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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.

Emotional Contagion
Dogs affected by state of their guardians

Emotional contagion is the trigger of an emotional response due to perceiving a similar emotional state in another individual. Emotional contagion has been studied extensively in birds, primates and dogs, among other animals. It is generally more pronounced between individuals who know each other than between strangers.

Emotional contagion occur between dogs and people. There is evidence that dogs are sensitive to their guardians’ emotions and that dogs’ behavior is influenced by the emotional expression of those guardians. It has been suggested that dogs have “affective empathy” towards people. That is, dogs can actually feel the emotional experiences of humans, including stress.

Stress has an interesting influence on memory in both humans and non-humans. The effect of stress on memory follows an inverted U-shaped curve. This means that as stress goes up to moderate levels, tasks that rely on memory improve, but as stress increases further, memory tasks are impaired.

In the recent study Emotional contagion in dogs as measured by change in cognitive task performance published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, researchers investigated the role of stress and emotional contagion between dogs and people on performance in memory-related tasks.

Each dog was randomly assigned to one of three groups—stressed guardian, non-stressed guardian or stressed dog. The direct manipulation of canine stress levels allowed researchers to compare whether stress by emotional contagion had a similar affect as direct stress on the dogs’ performances. Dogs’ stress levels were increased by briefly separating them from their guardians.

Researchers experimentally manipulated the anxiety levels of people and then recorded their responses to a word list memory task. Stress levels were manipulated by giving the person mainly positive or mostly negative feedback during the experiment. Researchers recorded changes in dogs’ responses to memory tasks after guardians were stressed or not stressed as well as after directly manipulating dogs’ stress levels.

Stressed guardians performed better in the memory task than non-stressed guardians. Dogs improved their performance on memory tasks after they were stressed and after their guardians were stressed. Dogs in the non-stressed guardian group showed no such improvement. This study shows that guardian anxiety affects by and has a positive affect on dogs’ ability to perform well on a memory-related task.

Woman’s Dogs Kill Beagle
Now she’s suing the dead dog’s guardians

Emerald White’s four dogs entered her neighbor’s yard and killed a 10-year old Beagle named Bailey, and now she’s suing Bailey’s guardians for a million dollars in damages. Though my legal knowledge is minimal and my information about this case is limited to what appeared in a newspaper article about it, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this doesn’t seem right.

Apparently, the owner of the four dogs who attacked Bailey is claiming that she was injured when she went into the yard to collect her dogs. She says that she was bitten as well as scratched and requires ongoing medical care for her injuries. She also asserts that her pain and suffering are an issue because she is dealing with anxiety and fear as a result of being “unexpectedly and viciously attacked.” Her legal documents refer to an “unprovoked attack” but I don’t know which dog or dogs she says attacked her. Part of her claim is that Bailey’s family did not have their dog in a secure enclosure. There is some suggestion that the families talked about repairing the fence prior to this incident, with Bailey’s family pointing out that White had not responded to requests to fix her part of it.

The Beagle’s family chose not to sue the woman whose dogs killed their dog, because it would not bring Bailey back. They also felt that the legal response of declaring the other dogs dangerous was appropriate, and were comfortable with the obligations placed on White because of that designation.

I’m heartbroken for Bailey’s family and can only imagine how unfair it feels to be sued on top of suffering the loss of their dog.

If Only I Could Tell Them
What I want to say to dogs

“We’re just going back in so I can get tissues, and then we will go on the walk.” That’s what I wanted to tell Marley after we went outside and came back inside two seconds later. With a terrible cold, I did not want to head out for an hour with nothing but my sleeve to help me out. Marley came in and out with me agreeably enough, but I so wish I could have told him why his walk was delayed.

If I could talk to dogs—really talk to dogs!—I would want to say so much to them in tremendous detail. Sure, we can communicate in many ways, but I still crave the fuller communication that comes from speaking the same language. Here is what I most find myself wanting to say to dogs:

I love you! Yes, I think they feel my love, and I have many ways to show them that I love them, but it would be glorious to say those simple words and have them simply understood.

I’ll be back in a minute (or 5 minutes or 30 minutes or much later today.) Sure, dogs can recognize patterns and probably have a sense of whether it’s a long absence when I’m dressed for work and head out through the garage to leave by car or a short one when I walk outside with no shoes on because I’m just going to get the mail. Still, it would be so appealing to be able to communicate more specifically and have them understand that. Then, they could be happy about the short absences and ready for a snooze with the long ones.

I know this hurts now, but it’s to make you feel better later. NO matter how gentle we are with our dogs and how carefully we tend to them, sometimes things are uncomfortable for them. Whether it is removing a thorn or a tick, or a serious medical procedure, we don’t have a way to tell our dogs that this is for their own good. Many dogs lovingly accept what we do to them because of their trust in us, but wouldn’t it be nice to able to tell them that we are doing this to relieve their pain, not to cause it?

