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.
News: Karen B. London
Some dogs resist turning around
March 19 2015
It’s hard to miss the enthusiasm most dogs express when they realize they are going on a walk, and most are eagerly looking for clues that this is the case. “She picked up the leash! Her coat is being zipped! Is that the sound of poop bags being shoved in a pocket!” If your dog has a happy dance, the pre-walk ritual almost certainly includes it. The idea that they get to go outside for a walk fills most dogs with indescribable joy, and they don’t typically hide their emotions.
Most dogs would probably happily stay out longer on any given day. In fact, some dogs are just as alert to signs of the end of their time outside as they are to clues that a walk is coming. Whether it’s rounding the final turn, heading towards a shortcut or actually approaching the driveway, a lot of dogs are paying attention to the information that means the walk is nearly over. They might react by slowing down or by sniffing obsessively rather than continuing to walk.
Sometimes a dog is thirsty or eager to escape extremes in temperature, and on those occasions, they may be pleased to head inside. Even when they would rather stay out, I think it’s remarkable how often dogs agreeably come inside at the end of a walk. Perhaps they are just resigned to it, but most seem perfectly cheerful about it. Marley is like that. He is content to walk inside at the end of any outing.
However, Marley is not content to turn around at any point during the walk, and I’ve often wondered if it’s because he does not want to head back home just yet. Because of his aversion to doing an about face, I can’t easily take Marley on an out-and-back route. He stands still and does not move without a considerable amount of encouragement. It’s simple enough to get around this problem in the neighborhood. When I’m ready to head home, I can go around one block and then head back on the original route, and he is fine with that. It’s harder on long country roads or trails where turning around is the only way to head home without going into the woods. By associating the turn with treats, it is possible to teach him to have good associations with it, but it will take many repetitions of the highest quality treats to counteract whatever his objection is to heading in the opposite direction.
It’s possible that the reason he resists turning around has a cause other than not wanting to return home. (After all, he MUST be able to tell when we are near home or retracing our steps by the landmarks and smells even when we haven’t exactly done an out-and-back route.)
Any thoughts on why some dogs are not willing to turn around and do an out-and-back route on a walk?
News: Karen B. London
Who does your heart revisit?
March 17 2015
There’s often one dog from the past that stands out even among all the dogs we have ever loved. That’s the dog that our heart revisits the most. I wonder how many of us can immediately think of the one dog that we miss more than the others and how many of us miss two or more with equal fervor.
In the case of a single dog that is thought of most often with great love, maybe the dog was there during an especially happy or terribly sad time in your life. I know a couple who speak especially fondly of the dog who was in their wedding and was even there when they got engaged. One friend often speaks with great longing about the dog who grieved with her and helped her so much when her husband died.
Perhaps that one special dog was your childhood dog or the first dog you had as an adult. The dog who greeted you when you came home from school every day and so willingly played with you whenever you felt like it is bound to have a special place in your memories. The same can be said about the first dog you chose and took full responsibility for when you left childhood behind.
There are so many reasons why even if you miss all the dogs you’ve ever loved, one stands out as the one you still miss most. Sometimes it’s as simple as missing the once-in-a-lifetime, dog of your heart, who was the great canine love of your life. If you’ve ever had and lost such a dog, there are many people who understand both the extreme gratitude you feel for having had that relationship and also the intense grief that comes at the end of that’s dog’s life.
Is there one dog who is no longer with you who you miss the most?
News: Karen B. London
Do abused dogs have traits in common?
March 12 2015
Animal abuse happens all too often in oh so many situation and cultures, yet little research has been devoted to the problem. An interesting study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS) titled “Behavioral and Psychological Characteristics of Canine Victims of Abuse” compared dogs who have been (or have most likely been) abused with dogs who have not been abused.
Not surprisingly, behavioral differences were found between the abused dogs and other dogs. Dogs with a history of abuse were rated by their guardians as more excitable and performed more attachment and attention-seeking behavior than their counterparts. They also displayed more fear and aggression towards unfamiliar people and unfamiliar dogs. They rolled in feces more often, exhibited more fearfulness on stairs, showed higher levels of hyperactivity, were more persistent barkers and had a greater frequency of “bizarre, strange, or repetitive behaviors.” That last category includes actions such as hoarding shoes, digging deep holes, sucking on pillows and being unable to stop, and circling when anxious.
The researchers discuss possible interpretations of the results of their study. They point out that fearfulness towards strangers (dogs and people) and aggression towards them are highly correlated in a number of studies, suggesting that much of the aggression seen in the abused dogs could be motivated by fear. They also point out that abuse could cause fearfulness that leads to aggression through a conditioned response, but that aggression could also be a result of genetic predisposition, poor socialization, brain injury and other injuries that could cause aggression motivated by pain.
