Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Individual variation explains a lot
August 24 2016
Dogs are well known to be chowhounds. The idea that they love food more than anything else is practically (excuse the expression) dogma in the fields of canine behavior and dog training. The trouble is, recent research suggests that it is not true for all dogs.
In a study called “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food” scientists investigated whether dogs prefer treats or praise, and whether their choice can be predicted by their brains’ response to both stimuli. In one experiment, they measured the level of activation of the brain’s ventral caudate, an area known to function as a reward center, in response to items that predicted various outcomes. A toy car predicted that verbal praise was coming, a toy horse predicted that food on its way and a hairbrush was associated with nothing. Dogs were trained to make these associations with a series of 40 pairings of each object with what it predicted. The activation of the specific region of the brain was measured with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is possible because the dogs in the study have all been trained to remain motionless while in the scanner.
The average activation of the reward center of the brain was higher in the food and praise conditions than in the neutral condition, which shows that the dogs did learn the associations between the objects and what the objects predicted. (Each dog’s responses in the brain to seeing the toy horse and NOT receiving the expected praise was also measured.) There were 15 dogs in this experiment, and most of them had a similar response in the reward center to the food or to the praise. Four showed a stronger response to praise and two showed a stronger response to food. The average response to praise and to food did not differ.
In another experiment, dogs were placed in a Y-maze and given the opportunity to choose which arm of the maze to go to. One arm led to a food bowl with treats and the other arm led to the dog’s guardian, who provided petting and praise. Each dog was tested in the Y-maze 20 times. Seven dogs in the study chose the guardian the more times than the food, and seven dogs chose the food more often. One dog chose the guardian and the food an equal number of times.
The relative value of praise versus food in the first experiment was highly predictive of the choices that dogs made in the Y-maze experiment. Dogs whose ventral caudate showed a strong response to praise were more likely to choose their guardian over food but dogs who did not show such a strong response to praise relative to food were more likely to head for the food when given a choice.
Regrettably, the results of this study have erroneously been reported in many places as proof that dogs prefer praise and belly rubs to treats, and suggested that using treats in training is therefore unnecessary. It has been written in many places discussing this study that 13 of 15 dogs prefer praise to food, and that’s not correct. What the researchers actually wrote is that in 13 of the 15 dogs, the ventral caudate showed either roughly equal activation to food and to praise or greater activation to praise than to food.
It’s quite interesting that roughly half of the dogs chose their guardian over food. For those dogs, social interaction such as praise and belly rubs may be more effective than treats in training. However, caution is important when acting on the findings in this study because the research may overestimate the response of dogs to their guardians relative to food in situations outside the laboratory setting.
The lab may have been stressful, causing a bias in dogs towards an increased interest in their guardians when compared with food. They may have been seeking comfort from their guardians in a way that they might not be during typical training situations. The scientists do point out that these dogs have been trained to stay still in the scanner and that the lab is a familiar environment. That does not mean the dogs are as comfortable as they are at home or in other areas such as on neighborhood walks, at the park or at the training center where they attend classes. It’s important to know what dogs choose in the actual training setting before changing what reinforcement to use based on lab research.
Additionally, although dogs may value social connections over food when the social interaction is with their guardian, not all training occurs between guardian and pet. I do a lot of training with dogs who I adore, but I don’t share quite the same bond with them as they do with their own guardian. So, just because dogs may prefer affection from their guardian over food does not mean that they prefer affection from just anyone over food. Finally, in many training scenarios, dogs receive praise in addition to food during training, and that may be more effective than either one alone.
Many people swear that their dogs prefer praise and petting to treats, and others are just as certain that food wins out every time with their dogs. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that individual variation in preferences is huge. If you feel strongly about what matters most to dogs, there’s a good chance you’re right—when it comes to your dog, anyway.
