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.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
How does it measure up to his looks?
August 28 2015
“Your dog has a great look!” I called out to a woman at the park.
She looked at me suspiciously and actually asked, “Are you talking to me?”
I assured her that I was, though understanding immediately why she questioned me on that point. Her dog was not what most people would consider an attractive dog. He was a bit odd-looking to be honest, with a head that was small in proportion to his body, some very random color patterns in his slightly straggly coat and an ear that had been torn at some point in his life and healed imperfectly.
When I had commented on his “look,” I was referring to an aspect of his behavior—his expression—rather than his overall appearance. The look on his face as she took a flying squirrel toy out of her bag was one that combined pure joy, complete attention and enthusiasm without the slightest sign of over arousal. That combination is hardly common in my professional work with dogs with serious behavior problems, so I enjoyed it and appreciated its significance. This was a great dog—attentive, not excessively revved up, playful and happy. I was impressed with his expression, prompting me to comment on his “great look.”
Thanks to the ambiguity of the English language, my comment was misunderstood, and I suspect that the woman thought I was overcompensating and pretending that the dog was gorgeous or mocking her. It’s a fair assumption that nobody had ever told her that her dog was a handsome fellow. He is beautiful on the inside, but most people aren’t going to argue that he is gorgeous on the outside, and that’s a shame.
I’ve always maintained that some of the happiest guardians are those who pick dogs based on who they are on the inside and actively choose to love what they look like on the outside instead of doing it the other way around. This woman seemed happy once I had explained that I was impressed with her dog’s expression and went into detail about it. She told me that she loves his look, too, but that not everybody sees beyond his looks.
I’ve loved dogs who were visually stunning and dogs who were not, except perhaps to me. Do you have a dog whose “look” is a better representation of who he is than his “looks” are? Or a dog whose “look” and “looks” are both lovely?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Just like a baby (and maybe cuter)
August 25 2015
Years ago, my husband brought our seven-month old son to an all-day seminar I was giving on dog aggression so that I could feed him during the breaks. In many situations, a man carrying a baby would attract a lot of attention from women, but not in this case. There were about 200 people at the seminar, and approximately 180 of them were women. During the course of the day, only a handful of them approached my husband, and all but two of them came over to share puppy photos with him. (“Look! You have a young animal in your life. I have a young animal in my life, too!”)
I’ve noticed over the years that in the world of dogs, there are many people who are just not that into kids. It’s especially true for people whose professional lives revolve around dogs. I’m fond of saying that as a group, we dog people are not very “breedy.” Of course there are tons of exceptions (I myself have two human children), but many dog people are not as child-oriented as the rest of the population.
Any couple who does not have children has probably faced questions and criticisms about that, which is obviously rude. It’s thoughtless, narrow-minded, and potentially hurtful (not to sound judgmental or anything) to ask people personal questions about when they are going to have kids or why they don’t have kids. It’s nobody’s business, and it’s impossible to know if a couple has decided not to have children or if perhaps they have been unable to have children even though they want them very much. Either situation may involve a couple who is very focused on their canine companions, and that is a beautiful thing.
One couple took an unusual approach to letting their families know that they should not expect a human grandchild. They had a photo shoot with their puppy that mimicked the popular “new baby” photo sessions. The result was a gorgeous set of photos by Elisha Minnette Photography. It looks like they enjoyed themselves and judging by the response, many people share their sense of humor.
>Are you tempted to do a “new dog” photo shoot with your best friend?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Overwhelming a dog is not good socialization
August 21 2015
There were easily 300 people in the school building that Saturday morning, all milling around and signing their kids up for various after school activities. There was also one very young puppy being carried through the crowd becoming more and more exhausted and increasingly overwhelmed.
When I say “very young,” I mean that I suspected that they had just picked up their new Lab puppy within the last few days even before they told me. (In fact, they had just brought her home the night before.) The dog was so small that she was outsized by over half the purses there. In addition, she had that loose skin look of brand new puppies. You know what I mean—it looked as though if you blew up that skin like a beach ball, there would be room for at least one and maybe two additional puppies in there with her.
