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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.

A Dog in Front and a Dog Behind
Different speeds affect multiple-dog walks

When our friends Ian and Emily told us that walking their two dogs together would mean that we would have one arm in front and one behind and demonstrated the posture, I did not take it literally, but I should have. I thought they were just cleverly saying that Super Bee would want to go faster and that Zoroaster would be a bit slower. I didn’t realize that we would, in fact, have our arms open wide to accommodate the dogs’ different speeds on walks.

Both of these dogs are quite biddable, so it was not difficult to ask Super Bee to wait up sometimes or to encourage Zoroaster to pick it up at other times. Neither puts much pressure on the leash, so it was easy enough to hold the leashes in one hand so our arms were not spread out. Overall, the difference in their walking tendencies was more amusing to us than it was problematic. Still, it made me consider the options for walking dogs together when they tend to go at different speeds because of age, breed, size or personality.

An obvious option that is not always available is to have one person walk each dog. If my husband and I walked the dogs together, whoever had Super Bee could go out ahead and then loop back for the person with Zoroaster. Being separated for a short time made them both more likely to adjust their speed and stay together for a brief period afterwards.

Similarly, it’s always possible to walk each dog separately. While I am hugely in favor of quality one-on-one time with each dog, walking one dog at a time has its drawbacks. With active athletic dogs like Super Bee and Zoroaster, we were already working pretty hard to give them enough exercise, so walking them separately would have meant cutting the length of each of their walks.

Sometimes the time of day can make a difference. Super Bee is more affected by the heat than Zoroaster, so if we walked them when it was hotter, she slowed down a bit and the difference in the dogs’ speeds diminished. That helped keep the dogs at the same speed, but the drawback is that because of the heat, the walk was shorter for both dogs.

If you have dogs who walk at different paces, how do you handle it?

Resembling Our Dogs
It’s all in the eyes

If you are among the many people who have always thought that people looked like their dogs, you have probably enjoyed hearing recent research supporting the claim. Now there’s new information to allow you to bask in being officially correct. Research by Sadahiko Nakajima (Dogs and Owners Resemble Each Other in the Eye Region) not only provides additional evidence for the resemblance between dogs and their people, but narrows it down to one specific facial area—the eye region.

In this study, over 500 undergraduate students were shown photographs of people and dogs. One set of 20 photos was of people and their own dogs, but the other set contained photos of a person with a dog belonging to someone else in the study. There were a variety of breeds represented, and the people were all Japanese men and women.

Over two-thirds of the participants in the study said that the set of photographs of fake pairs of dogs and people showed individuals with less resemblance to each other than the set of photographs that contained the actual dog-person pairs. This level of proper identification was possible even when the mouths of the people were covered by black bars. The students were just as accurate when the only part of the dogs and people they could see was the eye region.

However, if the eye areas of dogs and people were masked by black bars, there was a decline in their ability to determine which set of photographs contained real dog-person pairs, and which were made up of dogs and people who did not go together. In fact, with the eyes obscured, participants in the study did no better at identifying dogs and people who belonged together than if they were just guessing. That is, their success rate dropped to about 50 percent—exactly what would be predicted by chance. This study suggests that dogs and their people resemble each other in the region of their eyes.

An interesting question related to this study is how dogs and people come to resemble each other in this way. Do people tend to choose dogs whose eyes resemble their own, or is there a similarity in expressions such as the type or intensity of emotion that can be seen in them?

I once had a dog whose eyes looked so much like mine that many people who saw us together commented on it, but I never thought about it as a regular pattern. Do you and your dog’s eyes look the same?

Favorite Facial Expressions
Which do you love most?

The dogs in my life always look adorable to me, whether they are soaking wet from rain, slobbering on a toy that is past its prime or even eating something earthy in the great outdoors. When I love a dog, that dog’s face is always perfect, even if the term “classic beauty” may not be an apt description.

Even though I always love dogs’ faces, there is one facial expression that is always my favorite, for any dog, at any age, in any circumstance. That expression is the one of happy anticipation. No dog ever looks better to me than when she is eagerly expecting something that she really wants. For a lot of dogs, that “something” is food, which may involve drooling that some people find unappealing. Not me! If the dog is excited about what’s to come, I’m going to love the look.

For many dogs, the happiest anticipation occurs when it’s clear that a walk is about to happen. Get out that leash or reach for your running shoes and dogs’ faces become animated with a special kind of bliss. It’s beautiful to me, and I make a point of observing it every time.

For Super Bee and Zoroaster, the moment before I toss a tennis ball is the moment that their faces look the very most dear to me. This is especially true before the first throw of a play session. When they even suspect a fetch game is about to happen, their faces show expressions of delight that make me want to freeze the moment forever.

What does it take for your dog to display your favorite facial expression?

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?