Do you think your dog would go for food or for praise and affection if given the choice?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Important enough to be a featured story
August 21 2016
I’ve been a dog trainer long enough (almost 20 years) to see a massive change in the perception of the field. It used to be considered more a hobby than a job, even though many of us were already making a living doing it full time. I remember someone once telling me that it was “almost as though you have a real career”. Now, dog training is recognized as serious business and as a valuable contribution to society. In fact, it’s so legit that the CIA discussed its top 10 dog training tips in a featured article alongside articles such as “The Korean War Controversy: An Intelligence Success or Failure?” and “The Spymaster’s Toolkit”.
What’s even more exciting to me than seeing how seriously the CIA takes its dog training is realizing that the CIA’s Top 10 Dog Training Tips are absolutely spot on. The first tip is “Make it fun” and the last one is “Always end on a positive”. Everything in between is just as likely to make your typical dog trainer nod, smile or click. Dogs who work for the CIA begin their training as part of civilian training programs such as Guide Dogs for the Blind or programs in which inmates in jail train puppies in basic skills.
Dogs in the CIA aim to do what other members of this agency try to do—keep people safe—though their specific job is primarily sniffing out explosives. In addition to that detection work, dogs may be involved in apprehending suspects and educating the public. The K-9 program at the CIA emphasizes training as well as lots of exercise and plenty of time to play.
It was news to me that the CIA’s methods of developing great working dogs combine consistent and positive training with making sure the dogs have happy, balanced lives. Did you already know this?
By the Numbers
August 19 2016
Congratulate the canines in your household for showing up on earth at just the right time, because, compared to those dogs who lived 25 years ago, today’s dogs have many advantages.
1. Coercion training has been largely replaced by kinder, gentler positive methods. While not everyone is training with modern techniques, the trend continues to gain momentum. It is more effective and better for the relationship between dogs and people to teach dogs what to do and then reinforce them for being right—with toys, treats, play or affection—than to issue commands and deliver a leash pop or a shock in response to an incorrect response.
2. Behaviorists abound to help people with their dogs’ issues. Twenty-five years ago, it was more common to euthanize dogs for problems such as aggression, destructive chewing or repetitive behaviors than it is today. Now, many of these concerns can be resolved by working with a qualified animal behaviorist.
3. Options are plentiful for dogs who suffer pain due to injuries, arthritis or other medical causes. Acupuncture, while an ancient art, is relatively new on the scene for canine pain management, and the multitude of dog massage techniques, including TTouch, means that many dogs are relieved of pain rather than living with it or suffering from the side effects of medications.
4. It’s easier to travel with dogs now. More hotels accept dogs, and riding in the car is safer due to the use of crates and canine seat belts. Fewer dogs are left at home during family vacations and outings, and fewer are sliding around in the backs of vehicles.
5. Walking on-leash is a part of life for most dogs, and compared with 25 years ago, there are more relatively humane and effective options. It’s hard to imagine a dog who wouldn’t prefer a Gentle Leader, Snoot Loop, Halti or SENSEation harness to the choke chains that once were common.
6. Canine play is considered important in ways that were unheard of years ago. Play is widely viewed as critical for developing and maintaining good relationships between people and dogs, and as a result, more than ever, dogs are having fun with their people on a regular basis, and playing with better toys. The toy options are dizzying; from Kongs and Chewbers to Dogzillas and Nina Ottosson’s puzzle toys—the world of dog toys has moved well beyond balls and sticks!
7. Dog-centered activities are more numerous now. Agility, flyball, herding, tracking, lure coursing, rally-O and dog training classes as diverse as basic obedience and even tricks and games are common, as are “dog camps,” places where people and their dogs can enjoy such activities in the company of the like-minded.
8. Compared with 25 years ago, dogs are welcome in more places. Many people take their dogs to work, and more shops and businesses are allowing dogs as guests. On a more fundamental level, more dogs are now living inside our homes rather than outside as before. This greater hospitality may stem from the biggest change of all over the last 25 years, which is that more than ever, dogs are now considered members of the family. The wholehearted inclusion of dogs in our families—a perspective once voiced only by the very brave or slightly quirky—has become a mainstream idea over the past quarter-century.
Then or now, perhaps one of the greatest things about being a dog is that the tendency to sit around with friends and bark about “the good old days” doesn’t exist. I like to think that for dogs, the “good old days” are happening right now.