Her new guardians were carrying her in their arms and everyone was touching, petting and leaning in at the puppy, whose eyes were wide until she was so tuckered out that they closed for an involuntary nap. She seemed like a stable enough puppy and never looked downright fearful, but she did look overwhelmed. That’s no surprise really—she was in a big crowd with too many people getting too close to her, and many people were hugging her guardian so that she got wrapped up awkwardly in the squeeze.
It breaks my heart to see a puppies dealing with such situations during the first few days or weeks in a new home because I know the guardians think they are doing right by their dogs. Everybody knows you have to socialize your puppy and get her to meet new people, but many people think that having a puppy around large numbers of people is the right way to do it. That’s perhaps a reflection of how misunderstood the concept of socialization is.
Socialization is an important part of becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. Socialization is the exposure to potential social partners during the early part of dogs’ lives, and typically occurs when puppies are three to 16 weeks old. That time is a critical period of development during which dogs learn who their potential social partners are. A critical period is a stage during which an animal is especially receptive to learning something.
For example, a critical period for learning language exists for humans, and if we are only exposed to a language after that critical period, we are unlikely to ever speak it like a native. It will always be a foreign language to us with perhaps an accent or grammatical difficulties, however slight. Similarly, dogs who are not properly specialized during the critical period may always have social skills that are not natural to them, but have an “accent” or various difficulties with social behavior.
For dogs, socialization requires providing puppies positive experiences with people in the first few months of life. Note that I specifically said, “positive experiences.” If a dog has negative experiences with people early on, they learn not to be comfortable and social with people, but to be nervous or afraid around them. That’s why bringing a puppy to a large crowded place the day after being adopted is potentially damaging and not recommended. It’s far better to meet people one or two at a time and have those people provide treats, toys and gentle touching in a calm setting. Exposure to people and other dogs that results in positive experiences for the puppy provides proper socialization. Being in a large crowd and becoming overwhelmed does not.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A mess that made us laugh
August 18 2015
I’m in favor of keeping dogs safe when they are in moving vehicles, and that includes not allowing any part of their bodies to be outside the car. There are many dangers to dogs when they ride with their heads hanging out the window, yet seeing dogs enjoy themselves in this way nearly always makes me smile. Recently, I saw one particular dog riding with his face out in the wind looking thrilled with the experience, and it did more than make me smile.
In fact, it did two more things. One, I laughed out loud, as did my sons who were both with me in the car. Two, it made me aware of yet another danger of having dogs stick their heads out of the window. Namely, they could cause an accident by making a nearby driver (me!) laugh too hard for too long.
If I had to guess, I’d say the dog was a St. Bernard crossed with an English Mastiff, and I’m sure he weighed one-and-a-half times what I do. His lips were blowing in the breeze in that delightful way that only happens to dogs with big flews.
What really made us laugh was the enormous amount of slobber on the outside of the dark blue car in which he was riding. The door underneath him was covered with layers and layers of drool lines, some of which went down to the bottom edge of the car. Most of the lines were at an angle towards the lower back end of the car, suggesting that the wind had blown the slobber. It looked like a frozen waterfall except that it wasn’t nearly as shiny.
If you have a drooling dog, has that dog decorated either the inside or the outside of your car?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Recognizing individuals’ poop
August 14 2015
At The Bark, we regularly share dog stories with one another, often just for fun. When Editor Claudia Kawczynska told me about one of her latest experiences out on a walk, I just had to blog about it. It deals with two wonderful topics in the canine world: 1) poop and 2) the amazing olfactory abilities of dogs.
Claudia’s dog Charlie sometimes like to try to pee on Kit, who is another of her dogs, while she is peeing or pooping. Claudia usually intervenes to prevent Kit from ending up with a yellow stain on her back. Of course, life being what it is, sometimes it happens anyway. Charlie will also pee on Kit’s poop, a behavior which is called “overmarking.”
One day in an off-leash area, Claudia couldn’t find Kit’s poop to pick it up, so she asked Charlie (who is always by her side) to help her find it, which he did. He peed on it, and then Claudia picked it up. On another occasion, Claudia asked him to do the same thing, and he did. This time, he ignored at least three piles of poop that were not Kit’s, but finally peed on hers. Claudia knew it was Kit’s because she and her dogs were the only ones at the park and the pile of poop was too fresh to have been anyone else’s. (In case you’re curious, Claudia bagged up the other three piles of poop, too. Some people do more than their share in all areas of life!) It’s hard to know whether Charlie was responding to Claudia’s cue to find Kit’s poop, or he was just seeking it out because that’s what he likes to do.
