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Karen B. London

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

News: Guest Posts
A Dog Even Nicer Than I Realized
It took dog sitting to really get to know her

I thought I knew Harlow, a young Boxer mix, long before she came to spend the week with us. I had worked with her guardian in over a dozen training sessions, and she had visited our home multiple times so she would be familiar with my house and family. (I always recommend a few visits ahead of time so that dogs are more comfortable when they stay with me.)

From my previous experience with Harlow, I anticipated an enjoyable week while her guardian was out of town. She has always been fun to train, responsive, affiliative and friendly. I thought that I knew her quite well, which is why it caught me a little off guard to learn just how incredibly nice she is.

When I say that a dog is “nice”, it is the highest praise I can offer. I’m not using the term as something vaguely positive in lieu of anything more specific to offer as a compliment. I believe that a truly nice dog is a wonder of the universe, and that such angels are not at the end of every leash. All dogs have their fine qualities, each a little different, but there’s a special place in my heart for dogs who are remarkably nice.

Harlow is such a dog, and it’s odd to me that I didn’t realize it in the many months I worked with her. During our training sessions, I came to like her very much and have always considered her a great dog. Yet, it took living together this week to really understand the depth of her sweetness, which showed itself in a number of little ways. When we entered the house from the yard and arrived simultaneously at the back door, she paused as if to say, “Please, after you.” This is not because she has specifically been trained to do this or because she is particularly deferential. It’s a result of being naturally kind. She’s friendly with all of our guests and welcomes attention from anyone, yet she’s not pushy about it. She takes treats gently no matter how excited she is about them.

Harlow walks and runs beautifully on leash, and though a large part of that is due to the training efforts of her guardian, there’s more to it than that. When we run by a spot on the sidewalk that has plants growing over it, she navigates the narrow part carefully so we can both easily fit through. She looks back as we go through and slows down, apparently aware that the length of the leash requires special care when we must go single file. There’s simply a pleasant agreeableness about her that is hard to explain, but easy to appreciate.

Obviously, I adore this dog, but please don’t think I’m seeing her through rose-colored glasses—I’m not. Delightful as she is, she’s not perfect. Like all dogs, she has her good qualities and her not-so-good ones. She is not above throwing herself the occasional trash party, and she even had one such festivity at our house. I don’t consider that a blot on her character—or on any dog’s character for that matter—but it’s not a plus. The enthusiasm with which she barks out the window at any potential dog buddy is loud enough to be objectionable. (Since she can be called away from the window, the ruckus is brief, but it’s pretty exciting while it lasts.) Her drinking habits are so sloppy that I can only watch in wonder and amusement as she dribbles around the bowl and across the floor.

Most dogs are nice (that’s why we love them so!) but Harlow is especially so. Dogs can learn to have better manners and trained to perform certain behaviors, but being genuinely nice is an intrinsic quality that can’t be taught.

I’m not sure why, but it took living with Harlow for me to see how nice she is. Have you ever hosted a dog you thought you knew, and only then really gotten to know her?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Accepting Dogs on Their Own Terms
It’s a skill cat lovers bring to the table

It sounds trivial to say it, but dogs and cats are very different animals. The experience of living with individuals of these two species is not the same in many ways. I know I am generalizing here and ignoring the many exceptions, but the typical cat is more independent that the typical dog, and usually more aloof. (Again, I know there are dogs who lean towards the standoff-ish, and cats who are clingy and constantly affectionate, but that’s not the most common way for members of those species to be. Think of it this way—it remains true that men are generally taller than women even though there are certainly individual women who are taller than individual men.)

My point here, and I’m sure you’re glad I’m getting to it, is that if someone has experience with cats, they may acquire perspectives and skills that are different from those acquired by people who spend all of their time with dogs. (It should go without saying that I have no problem with anyone spending all of their time with dogs!)  Those skills and perspectives can be very useful with certain dogs, though I’m not necessarily referring to dogs who are more cat-lie in any way.

The dogs who benefit most from the knowledge of cat-savvy people are those who are shy, fearful or nervous. People who know cats well are completely on board with the fact that you can’t push or force a cat to be social with you. (It’s unwise to push or force a dog, either, by the way, but many dogs are easier to convince to engage with us than cats are.)