The researchers went through several steps to identify abused dogs for inclusion in their study. Magazines sent to members of Best Friends Animal Society included a notice requesting anyone who suspected their dog had been abused to consider participating in a study about canine abuse. Over 1100 respondents were given a link to SurveyMonkey, which asked about reasons for suspecting abuse. From that sample, 149 were chosen for the next phase of the study because the cases of those dogs were considered “more likely than not to involve substantiated abuse.”
Five experts were then given the dogs’ historical information and physical reports of injuries, but no behavioral information. (Behavioral information was not included because that was the subject of the study.) If at least four of the experts evaluated the information and concluded that it was probable that the dog had been abused, the dog was included in the study. Only dogs who were still alive at the time of the study were included in order to avoid problems with memory or biased recall.
Of the 149 selected in the first phase of the study, only 69 proceeded to the next stage. Their guardians were instructed to fill out the highly detailed Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), which was designed to measure a number of behavioral characteristics in dogs. The C-BARQ has become a standard research tool used to compare the behavior of different groups of dogs. In this study, the abused dogs were compared to 5239 dogs from the C-BARQ database who matched the abused dogs in age range now and at the time of acquisition and the source of the dogs.<
Studies of abuse, in both children and animals, have limitations because abuse is often done secretly, and because of incomplete information about the victims. Rarely is there much information about their personality and behavior before being abused. This study, as the researchers note, suffers from these limitations as well as others.
Another limitation of this study is that it correlates behavior with a history of abuse, but is unable to show whether that abuse plays a causal role in the behavior of abused animals. While it is hard to imagine that abuse does not affect behavior, correlational studies are not designed to elucidate any such claims. The researchers caution that the differences they found between abused dogs and other dogs does not mean that the abuse CAUSED these differences. It is also possible that some of these behavioral characteristics are risk factors for abuse, meaning that they made abuse more likely, or that the abusive environment, rather than the abuse itself, played a casual role.
The researchers recommend that future studies investigate which behavioral differences are caused by abuse, which are risk factors for abuse and which are both. (For example, aggression in human children is known to be both a risk factor for abuse and a result of abuse.) They would also like to investigate which types of abuse are the most damaging. Again comparisons to humans are inevitable, and it is known that emotional abuse is often more damaging and harder to recover from than physical abuse. Finally, they want to know more about how the age at which dogs are abused affects outcomes.
Like many people, it makes me physically ill when I think about abuse of people or of animals, but I’m grateful that it is being studied. The more we know about abuse—its causes and its effects—the better we are able to help those who have suffered and to prevent additional instances of abuse.
News: Karen B. London
Helpful advice from Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
March 10 2015
Having worked for many years with aggressive dogs, I’ve shared the pain with a number of families facing the difficult decision of whether or not to euthanize a dog because of serious aggression. On multiple occasions, I’ve cried with them—and in private—over the pain suffered all around in these most challenging of situations, but I believe euthanasia should be an option in extreme cases.
When I say “extreme,” I include clients who can never take a vacation because nobody else can care for their dog, and people whose marriages have ended because of the dog. I include the client who told me that when his dog bit him on the neck multiple times in quick succession, his wife was concerned about the amount of blood he had lost. She rushed him to the ER so that he was quickly able to get the blood transfusion that likely saved his life. On another occasion, this same dog bit the wife multiple times, breaking her arm and several bones in her wrist and hand. She required surgery because of the injuries. I include people who live every day in fear that something will go wrong (a broken leash, a door left open by mistake, an unplanned guest), and that the result will be that someone will get hurt and that their legal liability will destroy their lives.
A factor that makes the decision about whether or not to euthanize even more challenging is the judgment of other people. Some of those critical of euthanasia simply say that they personally would NEVER euthanize a dog. Others have moral conflicts with deciding to end the life of a pet, no matter what the reason. I understand these objections, but it is heartbreaking for me to see my clients suffer not only the agony of the decision, but the criticism of others.
Perhaps that’s why this subject is not often discussed, but that’s a shame because anyone in this situation is likely to benefit from advice and thoughtful discussion. They are dealing with unbelievably tough circumstances and I have great sympathy for those facing the awful decision about whether or not to euthanize an aggressive dog. That’s why I was so pleased to see a recent blog written by my mentor and friend, Trisha McConnell, Ph.D. It is called “When Is It Time to Put Down a Dog Who is Aggressive to People?”