As a practical person, I love the way the detection of individual poop by Charlie allows Claudia to be sure she cleans up after her dog if she happens to miss “the event.” It’s so easy to have that happen in off leash areas, especially if you have more than one dog with you.
Given that dogs can use their noses to smell whale poop underwater, to detect low blood sugar levels in a person with diabetes as well as cancer in people, bacteria in diseased bee hives and a whole host of weapons and drugs, it’s hard to be surprised by what dogs can do. It also makes sense that dogs would be able to tell which poop comes from their housemates. The components of the odor of any pile of poop is going to include chemicals related to that dog’s diet, intestinal flora, sex, reproductive status and a whole host of other factors that create an individual odor signature. Social animals of all kinds are adept at recognizing individual members of the group, and dogs can do this through olfactory, auditory and visual means.
Still, just because I’m not surprised doesn’t mean I’m not impressed. I’ve not lost the admiration for dogs and their amazing abilities that began when I first focused on them professionally, and hopefully never will.
Do you have a dog who has demonstrated the ability to identify the poop of another one of your dogs?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Lucky Flat-Coated Retrievers
August 12 2015
“We just lost our other Flat Coat a few weeks ago,” she said when I asked if I could meet her young dog, Sally.
I have many fond memories of training members of this breed, though most of them are from long ago. In the 1990s, when I started dog training, there were quite a few Flat-Coated Retrievers in training classes, and I met some absolutely lovely ones. Then, the breed became less popular and for years now, they’ve been a rarity among my clients.
Breeds do ebb and flow in popularity, sometimes with the inexplicable whims of any fashion. In the case of Flat-Coated Retrievers, though, it was the high likelihood of an early death that was primarily responsible for the decline in the number of these dogs chosen as pets. The average lifespan in the United States is currently about 8 years, though a small study in Europe found a median age of about 10 years.
Flat-Coated Retrievers have a greater risk of developing cancer than most breeds. The cancers they develop are frequently serious (e.g. hemangiosarcoma and osteosarcoma) leading to the loss of many young dogs. Because of this, I braced myself for the answer when I asked Sally’s guardians about the age of the dog they had just lost.
“She was thirteen, the same age another of our dogs was when she died a few years earlier.” This family had raised not one, but two, Flat-Coated Retrievers who lived to age 13. I got really excited thinking that maybe the British lines of this breed were not prone to the cancers so prevalent in US dogs, or that maybe differences in nutrition and health care prevented the troubles seen in my country.
As soon as I mentioned my surprise and joy in response to learning that her dogs had reached these advanced ages, she replied that they were really lucky with those two dogs, but they didn’t know why. All of their other Flat-Coated Retrievers and those of their friends were succumbing to cancer at young ages ranging from 4 to 7 years.
As I continued to play with and pet their 2-year old dog, I fervently hoped that she, too, would defy the odds and live to be a teenager. Have you had a dog who lived a long time despite coming from a lineage with a history of early cancer?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Honoring a breed that was nearly extinct
August 9 2015
We had just toured the Balleek factory in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland and most people had questions about the design and making of the high-quality, handmade porcelain pieces produced there. All I wanted to know was why the Irish Wolfhound has been on the stamps that marked every piece of Balleek pottery since 1863, along with other distinctive Irish symbols such as round towers, Irish harps and shamrocks. The tour guide’s answer was that at the time that the stamp was designed, this treasured breed was nearly extinct, and the owners wanted to pay tribute to this symbol of national pride.
The Irish are not the only group to take a strong interest in a dog breed whose history is strongly linked with their nation. There’s the Saint Bernard, so beloved by the Swiss, the Keeshound which is the national dog of the Netherlands, the Coton du Tulear from Madagascar, the Havanese of Cuba, the Rhodesian Ridgeback originating in Zimbabwe, and the Fila Brasileiro which comes from Brazil, to name just a few.
