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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
It’s Dinnertime!
How does your dog let you know?
What does a dog have to do to get this thing filled up?

The dog was definitely letting us know that he was ready to be fed, and that he wanted us to get our sorry selves downstairs to the kitchen to attend to this pressing matter. Dinnertime is usually between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., and it was nearing the end of that hour. His stomach certainly knows how to tell time.

He kept opening and closing his mouth, looking around, and snapping in the air repeatedly. He walked to the top of the stairs a few times and then returned to the bedroom where we were all hanging out. He gave some sighs, a few longing looks and had a tendency to jump up if any of us made any sort of move. I guess he hoped that any action was a hopeful sign that someone (anyone!) was finally going to feed him.

When we did head downstairs at last, he was positively gleeful, bounding right over to his bowl and looking up expectantly. It was only then that we were certain what his slightly agitated behavior had been all about. He doesn’t usually act pushy in any way, including over food, so this was somewhat new behavior. I can only assume that he was especially hungry that evening, and eager to have his evening meal.

A lot of dogs have dinnertime alert rituals, whether it is barking, running to the cupboard where the food is stored, standing by the food bowl or picking it up and holding it. How does your dog let you know that it is time for dinner to be served?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Are You Special To Your Dog?
New research confirms that you are

Does your dog recognize you, the guardian, as unique in his life? Naturally, you consider him the most important, best, most special dog in the world, but does your dog view you as a unique treasure, or just as any old tall-two-legs capable of feeding him, putting on the leash, opening the door and playing with him?

A recent study in the journal Behavioural Processes titled “Dogs and their human companions: The effect of familiarity on dog–human interactions” investigated questions like these. Specifically, the scientists wanted to know whether dogs interacting with guardians, other people they know well and strangers behaved differently depending on how well they knew the person. With a series of tests on 20 dogs who were well socialized with some training experience, the researchers concluded that:

1. Dogs responded differently to the guardian and the stranger in most situations.  That is, if your dog is like the family dogs in this study, you matter more to your dog than a stranger does. (Whew!)

2. Dogs acted differently when they were with their guardians and when they were with a familiar person when the situation involved playfulness, fear or anxiety, or physical contact.

3. Dogs reacted similarly to their own guardian and people that they knew well when the task involved responding to obedience cues.

Understanding the effects of the guardian on dog behavior is important because it informs us about the attachment between humans and dogs. It also matters because it shows that behavioral research is affected by which humans, if any, are present during experiments.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
2015 Puppy and Horse Super Bowl Ad
True friends always have your back

Cuteness reigns! Budweiser is sticking with their ads about puppies and horses because it’s a winning combination. This year’s Super Bowl commercial stays with the theme of real friends always being there for each other, and that is its strength.

Opportunities to pull at our heartstrings are certainly not in short supply: the puppy in a pile of hay, waiting out a rainstorm in a metal box, returning home filthy with the horses following him, licking the man’s face after being bathed. There’s a nice reference to last year’s commercial when the man puts up a “Lost Dog” poster with a photo of the puppy and horse.

In this 60-second story, the farm’s Labrador Retriever puppy gets lost, and suffers through some hazards before the horses who love him come to his rescue. One danger is traffic, but the main threat is a wolf. It looks to be the end of the dog until his horse buddies show up and scare the predator away. If I could change one thing about the commercial, it would be the depiction of wolves as the enemy. I thought that the “big bad wolf” stereotype had faded away, so Budweiser’s attempt to revive it is unfortunate.

Still, the commercial is about friendship, and you can feel the love on that farm in so many scenes: when the horse and man seek comfort from one another while their beloved puppy is missing, when the horses rush to the aid of the puppy, the expression on the man’s face when he first sees that his dog has come home and when the horse and puppy play together at the end.

I’ve always been impressed with how well these commercials capture happy dog behavior in the scenes that require it, which is not easy on a set with huge horses, a lot of people, cameras and other equipment. (The one miss I noticed in this commercial is at 52 seconds when the puppy tongue flicks—a sign of anxiety—right before he licks the man’s face, supposedly joyfully.) Showing dogs looking forlorn in the rain or other sad scenes seems an easier task, but I give them credit for accomplishing it anyway.

This commercial has been viewed over 17 million times already on YouTube. Do you consider it a winner?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Challenge of Children
I’m sympathetic to many dogs

We all know that dogs and children can be a volatile mix, and that we must take care to protect kids from dogs. Regrettably, some kids are bitten and even more are scared or hurt by dogs chasing them or jumping up on them. As both a parent and as someone who works with dogs professionally, I see this as an important issue that we as a society must continue to improve.

Still, many times the interactions between kids and dogs leave me more concerned about the dogs than the children. Though far too many dog bites to kids happen, sometimes I think it’s amazing that there aren’t more considering what dogs have to put up with. While I think the majority of kids are kind to dogs, such good behavior is far from universal.