There’s so much that I love about this blog! The perspective that this decision is highly personal had me nodding and saying, “Yes, yes!” out loud. Each family gets to decide what to do. Individual decisions are informed by an assessment of risk, and people’s different tolerances for risk. I completely agree that euthanasia should only be considered if placing the dog in a different home or managing and modifying the behavior are not possible. I really appreciate the discussion about the quality of life for both the people and the dog. Members of both species deserve to have this considered as an important part of the decision-making process.
McConnell’s words and advice resonate with readers, as you can see from the many appreciative comments to her blog. Lots of readers included a heartfelt “Thank you!” for the good advice and the compassionate approach to this difficult decision.
News: Karen B. London
They come out of nowhere
March 6 2015
We were walking through the neighborhood when I saw a man hurrying two off-leash dogs into his house. I appreciated this responsible action that prevented Marley from having to face two exuberant dogs running up to him while he was leashed up. There was a large truck parked in the driveway that nearly hid us from view, so it’s possible that the dogs hadn’t even seen us. Because the man was so responsible with two of his dogs, it caught me quite off guard when we passed by the truck and an enormous dog on a long tether in his yard barked and lunged at us, coming within a few feet, even as we both moved away from him.
To express the gigantic nature of this dog requires no exaggeration, which is a shame, because it’s so fun to exaggerate. He reminded me of Marmaduke, although instead of being a purebred Great Dane, he seemed to have been crossed with something really large, like a water buffalo. Because he was tied up, this big dog did not actually reach us, but we were still scared by the suddenness of his appearance and his actions.
I feel comfortable speaking for both Marley and myself when I say that neither of us are usually so aware of just how effective our sympathetic nervous systems are at preparing us to respond to danger. My heart rate doubled within seconds, and Marley jumped straight in the air with his eyes showing an increase in size that was similar in magnitude. Perhaps Marmaduke came to mind because our own reactions seemed so absurdly cartoon-like.
Though Marley doesn’t react badly to off leash dogs, he’s hardly thrilled when one appears out of nowhere and barges into his space or, even worse, into him. Luckily, he’s such a stable dog that there was no real harm done.
It took very little effort and time to counteract the shock of our bad experience. We crossed the street and I took a few deep breaths to calm myself down. I helped Marley do the same by speaking cheerfully to him and offering him treats and a toy from my pocket. Then, just for fun, I said, “Let’s go!” and took off running. Few things change his mood for the better than a sudden burst of speed.
Still, I’m well aware how traumatic an incident like this can be for dogs who already struggle to cope with other dogs. Sometimes, dogs will shake and drool, or be so upset that they refuse even their favorite treats. Others get nervous the next time they pass the spot where the trouble happened, and in rare cases even hesitate to go out on the next walk. The sooner you can give them a positive experience to change their mood with fun, toys, petting or treats, the easier it is for most dogs to recover from the fright, but it takes patience and time for many dogs. If you’ve already been working to help a dog get over a fear of other dogs, a bad scare like this can be a major setback.
Have dogs taken you by surprise on your neighborhood walks, and can you calm your own dog (and yourself!) down afterwards?
News: Karen B. London
Oxytocin improves dog performance
March 3 2015
A new study in the journal Animal Cognition that reports that oxytocin increases canine responses to human social cues adds to the large number of known effects of this chemical. The more that oxytocin is studied, the more influential it seem to be.
All the articles that refer to oxytocin as “the love hormone” are simplifying to the point of distortion. Sure, levels of this chemical rise in the early stages of romantic love, but that’s just a small part of its role in our lives. Oxytocin is a biologically occurring molecule made of a short chain of nine amino acid acids that has strong effects on the body and on social behavior. Ever since a study roughly 20 years ago showed that it played a key role in the choice of a lifelong mate in the famously monogamous prairie vole, a series of studies have shown its key role in a number of species in trust and social interactions, including bonding. New human parents of babies show a rise in oxytocin, for example.
On the other hand, the moms out there experience other effects of oxytocin related to parenting, and those aren’t all so sweet and glorious. The same chemical that helps us love our babies also helps our babies enter the world and thrive in it. That’s because oxytocin is important for the production of contractions during childbirth and also for lactation to feed our infants.
>To make matters more complicated, oxytocin can make memories of negative social interactions more intense. So, again, “the love hormone” is really not a fair and complete way to describe its social function. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it focuses our attention on social information and gives us the ability to understand it at a deeper level. The recent study. “Oxytocin enhances the appropriate use of human social cues by the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) in an object choice task ” supports this view of this powerful biochemical.
