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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.

Wellness: Health Care
The Fine Print in Pet Insurance Policies
Does yours exclude normal dog behavior?

Pet insurance, like most forms of insurance, definitely qualifies as a “Buyer Beware” purchase. Jamie Richardson found that out the hard way when her seven-year old dog Muddy tore a ligament in his leg and her insurance company Petsecure refused to cover his veterinary care. One reason for denying the claim was that Muddy was running when he hurt himself. Specifically, he was happily running through the woods, which can also be described as “being a dog”.

Unfortunately for Richardson, “being a dog” is essentially excluded in her accident policy. The fine print states that any injury sustained while the dog is “jumping, running, slipping, tripping or playing” is not covered. Additionally, any accident that the guardian does not witness is not covered. In Muddy’s case, even if he had torn his ligament in full view of Richardson while he was, say, eating his dinner, none of the $4,200 in veterinary costs would have been reimbursed by the insurance company due to a “pre-existing condition” clause that relates to arthritis or degenerative joint issues.

Though X-rays at the time of surgery showed no signs of arthritis, the fact that the presence of bone spurs had been noted in Muddy’s medical records allows the insurance company to deny the claim. That’s true even though the surgeon said that the accident was not caused by arthritis and the veterinarian pointed out that those bones spurs are normal for seven-year old dogs, and minor to boot. Two vets saying no pre-existing conditions are present does not prevent the insurance company from denying the claim based on the “pre-existing condition” clause.

Richardson has cancelled her policy, since it did her no good at all. She borrowed money to pay her bills, and is now saving a little each month just in case Muddy has another accident or an illness that requires expensive veterinary care. She continues to let him be a dog, though, and he still runs through the woods near her home in Yukon.

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Self-Entertaining Dogs
Dogs who play fetch solo

The world is filled with dogs who love playing fetch more than life itself, but most of them only get to play when a person is also on board. Sadly, there aren’t many people who want to play fetch every waking minute, as some dogs would prefer. For a few clever dogs, that doesn’t matter because they have figured out how to play fetch all by themselves.


Dogs playing fetch are endearing, and especially when they are doing it all on their own. Whether they are taking advantage of the stairs, a grassy hill, the power of a river or a contraption built by people to facilitate their solo endeavor, these dogs can have fun playing with a tennis ball even without a person.

Do you have a dog who plays fetch alone? If so, did you teach your dog to do that or was it something he figured out on his own?

News: Guest Posts
Describing Your Dog
Can you do it with a simple phrase?

Sometimes, people tell me who their dogs are with such concise and clever accuracy that their explanations stay with me forever. Describing complex individuals of any species takes insight and skill, but to capture the essence of someone with just one phrase is particularly challenging. Most of the time, the phrases people use are positive, but a few may seem derogatory. Let me assure that even the ones that aren’t obviously complimentary were expressed with such love that I know the guardians meant them in the nicest possible way. Perhaps you’ve had or met a dog who matches one my favorite explanations of who a dog truly is.
 

  • The little general
  • Mindlessly happy
  • A wise old man
  • If chasing tennis balls were a job, she’d be a workaholic
  • Wheeeee!
  • His trust is absolute
  • She was a bitch but I loved her
  • She has never met a stranger
  • This dog is an acquired taste
  •  “Oh boy oh boy oh boy, what are we going to do today?”
  • All heart, no brain

How would you describe the essence of your dog’s personality in a single phrase?

News: Guest Posts
Marriage Proposal Declined Because of Dog
Woman wisely rejects man who reveals his true colors

Karishma Walia, a woman in New Delhi, has rejected a marriage proposal from a man her mother thought would be a good match because of his finances and his looks. However, the man objected to the fact that she has a dog, and conversations about this issue allowed her to see that he was not the man for her. The man seemed to be surprised by her rejection. He assumed that they could work something out even though he didn’t want a dog, and told Karishma that his mother doesn’t like dogs, either.

It is certainly possible for many couples to overcome serious differences. Even if only one person is a dog lover, substantial compromise on both sides can allow a relationship to flourish. What’s just as alarming in this exchange as the man’s contempt for the dog is the disdainful way he treated Karishma. He belittled her love of dogs, assumed that she would change in order to have the privilege of marrying him, and then became angry and insulting to her, suggesting that she marry the dog.

After she rejected his proposal, he said that while he didn’t used to dislike dogs, he does now. He went on to say that he was still not able to digest the fact that her dog is the top priority in her life and that it’s good to have pets but when they get in the way of your life, it’s good not to have them. Not everyone is a dog person and that’s fine, but contempt for animals and a failure to understand that they matter to others are evidence of a serious character flaw. The way people regard and treat animals can be a warning sign of unacceptable behavior towards people.

