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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repetitive Behavior in Dogs
A study with insights into welfare

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accidents With Dog Toys
Sometimes toys aren’t fun

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

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

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

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

Fence Fighting
Avoiding aggression can look silly

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

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

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

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

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

World Cup Dog Names
Tournament locations inspire one coach

We all like to remember our successes, and one World Cup soccer coach chose his dogs’ names accordingly. Born in Argentina, José Pékerman was chosen to coach the under-20 Argentine national team in the FIFA World Youth Championship. The appointment was a surprise to many, but criticism stopped after the team won the championship three times. They won in Qatar (1995), in Malaysia (1997), and in Argentina (2001).

The coach’s dogs are named in honor of these three victories. Qatar, Malaysia and Argentina are loved by their guardian, who no doubt enjoys saying their names and remembering those championships.

Pékerman is now a citizen of Colombia and the coach of the Colombian national team. They made it to the quarterfinals in the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil before being eliminated last week. That is the country’s best showing ever, so the tournament was a success. I doubt it was enough of a success for Coach Pékerman to name a new dog Brazil after the country hosting the World Cup though, since it was the Brazilian team that defeated them and sent them home.

Unusual Eating Behavior
It’s not clear what’s going on

Gertie has an unusual eating behavior. She can spend hours polishing off a couple of cups of dry dog food. She takes a few pieces of kibble from her bowl, carries it a few feet away, drops it on the floor, and then eats it piece by piece with painstaking slowness. It reminds me of the way chickadees eat from birdfeeders, taking one item from the feeder and flying to a nearby tree to eat it before returning to the feeder again. Here is a short video of Gertie eating, which starts with her walking away from her bowl with some food in her mouth and then dropping it on the floor.

Honestly, I don’t have an explanation for this behavior, though a few other guardians have mentioned that their dogs feed in a similar way. My brother-in-law, who takes care of Gertie when her guardians are out of town, thinks this behavior relates to experiences with fire ants in her earlier life before being adopted into a loving home. She was tied up, and where she lives in Florida, fire ants can find food extremely quickly. Since the sting of these ants is very painful, perhaps Gertie is using her food-moving behavior to take the food away from fire ants in her bowl. It’s certainly an interesting speculation, but I have no idea if it’s true.

Here’s what I do know: At her own home, Gertie consistently eats in this way, day after day, meal after meal. When she is visiting my brother-in-law and his family, she alternates her usual feeding behavior with eating right out of the bowl at a slow but steady speed. That’s what this video shows—some carrying of food and some eating it right from the bowl. The change may be a result of visiting a home with another dog—Tucker, a Miniature Pinscher mix who will try to eat her food if he is not kept away by a barrier. If Tucker is around, she will usually eat more quickly and do it directly from the bowl.

Have you ever known a dog who eats like Gertie does? Do you have a possible explanation for the behavior?

 

Tolerating Petting Shows Patience
Eagerness to fetch is obvious

Sometimes when I think of what we ask of dogs, I find myself impressed with what they will tolerate. Recently, I was at our local park with my kids when a man came to play fetch with his Border Collie. This dog was clearly a devoted fetcher. Her gaze was locked and loaded on the ball even as they walked into the park, and her attention never wavered.

I watched the man and his dog play fetch for 30 minutes, and the dog never stopped staring at the ball. She did it when the man was holding it, when it was in the air, and when he set in on the ground for a moment while he tied his shoe. When he gave it a little toss in the air and caught it, the dog’s eyes followed its path. When he walked to the drinking fountain, her eyes followed the ball as his arm swung. This dog was riveted on the ball, the whole ball and nothing but the ball.

My kids know better than to ask to pet a dog who is so engaged in play, but I could see them looking at her longingly. The dog was left to play in peace until another family came and DID ask to pet the dog. The man said, “Sure, but she’ll probably be more interested in the ball than anything.” (Truer words were never spoken.)

The dog obediently dropped the ball and went into a down posture on cue so the kids could pet her, but her focus never left the ball. For several minutes, the kids fawned over her, and the dog stayed put the entire time while staring at the ball. She was polite and calm with the children, but absolutely uninterested in them. She continued to lie there watching the ball until the man said, “I think she’d like to play some more now,” and called her to him. She leapt up with extreme enthusiasm and resumed fetching with the same fervor as before.