With cats, it is always wise to take it slow, let them come to you and ignore them until they show an interest in you. That is also true of fearful dogs, but many people who come into contact with a dog who is afraid try to cajole the dog into approaching, or try to lure the dog with toys or treats. People with cat experience are far less likely to try to take shortcuts like this, to the benefit of the dog in question. Cat-savvy people are used to the idea that you have to accept the animal on his own terms and to be patient. To be fair, many dog lovers also know this really well, but I find that it is almost universal among people who have spent a significant amount of time with their feline friends.

I was recently reminded of the wonderful way that many cat lovers have with shy, nervous or fearful dogs when my friend Betsy came over while I was watching a dog of that description. I told her that the dog was very sweet, though easily scared by new people, and that the best thing to do was to toss her some treats and then ignore her. Betsy did exactly that, and within minutes, I took this picture of a very happy dog (the lean one on the left with a tail wagging fast enough to look blurry) enjoying her new human friend. Throughout their initial interaction, Betsy always let the dog control the pace of their progress. She never pushed too hard to pet the dog or encouraged the dog to approach. She just waited and let the dog do what felt comfortable.

Do you have cat experience that has helped you in your interactions with dogs?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Smell You Later
Dogs sniff urine for different lengths of time

The information available in canine urine is astounding. From a proper sniff, dogs can learn about the sex, reproductive status, diet and stress level of dogs who have been there before. Urine is used to communicate about territories, to mask the smell of other dogs, to detect females who are likely to be reproductively receptive and to compete with other individuals. It’s no wonder that our canine friends find urine so compelling that they are irresistibly drawn to it. As anyone who has spent even a little time with dogs knows, urine sniffing is a favorite pastime.

A recent study called “Length of time domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) spend smelling urine of gonadectomised and intact conspecifics” was conducted to investigate whether gonadectomy (being spayed or neutered) affects urine-sniffing behavior. Since gonadectomy has significant impacts on body chemistry, it has long been suggested that it disrupts the flow of information available through urine that dogs have evolved to detect over many generations.

Researchers tested the affects of gonadectomy in urine sniffing by recording how long dogs sniffed urine from intact versus gonadectomized individuals. They found that dogs spent more time sniffing urine from spayed or neutered dogs than from intact ones. One possibility is that the dogs are spending a longer time sniffing such urine because they are trying to figure out the information it contains. Because it may have a combination of chemicals that is different than the range of compounds that the dogs have evolved to understand, it may be harder for them to make sense out of it.

Interestingly, this study contradicts the findings of Lisberg and Snowdon, whose 2009 paper also analyzed the investigation patterns of unfamiliar urine and found that dogs spent more time sniffing urine from intact dogs than from gonadectomized ones. One possible explanation for the difference may be that for the current paper, the dogs were tested indoors, but for the 2009 paper, the study took place outside. (Fewer distractions inside may also explain an average sniff length of nearly 13 seconds in this paper compared with just over 5 seconds in the older study.) Another difference between the results of the two studies is that the recent research found no difference in sniffing time related to what kind of dog was doing the sniffing (male or female, intact or gonadectomized) but Lisberg and Snowdon found that neutered males and intact females both spent more time sniffing urine from intact males than from neutered males.

More research is definitely needed if we want to understand the complicated behavior of urine sniffing, which may involve many interactions between environment and individual traits of the dogs—both those who are the sources of urine and those who sniff if. Research is time intensive and can be costly, which is why I’m so impressed by this particular study. It was conducted in a single home in which the 12 dogs recruited to be sniffers all live, there was no funding source for the study and all of the urine in the study came from out of state to insure that the urine came from unfamiliar dogs. Kudos to the authors for taking the initiative to conduct a cool and clever experiment!

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Moms Affect Guide Dog Success
Intense mothering associated with puppy failure

We all know human mothers who dote excessively on their kids, depriving them of the opportunity to learn how to handle life’s challenges on their own. New research suggests that canine moms who are overly attentive may be causing the same harm to their puppies.

In a study of 98 puppies at a New Jersey facility that breeds, raises and trains guide dogs for the visually impaired, researchers found that high levels of maternal care were associated with failure. About 30 percent of puppies don’t make the cut, and too much mothering may be part of the problem. Puppies whose mothers were excessively attentive were more likely to fail out of the guide dog program.

