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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.

I Always Carry Dog Gear
There’s no denying my life involves dogs

The man had to bend over awkwardly to hold the dog’s collar as they walked down the block.  Assuming that he was holding on to prevent a lost dog from running into the street, I pulled over to ask, “Did you just find that dog?”

“No,” he replied, “My leash broke, and I’m just trying to get home.” With his other hand he held up a mangled non-retracting retractable leash that was now worthless. I told him I had a leash he could have, and gave him the 6-foot lead that I keep in my car. The friend with me pointed out that I always have dog gear with me, which I had not really noticed.  She was right, though.

I’ve seen dogs out in traffic and stopped to help out, using whatever I had on hand to lure them away from trouble—squeaky toys, tennis balls, treats, rope toys, Kongs. At any point, I’m likely to have some treats and toys in my car.

Once on the way to the park, I saw a woman who was not picking up after her dog, and suggested that she do so. “I would, but I don’t have a plastic bag,” was the insincere response. “You’re in luck! I have one right in my purse,” I said and handed it to her. She looked anything but grateful, but she did use it to clean up. A similar bag once came into service on a school field trip when a child was carsick. On that occasion, the bus driver, the teacher and the student all seemed genuinely appreciative.

I often keep a plain squeaker in my pants pocket during my private consultations, and I’m very poor at remembering to remove it. (They go through the laundry completely unaffected, in case you were wondering, which is more than I can say for the treats that end up in my washer or dryer from time to time.) That has worked out well on multiple occasions. I once used that squeaker to help lure a dog back to his guardian when he jumped out of the car in the parking lot of the mall. Another time the surprise of that sound distracted a toddler who had become bored and fussy while his mom was trying to pay for her groceries, making the situation easier for her, and faster for the rest of us in line behind her.

Some of the gear I have with me is planned because I like to be prepared. Some of it is just residue from my daily life. It happens to be in my car because I have my house call bag with me or it was left in my pocket by mistake.

What do you always have in your car, purse, backpack or pockets that would make it impossible to deny that your life involves dogs?

The Details Behind Stories Matter
It’s true for dogs and proposals

The details behind stories add to the understanding we can take from the stories at face value. I find this most obvious with stories about dogs and about marriage proposals. For example, which sounds better to you—a proposal on a beach in Hawaii or the proposal while at home mopping the floor?

It’s natural for our opinion to change with additional information. The details make all the difference. The woman proposed to in Hawaii thought it was too cliché, which annoyed her so much that she didn’t decide to say yes for a few days. When she and her husband tell this story, there’s an awkwardness between them, even 20 years later. The proposal at home took place in that setting because the man was so set on surprising her that he decided he had to propose at an unexpected time. She leapt into his arms with such enthusiasm that she tipped them both over the dirty bucket of mop water. They both love to tell this story, and it’s a joy to listen because it’s obvious that they adore it and each other.

Some friends of mine have a delightful dog whose behavior is entertaining, if not typical. This dog lives in a duplex and he once bolted out the door on his own side of the residence and went a-visiting next door. He used his nose to push open the screen door, burst inside, grabbed a new dog toy belonging to his neighbor’s dog, gave one loud, “Woof!” and came back home with his new treasure. (His guardian returned the toy not long after.) The people in both sides of the duplex love this dog and enjoy telling the story of his big adventure. You can tell that the dog is well loved and that the people in his life find his actions endearing rather than objectionable.

It’s not obvious why this story is told with such love because on the surface, it just sounds like it’s about a rude pushy dog who mugged his neighbor’s dog and took a toy that was not his. The importance of the story lies in the fact that this dog is fearful of many people, and his guardians have been working hard to help him overcome his fears. The toy-borrowing incident was proof of progress. He was comfortable enough to put himself in the presence of the neighbors, so this episode is actually a success story, not a tale of a dog’s misdeeds. In the months after this happened, he became much more comfortable around people in general. Now when most people meet him, they aren’t even aware of his fears. Up until this incident, the dog was reliably on the skittish side, but he acted so boldly that day that it marked a turning point in the efforts to overcome his fears.

Do you have a story about your dog that requires an explanation to be properly understood?

Where Do You Take Your Dog?
New options appearing all the time

For people who want to take their dogs with them wherever they go, life is good and getting better! There are more establishments that allow dogs now than a few years ago, and many more than a decade ago. From bookstores to ski shops to hardware stores, there are so many businesses that have begun to welcome dogs in recent years.

