Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Familiarity affects their generosity
December 18 2015
Do dogs act in a way that offers no benefit to themselves, but helps out other dogs? A new study called Familiarity affects other-regarding preferences in pet dogs addresses this question. The term “other-regarding” comes from the field of economics. Actions based only on the material benefit to oneself are called “self-regarding.” Actions that take into account the effects on other individuals are called other-regarding, and are often based on kindness or a sense of fairness.
In the experiment, researchers investigated dogs’ willingness to give food to other dogs. Donor dogs had the opportunity to move a tray that put food within the reach of a receiver dog or to move an empty tray instead. The donors did not receive food or any other tangible reward for giving food to the receiver. The major finding of the study was that dogs were more likely to give food to dogs that they know—their friends—than unfamiliar dogs.
The reason this is so interesting is that most research into this sort of social behavior has been conducted on primates. Little is known about cooperation and other prosocial behavior in other groups. Dogs are an obvious choice for such a study because they are social. Social animals often behave in altruistic ways, perhaps because of the possibility of a potential future benefit. In other words, evolution may have led to kindness towards others because of the benefits to individuals of trading acts of giving over the long term. That could explain why donating food to friends was more common. Those are the individuals who are most likely to be in a position to return the favor another time, making it a good investment for the donor dogs.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Recent research contradicts prevailing wisdom
December 16 2015
It’s hard to make sense of the great number of contradictory studies about the effect of black coat color on the time it takes for shelter dogs to be adopted and the likelihood of them being euthanized. There have been many studies suggesting that having a black coat is bad news for shelter dogs, and some suggesting that black fur is not important in these ways.
It continues to be reported in the media that it is hard to adopt out black dogs, and many spokespeople for shelters and rescues discuss this at length. Yet, the data are not consistent across studies. One study called Investigating the role of coat colour, age, sex, and breed on outcomes for dogs at two animal shelters in the United States that came out recently in the journal Animal Welfare is one of the studies I take the most seriously. The researchers conclude that while age, sex and breed affect adoptability and likelihood of euthanasia, having a black coat color does not.
There are a number of reasons why I think highly of this research. It includes data from over 16,000 dogs from two shelters during a four-year period, which is longer and larger than most studies of its kind. One shelter chooses which dogs it admits and one has an open admission policy, meaning that it takes in any dog that arrives at its doors with no selection based on age, appearance, medical issues or behavior. The data include how long each dog was available for adoption, and whether or not the dog was eventually adopted, was euthanized or died in the shelter. Some studies have included the time that dogs were held for various reasons but not available for adoption, which could introduce biases against black dogs. It looked at euthanasia rates as well as the number of dogs of different colors that entered each shelter. It considered breed, age and size as well as coat color.
It may sound like an obvious way to conduct research, but this study looked at actual data from shelters instead of considering opinions on black dogs in interviews. The difficulty of adopting black dogs that is commonly reported in the media is often based on a study that interviewed people working in shelters and rescues. A majority of the people in that study reported that large black dogs were more difficult to place than other dogs. This is problematic because of the opinion aspect of the study and because of the lumping of size and coat color.
Despite the mixed findings across studies about the adoptability of black dogs, it is no surprise that there is a perception of bias. A number of studies have shown that people have a negative view of black dogs, considering them less agreeable, less conscientious and less emotionally stable than dogs of other colors. Perhaps more alarming, another study found that people selected large black dogs as representative examples of dangerous and aggressive animals. In support of negative views of black dogs, another study found that people were more likely to change their path in response to a black dog than in response to a pale dog, regardless of size. Not surprisingly, there are contradictory studies in this area, too. For example, one study found that people considered black poodles friendlier than white poodles.
Overall, this recent study concluded that the dogs who were more likely to be euthanized than expected if such decisions were random were dogs that were 10-12 years old, male dogs, members of bully breeds, and brindle dogs. The length of time a dog had to wait to be adopted was also affected by many factors. The dogs who were adopted most quickly were females, young dogs, yellow, grey or black dogs, and terriers or toy breeds.
There are so many factors that can influence intake and euthanasia decisions by shelter staff and adoption choices by guardians. The idea that black dogs are difficult to adopt, though the data have been so variable on this point, may actually influence people into adopting a black dog. Many adopters prioritize choosing a dog who may not otherwise find a home, and this may mean that such people are gravitating towards black dogs.
I’m certain that there will be more research about the dogs that adopters choose, so we are sure to learn more about the effect of various factors on both adoption and euthanasia.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs can sure get into them!