Attentiveness involved many behaviors, such as the amount of time spent in contact with the puppies, time spent licking the puppies and time in the box with the puppies. Additionally, the mothers’ postures when nursing their puppies may have influenced their development. Some mothers lie on their sides while nursing, which gives puppies easy access to milk. Other moms remain standing, a posture that requires puppies to work harder for the milk. Puppies whose mothers stood during nursing were more likely to succeed as guide dogs.

The scientists who conducted the study assert that facing and overcoming minor obstacles—such as difficulties acquiring milk from Mom—may be important for developing independence and key life skills. The opportunity to succeed despite facing challenges may allow puppies to develop confidence, self-reliance, frustration tolerance or other qualities that made success as a guide dog more likely.

Interestingly, this study’s conclusion that excessive mothering is problematic contradicts the results found in a previous study of the effects of maternal care on working dogs. In that study, higher levels of maternal care were associated with success in a program for raising working dogs for the Swedish Armed Forces. It may be that different mothering styles are best for raising working dogs of different types—guide dogs versus military dogs. Another possibility is that we’ve got a Goldilocks situation in which some dogs mother too much and some dogs mother too little, but others provide the amount that is just right.

What does seem clear from both studies is that there are strong effects of early experiences on adult behavior in dogs. Impulse control, aggression, neophobia, motivation and anxiety and a host of emotional and cognitive traits are influenced by the type and amount of maternal care they receive in the first few weeks of life. Any program would likely benefit by considering this factor when deciding which individuals to breed.

There is much to be gained by understanding which factors are predictive of a successful working dog. As the authors of this recent research wrote, one element involves the “enduring benefits of maternal care—in moderation”.

News: Guest Posts
True Love: The Bond with Our Dogs
We know it when we see it

The way we love our dogs varies. For some people, a dog is the proverbial best friend. To others, dogs are simply a family member, whether that means the dog is like a brother, a sister, a child or need not be defined beyond being a dog who is adored. No matter how we identify the complex relationship between ourselves and our dogs, nobody who has shared such a connection can deny that it is True Love.

True Love is hard to explain, but it’s easy to see in pictures. In the above picture, our friend Greg and his dog Espave (pronounced ESS-paw-vay) gaze at one another in a way that conveys that sentiment. In fact, I refer to this picture, which I took while visiting an ecological reserve in Panama that Greg manages, as “The True Love Photo”. Greg frequently travels internationally as well as in Panama for his work, and when I asked him what he misses most when he is away, he immediately answered, “Espave”. It is clear from the dog’s behavior that she is every bit as attached to Greg as he is to her.

Though it might be hard to explain how deeply one can care for a dog, the concept is completely straightforward to many of us. We love our dogs, and they love us. Dogs make our lives complete with the joy and companionship they add to every shared moment. It pains us to be away from them, and it’s always a pleasure to be reunited, whether at the end of each day or after a long trip. Our love for dogs reminds us that the strength of our emotions and connections to others cannot be contained within the boundary of our own species.

I know you and your dog share a bond of love that all dog people understand, but do you have a picture that you think shows it?

News: Guest Posts
Is There a Puppy There?
A man’s baby talk heard through the fence

I was hanging my laundry near our backyard fence, which borders the sidewalk, when I heard the dog tags. Soon after, I could make out the shape of a Boxer through the small gaps between the slats. The dog was clearly aware of my presence, based on his level of excitement and his intense sniffing of the fence. The man walking him spoke with that baby voice so commonly used to address dogs, saying, “Do you hear a new friend? Is there a puppy in there?”

“No, just a person,” I replied, and I could feel the mortification across the fence. The man laughed sheepishly, said, “Hello,” and hurried on by with his dog. As he walked away, he spoke in what I think was a purposely deep voice, saying, “Let’s go, Bailey. We’ve got more walking to do.”

I felt terrible about making him feel awkward or foolish. What he doesn’t know is that rather than think less of him for using such sweet talk with his dog, it makes me respect him more. I find it charming when a man loves his dog, and there is nothing wrong with a little baby talk between a fella and his dog. Still, I can understand how he might have felt embarrassed. He got caught in what he thought was a private (no other humans around) moment until I spoke up. In retrospect, I should have kept silent. For one thing, I would have avoided making this kind man feel silly, and I also might have had the opportunity to observe more of his interaction with his dog.

Have you been caught in what you thought was a private moment between you and your dog?