This man’s tone throughout was rude and condescending. He clearly expected to have his way, and was quite put out when that did not happen. I pity the woman who does eventually marry this man, with his controlling attitude and lack of respect or manners. Karishma did more than avoid a marriage with someone incompatible. She likely escaped a man who would have disrespected her and made her unhappy even if his attitude towards the dog had not been the deal breaker for her.

Karishma’s dog was an asset in helping her see that marrying this man would be a mistake. It’s easy to admire this woman and her priorities. She has plenty of self-respect, and clearly loves her dog.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Young Dogs, Old Dogs and New Tricks
The role of age in learning, memory and logical thinking

Old dogs CAN learn new tricks, but the way that they learn may be different than when they were younger. So concludes a recent study called “Aging effects on discrimination learning, logical reasoning and memory in pet dogs”. The study was conducted on 95 pet Border Collies who ranged in age from 5 months to over 13 years old. Researchers purposely chose dogs of the same breed in order to minimize any differences in performance that were unrelated to age.

Starting out with a spoiler, older dogs did worse than younger dogs on one of the tests, they did better on a second test, and there was no effect of age in the third test.

For the first test, dogs were trained to associate four images on a touch screen with a positive experience—receiving a treat. So, if the dogs touched these images on the screen, they received a treat. Another four images were associated with a time out, meaning that touching any one of them resulted in no opportunities to touch images for a brief period of time. After being taught these associations, dogs were tested with a pair of images that always included one randomly selected “treat” image and one randomly selected “time out” image. Sessions consisted of 30 tests with a pair of images. Dogs were considered to have mastered this task when they chose the right image 20 out of 30 times for four out of five sessions in a row. There was a linear relationship between age and the number of sessions it took dogs to learn this task, meaning that younger dogs learned it faster than older dogs.

In the second test, dogs were again shown a pair of images on the touchscreen, but only one of those images was one that the dog had seen before. In each case, the familiar image was one that the dog had learned had a negative association because it led to a time out if touched. The dogs could therefore make an inference that the unfamiliar image was the correct choice and would lead to a treat if touched. (These trials were interspersed in sessions that included pairs of images just as in the first test in which both images were familiar to the dogs.) In this experiment, the older dogs were, the more likely they were to choose the correct image, meaning that older dogs were better at solving this puzzle than younger dogs.

The final test in this experiment looked at long-term memory. Dogs were tested at least 6 months after the other parts of the study were completed to determine how well they retained what they had learned. When presented with pairs of images just as they had been in test one, over 90 percent of the dogs performed better than chance level (at least 22 correct out of 32) and there was no effect of age on the success rate.

This study shows that there are differences in cognitive abilities between older and younger dogs, but not that dogs of certain ages have better abilities than dogs of other ages. The way that age affects performance depends on the specific task dogs are asked to do.

Wellness: Healthy Living
Tips to Stop Your Dog from Eating Too Fast
Helping Fido slow down at mealtimes.
Northmate Green Slow Interactive Feeder

Some dogs eat so fast that a reasonable person would bet good money that they either think their speediness will make a steak appear or they believe that all of their kibble will self-destruct in 60 seconds. Many dogs do this throughout their lives without a serious problem, but they are flirting with disaster.

Eating so quickly doesn’t allow them to chew or even really taste their food. More worrisome is that speed eating can cause choking, gagging, vomiting and an even more serious condition called Gastric Dilation (colloquially known as canine bloat). Canine bloat can result from eating too much or too fast. The stomach expands because gasses build up to the point that it can twist within the dog’s abdomen, preventing the gasses from leaving the stomach. The result is that circulation can be cut off to that organ as well as to others including the heart. Dogs can die within hours of the onset of bloat, so it is a serious condition that requires immediate emergency medical attention if you even suspect it is a possibility. So, eating fast is more than unsightly—it’s potentially dangerous.

I am regularly asked how to train a dog to eat more slowly, and my answer is that it’s easier to make it physically impossible for them to eat that fast than it is to train them to eat slowly. There are a lot of ways to do this, but they all use the same principle, which is to set up a system that doesn’t allow them to eat more than a little bit of food at a time.

Pictured: Slow Feed Dog Bowl

You can place one small bowl upside down inside a big bowl and then pour the food over the small bowl and into the bigger one. That creates a narrow “moat” of food and the dog can’t gulp the entire meal down. He has to work his way around the entire circle of food. Another option is to place toys that are too big to swallow (and that are clean!) in a food bowl so the dog has to move them out of the way or work around them to reach the food. It’s also common for people whose dogs tend to eat a bowl of food in a matter of seconds to scatter the food over a broad area so the dog has to move around for each piece of food. This works very well in houses with a single dog. If more than one dog is around, this option is a poor choice because it promotes competition, stress and can lead to aggression over the food.

