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
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Daily changes and a lack of rituals intensify the struggle
March 16 2017
Losing a dog is often every bit as intense as losing a family member or close friend, but I’m confident I don’t have to convince anyone reading this of that fact. Instead, I’d like to discuss two of the reasons why that is so.
One issue is that our dogs affect our daily life in ways that few of our friends or family members do. We live with our dogs, and that impacts so many little details of our days—when we wake up, our exercise patterns, our rush home after work, what we buy, and who we have over—to name a few. As much as we love our dearest friends and family members, only a small percentage of them are integral parts of our daily lives. That particular form of closeness explains why many recent widows find the grocery store such a source of misery. It’s hard to go on such a common errand and NOT buy the items that have filled the cart for years or even half a century. After the death of a dog, when the morning routine varies and there are no more walks after work with our best friend, so many simple moments carry a similar reminder of loss.
A second issue is the lack of social customs to help us mourn publicly and to ease us into the next phase of life. There are typically no funerals, no religious ceremonies, no obituaries and no organized assistance from the community to acknowledge the solemnity of the event. Our sacred rituals lag behind the new understanding of the place that dogs have in our lives and in our hearts. The lack of these predictable, shared cultural responses can make it harder to move on.
To be fair, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than suffering through the death of a child or of an identical twin, but for many people, the grief of losing a dog has the potential to be as bad as for any other loss. As that becomes more widely accepted in society, it is easier for people to cope with the loss of a dog. The acceptance that our bonds with dogs are intensely strong lessens the shame and embarrassment many associate with grieving for a dog. In an environment in which nobody would even think of uttering that horrid phrase “just a dog”, it would be easier to go through the natural grieving process and move forward.
Loving our dogs as much as we love our friends and family does not diminish the love we have for members of our own species. It just illustrates that the realm of humanity is too small to contain the greatness of our love for others.
Have you grieved for dogs like you have grieved for people?
News: Guest Posts
Is your dog guilty of either offense?
March 13 2017
Taking many male dogs out for a walk can be like taking your own little watering can out for a spin—a splash on the light post, a few drops for the fire hydrant, a dribble over an old pile of poop, a good soaking of the neighbor’s prize roses. Males aim their urine for marking purposes, so there’s no doubt that they are able to direct the stream quite accurately.
They are able to put their precious urine where they want it to go, but I’ve yet to see a dog who purposely avoided spraying something in the great outdoors. For the most part, that matters very little to us humans. One patch of grass or tree is pretty much like the next from our perspective. Yet there are times when I wish that dogs would try to avoid dousing various things that get in the way, especially their own leash and any other dogs who are out on the walk with them. I’ve never seen a dog make any effort to make sure that these objects stay dry as they share their liquid calling cards with the neighborhood.
Leashes get wet pretty regularly on walks. Few people have avoided this little drawback of dog guardianship. It happens especially often with dogs who turn around multiple times before lifting a leg. Many dogs do this, circling two, three, four or more times in essentially the same spot before peeing. This behavior serves to tangle them up in the leash or at least to step over it, leaving the leash in the perfect spot to get caught in a urine stream. It’s irksome for anyone holding the leash or who owns the house where the leash is to be hung up later, isn’t it?
Also at risk of being hit by pee is any other dog in the vicinity, especially if both are on leash, guaranteeing that they are in close proximity to one another. Since dogs out on walks together so often sniff the ground together and make little effort to get away from one another, I suppose it’s inevitable that someone gets peed on. As one is still stiffing an amazing smell, the other one decides to mark that exact spot, paying no attention to the fact that his buddy’s head is in the way. Sigh.
Some dogs clearly object to being peed on. My buddies Saylor and Marley illustrate this. Marley is a bigtime marker, and Saylor loves to follow him to sniff whatever he is sniffing. As a result, on occasion, he has inadvertently marked her head, neck or back. However, he has not done it lately, as far as I know, because Saylor now leaps out of the way. She takes advantage of her quickness and agility to avoid Marley’s pee, often jumping swiftly in whatever direction is required. It seems obvious to me that Saylor recognizes the behavioral signs of an impending pee and wants nothing to do with it. As soon as he starts to lift his leg, she is out of there.