December 11 2015
Though I could never match a veterinarian for tales of seasonal paraphernalia that has been ingested, when it comes to other aspects of dogs interacting with December’s décor, I have heard more stories of trouble than most people ever will. In other words, if you name something that people have in their homes to help celebrate the holidays, I’m likely to remember a story in which a dog messed with that item.
I hear tales of Christmas trees that have been knocked over and peed on. I have a vivid image of a black dog running through the neighborhood streaming tinsel all over the place. His guardian is convinced that this shiny decoration saved his life by reflecting the headlights of the car whose driver swerved just in time to miss him.
A friend told me that one year they had a white Christmas despite living in Southern California. Her dog had toppled a 10-pound bag of flour off the counter and played in it until the whole downstairs would have made Bing Crosby proud.
I know of a dog who decorated almost the entire set of holiday cards with muddy footprints. The family sent them out anyway, with a note that this year the dog had signed them. Another dog messed with the holiday mailing by somehow getting a large number of postage stamps stuck in his fur and on his face. Festive!
Dogs eating holiday meals is nothing new, so the stories of dogs sampling the potluck dish meant for a party or helping themselves to an entire turkey or ham are almost cliché. Perhaps dogs consider themselves the head of quality control and feel the need to perform a taste test. More worrisome are the many dogs who have needed medical attention after consuming fudge or other foods that can be dangerous for them.
Many families have been saved the hassle of unwrapping packages by dogs who took it upon themselves to dive into the gifts under the tree. Some dogs get into the wrapping paper before it even meets up with the gifts, apparently considering rolls of paper great toys, or maybe just really stiff toilet paper. (We all know how many dogs adore unrolling toilet paper!)
Just last year, I saw a Facebook post about a dog running down the block with a wreath around his neck. The guardian who wrote about it said she always had dogs who enjoyed decorations. A previous dog of hers had been lucky to escape injury after trying to play tug of war with a strand of lights that sparked when they were yanked from the outlet.
A client once had to reschedule an appointment because her dog was too busy dealing with digestive issues after swallowing a sequined top and part of one shoe that went with a favorite party outfit. Luckily, surgery was not required, but it was still a rough (and messy) day or two for everyone involved.
Chanukah candles knocked over may not be as common as upended Christmas trees, but I assume this is because only a small percentage of us are celebrating in this way. I use my Grandma’s Menorah, which is nowhere near stable enough to be anywhere that a dog can reach it. I know that because one year we had a little accident with the candles on a low table and a large dog with a wagging tail giving us a small heart attack. (They were not lit yet, thankfully.)
>Clients have shared stories of dogs terrified by the inflatable Santa and reindeer in the yard, and of the occasional fight between the canine residents and these giant, air-filled seasonal visitors. Just as scary for quite a few dogs is the experience of having a Santa hat slip over the eyes. A dog who can’t see because of a wardrobe malfunction and is running around in a panic is a threat to himself and others.
Along with the difficulties already mentioned, there are more dogs than you can shake a stick at who have eaten the cookies intended for Santa.
How has your dog interacted with the holiday accoutrements in a way that you wish had never happened?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
What’s gender have to do with it?
December 10 2015
Is there a Mars/Venus divide in the way men and women approach dog training? Any answer to that question is an exercise in speculation. We can’t turn to research results because there aren’t any, and gender generalities aren’t universally applicable. As Ken Ramirez, executive VP and Chief Training Officer of Karen Pryor Clicker Training, put it, “As soon as you make one generalization, there will be dozens of examples that are exceptions.”
Still, many professional trainers have observed some general differences between the ways women and men train dogs. We must, however, be clear about what these differences mean. They do not mean that all women train differently than all men—there is a lot of overlap between the sexes. Gender may predict tendencies, but it is not absolute.
So, what are these tendencies?
She adds that more men than women expect a dog to be 100 percent fluent on a command without too much effort on the part of the trainer. Men are more likely to say, “He knows what to do, but he’s choosing not to do it.” In contrast, Hays says, women are tend to focus on their own responsibility, taking the attitude, “I know he’s not doing it, but I know it’s because I’m not doing something right.”
Hays finds that women are willing and happy to lavish petting and praise on their dogs, but men often need to be reminded to do that. On the other hand, she says, women sometimes need to be reminded to save praise and attention and a “hot-dog party” for when the dog has made good choices, and to cut their chatter to their dog during a training session or walk. Of course, as Torelli notes, “It’s more culturally acceptable for women to sweet-talk in public,” and that could account for some of this difference.