I’ve heard many people over the years praise their dogs by saying, “The kids can do ANYTHING to him.” I always respond by asking, “What are the kids doing to him?” while inside I’m crossing my paws and hoping it’s not too bad.

The answers range from the relatively benign (they follow him to pet him constantly, they dress him up) to the deeply concerning (they make a game of jumping over him, they use him like a pillow, they carry him around a lot) to the truly horrifying (they poke him in the eye, they pull his tail, they scream in his ear to wake him up, they try to ride him like a horse.)

My years working with clients as well as observations of dogs outside of work leave me with tremendous gratitude to the enormous numbers of dogs who react peacefully to kids. Some dogs are dealing with kids who are a bit rough, totally thoughtless or even downright cruel.

Without excusing dogs who have bitten kids, I think we’re asking dogs to put up with an awful lot considering what goes on in many households with kids. Almost every day, I silently thank the millions of dogs out there who have refrained from biting kids who bother them relentlessly. We’re very lucky as a society to have so many amazing canines as pets.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do Dogs React to Being Laughed At?
I wonder if it makes them feel bad

Marley had jumped up on our bed, as he is allowed to do, but the rule is that he has to get down if he is asked to do so. On this particular night, he seemed exhausted and eager to go to bed. Once ensconced in his favorite spot, he avoided eye contact with all of us. Wherever our faces were, he was looking the other way.

I proposed the idea that perhaps he was trying to avoid being told to get down off the bed, in an “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me” kind of way. This was pure guesswork, but the rest of my family thought it was funny because it really seemed to fit.

We began to act like him, looking away, pretending that nobody could tell us it was bedtime or anything else we didn’t want to hear, and we were all laughing. I caught a glance at Marley, and he looked really unhappy, which is when I said, “I wonder if he feels bad because we’re laughing at him.”

In truth we found Marley endearing and funny, and meant no disrespect, but how did he perceive it? Dogs are so in tune with our emotions and actions, and they are obviously intensely social beings, so it seems possible that he felt himself the object of derision where none was intended.

It made me sad to contemplate the idea, and my husband and kids felt the same way. We stopped laughing immediately and began to pet Marley as we usually would when we’re all about to go to bed. Soon Marley looked happy again, though still tired.

It’s no fun being laughed at, and it does happen to dogs, whether our intent is hurtful or not. Do you think your dog can tell if others are laughing at his expense?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Can Your Dog Rock The Cone?
How to wear one with style

I’ve never liked the term “cone of shame.” That’s in part because a medical device that helps keep dogs safe has no business being associated with derogatory names. It’s also because I see no reason that dogs should ever be ashamed or made to feel so.

Perhaps that’s why I was especially delighted to see these examples of pets whose time in a cone was treated light-heartedly. Decorating these accessories made each and every one of the dogs (and cats) look charming without a trace of the woebegone, pathetic images so often presented in such situations. These dogs really know how to rock the cone!

I must admit that few of the dogs look thrilled. They may be out of sorts because of the cone or whatever issue caused them to need one in the first place. The extra decorations may be unwelcome, especially for the dog whose cone is full of stuffed animals. Some of the dogs may simply not like being stared at and photographed.

My favorite photos are of the dog who is part of the Pixar logo, the one in couture Burberry, and the dog with a top hat and pipe. The assorted coneflowers are pretty endearing, too. Making the cones fun and decorative definitely affects the way people view the dogs, taking shame out of the situation, which I like.

You’ve got to love the last photo of an absolutely cheerful dog with a bare cone. This dog needs no decoration other than that happy face. Some dogs can’t be brought down!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
How Can This Be Comfortable?
Dogs rest in the weirdest positions

I don’t understand how dogs can possibly be comfortable in some of the positions they choose to be in. Take Marley, for example, in this picture. Even with every effort to remember that he is not a human and that I shouldn’t project my preferences on him, this makes no sense to me.  He looks like a “before” picture in an ad for a chiropractor.

Over the years, I’ve seen dogs resting with their necks bent at 90-degree angles, with their paws straight up in the air and with their faces smashed against the wall. I’ve seen them sleeping in their food bowls, tangled up with each other and with cats on top of them. Some dogs stretch out completely flat in way that seems impossible for canine joints while others are curled so tightly in boxes that I would have bet good money they would be unable to squeeze into them. I’ve even seen a few who have actually fallen asleep with their bodies suspended between the couch and coffee table.

Marley, and many other dogs, put themselves into what look like contortions on a regular basis. They do it on the floor, on the couch, and in bed. About the only place I don’t typically see dogs in odd postures is in their crates, but there are exceptions to that, too.

In what unfathomable position have you found your dog?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Pushes Baby in Swinging Crib
Gentle help from Charlie the Beagle

I strongly believe that when you have a new baby, you should accept all assistance available to you. “Turn down no offer of help” was some of the best advice I ever got, and I frequently pass it on to other parents.