During the month I spent in Scotland, I met many people who pointed out with pride that their dogs are “proper Scottish dogs!” This description was used to refer to Scotties and Westies, of course, but also to a large number of collies (Border Collies, Smooth Collies, Rough Collies and Bearded Collies) and a variety of terriers (Border Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Skye Terriers and Dandie Dinmont Terriers, which is one of my favorite breed names ever.) Dog breeds are so closely linked to Scotland that virtually no souvenir shop lacks for stuffed fleece dogs to sell to tourists, including my sons. Both chose, for their one souvenir from Scotland, a stuffed Scottish dog—one picked a Westie and the other bought a Scottie.
Are your particularly enamored with a dog breed because of your interest in its country of origin?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Not all “scaredy” dogs have been mistreated.
August 8 2015
“She must have been abused,” is a comment I hear with alarming regularity. When a dog cowers and shakes or barks and growls at a person wearing a hat, it’s natural to think that the strong reaction is proof of previous harsh treatment by someone wearing a hat. It’s easy to conclude that a dog who’s scared of children was teased by the neighborhood Dennis the Menace. Similarly, it’s logical to assume that a dog would only react aversely to a broom after having had terrifying experiences with one.
Without a doubt, far too many dogs suffer abuse, but not all dogs who seem to have been abused have been treated badly. Some are fearful because they were inadequately socialized, or have a genetic tendency to be fearful, or both. As often as not, a history of abuse is not a factor.
The most common scenario that leads people to conclude that a dog has been abused is the dog who’s fine with women but scared of men. In these cases, while it’s possible that a man abused the dog, the fact that a dog is afraid of men doesn’t prove the theory. Typically, dogs who have fearful tendencies are more scared of men than of women. I’ve met hundreds of dogs who were only scared of men, but exactly two who feared women more. The fact is, dogs who are fearful have a natural propensity to be more afraid of men. Nobody knows for sure why this is, but it’s likely that men’s larger size, broader shoulders, deeper voices and facial hair make them more intimidating.
Another reason that dogs might be more afraid of men was suggested by a study reported in Current Biology,“Correlated changes in perceptions of the gender and orientation of ambiguous biological motion figures.” When motion was detected only on pointlight displays*, observers perceived an interesting difference between male and female movement. Figures considered masculine in gait seemed to be approaching, while both feminine and gender-neutral gaits were seen as heading away. Fearful dogs are typically most frightened when something scary moves toward them—no wonder they find men more alarming than women.
Scent may also be a factor. A recent experiment, “Olfactory exposure to males, including men, causes stress and related analgesia in rodents,” reported in Nature Methods, showed that mice and rats react differently to male and female experimenters because of differences in the way that they smell. That means that all studies of these rodents’ behavior may have been influenced by the gender of the people conducting the study. The test animals became highly stressed and exhibited decreased pain responses in the presence of human males; even T-shirts worn by men (but not those worn by women) caused this reaction.
The rodents were similarly stressed by odors from males of a range of species, including dogs, cats, guinea pigs and even other rodents. Males release certain pheromones in larger concentrations than females, and these fearinducing chemicals are shared among mammals, which means that dogs could also be affected by them. Scent differences could very likely affect dogs and cause them to be more frightened around men.
The assumption that fear of men indicates a history of abuse by a man is not the only one that may be erroneous. Many people are sure that dogs who react negatively to people with hats or backpacks proves past abuse by a person sporting those same objects. While again, this is possible, it’s more likely that the dog is simply unfamiliar with the objects themselves and the way that they change people’s appearance. Many react fearfully to a changed silhouette, becoming frightened, for example, by the sight of someone they know and love wearing a hat. Once the person removes the hat, the dog switches to happy greeting behavior.
Another commonly misunderstood area relates to the fear of children. Many dogs are skittish around children because of their erratic behavior, especially if they were not well socialized to them at an early age. After all, from a dog’s perspective, kids behave in peculiar and unexpected ways. They change direction suddenly, roll on the ground, move at variable speeds, make weird noises and are generally high-energy, bipedal whirling dervishes. Dogs who are naturally fearful may find excitable, loud humans in motion to be unpredictable, which is frightening. (On the flip side, there are fearful dogs who do fine with kids, but are terrified of adults. Usually, such dogs have had positive experiences with children and are used to their erratic behavior.)
