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.
Travel provides opportunity
My dog life is very America-centric. I have not owned dogs anywhere but in this country, nor have I taught dog training classes elsewhere. Except for the occasional seminar in Canada and some ad hoc consultations in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, my canine experiences are confined to the United States.
This summer promises many lessons because my family will be spending the entire season in Western Europe. So far, what I know about dogs in that part of the world is that they are not spayed and neutered at nearly the rate of dogs here, there is some evidence that they live a little longer, and they are rarely vaccinated against rabies because that disease has been essentially eradicated in the region. I also know that a lot of canine research is currently being conducted in Europe.
Based on the limited level of knowledge that is my starting point, it is exceedingly likely that I will be getting quite an education during our travels. I look forward to everything from observing how people interact with their dogs in different countries to meeting new breeds to seeing how dogs behave in public and what is expected of them.
For those of you who have personal experience with dogs in Europe, please tell me what pleasures you expect await me. All advice about observing and enjoying dogs in countries that are (mostly) new to me is welcome!
I’ll be spending a month each in Scotland and Germany, plus making short excursions to Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and possibly Poland. The trip is for my husband’s work, and we expect him to be busy. That puts me on full-time duty as recreation director for our kids. I’ve never taken such a long hiatus from work (not even after the births of the children) so this promises to be a new experience. I will miss, among many other aspects of my professional life, blogging here for The Bark. I’m already looking forward to resuming that when we return in August!
Surprises when bringing a dog to school
Besides veterinarians and zookeepers, not many professions related to animals are well known. That’s why I was so happy for the opportunity to represent my field and share what I do as a canine behaviorist and dog trainer with elementary school kids.
I was granted special permission to bring a dog as one of the requested “visual aids” for a career day presentation at my son’s school. The best part was the mutual enjoyment between Marley and the students. He clearly loved every second of the attention, and they were quite enamored with him. It was pretty blissful all around, but in truth, I expected that. He’s a social dog who loves attention, and any group of kids is likely to enjoy spending time with a nice dog while at school.
There were ways in which I was caught off guard, though. I was pleasantly surprised by how much most of the children knew about dog behavior. It seemed to be common knowledge that when dogs wag their tails to the right, they are especially happy. The kids were aware that they should not stare at dogs or hug them and that a dog who goes stiff should be considered unapproachable. Most of the kids knew about using clickers and treats to train dogs, and several brought up the issue of dogs being left-pawed or right-pawed.
Additionally, the students surprised me by asking high-quality questions, including the following:
Is this fun for Marley or stressful?
Do all of the dogs you work with stop being aggressive?
How do you decide which trick will be easiest to teach a certain dog?
How can you tell when Marley has learned enough and he should get to go to recess?
Why is it easier to train dogs than to train cats?
What are scientists trying to learn about dogs right now?
Another surprise is one that perhaps I should have anticipated, but thoroughly failed to do so. I had assumed we would be in a classroom like all of the other presenters. Instead we were out in the courtyard. That means that various classes were walking through to spend time in the school garden and that there were (Oh my!) squirrels running around a few times during the course of the event. Naturally, this was potentially distracting for Marley and very exciting, but he rolled with it. He stayed focused on me and also on the kids in the group.
Marley got a chance to perform some of his best tricks, along with displaying the good manners that come from a mastery of basic obedience and lots of practice being in a variety of situations. When given each appropriate cue, Marley responded by sitting, lying down, coming when called, heeling and waiting at doors. He also showed off his lovely “Leave It” by not eating a treat or biscuit that was on the ground until he was given permission to do so. The tricks he did included “High-5”, “Sit Pretty”, “Rollover”, “Crawl”, “Spin” and “Unwind” (spinning in the opposite direction.)
The kids were most impressed by his tricks, but I was particularly proud of what nobody else probably even noticed—Marley was unreactive to distractions, remained focused on me, and was gentle as he visited all the children, letting each one have a moment to meet him. As a professional, I know that this generally polite behavior is actually more worthy of admiration than responding well to specific cues.