I agree with you—that dog is a nuisance. I do my best to protect dogs from other dogs, whether I’m talking about serious aggression or simply poor social skills. Yet, occasionally, every dog has an encounter with a dog who is not overly kind. I would love to be able to tell dogs that I agree with them when it’s clear they don’t think much of a particular dog or even think that other dog is rude or obnoxious.

Of course, we do communicate a lot with our dogs through our daily interactions and all of our training, so our dogs often do have an understanding of our plans, intentions and emotions. They often know what the future holds based on previous experiences and patterns. Still, there’s no denying that we lose some detail and subtlety because we are members of different species.

Most of all, it would be wonderful to be able to tell dogs how much better they have made our lives and how much happier we are because of them. We can show them great loving kindness and hope they get the message, but it would be so amazing to express these important sentiments and know our dogs understood them fully.

What do you wish you could tell your dog directly, in simple English (or your native language if it’s not English) if you had that capability.

Statue Won’t Play Fetch
Dog remains ever hopeful

In this video, a dog tries repeatedly to convince a statue to play fetch with him. He places his stick at the statue’s feet over and over, but never gets the response that he wants.

Of course my response to watching this was laughter, but it really made me think. Why is this dog undaunted by the statue’s unresponsiveness? I’m guessing that most people do engage in play with this endearing and persistent dog, but some may not respond right away. Perhaps this dog is accustomed to trying multiple times before people toss the stick for him.

On the other hand, we need to explain why it has escaped the dog’s notice that he’s approaching a statue, not a live person. Perhaps he just sees a human shape and immediately equates it with the prospect of playing fetch without the need to assess other details of the situation. Maybe this dog has paid little attention to many aspects of human behavior. “They throw sticks for me,” might be all he has taken in. Or, maybe the statue is just too realistic for him to discriminate it from live people, especially if he has no prior experience with statues.

Here’s a dog who apparently views people as stick throwers, and has probably had great success with that view of the world. To him, any human form is a potential stick thrower, and he has not had the opportunity to learn to distinguish humans who can throw sticks from statues of humans that cannot.

Interestingly, the statue the dog wanted to engage with is of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and code breaker who is generally considered the father of theoretical computer science. As a genius and a completely original free-thinker, Turing was clearly too preoccupied considering some deep mathematical problem to pay attention to the dog.

Adoption Without Whole Family Involvement
Have you done this?

I just saw a friend’s Facebook post with a photo of her two children and an adorable puppy. The post read, “Can I use this photo to break the news to my husband?” They had been to a shelter and found themselves unable to resist getting a puppy.  Her husband is out of town and she hasn’t told him yet. She is apparently waiting for the right moment, but she has some time because he’s not on Facebook.

I have no idea whether the idea of adopting a puppy had come up and it was a part of the family plan or whether this was a true impulse decision. Either way, I’m fascinated by the idea of such a big decision (a new family member!) happening without everyone’s participation, especially one of the adults.

The general response to the post has been “Aww, it will all work out when he meets the puppy. He’ll melt.” Perhaps that’s true, although the alternative is concerning. As one person commented, the adorable photo is a better choice for breaking the news to her husband than a photo of the dog pooping in his shoe. And therein lies the real issue: Puppies are adorable and wonderful and every other superlative adjective that exists, but they are also exhausting and frustrating and a lot of work.

Everyone with a puppy deals with emotional ups and downs, but it’s easier to take the struggles along with the joy if you’ve been part of the decision to adopt the puppy in the first place. If not, it’s all too commonplace to consider the tough jobs (cleaning up accidents, taking the puppy out in the middle of the night, puppy-proofing the house, etc.) the domain of the person who decided to adopt the puppy without your input.<

If someone is not involved in choosing the dog, the relationship between that person and the dog can be affected. We tend to stick by our decisions, loving a dog we have selected through good times and bad, and for some people that’s harder with a dog that comes into their life without their consent. Of course, there are also countless cases where a “surprise” pup turns into somebody’s best friend without speed bumps along the way, but it’s taking a risk to assume that’s how it will work out.

A unilateral decision can also cause strain between human family members. There’s something very powerful about going through the process that leads to agreement: “Yes! This is the dog we should welcome into our family!” It’s an altogether different experience to come home to unexpected news that a new puppy now lives with you.

Have you or another member of your family every adopted a dog without involving everyone in the decision?

Dog Naps
They’re a beautiful thing

I’m not a jealous person by nature, but I felt such envy recently when a client told me that both of her (unrelated) young adolescent dogs take 2 to 3-hour naps each afternoon, and at the same time, no less. One of the dogs sleeps so soundly that you could vacuum right outside her crate and not wake her up, though the other is likely to awaken in response to loud noises.