It’s still not likely that the movie theaters or grocery stores in most areas will let you bring your pet dog in, but the number of places that people now go accompanied by dogs is growing. The number of big national chains that allow dogs in all of their stores is on the upswing. Bed, Bath & Beyond, Michael’s, Home Depot, Barnes & Noble and Marshall’s are just a few that welcome dogs on a leash (or at least in a cart) to come inside.

Plenty of cafés welcome dogs to their outdoor seating areas, and some let them into all the places that allow human customers. An increasing number of restaurants allow people to bring their dogs, and each year shows a rise in the number of people who are allowed and even encouraged to bring their dogs to work.

Is there someplace new that you take your dog because it has recently become permissible to do so?

Loving Dogs and Children
Similarities and differences in brain response

If you’ve read the headlines recently saying that science has proven that we love our dogs just like we love our kids, then you have only gotten part of the story. Yes, we love our dogs and consider them our children, and yes, a new research paper gives details about the similarities in the way our brains view these important individuals. However, there are nuances to the way our brains react to the world around us, and as is usually the case with scientific studies, it’s not that simple.

A study called “Patterns of Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study” found both similarities and differences in mothers’ responses to dogs and children. Researchers evaluated brain function patterns in women when they saw pictures of their children and their dogs, as well as pictures of unfamiliar children and dogs. The study focused on areas of the brain that are involved in social bonding.

Mothers had similar activation patterns in some parts of the brain when they viewed photos of their children and photos of their dogs. These patterns differed from their responses to pictures of unfamiliar children and unfamiliar dogs. One region that responds similarly to these two types of images is relevant in rewards, emotion and affiliation. Another region of the brain involved in affiliation and reward was activated by images of mothers’ own children but not by images of their own dogs. An area of the brain that is critical to the processing of facial features was activated far more by images of mothers’ dogs than by images of their children.

According to the authors, “These results demonstrate that the mother-child and mother-dog bond share aspects of emotional experience and patterns of brain function, but there are also brain-behavior differences that may reflect the distinct evolutionary underpinning of these relationships.”

If you are a parent to both humans and dogs, do you feel both similarities and differences in those relationships?

Marathon Recovery Buddy
Another job for a dog

Marley has a job this week that is not mentioned in lists of the ways that dogs help us: He is my marathon recovery buddy. His guardian knows how much we love to have him visit, so she asked me if I would be interested in watching him while she is traveling for work the week after my first marathon. As an experienced marathon runner, she knew what an asset he would be to me. I knew I would enjoy him, but the degree to which he helped me recover was a pleasant surprise.

This is a dog who goes with the flow, is laid back and knows how to relax. In other words, he is everything I am not, but everything I need to be to make my recovery as smooth as possible.

I need some extra sleep now, but it’s hard to take the time when I have so much to do. Marley’s inspiration helped me out there. Seeing him take a snooze on a cool fall afternoon gave me just the push I needed to spend 30 minutes doing what my body needed me to do—sleep. I seriously doubt that I would have napped without his fine example.

I don’t feel much like walking, but Marley is working hard to maintain his youthful figure, so those extra miles are a must. The gentle activity is good for me, and I am grateful that he gets me out the door.

Yesterday I headed out for a short run, which was my first since the race. Marley’s contribution on this occasion was preventing me from going too fast. He’s no speedster so even at my easy pace, he was lagging behind. I might have accidentally gone too fast and subjected my body to more pounding than it could handle, but Marley’s “take time out to sniff the world” approach to running kept me in check.

Marley is always great company, but especially when I’m not as active as usual and spending more time at home. I am glad to have one of my favorite buddies around 24/7.

Dogs play so many roles in our lives, but marathon recovery buddy is one that’s new to me. Has your dog performed a job for you that you did not expect or did not even know existed before?

The Invention of Velcro®
Dog walks and burrs

Last week I veered off into some brush while walking dogs in order to maintain some distance from an untrustworthy dog coming the other way. Heading off the trail from time to time is an easy way to avoid trouble, and I don’t consider it a big deal—usually. This time, though, I managed to take the dogs straight through what must have been a burr convention. We were all covered with these annoying seeds. The soft fine hair behind their ears and along their legs picked up hundreds of them. I removed as many as I could over the hours following our little detour, using my hands as well as combs and brushes.

