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Karen B. London

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.

Handler Stress Improves Dog Performance
Detection dogs find explosives faster

Scent detection dogs and their handlers work as a team and the behavior of both of them influences the outcome. It has long been known that dogs take cues from their human handlers and may mistakenly identify a target scent (a false positive) based on the person’s behavior. They may also search in patterns based on instructions from the handler rather than according to their own inclinations.

A recent study (Human-animal interface: The effects of handler’s stress on the performance of canines in an explosive detection task) in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science shows that the handler’s stress level has an impact on the search. Specifically, researchers found that when the people were stressed, the dogs performed better, detecting the explosives more quickly.

In the study, handlers in the Israeli army were presented with two different types of stressors in a random experimental design in which every handler faced the same stressors. One stressor was related to the handling task. Observers, including commanders, were present during a detection session, and as part of the experimental design, they pointed at the handler from a distance and pretended to write down comments during the session. The other stressor was not related to the task. Before those sessions, a handler was told by the commander that the handler would be transferred to another military unit and need to face a military police investigation. Each team also had a control session with no stressors.

Handlers were monitored during their sessions to determine physiological measures of stress. Stressors decreased the handlers’ attention and increased their anxiety levels compared to control sessions.

Dogs found the explosives more quickly when their handlers were stressed, especially by factors unrelated to the task. The dogs also showed more activity in general under this experimental condition. These results support the hypothesis that handlers’ emotional states have an impact on the performance of working dogs.

The researchers propose one possibility for the dogs’ improved performance when their handlers were stressed: Perhaps they were less attentive to the task at hand, allowing the dogs to behave in a less “handler-dependent manner.” They propose that there may be benefits to allowing dogs more control over their own behavior during detection work.

Greeting Old Friends
Sometimes dogs are extra excited

When my family visited relatives and friends in Portland, Ore. recently, everyone was glad to see us. However, nobody expressed their exuberance more than Nick and Margaret’s dogs Zuma, Keeper and Radar.

These dogs have always liked us and been happy to see us. During this visit, though, they really outdid themselves with their wags, wiggles, spins and general enthusiasm. It’s certainly possible that this was simply because it had been a long time—several months—since we had seen them. (We felt pretty excited to see them, too, after such a long absence.)

Ever since our happy reunion, though, I’ve been contemplating another reason for their especially upbeat greeting. Because they moved from Arizona to Oregon several months ago, these dogs have not seen many familiar people lately. Most of their interactions have been with strangers or with people they don’t know that well yet. So, it’s possible that seeing old friends for the first time in a long while was especially exciting for them.

After our initial hellos, all three dogs solicited attention and petting more than usual. They went onto their backs and gratefully accepted belly rubs. They put their heads in our laps and looked up at us longingly until the petting commenced. They wanted to be near us and oozed happiness in response to any physical contact. They’ve always been friendly with us, but this exceeded their usual signs of love and friendship considerably.

Has anyone else had a similar experience?

Problem Solving Recalls
A dog struggles to figure it out

One day, Marley showed us a limitation in his problem solving ability when he failed to come when called. He just looked at me, cocked his head and stayed exactly where he was. That’s not like him, because he has a good recall. This was definitely not a matter of him being distracted or refusing by choosing to do something else rather than responding to my cue.

His recall may not be proofed in every situation yet, but at our house, it is rock solid. If he is able to come, he will do so when told. When I say, “if he is able to come,” I mean that if he can figure out how to get to me, he will head that way immediately. This time, he literally did not know how to reach me, even though he was standing in our backyard and I was only 20 feet away.

That 20 feet was not on the ground though. I was above him on the upstairs balcony, which does not have access to the ground floor. To respond to the cue appropriately and come to me, Marley would have had to run away from me to go through the backdoor downstairs, run through the house, up the stairs, through the hallway, into the master bedroom and exit through the sliding glass door to the balcony. I suspect he was unable to figure out that there was a way to come without running directly to me.

To help him solve this problem, we broke it down into three smaller steps. My kids called him to come inside and reinforced him for that. Then my husband called him from the top of the stairs, and also gave him treats. Finally, I called him from the balcony, and this time he was able to respond to my cue and be reinforced for doing so.

It will take him additional practice to be able to do the entire recall from the backyard, into the house, up the stairs and onto the balcony, but he has progressed already. He can complete this complex recall in two steps now instead of three, and I expect that he will soon be proficient at the task which once completely befuddled him.