In my own work, I’ve noticed that men are more likely (and quicker) than women to follow suggestions to use play as reinforcement. If I observe that a dog is highly motivated by toys and play, I will incorporate play into the plan to help the dog, advising clients to use it as a reinforcement or a distraction, to enhance the relationship between themselves and their dogs, for exercise or to teach new skills.
For example, if I propose that my clients begin a play session when the dog responds properly to a cue or chooses to do the right thing rather than bark/ lunge or chase something inappropriate, a majority of men are enthusiastic and ready to try it as soon as I mention it. Fewer women react that way, though a short demonstration of the effectiveness of play in inf luencing behavior leads most women to come on board as well.
Dog training is a skill that, like many others, is acquired through education and practice. So, it’s not surprising that general tendencies in the way men and women approach any new skill show up in dog training as well. Hays sees a pattern parallel to what a ski instructor once told her about men and women on the slopes: Men focus on going fast, learning enough to get down the hill first. Women focus on details and techniques. Men are quicker to take the attitude “I’ve got it from here,” while women tend to want more information on how to keep improving. According to Hays, her clients display this differentiation as soon as they’ve made enough progress to realize that training is going to help their dogs.
In the realm of professional dog trainers, women dominate in canine sports and family dog training, but men make up the majority in police work and the military. Traditionally, the areas with more women trainers have used gentle training methods, with more positive reinforcement (by men and women), whereas the realms dominated by men are likely to incorporate force-based, high-discipline methods, regardless of the gender of the individual trainers.
Ramirez notes that it’s hard to know the cause of these distinctions. “Is the difference in training styles because of the male- or female-dominated discipline, or is it the type of training that has dictated training approaches? Or is it that different training approaches attract men to certain types of endeavors and women to others? I believe training approaches have more to do with historical practices.”
Hays says that in her sport—field trials—the old style “‘boot, shoot and electrocute’ [kicking, pellet guns and cattle prods] was really a horrible training method. A lot of women were not okay with doing that to a dog, and a lot of men resisted, too.” More humane methods, including using markers such as clickers have changed the field. While more women are doing field trials than in previous decades, the majority of trainers are still men.
Lest we forget, training involves two individuals, the trainer (human) and the trainee (dog), so dogs’ natural responses need to be factored in as well. Dogs respond differently to men than they do to women, and that also affects training. Men and women are dissimilar in many ways, including smell, vocal tone, movement and posture. All of these differences can influence training, as dogs are extremely responsive to visual signals and body language.
We know that dogs are sometimes more attentive to men, and yet more likely to be fearful of them. That focus and that fear can affect training approaches both indirectly via their impact on the relationship between the two individuals, and directly, by making a dog either more responsive or too fearful to respond predictably.
I asked each of the professional trainers I interviewed if he or she approached clients differently based on gender. Across the board, the answer was a resounding No! Hays: “Whether it’s a male or a female—dog or person—it’s up to me to figure out how best to teach them. That’s based on the individual.” Ramirez: “No, I do not approach men or women differently. I do tend to approach each individual differently. The reasons people want to train are always very different, so I adapt my teaching style to their needs and desires and I don’t tend to make assumptions about that based on whether they are men or women.” Torelli: “There are many variables in becoming a great trainer. Being male or female is just one small part.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The pros and cons of this exchange
December 9 2015
In theory, the exchanges possible with the Bark’N’Borrow app make a lot of sense. People who are unable to have their own dog can spend time with someone else’s dog. People whose dogs need some company or exercise can loan them out. Dogs can also be loaned out as a kindness to people who need some canine comfort. Members of this community who care for dogs are either borrowers who spend time with a dog for free, or professional dog sitters who charge for their services.
Though it’s a lovely idea, I have concerns, and they extend beyond the worry about the occasional bad person out there. Of course, the idea that sinister people could be involved and be cruel to dogs or not return them is frightening, but it’s not the only source of potential trouble.
Even kind people with good intentions could cause harm to a dog. The alarming questions that come to my mind are many. Will people keep the dog on leash where safe and appropriate? Is their house set up to protect a dog from electrical wires, poisonous foods and other dangers? Will everyone be as gentle with the dog as they should be? Will they pull hard on the leash or react harshly if a communication error or other confusion is interpreted as disobedience? Will the dog be nervous or scared in unfamiliar surroundings? Do the people borrowing dogs know anything about canine behavior or how to interact with dogs?