I’m mostly accusing males of peeing on dogs and on leashes, but females can do it, too. It may be less likely for dogs who squat to pee (typical for adult females) than for dogs who lift their leg to do so (usually males), but it is by no means just a male issue.
Has your dog peed on his own leash or on one of your other dogs?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Another way we treat our dogs like our children
March 11 2017
We all know that it has become common for people to consider their dogs to be like their children. They are often referred to as “fur babies” or “four-legged kids”. Among the many signs of that are the colors of dogs’ accessories. Leashes, collars and tags are far more likely to be pink for females and blue for males than ever before. Long gone are the days where most dogs wore a basic brown collar with a matching leash, or the era after that when primary colors were common for dogs of both sexes.
There have been many color changes for human babies’ clothes and accessories. The current pink-for-girls, blue-for-boys code is less than 100 years old.) It’s no surprise that the colors we choose for our dogs has a fluidity to it as well.
Now, many guardians pamper their pooches with a variety of accessories in their gender-specific color. I was recently taking care of my good buddies Marley (male) and Saylor (female) and noticed that they have leashes and tags in their gender-indicating color. (They both wear navy blue Penn State colors because their guardian is a proud alumna of that university. The color says nothing about trends in gender-specific accessories for dogs, and everything about the great pride of the Nittany Lions.)
The color that a dog wears may seem like a small thing, but it represents a shift in the way people view dogs. Choosing pink for female dogs and blue for male dogs is another way that we acknowledge the role that dogs play in our lives, and it goes beyond leashes, tags and collars. The interest in blue and pink accessories extends to bowls, blankets, dog beds, toys, clothing, and everything else we buy for our dogs.
Are your dog’s accessories blue or pink because of gender?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
A study of the Delboeuf illusion
March 8 2017
Visual illusions reveal the inner working of the eyes and of the brain, and when used in comparative studies, they can teach us a lot about the differences and similarities in vision and neurological processing between species. A common research approach involves using illusions that affect perception of size and investigating whether the illusions affect choice. Allowing research subjects to choose between various options can elucidate the illusions’ effects on members of various species.
One such illusion is the Delboeuf illusion, which causes identically sized objects to appear different in size depending on what surrounds them. In the image below with dark circles of identical size, humans (and other primates) tend to overestimate the size of the circle on the left, which is surrounded by a ring that is smaller than the ring around the circle on the right.
In the study, one set of trials tested whether dogs could correctly choose larger portions of food over smaller ones. Dogs were given a choice between two piles of biscuits on plates—one pile of biscuits weighed 18 grams and the other weighed 32 grams. Once dogs chose to go for one plate, the other one was picked up and no longer available. Sometimes both portions of food were on small plates, and sometimes both were on big plates. Each dog was offered this choice multiple times. Pooling the date into one big analysis, dogs consistently chose the bigger pile of biscuits.
In another series of trials, dogs were offered a choice between equal portions of food that were presented on different size plates. The dogs had to choose between 32 grams of food on a large plate and 32 grams of food on a small plate. If dogs are susceptible to the Delboeuf illusion, the expectation is that they would choose the smaller plate even though the quantity of food was identical on both plates. Instead, dogs’ choices were no different than if they picked a plate at random with no reference to its size. They were not significantly more likely to choose the large plate or the small plate, providing evidence that the Delboeuf illusion does not affect dogs the way that it affects humans. Dogs are not fooled by the size of the plate.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Where is your dog allowed to go?
March 4 2017
People who say that money is the biggest source of conflict in most marriages are clearly unfamiliar with the clashes over whether or not to let the dogs up on the furniture. These epic battles regularly find their way into my private consultations, where I am repeatedly asked who is right—the person who says dogs should stay on the floor or the one who wants them up on the couch and on the bed. I always handle these mediations with the same four basic steps.
1) I take a deep breath to calm myself for the coming storm. 2) I wish for the umpteenth time that I had a business partner specializing in marital counseling. 3) I explain the factors to consider when making this important decision. 4) I open a discussion with my clients about how these factors relate to their particular situation. So, you might ask, what are those factors?
