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
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!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Travel provides opportunity
May 29 2015
My dog life is very America-centric. I have not owned dogs anywhere but in this country, nor have I taught dog training classes elsewhere. Except for the occasional seminar in Canada and some ad hoc consultations in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, my canine experiences are confined to the United States.
This summer promises many lessons because my family will be spending the entire season in Western Europe. So far, what I know about dogs in that part of the world is that they are not spayed and neutered at nearly the rate of dogs here, there is some evidence that they live a little longer, and they are rarely vaccinated against rabies because that disease has been essentially eradicated in the region. I also know that a lot of canine research is currently being conducted in Europe.
Based on the limited level of knowledge that is my starting point, it is exceedingly likely that I will be getting quite an education during our travels. I look forward to everything from observing how people interact with their dogs in different countries to meeting new breeds to seeing how dogs behave in public and what is expected of them.
For those of you who have personal experience with dogs in Europe, please tell me what pleasures you expect await me. All advice about observing and enjoying dogs in countries that are (mostly) new to me is welcome!
I’ll be spending a month each in Scotland and Germany, plus making short excursions to Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and possibly Poland. The trip is for my husband’s work, and we expect him to be busy. That puts me on full-time duty as recreation director for our kids. I’ve never taken such a long hiatus from work (not even after the births of the children) so this promises to be a new experience. I will miss, among many other aspects of my professional life, blogging here for The Bark. I’m already looking forward to resuming that when we return in August!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Surprises when bringing a dog to school
May 27 2015
Besides veterinarians and zookeepers, not many professions related to animals are well known. That’s why I was so happy for the opportunity to represent my field and share what I do as a canine behaviorist and dog trainer with elementary school kids.
I was granted special permission to bring a dog as one of the requested “visual aids” for a career day presentation at my son’s school. The best part was the mutual enjoyment between Marley and the students. He clearly loved every second of the attention, and they were quite enamored with him. It was pretty blissful all around, but in truth, I expected that. He’s a social dog who loves attention, and any group of kids is likely to enjoy spending time with a nice dog while at school.
There were ways in which I was caught off guard, though. I was pleasantly surprised by how much most of the children knew about dog behavior. It seemed to be common knowledge that when dogs wag their tails to the right, they are especially happy. The kids were aware that they should not stare at dogs or hug them and that a dog who goes stiff should be considered unapproachable. Most of the kids knew about using clickers and treats to train dogs, and several brought up the issue of dogs being left-pawed or right-pawed.
Additionally, the students surprised me by asking high-quality questions, including the following:
Is this fun for Marley or stressful?
Do all of the dogs you work with stop being aggressive?
How do you decide which trick will be easiest to teach a certain dog?
How can you tell when Marley has learned enough and he should get to go to recess?
Why is it easier to train dogs than to train cats?
What are scientists trying to learn about dogs right now?
Another surprise is one that perhaps I should have anticipated, but thoroughly failed to do so. I had assumed we would be in a classroom like all of the other presenters. Instead we were out in the courtyard. That means that various classes were walking through to spend time in the school garden and that there were (Oh my!) squirrels running around a few times during the course of the event. Naturally, this was potentially distracting for Marley and very exciting, but he rolled with it. He stayed focused on me and also on the kids in the group.
Marley got a chance to perform some of his best tricks, along with displaying the good manners that come from a mastery of basic obedience and lots of practice being in a variety of situations. When given each appropriate cue, Marley responded by sitting, lying down, coming when called, heeling and waiting at doors. He also showed off his lovely “Leave It” by not eating a treat or biscuit that was on the ground until he was given permission to do so. The tricks he did included “High-5”, “Sit Pretty”, “Rollover”, “Crawl”, “Spin” and “Unwind” (spinning in the opposite direction.)
The kids were most impressed by his tricks, but I was particularly proud of what nobody else probably even noticed—Marley was unreactive to distractions, remained focused on me, and was gentle as he visited all the children, letting each one have a moment to meet him. As a professional, I know that this generally polite behavior is actually more worthy of admiration than responding well to specific cues.