I know that a lot of people are members of this community and many positive exchanges have taken place. Still, I think to loan your dog out to a stranger involves taking a big chance. Sure, many times things work out fine, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t risky. That everything often works out does not speak to the dangers of this system. Similarly, people sometimes drive themselves safely home while drunk or ride a motorcycle without a helmet and have no problem, but that does not provide proof that these actions are wise or reasonable.
The Bark’N’Borrow FAQs has the following to say about safety:
“Is Bark’N’Borrow Safe?
DEFINITELY! Our aim at Bark’N’Borrow is to provide the safest experience possible to all our members and their dogs. Every person who joins our pack has had our trustworthy team review and verify their profile. We pride ourselves in being thorough and are dedicated to only offering the best of the best. For extra protection, and in case of emergencies, we also provide 24/7 customer support.”
I’m just not convinced that having a team “review and verify” a profile constitutes sufficient safeguards for the dogs against criminal, negligent or simply thoughtless behavior. Clearly, a lot of people disagree with me because this app is popular. If you are a fan of Bark’N’Borrow, let me know what I am missing and how it’s worked out for you. If you would not consider participating in this community, let me know why not.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do dogs prevent anxiety?
December 4 2015
Kids who are asking their parents for a puppy this season have a convincing new argument to try. A recent study ("Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention?”) reports that kids who live with a dog are less likely to be anxious than their peers living in homes without dogs. Researchers evaluated 643 children for signs of anxiety. They found that only 12 percent of kids who have dogs met the clinical criteria that would prompt health care professionals to further screen for anxiety. This was in contrast to 21 percent of kids without dogs who met those criteria.
Despite the way this study has been reported in the media, the authors of this study do not claim that there is a causal relationship between having a dog and lower levels of anxiety in children. Sure, if you are reading this, you are all but certainly a dog lover and inclined to see the benefits of being with dogs. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to back you up if this where you stand. Being with dogs can lower levels of cortisol (which is associated with stress), decrease blood pressure and heart rate, and increase levels of oxytocin (which is associated with social bonding.)
The study highlights the correlation between living with a dog and a lower likelihood of anxiety in children, but makes no claims about why the association exists. It is entirely possible, for example, that people who are less anxious by nature are more likely to have dogs, and their children just happen to share a lower likelihood of anxiety. Or perhaps people with children tend to get dogs only when their lives are not too stressful, which means that the people with and without dogs vary in their anxiety levels for reasons that are not related to having dogs.
It seems highly possible that living with a dog lowers the risk of anxiety in children, perhaps by alleviating loneliness and separation anxiety or by facilitating social interactions. Still, it’s important to understand that the links found in this study do not show the presence of the dog to be the key factor.
While I would not recommend that anyone rush out to acquire a dog for the sole purpose of lowering their children’s chances of developing anxiety, kids might try to convince you to do exactly that. They may have a point.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It explains the behavior of Costa Rican dogs
December 2 2015
During a recent field trip to Costa Rica, I was as interested as my students in Ceiba trees, toucans, sloths and tree frogs, along with so many other organisms we were able to see in the tropical rain forest. When I was in town, though, my focus shifted to the local dogs.
One aspect of their behavior repeatedly caught my attention. Over and over, I saw dogs waiting just outside the doors of local businesses. Whether it was a bakery, restaurant, butcher’s shop or hair salon, dogs did not go inside. These were all stray dogs, many in need of food, but they did not charge through the doorway no matter what tempting goodies were inside. They exhibited impressively polite behavior, which is easy enough to explain.
The reason that these dogs never went inside businesses is that the behavior of the people in those businesses has consistently been favorable when the dogs stay outside and not so favorable if they attempt to enter. As soon as these dogs are old enough to wander through town, they have multiple experiences with people shooing them out of stores if they enter, and also have repeated experiences with receiving food if they wait outside. The dogs learn that waiting outside is a good strategy and that barging into a store is a bad strategy. Because the culture so strongly opposes having stray dogs enter stores, the dogs get consistent messages about what to do. The dogs are so well trained, if you want to look at it that way, because of the consistency of the responses to their behavior. There are no mixed messages.
There’s a lesson here for all of us about being consistent with our training. This sounds obvious and is well known, but even a rare departure from consistency can mess up an otherwise excellent training program. There is a huge difference between never permitting your dog to jump up on you, beg at the table or join you on the couch and almost never allowing these behaviors to happen. The difference lets your dog question whether each occasion is one of the exceptions and keeps hope alive. It can make them seem quite pushy when they are really only unsure about what the rules are.
