 years, though a small study in Europe found a median age of about 10 years.
Flat-Coated Retrievers have a greater risk of developing cancer than most breeds. The cancers they develop are frequently serious (e.g. hemangiosarcoma and osteosarcoma) leading to the loss of many young dogs. Because of this, I braced myself for the answer when I asked Sally’s guardians about the age of the dog they had just lost.
“She was thirteen, the same age another of our dogs was when she died a few years earlier.” This family had raised not one, but two, Flat-Coated Retrievers who lived to age 13. I got really excited thinking that maybe the British lines of this breed were not prone to the cancers so prevalent in US dogs, or that maybe differences in nutrition and health care prevented the troubles seen in my country.
As soon as I mentioned my surprise and joy in response to learning that her dogs had reached these advanced ages, she replied that they were really lucky with those two dogs, but they didn’t know why. All of their other Flat-Coated Retrievers and those of their friends were succumbing to cancer at young ages ranging from 4 to 7 years.
As I continued to play with and pet their 2-year old dog, I fervently hoped that she, too, would defy the odds and live to be a teenager. Have you had a dog who lived a long time despite coming from a lineage with a history of early cancer?
Honoring a breed that was nearly extinct
We had just toured the Balleek factory in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland and most people had questions about the design and making of the high-quality, handmade porcelain pieces produced there. All I wanted to know was why the Irish Wolfhound has been on the stamps that marked every piece of Balleek pottery since 1863, along with other distinctive Irish symbols such as round towers, Irish harps and shamrocks. The tour guide’s answer was that at the time that the stamp was designed, this treasured breed was nearly extinct, and the owners wanted to pay tribute to this symbol of national pride.
The Irish are not the only group to take a strong interest in a dog breed whose history is strongly linked with their nation. There’s the Saint Bernard, so beloved by the Swiss, the Keeshound which is the national dog of the Netherlands, the Coton du Tulear from Madagascar, the Havanese of Cuba, the Rhodesian Ridgeback originating in Zimbabwe, and the Fila Brasileiro which comes from Brazil, to name just a few.
During the month I spent in Scotland, I met many people who pointed out with pride that their dogs are “proper Scottish dogs!” This description was used to refer to Scotties and Westies, of course, but also to a large number of collies (Border Collies, Smooth Collies, Rough Collies and Bearded Collies) and a variety of terriers (Border Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Skye Terriers and Dandie Dinmont Terriers, which is one of my favorite breed names ever.) Dog breeds are so closely linked to Scotland that virtually no souvenir shop lacks for stuffed fleece dogs to sell to tourists, including my sons. Both chose, for their one souvenir from Scotland, a stuffed Scottish dog—one picked a Westie and the other bought a Scottie.
Are your particularly enamored with a dog breed because of your interest in its country of origin?
That’s not what impressed me about this dog, though
The plan was to teach the baby to say, “Mama” but it’s the dog in this video who does it and really steals the show. Though there’s a certain charm to this dog’s vocalizations, what really impresses me about his behavior is the patience and tolerance he displays. He deserves whatever his heart desires for the way he handles himself in a situation that is far from ideal.
From the dog’s point of view, this is a challenging state of affairs. There is food right in front of his nose that he seems to want very much, and he is not getting it, despite responding to his owners with “Mama” repeatedly. (Whether that’s intentional or not, I can’t say.) Many dogs would lunge for the food, but this polite dog has enough self-control not to do that. He stays planted in a sit and does not move forward towards the food at all. As his vocalizations become more intense, it’s obvious that he is dealing with a considerable amount of frustration at not getting to taste the food.
Even more important, he does not react badly when the toddler slaps at him. He simply flicks his tongue, indicating his anxiety with the situation, and looks away. I can almost imagine that he is looking up at someone as if to say, “Please rescue me from this,” but that is pure speculation.
The parents have put their child in a risky situation and are very lucky that their dog responds as he does. The child has done what children that age do and that’s why dogs need to be protected. It is my hope that in the future, they protect their dog better from their child, or at the very least that the dog continues to behave far better than many dogs would in similar circumstances. I see a great dog, but he is clearly agitated, and that could lead to trouble if he is regularly forced to deal with the challenges he faced in this clip.
What do you see in this dog when you watch the video?
Travel provides opportunity
My dog life is very America-centric. I have not owned dogs anywhere but in this country, nor have I taught dog training classes elsewhere. Except for the occasional seminar in Canada and some ad hoc consultations in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, my canine experiences are confined to the United States.
This summer promises many lessons because my family will be spending the entire season in Western Europe. So far, what I know about dogs in that part of the world is that they are not spayed and neutered at nearly the rate of dogs here, there is some evidence that they live a little longer, and they are rarely vaccinated against rabies because that disease has been essentially eradicated in the region. I also know that a lot of canine research is currently being conducted in Europe.
Based on the limited level of knowledge that is my starting point, it is exceedingly likely that I will be getting quite an education during our travels. I look forward to everything from observing how people interact with their dogs in different countries to meeting new breeds to seeing how dogs behave in public and what is expected of them.