The researchers who conducted this study investigated the effects of oxytocin on canine performance in an object choice test (OCT). In an OCT, a person gives a non-verbal, social cue to a dog to indicate the location of a piece of hidden food. Based on the dog’s response, it is possible to learn what cues are meaningful to dogs and which ones they can correctly interpret. Two common cues in OCT studies are pointing and gazing in the direction of the food. In this study, dogs and their guardians came to the test center twice, 5 to 15 days apart for a set of 40 OCT trials, 20 for each cue—gazing or pointing. On one visit, the dog was given an intranasal dose of oxytocin prior to the study and on the other visit, an intranasal saline control was given. The order of these two treatments varied between dogs.
The dogs who were given oxytocin first performed better in their first session than those dogs given saline during the first visit to the testing center. Effects were not as obvious in the trials involving gazing. In gazing trials, the dogs given oxytocin performed no better than if they guessed randomly where the food was hidden, while the dogs given saline first did even worse. Since previous studies have suggested that dogs actively choose to avoid locations that humans have gazed at, this research suggests the possibility that oxytocin counteracts that negative interpretation by dogs, and that they simply guess.
vious OCT studies, dogs have shown no improvement over time. Since learning occurred no matter which treatment dogs received first, it does not appear as though the oxytocin was responsible.
Maybe it’s the science geek in me who has always been fascinated by social behavior, but I’m just as thrilled with the idea of oxytocin as “the social information enhancer and clarifier chemical” as I ever was by the term “the love hormone.”
News: Karen B. London
The great escape
February 27 2015
The moment I looked out my window and saw the dog running down the street, I had a pretty good idea what had happened. He was dripping wet, which narrowed down the possibilities considerably, as it is too cold for standing water, but the suds all over him were the real give away. This was a dog who had escaped mid-bath and was running all over the neighborhood.
I understand that many dogs don’t like baths, and I’m sympathetic to a point. I really feel for them, and I certainly urge people to be gentle and kind as they bathe their dogs. I also recommend that a dog be bathed no more often than necessary. For many dogs that is almost never or just a few times a year, while for dogs with high grooming needs it may be every 4-6 weeks. Still, it’s my personal view that into each life, some rain must fall. Sometimes a dog needs to be cleaned up, whether it’s for routine hygiene or because he rolled in something foul, and that’s just the way it is
Rather than his psychological state, my more immediate concern about this dog was that temperatures would be dropping near zero overnight, and it’s not safe for a soaked dog to be roaming outside in such conditions. I rushed to get treats, a towel and a leash in the hopes that I could lure the dog to me, bring him inside to warm up and find out who was missing one half-clean dog.
By the time I made it outside, the dog was out of sight. I walked half a block hoping to catch sight of him again, and I saw that a neighbor was holding the dog. I rushed over to lend my leash and towel to the cause. After feeling relief for the dog, I looked at the man with concern. The man was wet and a little sudsy, his pants and shirt were torn, and his knees plus one elbow were badly scraped. He had made a diving grab at the dog, which was successful, but not smooth. I was impressed. Having spent a year working as a dog groomer, I know how hard it is to hold onto a wet soapy dog, and I’ve never had to “make a tackle in the open field” as they say in football.
Neither of us knew who the dog’s guardian was, but as we were heading to my house to warm the dog up, a very damp, slightly soapy and tearful woman came running around the corner, screamed “Shadow!” took the dog in her arms, and hugged him so hard I thought for sure he would have preferred the bath to the embrace. She told us that Shadow had jumped out of the sink right as her kids were coming home, and he had bolted through the open door. Luckily, it had only take her about 10 minutes to find him.
Few guardians’ lives have been free of adventures in dog bathing, though it’s rare for a dog to flee to the great outdoors. It’s typical to have dogs jump out of the tub, shake all over the living room, and rub their bodies along every bed and couch in the house, though some dogs simply try to hide.
Has your dog ever escaped during a bath?
News: Karen B. London
Home décor meets canine functionality
February 24 2015
I’ve already put considerable thought in to why the dog is so often under the table even when nobody is there, eating and dropping food by mistake. I suppose it was natural that I would next contemplate why the dog bed is NOT under there. As long as the dog will be resting beneath the table, why not make it as comfortable for him as possible?
There’s the added bonus of having the dog bed out of the way. Beds are wonderful items, but they take up so much floor space, especially if they are for big dogs. They usually have dog fur so they match the rest of our furnishings, but they are less intrinsically stylish and not always as attractive. It was natural that appreciating the design advantages of putting the dog bed under the table led to further consideration of aesthetics.