Pictured: Wisspet Happy Hunting Bowl

My favorite way to keep dogs from scarfing down their food too quickly is to buy and use a food bowl or food puzzle that is specific to this purpose. I am comfortable with any slow feeder that is easy to clean and sturdy, and there are many options out there. Food puzzles are often loud, but many dogs will work for a long time to roll or push a Buster Cube or a Kong Wobbler around to get the food to fall out. Not only does this slow down their eating, it also provides mental exercise and gives dogs valuable experience being persistent and handling a bit of frustration.

If your dog is a speed eater, have you found a way to slow down mealtimes?

News: Guest Posts
Dying Woman Wants to be with Dogs
They top her list of family members

I want to be with family, “Annie, Max, and you know, the rest of our family . . . “ So said Rita, my 84-year old neighbor and very dear friend, a few days before passing away a few weeks ago. All of us who understood Rita were entertained by the order in which she named her most precious loved ones. Annie is her dog and Max is her daughter and son-in-law’s dog.

Since so many human members of Rita’s family are dog lovers, they took no offense at how important the dogs were to her. The feeling was mutual, too. During her final days in hospice care at her daughter and son-in-law’s house, Annie and Max watched over her. They only left her bed for bathroom breaks and meals. Both dogs snuggled with her and slept next to her, offering the comfort of their company in her final days.

It’s impossible to say, of course, whether or not the dogs knew that she was dying. We can only speculate, and it’s certainly a possibility. What is clear is that they loved her and wanted to be with her. It’s also obvious that these dogs were giving her an immeasurable gift of love, and that their loving attention to Rita gave the rest of her family a sense of peace, too. The contentment she experienced because of the constant company of dogs as she declined and died was a blessing to them, too.

Have you observed dogs unwilling to leave the death bed of a loved one?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Guardianship Can Feel Like Work
It’s worth it, but taking care of dogs is hard

It’s fun to share our lives with dogs—most of the time. Sometimes, though, having a dog feels like work, and not just when there is a real crisis such as a dog suffering from a major illness or injury. The regular daily trials and tribulations of dog guardianship require plenty of opportunities for sacrifice and hard effort.

All people find challenges in different aspects of living with and caring for a dog. For me, it’s the pressure to get home to them. Don’t get me wrong—I certainly want to get home to dogs, but the feeling that I have to get home by a certain time can be stressful. Many of us live with a bit of a canine-imposed curfew. There have been many times when I have wanted to run an errand or meet a friend for even a brief time immediately after work, but I need to head home first to let dogs out, give them exercise and feed them. I don’t like the way going home to dogs can feel like an imposition on my freedom. Most of the time, it’s not a big deal. It’s just that from time to time, it feels like a drag to do what I know is right for dogs when that doesn’t serve my immediate desires.

There are a lot of people whose big struggle is dealing with all the dog hair. Many of us may feel like no outfit is complete without dog hair. However, fewer of us believe that no home decorating scheme is complete without massive quantities of fur everywhere. Some dogs shed constantly and in large quantities, but even dogs who only donate their fur sparingly can put a strain on household cleanliness.

Perhaps the most common complaint about having a dog is picking up poop. Whether this involves picking it up in bags on walks or regular clean-ups of the yard, I hear a lot of complaints about this part of having a dog. I know of nobody, including, myself, who considers this chore associated with being a dog guardian to be anything but a big, unpleasant nuisance.

Having a dog is worth any and all of the trouble that comes with it, but that doesn’t mean every moment is pure joy. What aspect of having a dog feels the most like work to you?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Comparison of Risk-Taking in Dogs and Wolves
The influence of each species’ feeding ecology
Comparison of Dogs and Wolves

Humans tend to be risk-averse, which is often illustrated by our decision when offered either $100 or the opportunity for a 50-50 shot at receiving either $200 or nothing. In general, humans go for the sure thing. We are not, as a species, risk-prone, or we would gamble on the shot at getting the bigger payoff.

It turns out that a number of studies across a broad range of species have shown that how a species responds to risk is predictable based on their feeding ecology. Animals who depend on erratic, ephemeral food sources, such as meat that they hunt or fruits that are patchy and only ripe for a brief time, tend to be risk-prone. They are willing to gamble on the big payoff. Species that eat diverse types of food or food that is more reliably available, such as vegetation, are risk-averse.

Some of our primate relatives are like us, and some are the opposite. For example, bonobos and lemurs (who both eat a very diverse diet that is mainly vegetarian) are risk-averse like us, choosing a sure thing of lower value over a chance at something better. Chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys—both meat and patchy fruit eaters—are different, being risk-prone and choosing the option that may yield a big reward but could leave then empty-handed. This pattern has appeared in closely-related species birds, too, where those who eat insects are risk-prone, while species who eat seeds are risk-averse.