Many dogs nap on and off during the day, seeming to relish a little extra rest, but I’m not used to dogs who reliably have a session of snoozing in addition to the nighttime one that last for hours and happens at the same time every day. Many dogs will nap on and off much of the day if left alone, but it’s different to have dogs who nap no matter what is going on in the household. Raising dogs like that sounds like heaven to me.

Dogs need a lot more sleep than people, and some napping is typical. It’s not unusual for adult dogs to sleep 14 hours a day. Puppies often sleep closer to 18 hours each day, although sometimes all this sleep happens in a lot of little sessions rather than a few bigger ones.

Some of the signs that a puppy needs a nap are obvious—yawning, lying down, struggling to keep their eyes open—but other signs may be more confusing. Sometimes a puppy is all wound up and acting crazy, and it seems that what they need is activity and stimulation. In fact, what they really need is a nap. Though it’s counterintuitive, those bursts of loopy behavior can be a sign of fatigue. Many puppies become very mouthy when they are tired, and though this looks like a puppy with extra energy, it’s often a puppy in desperate need of rest.

Though dogs sleep more than people, they are often more flexible about how that sleep is allocated through the day, and most don’t sleep as soundly as the average human. Like us, though, changes in sleep patterns or the need for excessive sleep may indicate health issues. Concerns can range from something manageable like requiring higher quality nutrition to as serious as life-threatening cancer.

How much do your dogs sleep each day, and are they good nappers?

Border Collie Fun and Games
Sneaking up on their buddies

The expressions on these dogs’ faces and their movements captivated me while I watched them sneak up on other dogs in the field.

Dogs often move so fast that it’s hard to see all the details of their body language, but these dogs are stalking so slowly that you can see the tiniest changes in expression or posture. It’s cool to see the muscles along the backs of the two dogs move as they creep forward. The lighter dog ever-so-slightly opens and closes his (her?) mouth during the stalking. Both dogs move their heads a little and their eyebrows a lot during their approach, and I love the way they periodically keep one paw elevated as they pause in their forward motion.

It’s interesting to ponder what makes them move at the same pace as each other and in the particular positions that they are relative to one another. There does not seem to be any conflict about how to approach or at what pace, but it’s not clear how they coordinate that. It could be as simple as one dog following the other’s lead, but perhaps more complex feedback and communication are involved.

It’s likely that these dogs entertain themselves with this sort of activity often, because none of them ever truly startle or look surprised. I wish I knew when the three dogs who were lying down became aware that there were two dogs sneaking up on them. I suspect it was long before they turned around to chase them, but it’s hard to say for sure. Two of the dogs are in a position to see the dogs coming, and the one who is not twitches an ear 41 seconds before turning around to give chase, and has his (her?) head turned towards them several seconds before chasing them. It’s impossible to say what the dog was attending to at either point, but I don’t think the presence of the two sneaking dogs or their actions came as a surprise.

Have you seen your dogs sneak up on each other?

The Dog in the Wedding
Ring “Bear”er adds to the ceremony

Even at a wedding filled with happy moments, the presence of a dog during the ceremony adds a whole new level of joy. When “Bear” walked down the aisle, the guests, the families and the wedding party all smiled and laughed just a little more. Part of it was the dog’s dashing good looks enhanced by a neck garland of wedding flowers, though the way he sniffed at some of the people on his way was charming, too. Clearly, the best part was when he found the groom—his guardian, Stephen—and wagged his biggest wag of the day.

I love seeing dogs in weddings, although it has to be the right dog and there has to be a solid plan to make it work out. At this wedding of my friends Meredith and Stephen, they did things right to make having Bear’s participation in their special day a positive experience for all. Here are some of the reasons that it worked out so well for them.

Bear is a social, well-behaved, well-trained dog. He could handle the crowd, the music, the flowers, the new setting and the general bustling of activity of a wedding. For many dogs, this would all be too much, and they would be stressed and unlikely to exhibit their best behavior as a result. You could see in the video that Bear was able to lie down and relax during the ceremony, and was perfectly content to do so.

Somebody who could handle him was in charge of Bear at all times. Throughout the afternoon, various people were in charge of Bear so that the bride and groom could attend to all of their duties. On a related note, Bear walked down the aisle with an adult rather than with the flower girl, so that in his enthusiasm to reach his guardian, he was still under control.

Bear was an honorary ring bearer, but a person was the true bearer of the rings. I’ve seen people struggle to remove the rings from a dog’s collar, and I heard of a case in which the dog ran off while the rings were still attached to him. Having the dog carry the rings is often the cause of glitches, and it’s wise to avoid potential problems by keeping the dog’s role as simple as possible.

The dog went home after ceremony. The wedding was a good environment for Bear, but the reception would not have been fun for him. Between the toasts and announcements over the microphone, the DJ, the loud music and all that off-limits food, the party would have been too much for most dogs, even a happy-go-lucky, well-behaved, stable one like Bear.

Have you been to a wedding with a dog where it was a positive experience all around (as in this case), or one in which it was not so great?

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?