The main one is personal preference. That is, the answer to the dogs-on-the-furniture question is not absolute and cannot be answered definitively by someone outside of the household. Some people are appalled by the idea of fur and potentially muddy paws making contact with their furniture, and others don’t care at all. Just like with politics, religion and money, there are no right answers that apply to everyone, but life is a little easier and a lot less conflicted if the members of a family agree.
The dog’s needs are also a factor. Dogs who are old, get cold easily, or who have really short coats are often less comfortable on a hard floor, so they may be more persistent about being on the furniture, and it may provide a real benefit to them. Of course, a cozy dog bed, soft blankets or even some towels on the floor may accomplish the same thing. I do feel that it is a great kindness to provide dogs, especially dogs like the ones described above, with a soft, cozy place to relax, and that may or may not involve the furniture. Dogs who are fearful may also be helped by being up on the furniture because that lets them be in close physical contact with you when you are lounging on the couch or drifting off to sleep. It’s true that many people who want their dogs up on the furniture are doing it for themselves at least as much as for the dogs, but dogs’ needs are worthy of consideration.
The dog’s behavior is the piece of this puzzle that allows me the best opportunity to make a meaningful contribution. I don’t buy into the old-fashioned arguments about dogs needing to be on the floor because otherwise they will try to dominate their guardians, causing all sort of horrendous social patterns to ensue. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, that does not mean that dogs’ behavior and manners are irrelevant to the questions of whether or not they should be up on the furniture. Dogs who are pushy can benefit from being required to earn the right to be on the furniture. Those who lack impulse control can learn better self-control by following rules such as staying on the floor despite the temptation of the furniture. Resource-guarding dogs who will defend the bed as they do food, bones or toys are not good candidates for furniture privileges. For dogs with no training who will not move over on the bed when asked to do so or won’t get down off the sofa upon request, it may not be worth the hassle of allowing them on the furniture.
Another avenue I like to pursue with any of my clients who are in the middle of a Great Furniture Negotiation is the possibility of a compromise. Sometimes families decide to let dogs onto only some of the furniture—perhaps just one old couch or chair, or maybe a beanbag. Another option is to cover the furniture so the dogs can enjoy it without ruining it. One common compromise is to allow the dogs up on the furniture only if they are invited, and to require them to get off if you tell them to. This can be combined effectively with the use of covers—invite dogs up whenever the covers are on but not when they have been removed.
When there is conflict, one solution is that the dogs are allowed up on the furniture, but the person who wants them up there is responsible for cleaning the furniture often. Some families have decided to let the dogs up on all the furniture except for the favorite chair of the person opposed. That way, there is always a clean place available for the person who objects to having the dogs up on the furniture. There are families who allow some dogs up on the bed or couch, but not others. Usually the dog with access is older, has better manners or sheds less. Some people are uncomfortable having different rules for different dogs and feel that it is unfair, but the couples who have saved their marriage with this strategy feel that it is worth it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to dogs’ access to the furniture, and sometimes a little negotiating leads to a compromise that makes both members of a couple happy.
There is no right answer and though many people ask me what is “normal” when it comes to dogs being up on the furniture, there is no clear answer to that question. What’s considered normal in this regard is a moving target. Years ago, it was far more common to forbid dogs from being on the couch or the bed than it is now. Then again, it wasn’t so very long ago that it was common to prevent dogs from coming inside the house at all. It was a big change when having indoor dogs became normal. Maybe we are on that same path when it comes to our furniture.
What are your rules (if any) about having dogs on the furniture?
News: Guest Posts
Clients share stories of ridiculous consumption
March 1 2017
My appointments with clients tend to follow themes, some of which are predictable. I receive many calls about housetraining after the first big snow of the year, and there’s the digging under the fence problems when the ground thaws in the spring. The start of monsoon season corresponds with the Fourth of July, so that time of year typically brings large numbers of dogs who are afraid of thunder, fireworks and other loud noises.