It’s not easy to remain calm in a new place no matter what happens—school bells ringing, children running, squirrels appearing and a breeze wafting in smells from the cafeteria. Of course, as a professional I also know that not every dog is capable of behaving well in such a stimulating environment. I would never bring a dog to an elementary school unless I was completely confident he could act appropriately no matter what.
Marley’s behavior was exemplary, so he definitely deserved to end each presentation by showing off his newest trick, which is “Take a Bow.” Good dog!
I know they’re in there, but how do I find them?
Televisions and computers can be confusing for dogs. It’s not easy for our canine friends to figure out that videos are merely recordings of life, and that what they see is not really present. In this video, a Westie is confronted with a laptop showing a video of another Westie and a couple of puppies.
He seems to be searching for these other dogs, which he can so clearly see, and attempts to find them by walking around the computer and sniffing it. He’s making use of several senses, apparently listening, looking and smelling in order to track them down. The dog’s name is “Radar” so you’ve got to think it’s likely that this dog can usually locate what he’s looking for.
Radar is able to handle with ease a situation that might cause frustration in other dogs. He remains calm and methodical where many dogs would become upset. There’s another aspect of Radar’s behavior that is of great interest to me. He’s clearly confused, and he does a couple of things I interpret as attempts to get more information. He repeatedly cocks his head, which dogs may do to better localize a sound. Additionally, he repeatedly looks at the camera, where there is presumably a person filming the scene. We know that dogs often look to people for information when they are struggling to solve a problem, and it’s easy to imagine that Radar is seeking help with this challenging task.
How has your dog reacted when faced with a similar situation?
The difference between loving and threatening
There has recently been a lot of interest in people and dogs gazing into each other’s eyes and how this creates feelings of love. The evidence is compelling that this interactive behavior does enhance the bonding between us. I have no objection to this assertion, but it does make me concerned that these new findings will cause a problem.
It’s one thing to gaze softly into the eyes of your dog. It’s another thing entirely to stare at that dog or at any other dog. In fact, it’s potentially hazardous because staring is often considered a threat by dogs. So, I hope nobody goes around trying to bond with new and unknown dogs by looking them right in the eye. It’s a reminder that subtle differences in behavior can have vastly different meanings.
One of the first things I learned when I began to work with aggressive dogs is to pay attention to eye contact. This was especially important for me because I have big dark eyes and I tend to open them wide when expressing interest or surprise. It would be all too easy for me to scare the dogs I’m trying to help with my frog eyes. It has become second nature for me now to turn off my wide-eyed actions when I am around dogs. I take care not to look directly at them without squinting just a little until they are comfortable around me.
It’s because dogs are afraid of big eyes, especially when they are aimed directly at them, that many dogs react to cameras with big interchangeable lenses. It’s likely that our canine subjects perceive these lenses as giant scary eyes staring at them. Many dogs who are not particularly fearful or nervous freak out when faced with a new camera and a person enthusiastically pointing it at them often and for long periods of time. If a dog’s tendency when alarmed is to look away, cower or hide, that’s what may happen in the face of a big camera. If a dog is more likely to bark, growl and lunge when scared, then that may be the reaction you see when a camera is pointed towards that dog.
Has your dogs reacted fearfully to someone staring or to a camera?
Understanding dogs makes all the difference
“Our dog bit our son completely out of the blue! There is no way we could have seen it coming.” I hear this sentiment from parents all the time, as do all other behaviorists and trainers, but we know it’s not true. Dogs rarely, if ever, bite without warnings, and sometimes those signs of trouble have been going on for months or even years before the bite happens.
The problem isn’t unpredictable dogs. It’s misunderstood dogs. Dogs are often trying hard to communicate that they are uncomfortable or that they don’t like what kids are doing to them. If nobody understands those messages, the dogs continue to be in situations that make them unhappy, and some of those dogs may end up biting.