When we are completely consistent with our dogs, training goes more smoothly and there are fewer problems. The Costa Rican people I observed simply never allow dogs to enter their stores, and the dogs learn that the only way to get food from the people is to wait patiently at the door. It’s a successful system for members of both species.
In what ways are you completely consistent with your dog, to the benefit of your training?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Frustration? Vocalizing? Sad face?
November 26 2015
When we train our dogs, we are teaching them something new, whether it’s a new behavior, a new cue for that behavior, or how to perform it in a different situation. It’s bound to be frustrating from time to time, just as learning can be for us. People rarely get through the process of learning how to drive, learning a new piece on the trumpet, or learning the many methods involved in mastering calculus without some frustration. We all have different reactions to the frustrations of learning, and dogs show a variety of responses as well.
Some dogs may bark when a training session has made them feel a little lost. Others may shut down and refuse to do anything. A small percentage of dogs may become aggressive. Some become very affectionate and affiliative as if seeking comfort in this tough situation. I’ve seen dogs refuse to pay any attention to a trainer in these situations, and I’ve seen dogs looking searchingly at the trainer as though hoping to find the missing information in her face.
Of course, training our dogs methodically and little by little so that we can minimize frustration makes sense. We want them to enjoy their training experiences, and that’s not going to happen if frustration is the primary emotion involved. On the other hand, sometimes pushing things a bit can really accelerate the learning process, and that may be worth a bit of frustration or the risk of it. Those dogs who can handle frustration without it tipping them over the edge may even be better off for having worked through the frustration and emerged successfully on the other side of it. Some dogs really relish the sense of accomplishment that comes from finally getting it. Other dogs are harmed enough by the confusion that it’s best not to go there.
Of course, sometimes during the course of training, we try really hard not to frustrate our dogs and do it anyway. It may be because of circumstances beyond our control. For example, a dog may have learned a cue from a previous guardian, but then you try to use that same cue for a different behavior. Alternatively, we may just blow it by failing to notice that our dog is struggling, and push on.
How does your dog react if he becomes frustrated during a training session?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Grief fades and a new puppy is welcomed
November 24 2015
In the 10 years that we have lived in the same neighborhood, I have seen one woman and her dog out walking so many times we began to joke that we were on the same treadmill. I saw the progression of this dog through youth and middle age to becoming an older, yet still active dog, to a dog who shuffled up the block and back, and no longer had that glow of good health about him. This was followed by a period of a week or so during which I didn’t see the pair at all. Then, one day, I saw the woman out walking alone, and I knew that the dog was gone.
Offering my sympathy, though I had never formally met this woman, I learned that she had lost her dog to cancer. We talked at length about how hard it is to lose a dog, how empty the house can seem, and how people’s well-intentioned advice to “get a new dog” can really hurt. She needed time to grieve, and for months afterwards, I would see her out for her own walk and feel the heaviness in her heart whether we just exchanged hellos or chatted for a long time.
Today while out running, I saw her with a new dog—a puppy who shows all the signs of a lovely temperament. She’s friendly, energetic and clearly adores her new guardian. The feeling is mutual, and I was delighted to see this woman happier than she had been in some time. I offered her my congratulations, and felt a close bond with her and the new dog. There’s so much love already growing between them!
Please share your experience of feeling great happiness with a new dog once you were ready to take that step.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do canine sayings decorate your house?
November 20 2015
“Home is where the DOG is.” That’s the first plaque my husband and I hung on the wall after we bought our house. Quite a few have been added since. My artist mother-in-law painted two that I asked her for over the years. One says, “Love grows best in little houses,” and the other says, “Thank you for not stressing in our home.” Other than those two, the signs that I’m drawn to are about dogs. They capture my attention in stores and often the temptation to buy them is too strong to resist.
Today, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, I saw an oldie but a goodie. It said, “Husband, fishing pole & dog missing. Reward for dog.” The high regard for the dog is appealing, but the disdain for the husband doesn’t make it a good fit for me, though it did make me laugh. I’m more drawn to other whimsical sayings such as:
My dog winks at me sometimes, and I always wink back in case it’s some kind of code
Life is short, play with your dog
Beware of dog poop
The best part of the day is coming home to a wagging tail
Please remove your shoes. The dog needs something to chew on.
In dog beers, I’ve only had one
Perhaps the all-time champion for causing me to engage in an awkward public fit of laughter is:
Home is where the dog hair sticks to everything but the dog.
What dog sayings adorn your walls?
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