If a dog’s fearfulness toward specific types of people or certain everyday items doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog has been abused, how can you tell if your dog suffered from abuse in the past? The honest answer is that— unless you have the dog’s full backstory— you can never know for certain. However, some clues may help you make an educated guess. Abuse is less likely as an explanation for a dog’s fearfulness if the dog’s reactions fit the pattern associated with dogs who are naturally fearful. The most common pattern is for such dogs to be cautious around strangers, especially men, and to be worse around tall, deep-voiced men with beards, or anyone carrying things—garden implements, brooms or mops, or a clipboard, or wearing sunglasses, a backpack or a hat. Dogs with a generally fearful approach to the world often react most vigorously when unfamiliar people approach, look directly at them, stand up from a sitting position or reach down to pet them.
If the dog has sustained multiple injuries, such as broken bones or teeth, or has scars on the face and body, abuse is more likely. Of course, those injuries could be a result of accidents, and some forms of abuse leave no scars. Still, a dog with unexplained evidence of physical trauma is more likely to have been a victim of abuse than a dog without it.
If a dog’s fear is highly specific, it is more likely to be based on trauma, which could have come in the form of abuse. So, if a dog is afraid of freckled, redheaded children with glasses in the age range of 10 to 12 years, but fine with all other kids, it’s more likely that a negative experience with a child of that description caused the fear. On the other hand, if a dog is only okay with children who are older than about 16, my bet would be that the dog lacks experience with a wide range of children and is only comfortable with children who are more adult-like in size and behavior. Similarly, if the dog is okay with men unless they are wearing loafers with a buckle, I would be inclined to suspect abuse. Specificity of fears is more likely to indicate abuse, because dogs who are generally fearful are usually set off by a wider range of triggers.
Even in the case of a specific fear, we have to be careful about assuming that abuse was the cause. For example, I had a client whose dog was fearful of and aggressive toward only one person. Sounds like that person might have beaten the dog, right? Not in this case. The man the dog was afraid of was the neighbor who had saved the dog’s life during a house fire; the wonderful man went into the house and carried the dog out before the firefighters arrived. Until then, the dog liked this man, but was terrified of him after the fire, presumably because he associated the man with the horrible experience.
While anyone who loves dogs wants to know if a particular dog has been abused, the same process is used to help a dog overcome fears of any origin. Classical conditioning, desensitization and patience will serve people and dogs equally well. It’s critical not to force a frightened dog into situations that provoke fear, but instead, to protect the dog from scary circumstances. Be gentle and kind and refrain from using punishment. Feel free to comfort any dog who is scared without worrying about the common (but misplaced) warning that this will reinforce the fear. Accept that many fearful dogs never become gregarious, go-with-the-flow types, and love them for who they are rather than who you think they should be.
Some people seem relieved when I tell them that their dog may not have been abused, while others seem disappointed to give up the “feel good” story of adopting a dog who was mistreated. I empathize with both groups.
I can understand the relief, and I can also understand how gratifying it feels to give a loving home to a dog who only knew cruelty before. And while I certainly can’t say definitively which dogs with unknown histories have been abused and which haven’t, I agree with other progressive trainers and behaviorists that abused dogs are not as common as one might think.
Many wonderful clients whose dogs are fearful and reactive have said to me, “People are going to think we’ve abused her, but I swear we’ve never hurt her.” It’s a pleasure when I can reassure them that I do believe them, and for very good reason.
* Point-light displays are made by filming people, animals or objects with reflective markers or point lights attached to the major joints, and then processing the video so that only the point lights are visible.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
That’s not what impressed me about this dog, though
August 6 2015
The plan was to teach the baby to say, “Mama” but it’s the dog in this video who does it and really steals the show. Though there’s a certain charm to this dog’s vocalizations, what really impresses me about his behavior is the patience and tolerance he displays. He deserves whatever his heart desires for the way he handles himself in a situation that is far from ideal.