Has your dog ever struggled to come when called because of confusion about how to reach you?

Dog Fire Hydrant
It adds to the town’s beauty

Dogs and art both dress up a city, and when they are combined, the charm is more than doubled. That’s why I was so pleased when I spotted this fire hydrant painted to look like a dog with a firefighter’s hat in West Jefferson, North Carolina. I already liked the area, and this discovery added to my warm feelings about it. It’s not everyone’s style, to be sure, but I like the whimsical look.

I spent some time watching the fire hydrant while sitting on a nearby bench. Though I saw a few people—certainly tourists like me—stop to admire it, I did not see a single dog sniff it or mark it. In this town, there were not a lot of dogs walking around, so the fire hydrant was not serving as a place to mark.

The real purpose of fire hydrants, of course, is to provide water in the event of fire and they are therefore important safety tools. Some people object to painting fire hydrants for fun because it may make them harder to find in an emergency. They are usually red or yellow in order to be easily seen, though the Dalmatian is one of the most common themes when they are painted as an art form.

Are there dog fire hydrants in your area?

Learning to Handle Stairs
Many puppies need a little help

Try crawling down a flight of stairs on all fours, and the experience may give you instant insight into why so many dogs hesitate about going down. Having your head aimed down at such a steep angle takes some getting used to. There are dogs who struggle to go up and down the stairs, but it is far more common for dogs who lack experience with them to be especially resistant to going down.

Luckily, most dogs respond well if they are taught how to negotiate stairs in an (appropriately named) step-by-step process. The key is to teach dogs how to go down one or two steps at a time, avoiding having those steps be the ones at the top of a full flight of stairs, where the view seems a bit scary to most dogs.

Ideally, begin by working with a dog in a place that has just a single step, if one is available to you. Typically, dogs are comfortable taking a single step down onto a long stretch of level ground. Using a smelly delicious food treat, you can lure a dog up the step, and immediately lure him back down. If the dog is small, you can lift him up and then lure him down the step, enticing him to step down by having him follow the treat. I prefer to lure both up and down, so the dog feels more in control of the situation. Do this several times in multiple short sessions until the dog is going up and down the step without any hesitation.

The next phase of training involves having the dog go down a few steps at a time. If you have a place with only 2-4 steps, that is ideal, but if not, you can use the bottom few steps of a flight of stairs. It’s easier with small dogs who you can lift up to the step and then lure down, but with bigger dogs, you can lure up and down if the dog is able to turn around on the step.

If the dog is too big to do that comfortably and safely, then either try to find a place with just a few steps, or work at the top of the steps, but hold a blanket or pillow to block the view of the full flight of stairs and lure down 2-4 steps at a time and then move the visual blocker and do the next few steps. Sometimes just standing below the dog on the steps is enough to block the view or reassure the dog and give him the confidence to descend one step at a time. If you have stairs with a landing in the middle, consider yourself lucky because you can do half as many steps and get the dog down on solid flat ground. That makes for a nice intermediate stage.

Once the dog is comfortable with several stairs (depending on your options, this may be 3 to 7 stairs at one time), expand the number of steps until the dog can go down an entire flight of stairs on his own.

The following video shows a small dog named Radar who recently learned to negotiate stairs with this step-by-step process.

As with any training, don’t force the dog. Work slowly within the dog’s physical and emotional comfort zone to avoid falls. Be patient, only progressing to a harder task when the dog is clearly comfortable with the current one.

Knowing Human Names
It often happens naturally, but can be taught

Many dogs know the names of the humans sharing their home. It’s only natural that they notice that certain words go with certain people. Many dogs will react to the names of their guardians with great enthusiasm when they are not present, perhaps anticipating their return. In the natural course of things, we humans use each other’s names a lot, saying hello, getting each other’s attention, and calling out into the void to see if they are around. We also use it to announce someone’s arrival, as in, “Rich is home!”

Training dogs to know people’s names on purpose is also possible. One of the easiest ways to teach a dog the names of everyone in the family is with a game called Family Circle. One person says, “Where’s Karen?” and then I call the dog to come. If he comes to me, he gets a treat or other reinforcement, but if he goes to someone else by mistake, he will be ignored. Then, it’s my turn to cue the dog about where to go, and I might say, “Where’s Rich?” at which point Rich will call him, and going to Rich is the right thing to do to get reinforced. This game works best with at least three people. With only two people, the dog may learn that the correct response is to go to the person who did NOT just say ‘Where’s . . .?” without necessarily learning names.