This dog no more wanted to stop her fetch game for a petting session than I want to stop in the middle of a run to have someone braid my hair. Yet, she did what she was asked with admirable patience and grace. So many dogs are similarly tolerant and I’m grateful for that every day.

Out of Control Biting
Are some individuals incapable of self-control?

I specialize in working with dogs with aggression issues, so I think about biting behavior a lot. Mostly, I’m pondering ways to help dogs stop doing it and ways to help people who want to help their dogs stop doing it. Many thoughts center on protecting dogs from situations in which they are prone to biting, and protecting people and dogs from being bitten. Other topics include the motivation behind biting, the triggers that elicit it and the effects of a bite on everyone involved.

My biting obsession is always centered on dogs. I had given very little thought to biting by people until this week’s incident at the World Cup in the game between Uruguay and Italy. In that match, Luis Suárez of Uruguay bit (actually bit!) the shoulder of Italian player Giorgio Chiellini, who showed the tooth marks to the referee. The commentators seemed dismayed with remarks such as, “Oh dear, dear, dear,” and perhaps more alarmingly, “Surely not again.”

Yes, that’s right, this is not the first, but rather the third time that Suárez has bitten an opposing player. In the past, he has been suspended for a number of matches because of his behavior. It seems crazy to jeopardize his career and his reputation, embarrass himself and hurt the chances of his country succeeding at the World Cup by biting again. Television cameras are everywhere, and millions of people throughout the world are watching. There wasn’t a chance that another bite would go unnoticed or unpunished, and he has in fact been given the longest suspension in World Cup history and fined over $100,000. That’s why I think that Suárez is literally unable to stop this behavior because he lacks emotional control. (I’m not suggesting that he is not responsible for his behavior or that he should be treated leniently because he can’t control himself. I’m just saying that he seems unable to exercise normal inhibition of his own impulses.)

Biting is far more common in the canine world than in the human world, but it’s still rare to meet dogs who bite in such an uncontrollable way. I’ve known very few dogs like this, and though the behavior is unacceptable, I do find myself feeling pity for individuals—both dogs and people—who are unable to control themselves. It’s a shame to lack normal social skills and become dangerous to others or unwelcome in various situations as a result.

Emotions such as anger and frustration combined with high arousal are typically involved with dogs who bite in an out of control way. (Suárez has said that he was angry with Chiellini for hitting him in the eye during the game, and there’s no doubt that the intensity of a high stakes international soccer match lends itself to high arousal in the players.) Such bites happen when dogs have the canine equivalent of a toddler’s tantrum because they don’t get what they want. Dogs who bite in these contexts are literally unable to control themselves. It is much harder to substantially improve their behavior compared with other dogs, most of whom are biting as a result of fear.

Many humans go through a biting stage at around age 2, but they outgrow it. They learn self-control as well as developing an understanding of what is socially acceptable. Similarly, dogs use their mouths both playfully and not so playfully as puppies, but then the vast majority of them develop normal bite inhibition and an understanding of what they are and are not allowed to do with their mouths. Biting is a more normal part of canine behavior than of human behavior since people are more inclined to hit when behaving aggressively than to bite, so the analogy is not perfect, but there are similarities.

It’s important when working with an aggressive dog to understand as much as possible about why the dog is biting. There’s hope for the overwhelming majority of dogs with a bite history, as many are able to improve their behavior with a combination of behavior modification and a sensible management plan for prevention. However, there is the rare dog whose likelihood of improvement is small because of a lack of any kind of self-control and the tendency to bite when frustrated, angry and aroused.

Did anyone else see this incident and have their minds immediately go to thoughts of dog bites?

Human Walking Program
Australian office workers rescued by dogs

We all know that many dogs are in need of rescue, but The Lost Dogs Home in Melbourne Australia took a different approach to enticing people to their facility. They started a program called the Human Walking Program, which offers relief to office workers who spend too much time indoors and sitting at their desks.

They offered people the opportunity to spend time over their lunch hour outdoors walking dogs. The promise of fresh air, a little exercise and time with a new canine buddy was very appealing. At the inaugural event in April 2014, over 5000 office workers were rescued from their daily grind and all of the available dogs were adopted.

Most of us realize that people need rescuing just like dogs do. The Human Walking Program turns that fact into happiness for members of both species. I’d love to see programs like this become popular in other countries.