Dog's Life: Events
Partner with the Clear the Shelters initiative encouraging pet adoptions.
August 17 2016
Dealing with the media can get in the way of Olympic athletes’ training, but it’s obvious that none of them were complaining about a recent photo shoot to promote Clear the Shelters. This is a nationwide adoption effort to find loving homes for pets in need.
Even paired with such famous Olympians as Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Gabby Douglas and Venus Williams, the puppies stole the show. The expression on the puppy with Nathan Adrian is so cute it almost hurts to look at him! The little guy held by Michael Phelps is obviously in tune with others, realizing that the greatest swimmer of all time is uncharacteristically dry and needs to be licked. Justin Gatlin and Alex Morgan both enjoy a laugh with their puppies.
There’s a lot of love on the people’s faces in all the photos. Though a few of the puppies look a little overwhelmed, they were all adopted into loving homes. Gymnast Aly Raisman fell in love with Gibson, the Maltese-Shih-Tzu puppy who posed with her, and ended up adopting him. He was just one of the over 45,000 pets in need nationwide who was adopted thanks to Clear the Shelters.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Canine Synchronized Swimming Commercial
August 12 2016
The Rio Olympics inspired a Farmer’s Insurance commercial featuring dogs enjoying a flooded home. The five dogs play in the water and perform a synchronized swimming routine.
In a related ad, the same water-filled home serves as the venue for a dog diving competition.
Seeing these commercials provides some compensation for the misery that comes from staying up way too late watching the Olympics every night!
News: Guest Posts
German flight attendant meets her dog in Argentina
August 10 2016
When flight attendant Olivia Sievers met a stray dog near her hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she could hardly have predicted that she would adopt him a few months later. A dog lover, she gave the dog some food and played with him for a bit. This loving attention resulted in a strong attachment by the dog to her, and he continued to seek out her company. He waited outside her hotel until she emerged again, and no matter where she went or by what route, he found her and followed her.
It’s easy to imagine that this sociable dog had rarely encountered people who were as kind and giving to him, so naturally he felt a strong bond with Sievers. He stayed by the hotel’s entrance, prompting her to give him an airline blanket to keep him cozy at night.
She returned to Germany, but the dog greeted her outside the hotel on her next trip to Argentina, and the next one, and the one after that. For several months, the dog was outside her hotel every time she arrived in Buenos Aires, and their friendship grew. She named him Rubio (Spanish for blond) and continued to feed and play with him. Wanting the best for him, Sievers contacted a local rescue group so that he could be adopted. Though he was in a loving home, he escaped and headed back to the hotel in search of his German friend.
When Sievers learned that Rubio escaped and had apparently come to find her, she decided to adopt him herself. Following a mountain of paperwork for the woman and a flight to the other side of the world for the dog, there was a happy reunion for the pair of them.
Sometimes we have to travel to the ends of the earth to find our true love!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Using canine ethology to improve interactions
August 3 2016
An understanding of canine emotional expressions and human responses to them are a promising avenue to pursue in developing the best social robots. Social robots are machines that interact and communicate with humans by following social behaviors and rules that go along with their roles. People want more out of them than simply performing tasks to make our lives easier. They want their Interactions with these robots to feel as natural as possible, which means minimizing the disturbing feeling many people experience with robots. For that to happen, social robots must act in a manner that is socially appropriate, which includes exhibiting the right emotions for the situation.
Much of the work on developing emotionally expressive robots has focused on human facial expressions, with some emphasis on gestures and tone of voice. These subtle forms of communication are difficult to create in an artificial system, and researchers are exploring other options. One promising line of study is to consider interactions between humans and robots as an interaction between two different species that must communicate, and to use a non-human species as a model for the robots.
Dogs are a natural choice because of the ability of humans, even without a lot of experience, to identify the emotional content of dogs’ behavior. Children can correctly identify the emotional content of dogs barks, people tend to ascribe emotions to their dogs, and these two species are able to cooperate and communicate with remarkable success. People are able to understand dogs, which is likely a result of our long-standing relationship and shared evolutionary history.