News: Guest Posts
If I Judged Canine Charm Contests
Winners would have one ear up and one ear down

There are as many ways to be adorable as there are dogs in the world, but for my money, the dogs with one ear up and one ear down are the crème de la crème of cuteness. There is something so charming—and disarming—about a dog who is asymmetrical in this way, especially if it is combined with a head cock to further the effect. The ears-askew look can make even the roughest, toughest, most intimidating-looking dog appear totally harmless, and for dogs who already appear to pose no threat, it makes them even more lovable.

So, why do so many dogs have one ear up and one ear down? In some cases, it is a young dog whose ears are part of the way through the process of growing into an erect posture. They have not done it evenly so one ear is further along than the other. The cartilage in the ears is soft, but usually grows strong enough to support the ear as the puppy develops. Some dogs permanently remain in the one-ear-up, one-ear-down phase of life.

Many dogs only have one ear up and one ear down temporarily. It may just happen briefly when the dog has moved the ears in different ways. There are dogs who only have one ear up and one ear down when they are in certain emotional states. Other, naturally flop-eared dogs, show this look only when they are actively pricking their ears because they are especially alert, but only one ear fully extends. Some dogs only do it when they are tired, especially at the end of the day.

Many people worry about dogs whose ears are not a matched set, and it is certainly reasonable to discuss it with your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues. That’s especially true if both of your dog’s ears are typically erect and one suddenly changes positions. Sometimes, a hematoma or an infection can add weight to the ear and cause it to flop, for example. People who are showing their dogs in conformation consider it a problem because many breed standards require a dog to have erect ears. For the rest of us, there are no requirements about what dogs look like, and many consider this particular look a bonus in the cuteness department

Do you have a dog whose good looks are made even more endearing by asymmetrical ears?

News: Guest Posts
Dogs Chasing Laser Pointers
Oh, how I hate this habit!
dogs playing with laser pointers

Check out YouTube and you can find an alarming number of videos of dogs chasing the light from a laser pointer, often while people laugh in the background. The reason I use the word “alarming” is that laser pointer chasing can lead to serious behavioral issues. Watching people laugh at a situation that is often distressing to dogs is distressing to me.

Though it’s common for people to be amused by the behavior of a frantic dog pouncing on a moving dot of light, it’s not funny for dogs. Their experience in that situation is often seriously unpleasant and very tense. The movement of the light stimulates dogs to chase, but there is nothing to catch, and that is why the game is bad for dogs. The constant chasing without ever being successful at catching the moving object can frustrate dogs beyond anything they should have to tolerate.

Working dogs who are trained to find things like explosive or drugs become upset if they never have a “find”. These dogs need regular successes, but their work may not provide them. That’s why it is standard practice to set up simulated missions in which working dogs are guaranteed to discover what they have been taught to find. Successful searches keep their skills sharp and prevent psychological problems.

A lot of dogs become obsessive about the light from laser pointers, and there are many cases of dogs who were diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder after (and perhaps partly as a result of) this activity. Dogs become preoccupied with the light, then transfer that interest to similar stimuli, sometimes developing a behavior problem in which they chase lights and shadows. It may look fun and entertaining to people, but it’s usually anything but fun for dogs.

No matter how much dogs respond to them, I recommend against the use of laser pointers. It’s just too likely that the game will negatively affect the dog. If someone is unable to follow this advice, there is a way to minimize the risk of a dog developing behavioral problems and of experiencing psychological damage. The laser light can be used as a decoy that allows the dog to find treats or a new toy. Though the dog does not ever succeed at catching the light, there is the success of discovering other items. Using the light in this way lowers the risk of trouble slightly, but it does not eliminate the danger. I only recommend this as a last resort for clients who are unwilling to stop engaging their dog with the laser light.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Teach Your Dog to Feel at Home Anywhere
Have Blanket, Will Travel
Stella, a service dog in training, on her blanket during her first visit to the mall

Security blankets have great value—just ask Linus Van Pelt of Peanuts cartoon fame. His blanket gave him enough confidence to handle whatever life threw at him, especially out in the great big, wide world.

A blanket can help your dog handle adventures away from home, too. If your dog learns that a certain blanket is his, and often lies on it no matter where it is placed around the house, he will likely be more comfortable away from home if the blanket goes, too. It provides many of the advantages of bringing his crate with you wherever you go, but it is more portable. Blankets are lighter, easier to carry and can be taken lots of places that a crate can’t go.