For those of you who have personal experience with dogs in Europe, please tell me what pleasures you expect await me. All advice about observing and enjoying dogs in countries that are (mostly) new to me is welcome!
I’ll be spending a month each in Scotland and Germany, plus making short excursions to Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and possibly Poland. The trip is for my husband’s work, and we expect him to be busy. That puts me on full-time duty as recreation director for our kids. I’ve never taken such a long hiatus from work (not even after the births of the children) so this promises to be a new experience. I will miss, among many other aspects of my professional life, blogging here for The Bark. I’m already looking forward to resuming that when we return in August!
Surprises when bringing a dog to school
Besides veterinarians and zookeepers, not many professions related to animals are well known. That’s why I was so happy for the opportunity to represent my field and share what I do as a canine behaviorist and dog trainer with elementary school kids.
I was granted special permission to bring a dog as one of the requested “visual aids” for a career day presentation at my son’s school. The best part was the mutual enjoyment between Marley and the students. He clearly loved every second of the attention, and they were quite enamored with him. It was pretty blissful all around, but in truth, I expected that. He’s a social dog who loves attention, and any group of kids is likely to enjoy spending time with a nice dog while at school.
There were ways in which I was caught off guard, though. I was pleasantly surprised by how much most of the children knew about dog behavior. It seemed to be common knowledge that when dogs wag their tails to the right, they are especially happy. The kids were aware that they should not stare at dogs or hug them and that a dog who goes stiff should be considered unapproachable. Most of the kids knew about using clickers and treats to train dogs, and several brought up the issue of dogs being left-pawed or right-pawed.
Additionally, the students surprised me by asking high-quality questions, including the following:
Is this fun for Marley or stressful?
Do all of the dogs you work with stop being aggressive?
How do you decide which trick will be easiest to teach a certain dog?
How can you tell when Marley has learned enough and he should get to go to recess?
Why is it easier to train dogs than to train cats?
What are scientists trying to learn about dogs right now?
Another surprise is one that perhaps I should have anticipated, but thoroughly failed to do so. I had assumed we would be in a classroom like all of the other presenters. Instead we were out in the courtyard. That means that various classes were walking through to spend time in the school garden and that there were (Oh my!) squirrels running around a few times during the course of the event. Naturally, this was potentially distracting for Marley and very exciting, but he rolled with it. He stayed focused on me and also on the kids in the group.
Marley got a chance to perform some of his best tricks, along with displaying the good manners that come from a mastery of basic obedience and lots of practice being in a variety of situations. When given each appropriate cue, Marley responded by sitting, lying down, coming when called, heeling and waiting at doors. He also showed off his lovely “Leave It” by not eating a treat or biscuit that was on the ground until he was given permission to do so. The tricks he did included “High-5”, “Sit Pretty”, “Rollover”, “Crawl”, “Spin” and “Unwind” (spinning in the opposite direction.)
The kids were most impressed by his tricks, but I was particularly proud of what nobody else probably even noticed—Marley was unreactive to distractions, remained focused on me, and was gentle as he visited all the children, letting each one have a moment to meet him. As a professional, I know that this generally polite behavior is actually more worthy of admiration than responding well to specific cues.
It’s not easy to remain calm in a new place no matter what happens—school bells ringing, children running, squirrels appearing and a breeze wafting in smells from the cafeteria. Of course, as a professional I also know that not every dog is capable of behaving well in such a stimulating environment. I would never bring a dog to an elementary school unless I was completely confident he could act appropriately no matter what.
Marley’s behavior was exemplary, so he definitely deserved to end each presentation by showing off his newest trick, which is “Take a Bow.” Good dog!
I know they’re in there, but how do I find them?
Televisions and computers can be confusing for dogs. It’s not easy for our canine friends to figure out that videos are merely recordings of life, and that what they see is not really present. In this video, a Westie is confronted with a laptop showing a video of another Westie and a couple of puppies.
He seems to be searching for these other dogs, which he can so clearly see, and attempts to find them by walking around the computer and sniffing it. He’s making use of several senses, apparently listening, looking and smelling in order to track them down. The dog’s name is “Radar” so you’ve got to think it’s likely that this dog can usually locate what he’s looking for.
Radar is able to handle with ease a situation that might cause frustration in other dogs. He remains calm and methodical where many dogs would become upset. There’s another aspect of Radar’s behavior that is of great interest to me. He’s clearly confused, and he does a couple of things I interpret as attempts to get more information. He repeatedly cocks his head, which dogs may do to better localize a sound. Additionally, he repeatedly looks at the camera, where there is presumably a person filming the scene. We know that dogs often look to people for information when they are struggling to solve a problem, and it’s easy to imagine that Radar is seeking help with this challenging task.
How has your dog reacted when faced with a similar situation?
Copyright © 1997-2015 The Bark, Inc. Dog Is My Co-Pilot® is a registered trademark of The Bark, Inc