As I was sitting on the floor counting burrs (. . .89, 90, 91. . .173, 174, 175. . .), I remembered reading that it was a similar experience that led Swiss engineer and inventor George de Mestral to come up with the idea for Velcro®. Mestral came back from a walk with his dog, and they were both covered with burrs. He went to his microscope and observed the many tiny hooks that attached to fur or fabric fibers. Inspiration struck, and he decided to invent a hook-and-loop fastener. He called his new invention Velcro®, which he made up by combining the French words velours (velvet) and crochet (hook).

I did not feel inspired by my walk and the resulting grooming hassle. “Annoyed” is a far better description of my feelings during the arduous process of cleaning up the dogs. It takes so long to remove large quantities of burrs from dog fur, and there are many more satisfying ways to spend quality time with our canine friends. I felt inferior to this inventor who used the experience to come up with an idea for a product that is so beneficial to so many until I learned something more about the day he came up with his great idea.

By his own account, when Mestral returned from the walk, he ignored his dog and went right to his microscope to satisfy his own curiosity about how the burrs attached themselves to his pants. Sure, I may not have invented something useful as did this man over 60 years ago, but I did at least immediately groom the dogs.

That’s what I always do when we get them stuck to us, though Murphy’s Law usually means that it happens at the least convenient times. Years ago my dog ran through a section of burrs moments before taking him to stay with friends while I was traveling. Another time, it happened just prior to a photography session with my dog, which was unfortunate because he always looked better when his tail and ears were NOT stuck to his body with plant parts.

Has your dog ever become covered in burrs at the worst possible time?

Who Is That Gorgeous Dog?
Seeing themselves in the mirror

Peanut bounded up the stairs fully of puppy pep and sporting an expression of extreme happiness. She had never been to our house and loves to explore new places. Her light-hearted mood would likely have continued if not for the mirrors all along our closet doors. When she saw her reflection, her entire affect changed. She stiffened and barked, then charged at the mirror.

I have no idea how this dog vs mirror scenario would have played out if Lucy (another of the dogs in Peanut’s household) hadn’t come in and barked at Peanut. The puppy became more interested in Lucy than in her reflection, and came with the older dog out of the room and back down the stairs. Because Peanut seemed distressed by seeing her own image in the mirror, we closed the door to that room to keep her out.

There has been a lot of research on how animals react to seeing themselves in the mirror because it can tell us a lot about their cognitive abilities. If they recognize that the reflection is their own image, it provides evidence that they have a sense of self-awareness. If they don’t appear to do so, the results can be hard to interpret. One of the ways that this idea is explored experimentally is to expose animals to mirrors until they are familiar with them. The next step is to put a mark of paint on the animals and then give them the opportunity to look in a mirror again. If they see the reflection and attempt to touch or remove the spot of paint on their own body, scientists conclude that they are self-aware.

Much work in this area has been done on primates with great apes, but not monkeys, typically showing signs of self-awareness. Dolphins, elephants, and magpies have also “passed” this test. Dogs have not generally done well at the mirror test, though some people, including Marc Bekoff, have argued that dogs are more olfactory than visual so a scent test is more appropriate for investigating whether they are self aware. Bekoff studied his male dog’s reactions to his own urine and to the urine of other dogs and found some evidence that his dog recognizes his own urine. This concept of “mineness”—belonging to me—suggests self-awareness, but it is certainly not conclusive. The research was published in the article “Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.” The method has come to be known as the “Yellow Snow Test.”

We have to be careful not to assume that a failure to recognize a reflection in the mirror as oneself means a lack of a self-awareness. In addition to vision not being the proper sense to use in such a test, sometimes the problem is that the animal is too young. For example, humans generally pass this test, but babies under 18-months are confused by it.

Have you had the opportunity to observe your own dog’s response to looking in a mirror?

Serious About Sniffing
Having fun through the nose

“Tucker is serious about sniffing,” my husband said about 10 minutes after we met him, and I agreed. Tucker is an 8-month old puppy who is mostly German Shepherd, but has something else in him, too. We were watching him for a few days while his guardian attended a wedding on the east coast, and we had never met him before.

My first priority when new dogs come to our house is to make them happy here, and that involves several stages. The first step is making sure that their initial introduction at the house is a positive experience. We make sure that water is available, that they get to explore the back yard to find toys, and that every member of the family generously provides treats. If the dog is not overwhelmed and is used to leash walks, we head out for a short one as soon as the initial meet-and-greet is over.

The second step is all about finding out what makes the dog happy so we can provide it. That means figuring out what the dog does for fun and how we can help him have a good time while he is here with us. For many dogs, the fun and happiness is all about treats, and lots of exercise outside. For others, it’s a tennis ball or nothing. Most love the opportunity to chew on bones and other dog-safe items intended for this purpose. A few simply want lots of loving—petting, massage and the opportunity to be up on the bed at nap time and at night.