If your dog is used to a particular blanket, it is so much easier to help him feel comfortable in a new place. You can bring it with you to friends’ houses, when you travel, to the park, to the vet, or anywhere else your dog goes. Just place it on the floor where you want your dog to lie down, and it will let your dog know that he has a spot to call his own. That helps your dog relax, and also indicates to him where you want him to go.

Blankets are commonly used in this way with service dogs. Service dogs are regularly asked to lie down and stay in a particular spot, both at home and when out and about. Blankets provide an easy way to show a service dog where you want him to lie down, whether it’s at a restaurant, in an airplane, in a meeting at work, at a conference, on a bus or at any social gathering.

Blanket Training Tips

The first step in training a dog to happily lie down and stay on a blanket no matter where you put it is to teach the dog to associate good things with the blanket. Put the blanket on the floor at home, put treats on it and encourage your dog to go get the treats. (Most dogs will need no encouragement.) Move the blanket around to new places in your house and repeat. Once your dog happily goes to the blanket, start asking him to sit and then to lie down on it, frequently moving it to new places in your home and giving lots of treats when he does what you want him to do.

The next step is to ask your dog to do some stays on the blanket, and reinforce that behavior with treats. Again, make sure to move the blanket around to various places so that your dog is learning to stay on the blanket rather than on one particular spot on the floor.

Once your dog is comfortable doing stays on the blanket at home and has learned that his blanket is the place to be, work on teaching him to do the same behavior when he is elsewhere. In a new place, start by tossing treats on the blanket, then ask for sits and downs, and finally stays. Some dogs transfer their knowledge of staying on the blanket easily to new places. Other dogs may seem to be starting over in the learning process when you are away from home.

Always help your dog to succeed by not asking him to do more than he is capable of doing. It may seem odd that your dog sees the blanket at home and immediately heads over to it, but becomes utterly confused about what you want him to do with the blanket at someone else’s house. Some dogs are nervous in a new environment, which affects their performance, and other dogs simply don’t understand that the task is the same even though it’s in a new place. It’s common for dogs to progress through the steps of the process faster in each new place than they did at home when they were first learning about the blanket, no matter how confused they seem the first time you take the blanket on the road.

Once a dogs has been to multiple places and happily goes to lie down and stay on his blanket, it’s typical to be able to put that blanket anywhere and have him feel comfortable. Most dogs who are used to lying down on a particular blanket will immediately feel quite relaxed on it no matter where you are and where on the floor you place it. That’s really the great value of a security blanket for dogs—being able to help your dog feel at home anywhere.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Skinny Dogs Elicit Comments
Visible ribs can lead to criticism
Skinny Dogs

Many dogs struggle with their weight, and we have all become accustomed to seeing dogs whose health is negatively affected by extra pounds. The standard of what is normal for dogs has become skewed toward dogs who would have seemed quite heavy a generation ago. Perhaps because overweight dogs are so very common, skinny dogs are not always favorably regarded. I am dog sitting for an exceptionally lean dog this week, and I’m fascinated by how many people comment on her size.

Saylor is around 22 inches tall at the shoulder and weighs about 45 pounds. She is some kind of mix of who-knows-how-many breeds, but I suspect she has some Whippet (or other sight hound) in her, and if she were bigger, I would swear she is part Great Dane. A naturally lean dog, Saylor eats a couple of cups of food a day, along with an assortment of treats. Even if she eats more on occasion, there is no weight gain. She is in perfect health, maintains her weight and her ribs show. That is apparently her natural state.

Nonetheless, I have been asked, “Do you feed her enough?” multiple times and been told on several occasions that she is too thin. For the record, her vet disagrees, and considers her to be just fine. It irritates me to have strangers give medical advice that I neither want nor have asked for. (Perhaps it grates on me more than it does other people, because I have regularly been asked these same questions about my naturally lean children over the years. I usually reply that I want them to join the American obesity epidemic, but they just haven’t been successful at it yet.) With Saylor, I just reply that her veterinarian thinks she is perfectly healthy at this weight.

If you have a healthy, lean, ribs-showing skinny dog, do you receive comments about it that you wish people wouldn’t offer?

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