It’s not easy to remain calm in a new place no matter what happens—school bells ringing, children running, squirrels appearing and a breeze wafting in smells from the cafeteria. Of course, as a professional I also know that not every dog is capable of behaving well in such a stimulating environment. I would never bring a dog to an elementary school unless I was completely confident he could act appropriately no matter what.
Marley’s behavior was exemplary, so he definitely deserved to end each presentation by showing off his newest trick, which is “Take a Bow.” Good dog!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I know they’re in there, but how do I find them?
May 22 2015
Televisions and computers can be confusing for dogs. It’s not easy for our canine friends to figure out that videos are merely recordings of life, and that what they see is not really present. In this video, a Westie is confronted with a laptop showing a video of another Westie and a couple of puppies.
He seems to be searching for these other dogs, which he can so clearly see, and attempts to find them by walking around the computer and sniffing it. He’s making use of several senses, apparently listening, looking and smelling in order to track them down. The dog’s name is “Radar” so you’ve got to think it’s likely that this dog can usually locate what he’s looking for.
Radar is able to handle with ease a situation that might cause frustration in other dogs. He remains calm and methodical where many dogs would become upset. There’s another aspect of Radar’s behavior that is of great interest to me. He’s clearly confused, and he does a couple of things I interpret as attempts to get more information. He repeatedly cocks his head, which dogs may do to better localize a sound. Additionally, he repeatedly looks at the camera, where there is presumably a person filming the scene. We know that dogs often look to people for information when they are struggling to solve a problem, and it’s easy to imagine that Radar is seeking help with this challenging task.
How has your dog reacted when faced with a similar situation?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The difference between loving and threatening
May 19 2015
There has recently been a lot of interest in people and dogs gazing into each other’s eyes and how this creates feelings of love. The evidence is compelling that this interactive behavior does enhance the bonding between us. I have no objection to this assertion, but it does make me concerned that these new findings will cause a problem.
It’s one thing to gaze softly into the eyes of your dog. It’s another thing entirely to stare at that dog or at any other dog. In fact, it’s potentially hazardous because staring is often considered a threat by dogs. So, I hope nobody goes around trying to bond with new and unknown dogs by looking them right in the eye. It’s a reminder that subtle differences in behavior can have vastly different meanings.
One of the first things I learned when I began to work with aggressive dogs is to pay attention to eye contact. This was especially important for me because I have big dark eyes and I tend to open them wide when expressing interest or surprise. It would be all too easy for me to scare the dogs I’m trying to help with my frog eyes. It has become second nature for me now to turn off my wide-eyed actions when I am around dogs. I take care not to look directly at them without squinting just a little until they are comfortable around me.
It’s because dogs are afraid of big eyes, especially when they are aimed directly at them, that many dogs react to cameras with big interchangeable lenses. It’s likely that our canine subjects perceive these lenses as giant scary eyes staring at them. Many dogs who are not particularly fearful or nervous freak out when faced with a new camera and a person enthusiastically pointing it at them often and for long periods of time. If a dog’s tendency when alarmed is to look away, cower or hide, that’s what may happen in the face of a big camera. If a dog is more likely to bark, growl and lunge when scared, then that may be the reaction you see when a camera is pointed towards that dog.
Has your dogs reacted fearfully to someone staring or to a camera?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Understanding dogs makes all the difference
May 14 2015
“Our dog bit our son completely out of the blue! There is no way we could have seen it coming.” I hear this sentiment from parents all the time, as do all other behaviorists and trainers, but we know it’s not true. Dogs rarely, if ever, bite without warnings, and sometimes those signs of trouble have been going on for months or even years before the bite happens.
The problem isn’t unpredictable dogs. It’s misunderstood dogs. Dogs are often trying hard to communicate that they are uncomfortable or that they don’t like what kids are doing to them. If nobody understands those messages, the dogs continue to be in situations that make them unhappy, and some of those dogs may end up biting.
Most dog bites to kids come from the child’s own dog or the dog of a friend. In fact, this is true 77 percent of the time. Check out this video by the family dog about how dogs and kids can have such different views of their experience together.
Several other videos by the same organization are really helpful when teaching kids (and adults!) things they need to know to stay safe. I love how these videos are targeted at different ages. This video is for kids in elementary school.
This video is for kids of preschool age.