Tucker is all about sniffing, so the first thing I decided to do was teach him to play “Find your treat.” This is a game in which you hide treats and then instruct your dog to find them. To begin, put some treats on the floor or furniture near you without your dog seeing you do it. Say the cue “Find your treat” and tap or point to the treats. Repeat this many times until the dog starts to search for the treats as soon as you say the cue. Then, you can drop the tap or point from the process.

Once the dog is doing well at this, you can spread the treats out further, progressing to a 5-foot spread, then a 10-foot spread, and even over a broader range and in harder-to-find spots. As your dog continues to succeed at this game, you can advance to putting treats all over a whole room and then to putting treats all over several rooms before giving the cue. At first, most dogs find the treats visually, but then progress to using their nose for the task, especially if you begin to hide them.

In addition to playing “Find your treat” with Tucker, we also went on walks to new places as often as possible so that he could sniff to his heart’s content. We allowed him to choose the pace on walks so that he could take time to smell the fire hydrants. Tucker would be a great candidate for nose work, but even with no formal work, it was easy enough to satisfy his need to sniff by taking him to places full of great smells and playing search games in the house.

Cadet Protects Canine Mascot
Quick reflexes prevent collision

Cadet Ryan Krieder used his football skills to make sure that Reveille, the dog who is the Texas A&M mascot, was not injured. A receiver for the opposing football team came flying off the sidelines after being pushed and was on a collision course for Reveille. That’s when Krieder, in his cadet uniform, threw a block to change the receiver’s direction and keep him from running into the dog.

As the commentator of the football game said when pointing out that Reveille has her own security, “I think that young cadet should think about the secret service.” (By the way, he refers to the dog as a boy, but Reveille is actually female.) He also points out that Reveille has a comfortable bed and plenty of water. I was glad to hear about the water, because the poor dog looked really hot. Attending games early in the season in Texas may not be the ideal conditions for this dog.

I was impressed by the cadet’s behavior for several reasons:

1. He used just enough force to keep the dog safe and no more. His block was controlled and skilled, showing good form and no signs of excess. It was clear that his goal was simply to protect Reveille rather than harm the receiver.

2. He managed to hang onto the leash without yanking it. I’ve never thrown a block in football, much less while holding onto a dog’s leash. I suspect it takes considerable body awareness and control to do it without accidentally pulling on the leash and hurting the dog.

3. Krieder did not hesitate. He took immediate action to protect his canine mascot when he sensed a threat to her.

In addition to praise for Krieder’s action, I must mention that the receiver seemed to be making an attempt to leap over the dog and avoid her, so it’s not as though he was the bad guy in this incident. His speed made stopping in time unlikely, but I applaud his attempt to avoid a collision.

I was pleased to learn that Krieder will receive a special gift from the Commandant of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, Brigadier General Joe E. Ramirez. Ramirez has said that he is proud of Krieder’s actions. Ramirez will be buying Krieder’s senior boots, which are an Aggie tradition that can cost seniors around $1000. It always makes the dog trainer in me happy to see good behavior noticed and reinforced!

Budweiser Anti-Drinking-and-Driving Ad
What about the dog?

I have long been a fan of the Budweiser commercials featuring horses, and I love the ads with dogs even more. Without embarrassment, I tell you that I have watched the one that shows a puppy and horse becoming the best of friends a dozen of times at least and gotten misty-eyed with every viewing.

Now, Budweiser has a new commercial emphasizing the importance of the relationship between a man and his dog. The message of the ad is “Don’t Drink and Drive.” It points out that if you don’t make it home alive, your friends will be left waiting forever, and those friends include your dog.

Naturally, I support the message not to drive while intoxicated and agree that it’s wise to spend the night at a friend’s house rather than drive home drunk. However, this ad seems to gloss over the issue of leaving a dog at home alone all evening and all night. It’s great when drinkers act responsibly by staying off the roads, but they need a plan for their dogs when they can’t drive home. There are so many options—have a friend or roommate take care of the dog or take a taxi home—but this commercial doesn’t present any, or even allude to the need for them. (To be fair, when the man comes home, he does say, “I’m sorry,” to his dog.)

Yes, I’m being awfully particular, and yes, the dog and the relationship are charming, as we’ve come to expect from these ads, but I can’t help but be bothered by the dog being such an afterthought. What do you think of the messages in this ad?