In the early stages of training a dog to play Family Circle, the dog should always be told the name of the person he must go find and hear that person call him to come. The person should also be within sight of the dog. Later on as the dog becomes competent at the task, the cue “Come” can be dropped, and later still, the game can be played when the person he must find is out of sight, so the dog must go search for that person.

I love this game because of its practical applications in the event of a lost person, or even one who has just gone out of sight or earshot briefly. Not only does it solidify their understanding of names with a game can be very useful, it also teaches dogs to find the person in response to the cue and gives them great practice with their recall. Among the other benefits are that the dog can get physical exercise without the people having to move, and it can help keep a dog occupied mentally when we are too busy to engage in more active play.

I’ve been thinking lately that dogs who live with only one person don’t have the same opportunities to learn guardian names. If there are no other people in your household, how often is your name spoken aloud in the presence of your dog? I wonder two things about dogs who live with one person: 1) Does the dog know the person’s name? 2) If not, does it matter?

If you live in a family in which you are the only human member, do you think your dog knows your name? What about those of you with multiple people in the family?

Stick Close!
This means “heel” but I use it for kids

Whatever skills you have from your career or any other experiences in life may get used in surprising ways once you have kids. For me, as a dog trainer and behaviorist, there are many obvious parallels between the way I treat my dogs and the way I behave with my children. To use just one example, I like to keep both kids and dogs in physical contact and right near me when there is any danger from cars.

Parking lots and streets are the scariest places in the world with either dogs or kids. In the dog world, that’s what leashes and heeling are for. I’m a tyrant about it with my kids. The rule since they were old enough to toddle was that whenever we were in the street or in a parking lot was that they had to hold my hand or touch the car. (This compares to having your dog on a leash.) When they got a little older (around 3 or 4 years) they graduated to “Stick Close.” In this video, my three-year old is holding my hand as we cross the street but my four-year old is “Sticking Close,” which looks a lot like heeling.

In fact, the only reason I called it “Stick Close” instead of “Heel” is because I didn’t want the other moms or the neighbors giving me weird looks. After we shot this video for me to use in a talk called “Applying Dog Training To Our Relationships With People” at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) conference, my three-year old son wanted to practice “Stick Close” which I had just started to work on with him. As I do with dogs, when learning something new, I work with only one student at a time, so my husband held onto my older son while I took only my younger one with me across the street.

On the first attempt to stick close, he bounced across the street. I was going to stop and start over, and then I thought, “It’s just like a shaping the behavior of a dog.” Shaping behavior is common in dog training and it means working gradually towards successively closer approximations of the true behavior that you want. In this case, the first approximation is that he was not running off, but generally staying next to me and moving in the right direction.

Later I worked towards having him walking rather than bouncing and paying closer attention to me and where I was going. Once I got into that dog trainer mode of shaping behavior and thinking about what I would work on next, listen to how much more of my dog trainer voice I acquired as I praised him. I was a dog trainer before I became a mom, and sometimes that shows!

Have you taken skills and ideas from your experience with dogs and applied them to other situations?

Repetitive Behavior in Dogs
A study with insights into welfare

If you think that having dogs who bounce off the walls is problematic for them and for you, you are not alone. “Wall bouncing” is one of the repetitive behaviors that have long been considered indicative of poor welfare and chronic stress in the animals performing them. Other repetitive behaviors that are commonly seen in dogs are pacing, circling and spinning, all of which are generally regarded as stereotypical behavior.

Stereotypical behaviors are those that are not just repetitive, but also pointless and occur because of deficits in animals’ housing situation that cause frustration. That is, when animals are performing stereotypies, they are exhibiting behavior that has no function, and doing it over and over because their living environment is inadequate to meet their needs. A recent study in the journal Physiology and Behavior called Repetitive behaviour in kennelled domestic dog: Stereotypical or not? explored whether all the repetitive behaviors observed in kennelled dogs are actually stereotypies. The reason this question matters is that if their repetitive behaviors are stereotypies, it suggests that animals’ welfare may be compromised, but if they are performing repetitive behaviors for other reasons, then that conclusion may be suspect.