I generally just try to stay in our color scheme and let the dog beds fall where they may, meaning that I put them where they work for dogs. Since my focus is always on dog behavior, I still stand by this guideline as hugely important. That’s why I like dog beds to be where dogs will not be stepped over, where the temperature suits them and not right by windows that cause them to be vigilant instead of relaxed. Depending on the dog, a bed that is out of the way, allowing true peace and quiet, may be best or one that is right in the middle of the action may make more sense. Ideally, dogs have choices with their resting spots so they can be off by themselves or not as the mood strikes them.
It turns out that I am way behind the curve when it comes to decorating my home with an eye for style while incorporating dog beds. There are so many ways to make them part of the furnishings, whether it is under a table, in an old television or as part of a storage area. I’m definitely impressed by the creative ways to avoid allowing dog beds to detract from a home’s beauty. Function and the dog’s happiness are most important to me and always will be, but I’m newly inspired to work within that framework while making the dog beds more appealing to humans. And to think, I recently thought myself clever just for putting a dog bed out of the way under the dining room table!
How does your dog’s bed fit into the design of your home?
News: Karen B. London
Some tax laws benefit guardians
February 23 2015
It can be psychologically damaging to keep track of how much we spend on our dogs. There’s something to be said for just acknowledging that the dogs create a problem area in the budget and moving on. I realize this goes against what every financial planner says, but it’s hard to put a price on our mental well-being.
On the other hand, with possible tax deductions available from the IRS for dogs, it may be worthwhile to face the music and log those expenses. It can take a lot of money to care for dogs, so it makes sense to try to figure out if some of those expenses are deductible.
The bad news is that even though most guardians consider their dogs to be family members, they are NOT deductible as dependents. The good news is that there are still ways that you may be able to write off some canine expenses. If your dog qualifies as a medical, business or hobby expense, there may be tax benefits for you. The costs associated with moving your dog when you relocate for a new job may be written off. Fostering pets from qualified organizations also allows you to deduct certain expenses.
It’s worth checking with a tax professional, and saving the receipts, just in case. For heaven’s sake, though, don’t add them up unless it’s necessary in order to file your taxes!
News: Karen B. London
Are older dogs less willing to be interrupted?
February 18 2015
“This way,” I said in that sing-song voice that tells the dogs in my life that I am about to get moving and that they should join me. It’s not a cue for a specific behavior, and it’s certainly not a command. It just means, “I am going to be moving, so you should pay attention to the direction I go.” When an off-leash dog hears it, I expect them to take note of me so they can follow me when they are ready to go.
Marley has always been agreeable about this, but this past weekend, he really had his nose to the ground and was slower to follow than usual. It didn’t bother me, though. We were in a safe place, I like him to have his freedom and I figured the warm weather was making smells extra distracting.
Then I walked him a couple of mornings later on leash around the neighborhood in sub-freezing temperatures and he did not budge when I gave him a typical, “Marley, let’s keep going.” This is also not a cue or a command but generally encourages him to keep it moving. Because I was cold and ready to go home, I really noticed that he did not want to interrupt his sniffing. I gave some serious thought to what is going on, and I think some of it is just a common age-related behavior.
Marley is at least six and perhaps a few years older than that, and I think he’s an older gentleman now who wants to do what he wants to do, rather than stop and do what I want him to do. Sure, the smells might be extra enticing, but I’m beginning to think he’s just more willing to assert his own desires rather than act as biddable as he has in the past.
He’s about the most agreeable dog I’ve ever known, and in no way stubborn as a major personality trait. I simply think he’s secure in himself and sometimes acts on his strong opinions, which include not wanting to stop doing something he’s enjoying just because I’ve suggested it. I’ve noticed this with other dogs over the years, too, and wondered about it.
I’m a big fan of letting dogs in their golden years have a little more leeway about doing what they want, and I try not to interrupt their sniffing or snoozing any more than necessary. Marley is far from being old, but he does seem to be channeling his inner middle-aged-fellow-who-wants-what-he-wants and is less willing to be influenced by anyone, including me. In my mind, I hear him saying things like, “In a minute,” or “Hold on a sec.”
His behavior does not reflect any sort of training issue. He’s still as responsive to cues as ever and will respond well to any that he knows, whether it’s something basic like “Sit” or “Come” or tricks like “Sit Pretty” and “High Five.” It’s just that he is not as quick to follow if I’m merely suggesting that I would like to move on. I love that he is smart enough to distinguish between cues that he’s supposed to respond to and mere indications of what I’m going to do. If I need him to come away from something, I can use his recall, and he’ll do it, but he used to act almost as if I had given the cue “Come” when I said, “This way.”
Has your dog become less likely to interrupt what he’s doing and respond to you as he’s gotten older?
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