From the dog’s point of view, this is a challenging state of affairs. There is food right in front of his nose that he seems to want very much, and he is not getting it, despite responding to his owners with “Mama” repeatedly. (Whether that’s intentional or not, I can’t say.) Many dogs would lunge for the food, but this polite dog has enough self-control not to do that. He stays planted in a sit and does not move forward towards the food at all. As his vocalizations become more intense, it’s obvious that he is dealing with a considerable amount of frustration at not getting to taste the food.
Even more important, he does not react badly when the toddler slaps at him. He simply flicks his tongue, indicating his anxiety with the situation, and looks away. I can almost imagine that he is looking up at someone as if to say, “Please rescue me from this,” but that is pure speculation.
The parents have put their child in a risky situation and are very lucky that their dog responds as he does. The child has done what children that age do and that’s why dogs need to be protected. It is my hope that in the future, they protect their dog better from their child, or at the very least that the dog continues to behave far better than many dogs would in similar circumstances. I see a great dog, but he is clearly agitated, and that could lead to trouble if he is regularly forced to deal with the challenges he faced in this clip.
What do you see in this dog when you watch the video?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The (Next) Love of Your Life
July 17 2015
Whether you’re searching for your first best friend or the next one, choosing a dog to welcome into your home and heart takes some thought.
The right decision is the difference between an uneasy relationship and a match made in heaven. Many people choose a dog without much reflection, and honestly, a lot of the time, things work out fine. Sometimes, though, a combination of unfortunate choices and bad luck leads to trouble. Whether it’s an incompatibility issue or serious behavior problems, a mismatch can sure get in the way of a loving relationship and the companionship we seek from dogs.
Thoughtful consideration about the kind of dog who best suits your lifestyle will help you avoid some common mistakes: Getting a long-haired-needs-to-be-brushed-every-day dog if you never bother to comb your own hair. Adopting a committed barker if you live in an apartment. Picking an athletic dog because nothing else has made your dream of leaving your couch-potato ways behind come true.
Since some traits are more common in certain breeds than others, choosing by breed can be a good place to start. There are exceptions, but few will argue that a Dachshund is as good a backpacking companion as a Labrador Retriever, for example, or that a Sheltie and a Greyhound are equally likely to bark excessively. Many people, including me, have a particular fondness for mixed-breed dogs, but if you know you want a dog to work sheep or some other highly specific task, choosing a purebred who has been bred to perform certain behaviors has advantages.
Regardless of your personal preferences, however, a purebred dog isn’t guaranteed to have a good temperament or good health, or be compatible with you. (Mixed-breeds come without this guarantee as well.)
It’s also common to focus on the type of dog and fail to give enough consideration to the individual dog, even though that factor is so critical to everyone’s future happiness. This stage of the selection process requires careful thought as well.
Remember that what is most likely to make you happy is the dog’s behavior, not the dog’s looks. That sounds obvious, but it’s often forgotten when you meet a dog who is so eye-catching that your heart melts, followed by your brain. I know it’s hard to resist, but don’t let beauty trump good sense.
Appearances can lead you astray in other ways. It’s unwise to pick a dog because he looks like one you used to love. That brown spot shaped like a crescent moon right above his tail is not the trait that made your angel dog from childhood an angel. Ditto for the color of his eyes, the tendency for one ear to be up and the other down, or his endearingly comical leggy proportions.
The best predictor of a dog’s behavior is the parents’ behavior. This information is not always available, but if it is, pay attention! If someone tells you that you can’t meet the father because he’s aggressive, don’t even consider a puppy from a litter he sired. The mother’s behavior is just as critical, so if it’s possible to know anything about her or to meet her, take note of her actions. Ask what she (and the sire) would do if a child took her toy, or if she met a strange dog on the street, or if a strange man went in for a hug, and pay attention to the answers.
Whether you are adopting a puppy, an adolescent or an adult, never ignore the most important predictor of a dog’s behavior, which is the behavior of the dog’s parents. Information on parentage can be hard to come by, especially for adolescents and adults, but always ask about it. You may be surprised to find out that some specifics are known.