The goal of keeping kids safe around dogs involves education so that people of all ages understand dogs better. It’s important that kids know how to act around dogs and that everyone in the family can distinguish happy, relaxed dogs from dogs who are nervous or uncomfortable. “Stop the 77” is the movement to prevent dog bites to kids, most of which come from dogs they know well.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
His post-elimination running still makes us laugh
May 12 2015
Our dog Bugsy must really have enjoyed a good poop. I say that because he seemed to celebrate each one with a good run afterwards. He ran at top speed in a big circle with a gleeful look on his face around the yard or in the woods. He became the quintessentially happy dog—sporting a big grin, ears flopping, running fast enough that his fur waved in the breeze. (If he was on leash, he modified his actions and just did a few spins in place looking moderately cheerful.)
My husband mentioned Bugsy’s post-elimination antics last night and we laughed remembering this particular behavior of a dog who died over a decade ago. It was absolutely predictable for Bugsy to do this after eliminating, and I used to look forward to watching him. My favorite part was the way it looked as though his back end was running faster than the front of him, causing his behind to be tucked down. In other contexts, he had a smoother gait and his body looked more organized.
It’s not that there is actually anything so special about a dog running around after pooping, as that is relatively common. We find this memory endearing because he looked so happy and because the precise posture and motions were distinctively his. I would have been able to spot him in a group of hundreds of dogs making wide arcs if he were running in this particular way because I’ve never seen another dog assume quite the same form when running.
We have many wonderful memories of Bugsy, and this just happens to be the one that struck a chord last night. Anything a dog does that is joyful and distinctive is likely to be remembered with love. That’s true even if it’s something that doesn’t seem typically sentimental, such as the way the dog runs after eliminating.
What behavior of a dog from your past brings you joy when you think back on it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A world gone mad
May 7 2015
The photographs of dog shadows by Thomas Roma capture the form and motion of dogs in a way that pictures of their actual bodies don’t. Roma went to a local dog park in Brooklyn almost daily for years to photograph shadows of dogs. By shooting from a different perspective (quite literally, as his camera was mounted on a seven-foot pole) he revealed something quite different. These dogs have a beauty that comes from the simplicity of their forms.
In Roma’s photos, the shadows both look like the dogs who cast them and appear very different. They are distorted and yet reveal the true essence of the dog form, too. It’s unlikely that anyone would view these photos and not think of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which people trapped in a cave mistake shadows projected onto the wall of the cave for reality because they are unable to see anything but these shadows.
The photographer himself has said that the shadows and their photographs remind him of cave paintings. He loved the dusty pebbled ground and the way it was fresh and new each day. He continued to photograph dogs at the park until the city renovated it and changed the surface.
Roma calls his dog shadow photographs “Mondo Cane” which is Italian for “Dog World” but is also an idiomatic expression meaning “A World Gone Mad.” These photographs have been exhibited in New York, Rome and Tokyo and sold all around the globe.
Who’s inspired to turn their own lens to the shadows of our dogs?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
What do you want to know about dogs?
May 5 2015
What’s hot on the research frontier can change quickly. Years ago in the environmental world, acid rain was all the rage, then it was mercury pollution and now big bucks are going to fund issues related to climate change. In the animal behavior world, copious studies on foraging behavior gave way to the popularity of parasitism, followed by a fascination with sexual selection and mating strategies.
Right now, studies of domestic animals, including dogs, are big, and a variety of topics are hot within the canine research community. I would love to see the funding that supports this research continue, and I think that will happen if people continue to see the value of the research. We’re learning about our best friends at a faster rate than ever, and it’s an exciting time to be interested in dogs.
Canine cognition research is a hugely popular area of study right now, as is the role of oxytocin in a variety of canine social behaviors. Interactions with people and the way dogs’ brains respond to various stimuli have also both been studied a lot lately. Play behavior has been popular for quite a long time, though we are perhaps past the main peak of the wave of studies on this topic for now. Receiving far less attention are some other areas of dog behavior. It’s currently far less common to study courtship and mating behavior, communication, aggression or feeding strategies.
Where would you like to see the studies of dogs go next? That is, what questions do you want answered in order to understand dogs better?
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