Most dog bites to kids come from the child’s own dog or the dog of a friend. In fact, this is true 77 percent of the time. Check out this video by the family dog about how dogs and kids can have such different views of their experience together.
Several other videos by the same organization are really helpful when teaching kids (and adults!) things they need to know to stay safe. I love how these videos are targeted at different ages. This video is for kids in elementary school.
This video is for kids of preschool age.
The goal of keeping kids safe around dogs involves education so that people of all ages understand dogs better. It’s important that kids know how to act around dogs and that everyone in the family can distinguish happy, relaxed dogs from dogs who are nervous or uncomfortable. “Stop the 77” is the movement to prevent dog bites to kids, most of which come from dogs they know well.
His post-elimination running still makes us laugh
Our dog Bugsy must really have enjoyed a good poop. I say that because he seemed to celebrate each one with a good run afterwards. He ran at top speed in a big circle with a gleeful look on his face around the yard or in the woods. He became the quintessentially happy dog—sporting a big grin, ears flopping, running fast enough that his fur waved in the breeze. (If he was on leash, he modified his actions and just did a few spins in place looking moderately cheerful.)
My husband mentioned Bugsy’s post-elimination antics last night and we laughed remembering this particular behavior of a dog who died over a decade ago. It was absolutely predictable for Bugsy to do this after eliminating, and I used to look forward to watching him. My favorite part was the way it looked as though his back end was running faster than the front of him, causing his behind to be tucked down. In other contexts, he had a smoother gait and his body looked more organized.
It’s not that there is actually anything so special about a dog running around after pooping, as that is relatively common. We find this memory endearing because he looked so happy and because the precise posture and motions were distinctively his. I would have been able to spot him in a group of hundreds of dogs making wide arcs if he were running in this particular way because I’ve never seen another dog assume quite the same form when running.
We have many wonderful memories of Bugsy, and this just happens to be the one that struck a chord last night. Anything a dog does that is joyful and distinctive is likely to be remembered with love. That’s true even if it’s something that doesn’t seem typically sentimental, such as the way the dog runs after eliminating.
What behavior of a dog from your past brings you joy when you think back on it?
A world gone mad
The photographs of dog shadows by Thomas Roma capture the form and motion of dogs in a way that pictures of their actual bodies don’t. Roma went to a local dog park in Brooklyn almost daily for years to photograph shadows of dogs. By shooting from a different perspective (quite literally, as his camera was mounted on a seven-foot pole) he revealed something quite different. These dogs have a beauty that comes from the simplicity of their forms.
In Roma’s photos, the shadows both look like the dogs who cast them and appear very different. They are distorted and yet reveal the true essence of the dog form, too. It’s unlikely that anyone would view these photos and not think of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which people trapped in a cave mistake shadows projected onto the wall of the cave for reality because they are unable to see anything but these shadows.
The photographer himself has said that the shadows and their photographs remind him of cave paintings. He loved the dusty pebbled ground and the way it was fresh and new each day. He continued to photograph dogs at the park until the city renovated it and changed the surface.
Roma calls his dog shadow photographs “Mondo Cane” which is Italian for “Dog World” but is also an idiomatic expression meaning “A World Gone Mad.” These photographs have been exhibited in New York, Rome and Tokyo and sold all around the globe.
Who’s inspired to turn their own lens to the shadows of our dogs?
What do you want to know about dogs?
What’s hot on the research frontier can change quickly. Years ago in the environmental world, acid rain was all the rage, then it was mercury pollution and now big bucks are going to fund issues related to climate change. In the animal behavior world, copious studies on foraging behavior gave way to the popularity of parasitism, followed by a fascination with sexual selection and mating strategies.
Right now, studies of domestic animals, including dogs, are big, and a variety of topics are hot within the canine research community. I would love to see the funding that supports this research continue, and I think that will happen if people continue to see the value of the research. We’re learning about our best friends at a faster rate than ever, and it’s an exciting time to be interested in dogs.