And while I think it’s prudent to consider temperament tests or other behavioral assessments, I wouldn’t accept them as gospel. A recent study of the value of such tests performed in shelters found that of the many things they measured, only fear and friendliness had any predictive value once the dog was placed in a home (Mornement et al. 2014). Clearly, temperament tests don’t come through on their promises to tell us all we want to know about dogs before adopting them (Hekman 2014). Still, we can’t pretend they’re pointless, either. Surely it’s better to do some sort of evaluation rather than play eenie-meenie-miney-mo, or choose the dog you think is better looking than the others.
It bodes well when a dog solicits play or responds to your attempts to play. A playful dog in a strange situation with an unfamiliar person has not been shut down by fear or stress, and that’s good. There are plenty of scared, stressed dogs who make wonderful pets and are loved beyond measure, but let’s face it, dogs who don’t chronically suffer from either of these negative emotions have advantages. One study showed that dogs who responded rather than ignored people’s attempts to play with them were more likely to be adopted (Protopopova and Wynne 2014). This suggests that playfulness already influences adoption, whether we consciously attend to it or not.
I’m favorably impressed by dogs who are comfortable being touched. Enjoying petting and seeking close physical contact are great signs, but not deal breakers if dogs aren’t immediately into it. When they’re in a strange environment, it’s natural for them to want to sniff around and explore a bit. However, while an instant desire for petting is not essential, later on, once they’ve calmed down, it’s a reasonable expectation.
Speaking of calming down, I pay a lot of attention to whether or not a dog is capable of doing so, and how long it takes. I have no problem with dogs who get excited. Perhaps they’ve been in a kennel for a long time and are short on exercise and social contact. Naturally, they are thrilled to greet you and run around a new place. Still, a dog who shows no signs of getting over that initial arousal and excitement within a few minutes may struggle with self-control in a lot of situations, and that’s not ideal in a pet dog.
Whether the dog leans toward being playful or toward wanting physical contact, it’s smart to choose a dog who engages with you. Exactly how they do that and what appeals to you personally are both matters of individual choice, but it’s important that they express an interest. Otherwise, you may be swimming upstream in trying to build a strong relationship and to train the dog.
I also like to evaluate a dog’s trainability by observing how quickly he learns a new behavior and how interested he is in the process. Teaching a dog to sit or lie down, to leave a piece of food on the ground, or to touch a target stick are a few great options for assessing trainability. A dog who can be trained demonstrates focus and attention, and an interest in you or in food (or perhaps both).
It’s promising when a dog recovers quickly from being startled by a loud noise, such as a book dropped on the floor. If a dog gets scared and hides for hours, that’s a problem. What you’re looking for is a dog who, though startled, takes only a moment to return to his normal emotional state. It indicates an ability to regulate his emotions and deal with the many little shocks that life brings.
Although there are a lot of things to do in order to choose a dog who is a good match for you, you also need to know what not to do: Don’t pick a dog out of pity; it’s not the best way to start a relationship. Remember, you are giving a home to one dog no matter which dog you choose, so choose the one you really want. Don’t rush into it or acquire a dog on impulse. It makes things harder on everyone if you bring a dog home when you are not ready emotionally, financially or logistically. Don’t buy from a pet store or any place that gets dogs from puppy mills. If you do, you are supporting a system that harms dogs. When there is no demand for dogs from these places, dogs will no longer be bred for them or mistreated in them.
If you are planning on welcoming a puppy rather than an adolescent or adult dog, there are a couple of extra “don’ts” to consider: Don’t pick the puppy who is off by himself in the corner while the others tumble around together. That “lone wolf” sort of puppy may be endearing and pull at your heart, but he is not exhibiting normal social behavior. The dog who does not interact will be less likely to build strong connections with you or with other dogs, and far more likely to have serious behavior problems that will distress you and your family down the road.
Similarly, resist the temptation to pick the puppy who is running over everyone and showing no self-control or respect for boundaries. Such “mack truck” puppies are likely to be that way throughout life, and it’s not a trait that’s fun to live with. Lack of impulse control can make training, relationships and daily life challenging beyond description.
There are many, many dogs out there—in shelters and rescue groups (including breed rescue), and from responsible breeders—who could be a great friend as well as a family member you can’t imagine life without. May your search lead you to one who will become your true love!
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