The researchers studied 30 male German Shepherds who are fully trained Police Dogs in the UK and live in a kennel that can hold as many as 40 dogs. They studied their behavior as well as their cortisol profiles (which indicate stress) before and after veterinary exams. They found that all but two of the dogs performed repetitive behaviors, but that very few of them displayed stereotypies. Repetitive behaviors were most commonly induced by a dog and handler walking past the kennel and by witnessing food preparation, which supports the idea that repetitive behaviors are simply a response to situations of high arousal rather than to stress.

The dogs could be divided into four groups based on the pattern of their repetitive behavior and the eliciting stimuli. Twelve of the dogs only exhibited repetitive behavior in response to husbandry events (including veterinary care) or not at all and showed them in less than half of the observation period. Five additional dogs also only displayed repetitive behavior in those same contexts, but they showed it more than half of the time that they were observed. Eight dogs performed repetitive behaviors in response to husbandry and when a person walked by or stood outside their kennel. The last five dogs displayed repetitive behavior in the absence of these and other specific stimuli.

Though all the groups had similar baseline cortisol profiles, this last group had a cortisol profile following the exam that differed from the other groups. These dogs showed a decrease in cortisol immediately after the exam rather than the increase in cortisol seem in the other groups. This suggests one of two possibilities. One is that these dogs are under chronic stress and lack the physiological ability to respond typically to the additional stress of an exam. The other possibility is that these dogs are so attached to people, including their caregivers and the veterinarian, that being with them after a separation is such a positive experience that it balances out the stress of being removed from the kennel and examined.

The relationship between repetitive behaviors in dogs and their welfare status remains unclear, but this study suggests that there is not just one motivating factor behind the expression of repetitive behaviors. Many questions remain about repetitive behavior in dogs who are kenneled. Is it an indication of poor welfare? Could the repetitive behaviors be a result of reinforcement (food or attention) of these behaviors from people caring for the dogs? Why are the cortisol profiles different in dogs who exhibit repetitive behaviors without specific eliciting stimuli?

Accidents With Dog Toys
Sometimes toys aren’t fun

I woke up in the middle of the night with every intention of quietly having a drink of water. Unfortunately, I landed on a particularly loud squeaky toy and managed to disturb everyone’s sleep. A few days before that, I got out of bed and stepped on a dog toy that is not designed for the underside of delicate human feet. I woke everybody up that time, too, and not because the toy was noisy. No, it was me that made the racket as I uttered the sorts of phrases that make films lose their PG ratings.

Ahh, dog toys. I love them except when I don’t, and then I hate them. Obviously, it would be wise to clean them up at night, and we usually do. We are a work in progress, and improving all the time. We’re just not improving fast enough to stop me from causing trouble.

And it’s not just at night that dog toys can be a problem. I am perfectly capable of nearly spraining my ankle on a toy or sliding across the room on one during daylight hours. (I’m just gifted that way.) I don’t know why dogs don’t seem to have this problem. In my experience, when they pounce on toys or make noise with them, they meant to do so.

I’m seeking sympathy. Who else has had an accident with a dog toy?

Fence Fighting
Avoiding aggression can look silly

At first glance, these dogs seem comical as they bark and display at each other through the fence. It’s obvious that they could move over just a few inches and actually reach their opponent. Yet both of them determinedly stay where there’s a fence between them and display rather than move over and fight in the open.

Their behavior shows a lot of self-control and a disinclination to fight. Dogs often choose not to be aggressive when they have another option. It reminds me of the importance of avoiding situations in which dogs have no way out. The fence gives these dogs an out—a way to avoid being aggressive.

Neither of these dogs wants to fight. They are both showing a common sign of fearfulness—the fear grimace, which is when they pull back the corners of their mouths. The fear grimace is a facial expression that allows us to see many of the dogs’ teeth, which is why it looks so menacing to us, but it is a behavior that indicates fear. In addition, the dog on the left approaches with its weight back and continues to lean back rather than charge forward. That is also a sign of a dog who is afraid rather than confident in the situation.

I have seen this type of fence fighting behavior before, and have had many people share stories with me of similar situations. Once, I even saw two dogs run along opposite sides of a fence barking, and then, when they unexpectedly come to a break in the fence, head back to the fence and continue fence fighting, all in a charmingly synchronized way.

It looks funny, but I think they both deserve gold stars rather than laughter for their behavior. Good for them for avoiding violence and handling the situation with some visual and vocal displays instead.  I wish people chose this route more often. Dogs who choose fence fighting over actual fighting deserve our admiration, not our disdain, though I must admit I always have to fight the urge to laugh anyway.