In a recent paper (“Humans attribute emotions to a robot that shows simple behavioral patterns borrowed from dog behavior”), a group of canine ethologists show that people are capable of understanding the emotions of robots when their actions are based on the behavior of dogs. Using a robot that was not shaped like a dog and could not alter its basic posture, this experiment asked the question, “Can even simple expressions of emotional behavior elicit an acceptable level of emotional attribution by people to the robot?” If so, such behaviors in a robot could lessen the need to develop robots capable of communicating complex emotions through behavior based on human facial expressions.
The subjects in the experiment watched videos of a trained dog and of the robot and were asked to attribute emotions to them. The dog was a Belgian Malinois and the robot was a touchscreen mounted on a base with wheels. The body of the robot had arm-like limbs attached to it, one of which was capable of moving in a variety of ways and one of which was not movable. The touchscreen, or head-like part of the robot, could not move independently and had no face. The robot made sounds, which were considered vocalizations. The emotions expressed by the dog and by the robot were fear, joy, anger, sadness and neutral (no emotion). Both the dog and the robot made sounds to accompany other aspects of their behavior.
The behaviors of the dog for expressing joy were approaching, wagging his tail and sidling, while in the robot, joy was represented by approaching, lifting one arm and moving the fingers and spinning. Anger in the dog involved approaching and wagging the tail as well as moving the head up and down dynamically, barking and showing his teeth. The angry robot approached, moved its arm high and swung it several times. Sadness in the dog meant sitting followed by lying down with his head down and then not moving. The robot showed sadness by backing away and turning away, lowering its arm and remaining motionless.
People more often attributed emotions to the dogs than to the robots, but the type of emotion was correctly identified with similar levels of success. The amount of experience people had with dogs was not a factor in their ability to identify emotions in either the dog or the robot.
The goal of this study was to investigate the possibility that simple canine behaviors can provide a way to facilitate the understanding of emotional expressions of robots. The robot is not designed to resemble a dog, and indeed a strength of this approach is that robots do not have to match their animal models. That is an advantage because the robots can be built with their function in mind without the extra expense and constraints of creating a specific form in order to maximize emotional expression.
General behaviors such as approaching, backing away, turning to the side, being in motion or staying still can all be performed by a robot of any shape. These behaviors, though based on canine models, are hardly specific to dogs, but apply across a large range of mammals. It is possible that creating the most emotionally expressive and natural-seeming social robots may require developers to consider a number of universal actions that are easily understood by humans as well as by other mammals.
Because human facial expressions are often considered too complex or confusing to mimic in social robots, the use of simple behaviors that convey emotions may provide a better way to make robots that are capable of emotional expression. Future work will explore ways that dogs (and perhaps other mammals) can serve as models for combining functionality with sociality. This approach will allow researchers to develop better social robots that people consider more like companions and with which they are more comfortable.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
August 1 2016
In recent years, I’ve had more clients than ever with service dogs, especially psychiatric service dogs. Most of these cases involve veterans with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury). Almost every one of these clients has said, “This dog saved my life.” What they mean is that they were suicidal until receiving the dog. The fact that these dogs have collectively saved so many lives is one of those truths that makes me love my work.
Of course, there are lots of other ways that dogs can save lives besides preventing suicides. They have kept runaway and lost children warm through dangerously cold nights, they have stopped people from stepping onto train tracks, they have led disoriented people home, and they have taken down would-be attackers. They have gone for help or barked to get attention when a person has fallen or is trapped after a car accident, they have woken people up just in time to get out of a house on fire or with high levels of carbon monoxide, and alerted parents that a child has fallen in the pool.
I know of one man whose dog fought off a grizzly bear when they were camping together in Alaska for several months while he conducted field studies for his graduate work. Later, when he returned to the university to write his dissertation, he and his new girlfriend fought about the dog. Specifically, she did not want the dog on the bed because he tended to push her out of it on purpose.