Canine cognition research is a hugely popular area of study right now, as is the role of oxytocin in a variety of canine social behaviors. Interactions with people and the way dogs’ brains respond to various stimuli have also both been studied a lot lately. Play behavior has been popular for quite a long time, though we are perhaps past the main peak of the wave of studies on this topic for now. Receiving far less attention are some other areas of dog behavior. It’s currently far less common to study courtship and mating behavior, communication, aggression or feeding strategies.
Where would you like to see the studies of dogs go next? That is, what questions do you want answered in order to understand dogs better?
Celebrating National Poetry Month Canine Style
It’s National Poetry month, and the goal since 1996 of this tradition is for people to see poetry all over the place. That means that people are placing poems in restrooms, on billboards, online and yes, even on dog collars.
The goal is for people to realize that poetry is everywhere, and part of that is understanding that the subjects of poetry are endless and anyone can write a poem. Of course, love is a prominent theme, as is the beauty of nature, but anything that interests a poet is a fair topic.
Naturally, many poets write about dogs, because they fall into the category of love, the beauty of nature and anything of interest to a poet. I particularly like one dog poem I discovered this month because it explores variation in perception.
It’s natural to assume that what we can sense is what’s out there, but each species has a very different view of “what’s out there.” Another way to say that is that every species has its own perceptual world, which is called the species’ Umwelt. That’s a German word that is most commonly translated as “subjective universe.” Jakob von Uexküll came up with this term in 1907 to describe the phenomenon of organisms having different sensory experiences (even if they live in the same environment) because of varying capabilities of perception.
The poem is by Lisel Mueller and is called What The Dog Perhaps Hears.
If an inaudible whistle
blown between our lips
can send him home to us,
then silence is perhaps
the sound of spiders breathing
and roots mining the earth;
it may be asparagus heaving,
headfirst, into the light
and the long brown sound
of cracked cups, when it happens.
We would like to ask the dog
if there is a continuous whir
because the child in the house
keeps growing, if the snake
really stretches full length
without a click and the sun
breaks through clouds without
a decibel of effort,
whether in autumn, when the trees
dry up their wells, there isn't a shudder
too high for us to hear.
What is it like up there
above the shut-off level
of our simple ears?
For us there was no birth cry,
the newborn bird is suddenly here,
the egg broken, the nest alive,
and we heard nothing when the world changed.
Do you have a favorite dog poem? Have you written canine poetry?
The one type of dog gear you can't leave the house without
As a young teenager, I read an article in a beauty magazine that asked the question, “What’s the one type of make-up you can’t walk out of the house without?” I considered this carefully for some time. Was it eyeliner? Mascara? Lip gloss? This was the 80s, when a lot of make-up was common, but I wouldn’t struggle with the question today. As long as I have sunscreen on, my beauty routine is complete and I’m ready to go.
But a similar question about dog gear would leave me just as befuddled as the make-up question from decades ago. What one type of dog gear do I absolutely have to have when I walk out of the house? It makes sense to narrow this down to non-essential dog gear. That means I’m not even counting the leash and collar. The law requires that I have poop bags so I’m not going to count those either.
When I walk out of the house with a dog, the item I can’t be without is treats. I use them as reinforcements for training, and I do a lot of training. They are useful for counter conditioning, as distractions and even to prevent an off-leash dog from charging up to my dog.
I could imagine other people answering that the most essential item for their dogs is a tennis ball. Plenty of people have dogs who would look at them with disdain if they went to the park without a ball for playing fetch. If your dog prefers other toys for this game, perhaps your one essential item would be a flying disc. Squeaky toys or something else to play with in another way may be a top pick for many. Other people might say that they would never go anywhere without a clicker and treats (two items, really) or without a Kong. For anxious dogs, perhaps a thunder cap or thunder shirt, or the dog’s special blanket might be the one thing you would never leave behind.
What’s the one dog-related item you wouldn’t walk out of the house without?
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