One family’s dog is able to offer rocking services to keep a baby swinging gently in her crib. In this video, you can see that the dog looks at the camera operator, who I presume is the guardian, after each push to the crib. He seems to be checking in, and I like to imagine him asking, “Did I do good?” (I never imagine that dogs consistently speak with proper grammar.)

This activity combines a happy baby and time for the dog to work on a specific skill, which is no different than training any other trick or action.  It looks to me as though the dog is being cued to rock the crib each time, based on how he continues to look at the person operating the camera. I hope the dog gets reinforced for responding correctly, because he really does a nice job gently contacting the crib so it rocks in a controlled way.

The dog does look nervous, but it could be that it’s the camera rather than anything else about the situation that is upsetting to him. Even if the dog showed signs of being completely relaxed, I would never want this to be an unsupervised activity. There’s too much risk of the dog overdoing the swinging or of the baby reacting with crying or other distress. It’s hard to say how the dog would react. It is easy to say, though, that this behavior is cute as well as having a practical component.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Your Dog Feels You
More evidence that dogs attend to human emotions

Science is subject to trendiness, just like fashion, language and entertainment are. So, just as we are all facing an abundance of mid-calf boots, abbreviations and post-apocalyptic films, there is no shortage of studies on the influence of human emotions on our dogs. One of the latest studies, Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behaviour, in the journal Animal Cognition, is just one of many recent works to explore this topic.

The purpose of this study was to address two questions: 1) Can dogs discriminate between human expressions that indicate happiness, disgust, and neutrality? 2) Do dogs prefer objects eliciting the more positive human emotion in the owner?

In this experiment, dogs had to choose between two bottles, each of which was associated with a human emotional expression of happiness, one of disgust or a neutral expression. The bottle associated with a more positive expression had food inside it while the other one contained a stone. (Though this is potentially a problem in the experimental design—the objects are not identical, meaning that the contents of the bottle as well as the guardian’s expression could be influencing the dog’s decision—the researchers conducted some control trials in an attempt to eliminate this potential glitch.)

The researchers measured dogs’ choices in two ways. They recorded which bottle the dog approached first and which they retrieved. They argued that positive emotions in humans may be linked with a corresponding emotion in the dog because what people feel positively towards—going for a walk, starting to play or dinnertime—may also trigger positive feelings in the dog. On the other hand, negative emotions in people may not correspond to the dog’s response to something. That is, when humans express disgust, it may be related to objects that dogs find appealing such as trash or poop. That’s why, in this study, the experimenters looked at a task (fetching) rather than just an approach to an object.  They wanted to see how dogs responded to human requests rather than simply making a choice based on their own preference. The goal was to get a better measure of dogs’ responses to human emotions.

The overall findings of this study are that yes, just like in so many other studies recently, dogs are attuned to the emotions of their guardians. They preferentially retrieve the object associated with a more positive human emotion. So, when their guardian expressed happiness over one bottle and disgust or neutrality over the other bottle, they were significantly more likely to retrieve the bottle associated with happiness. Similarly, if their guardian expressed disgust over one bottle but was emotionally neutral about the other, the dog was more likely to retrieve the neutral bottle.

What I find most interesting in this study is that dogs preferentially retrieved the object associated with a more positive emotion even though they didn’t necessarily show a preference when measured as first approach. In other words, they acted according to human preference when told to do something—“Fetch!”— even though it was sometimes in contrast to their preference about which object to approach. We all know that dogs find many things appealing that revolt us. I’m personally thinking of how often I had to bathe my dog after he rolled in fox poop when I lived on a farm. I found it disgusting but it was clearly very appealing to him even with the threat of a bath hanging in the balance.

If the researchers had only looked at approach, they might have concluded that dogs could not discriminate between the various human expressions of emotion. Their more complex design provides evidence that dogs can do so, but that they don’t always behave accordingly.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Military Device Disguised as Dog Poop
Everybody left these transmitters alone

Over the winter break, my family visited the Washington D.C. area, and like my children, I find myself writing the “What I Did During My Vacation” essay. At the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the great displays include the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay, a Concorde airliner, and the 1903 Wright Flyer that was the first plane ever to take flight. Despite these historical marvels, the item I remember most from our hours in the museum was much smaller and far less impressive in appearance.

I’m referring to a military transmitter that was used successfully during the Vietnam War to help soldiers in need of rescue, to help pilots determine where to deliver military strikes and to monitor activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This homing device is officially known as the T-1151 Radio Transmitter, but was more commonly called the Doo Radio Transmitter. Many of them looked like dog feces, although others resembled feces from animals that were native to the area such as monkeys.

The genius of this piece of military equipment is that because it was disguised as feces, nobody was likely to mess with it. It could be put in place even weeks before a mission and remain undisturbed. They lasted as long as the battery power allowed, with discovery being an unlikely reason for them to cease being operational.

I never knew dog poop served such an important function—making the camouflage of military equipment possible.

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