His response? “This dog saved my life and has been with me longer than you have. Once you have literally saved me from death, you will have priority on the bed, but not until that happens.” That relationship did not last, but he soon found a woman who loved being with the dog at night and who the dog did NOT kick out of bed, and they are happily married.
Has a dog ever saved your life?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
I’m more like dogs than I care to admit
July 27 2016
It’s usually with great pride that I take note of similarities between myself and dogs. If I greet someone with genuine enthusiasm or consider how well I am living in the moment or if I choose a delicious nap instead dealing with some of my paperwork, I pat myself on the back. We all know that everything we need to know we learned in Puppy Kindergarten, right?
Recently, though, I realized that I share a behavioral pattern with dogs that is not so special or admirable: I lick my plate. I’m not saying that I’m a member of the clean plate club or bragging that I eat my vegetables. No, there are occasions when I literally lick my plate. We expect this sort of behavior from dogs. Most of them are extremely enthusiastic about food, but not picky about it and not into savoring it. They are not discussing the oaky overtones or the interesting way that the duck flavor blends with the sweet potato. They are just making sure they haven’t missed a morsel.
Concern about missing a speck of food is important to me only once in a while. I don’t lick my plate every time I eat, but rather only after one particular meal, and I have a good reason for it. Still, I felt sheepish when members of my family joked that I must have become a plate licker because of my personal and professional relationship with dogs.
So, here’s what’s going on with me. I used to overeat every time we had pancakes. I would eat a few pancakes, and then realize I had some extra maple syrup. I lived in New England for years, I adore real maple syrup, and I couldn’t stand the thought of wasting even a drop of this precious commodity. So, I would take another pancake to avoid wasting the syrup, but sometimes there wouldn’t be enough syrup, and I’d add more. Basically, I ended up eating to excess in my attempt to match up syrup and pancake. Finally, I realized that I could solve the problem by licking the syrup after my initial serving of pancakes. Of course, it’s inelegant, but it is healthier because I don’t eat as much. My kids—who as young children loved to lick water out of bowls to pretend that they were dogs—are so repulsed by my plate-licking behavior that I always sneak into the kitchen to do it so nobody has to watch.
There are so many traits we could share with dogs that would make us better people—loyalty, enjoyment of life, fairness to all people, emotional perceptiveness—but licking the plate is far from the most commendable, and it is certainly not the classiest.
Do you share something with dogs that nobody considers one of their most admirable traits?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Bringing Out Your Best
July 25 2016
Sometimes I feel like I’m falling short as a wife, a mother, a collaborator, a friend, a sister, a daughter or in any other role in my life. I’m not beating myself up over this because every day I fight the good fight and try very hard to do my best. I don’t live with constant guilt because I put in a solid effort, but I know in my heart that many times I don’t quite succeed to the degree that I want.
The funny thing, though, is that I feel much better about how I come through for dogs. I don’t know why, but I’m generally more confident that I am doing better by the dogs in my life. Don’t get me wrong—sometimes I still have dog-related guilt and a desire to improve, but not as often as I do with people. On the one hand, it’s not as complicated to provide for dogs’ needs, but the real issue here is, I think, that dogs bring out the best in me.
Sometimes, I’ve been too tired to play with my kids and I’ve answered no to their request to go to the park, but I always manage to walk dogs. At the end of an exhausting day, I may leave dirty dishes in the sink, but if a dog needs to be brushed out, I find the energy to get that done.
I’m more likely to comply with the majority of the Boy Scout Law with dogs than with people. (For those who are not familiar with it, this law says that a Boy Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent.) I’m not sure whether it is the vulnerability and complete reliance that dogs have on us that brings out the best in me, or if it’s just that dogs don’t tend to be as demanding as people, so it’s easier to measure up. (Yes, I realize that some dogs are unbelievably demanding, but my experience with such dogs is a small percentage of my interactions with the canine set.)
It can be really hard every day to face not quite being as good as I’d like to be, and I’m so grateful that dogs provide an area of my life that is less prone to causing such feelings of failure.
If dogs bring out the best in you, why do you think that is?
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