Scientists haven’t fully explored how widespread this pattern of feeding ecology predicting risk-taking behavior is, but wolves and dogs are an interesting test case. These two species diverged quite recently in an evolutionary sense, but their feeding ecologies differ greatly. Wolves are primarily hunters and dogs are mainly scavengers. Hunting has a high failure rate, but the rewards of a big kill are enormous. In contrast, the source of food for the vast majority of dogs worldwide is human refuse, which tends to be available far more regularly.

In a recent study called “Exploring Differences in Dogs’ and Wolves’ Preference for Risk in a Foraging Task” scientists investigated whether wolves and dogs conform to the pattern seen across so many other species. Based on their different feeding ecologies, they predicted that compared with each other, wolves would be risk-prone and dogs would be risk-averse. The study was done at Wolf Science Centre in Austria, using dogs and wolves who were raised and live at the facility and have had the same overall experiences there.

The subjects of the study were trained to choose either a bowl that contained a dry pellet of food or a bowl that had a fifty percent chance of containing a piece of meat and a fifty percent chance of holding a stone. After each choice, the subject was given the contents of the bowl. All the wolves and dogs in the study were subject to tests to confirm that they understood the choice they were making and also to confirm that they preferred the meat to the dry food pellet.

The researchers found that the pattern of risk-taking seen in other species also applied to wolves and dogs. As expected, wolves were more risk-prone than dogs. However, there is more to this study than that simple conclusion. Wolves learned the system faster than the dogs, and the researchers acknowledge that they may have understood it better than the dogs. Additionally, dogs’ preference for the meat versus dry food pellet was not as strong as it was for wolves. Therefore, the risk of losing out and getting nothing for the chance to get something only a little better than a food pellet may not have been worth it to dogs. There was greater variation among individual dogs in risk-taking strategy compared with wolves, who were more similar in their choices, so it’s possible that there are dogs who are risk-prone as well as dogs who are risk-averse. (Dogs made the risky choice from 38 to 76 percent of the time, while wolves took the risky option 70 to 95 percent of the time.)

Overall, despite the conclusions made from the data in this study, direct comparisons of the choices made by these two species may require further study. It would be very interesting to learn more about decisions to take risks by dogs and wolves in a study with more than seven of each species, though I realize possible subjects for a study such as this are limited. It would also be fascinating to know about the decisions foxes and coyotes would make if presented with the same choices. Comparative research that include dogs as one species among many allow us to learn a great deal about how their evolutionary history and ecology have affected their behavior. It’s one of many ways that we can deepen our understanding of the animals who share our homes and live in our hearts.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dogs Understand Our Words and Intonation
What you say and how you say it both matter
Dogs Understand Our Words - Study with MRI

Humans use both words and the intonation of speech to decipher the meaning of language, and it turns out that our dogs do, too. In a research paper called “Neural mechanisms for lexical processing in dogs” scientists investigated how dogs process the meaning of language. They found that dogs’ brains have even more in common with humans’ brains than previously thought. (It’s not clear when we will collectively stop being surprised by this, but I hope we always remain excited about new evidence to explain why we feel that dogs are kindred spirits.)

In this study, dogs who have been trained to remain still while their brain activity is recorded listened to recordings of their trainers talking. There were four types of recordings: 1) words of praise spoken with intonation typically associated with praise, 2) words of praise spoken with a neutral intonation, 3) neutral words spoken with intonation typically associated with praise, and 4) neutral words spoken with a neutral intonation.

Researchers analyzed the brain activity of the dogs in response to each of the recordings, and came to several conclusions about the way that dogs respond to words and the intonation of human speech. The dogs processed the vocabulary in the left hemisphere of their brains, which is where humans also process the meaning of words. The dogs processed the intonation of the words separately, in a different region of the brain. Just as humans do, dogs processed the intonation of human speech in the right hemisphere of their brain. Dogs also process sounds that convey emotion without words in this same region of the brain’s right hemisphere.

Dogs process both words and the intonation of human speech to decipher meaning. Just as humans do, they process these two aspects of speech separately, then integrate them to determine the full meaning of what was said. Only the praise that was spoken like praise—higher pitched than normal speech and with more variation in pitch—activated the reward centers of dogs’ brains. Though they may understand words of praise said in any manner, it only makes dogs happy to hear us praise them when we do it with proper feeling.

This research does more than reveal yet another similarity in the way that human and dog brains process information. It also suggests that the ability to connect a word to a meaning did not develop with the evolution of spoken language. Rather, it is a more ancient ability that can be made use of in the context of the human-dog relationship to link specific sounds to specific meanings.

The take away messages from this research are that dogs process two parts of spoken language—words and intonation—the same way that humans do and if you want to make your dogs happy, you have to praise them like you mean it!

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