Sometimes, the trends are less expected. There have been times when my week is full of dogs who are aggressive to other dogs on leash or when a surprising number of appointments involve dogs who fear men with beards. (The past few years with big bushy beards being so fashionable have been a tough time for dogs and for canine behaviorists alike.) I’m not sure why I’ll occasionally work with a cluster of dogs who jump on visitors followed by a series of dogs who guard their toys from other dogs in the house.
The last few weeks have involved a larger-than-usual proportion of dogs who have eaten ridiculous things. In each case, I was working with the dog because of an unrelated behavioral problem, but in the course of talking about the dog’s background, the clients shared a story about something that the dog had eaten. (All of the dogs were fine whether veterinary care was needed or not.)
One dog helped herself to a tube of lipstick. She ate most of it, but still managed to use a significant portion of it to decorate the walls, rugs and floor of the house. Rather than become upset, the people actually decided that the light pink color was just the right shade for their new nursery, and they had already gotten paint samples to match.
Another dog had gone into the yard and dug up the family’s recently departed pet hamster. The members of this family were similarly good sports, remembering to be grateful that it had happened while their kids were at preschool so that they were not traumatized by one of their pets exhuming and eating another one.
The most surprising story of what a dog had eaten was not told to me on purpose, but came up when a client and I were walking his dog to help her learn to be calm when she saw other dogs. When I saw that her poop was neon yellow, it begged an explanation. The man sheepishly told me that she had eaten a large number of paintballs. Concerned about the toxicity of paintballs, I urged him to call his veterinarian immediately, which he did. After treatment, the dog was fine, and (in case you were wondering) I have recovered from the shock of the highlighter-colored poop.
Over the years, clients have shared many stories of what their dogs have consumed. There are the usual suspects—tampons, an entire stick of butter, socks, rocks, golf balls, forks, spoons, remote controls, cell phones. And, of course, I really do know many dogs who have eaten the kids’ homework.
Has your dog eaten anything bordering on the ridiculous?
A breathtakingly honest memoir
February 25 2017
The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog is everything you expect from well-known canine behaviorist and best-selling/award-winning author Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D., but it is also so much more. What you presume would be included is indeed there—insights about dogs from science as well as from her own experiences, research into the physiology of behavior and personal stories. If you love learning about dogs through McConnell’s combination of science and tales from real life, you will love this book, and yet this is more than a book about dogs.
It’s a breathtakingly honest memoir from a woman whose upbeat personality, intelligence, success and sense of humor have largely hidden the pain and darkness in her life from others. It takes bravery to share such deeply personal and traumatic details from her life. Readers, even those who know McConnell’s work well, will be struck by how vulnerable she makes herself and how personal this book is. They will learn how much she had to overcome to become the successful person she has long been and to find the happiness that is a far more recent accomplishment.
It’s artfully written, showing her maturity as an author, and true to form, it shows how intricately her life and well-being are intertwined with the dogs in her life. The fear and anxiety she has struggled with for much of her life actually became worse when her Border Collie Will entered her life. His fear and reactivity created all sorts of problems, including exacerbating her own struggles to overcome multiple traumas. She was forced to deal with not just his issues, but her own as well, and the book is the story of how they both moved forward towards happiness, joy and love. Their journey together has had many setbacks, has required a seemingly endless reservoir of hard work and patience, and will never truly be over.
The beauty and power of the book come from the way McConnell weaves her own narrative into that of dogs in general and her dog Will in particular. It is a compelling story that’s both hopeful and sad, as well as gut-wrenching and inspiring. The Education of Will offers insight and understanding into struggles with true terror, guilt, shame and fear, allowing readers to empathize with such experiences and to understand them better. Though it is a serious book about a serious topic, the warmth and humor in McConnell’s writing make it as enjoyable to read as it is riveting.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
BrewDog offers a week off—fully paid
February 23 2017
A beer company based in the UK wants to be the best company to work for, ever, and a new policy gives them a legitimate claim to success. BrewDog just announced that all 1000 of their employees are eligible for a full week of paid leave when a new dog joins the family. They recognize the importance for everyone in the family of spending time with a new dog to adjust to the change. They want to make the transition easier for everyone.
With a name like BrewDog, their new Paw-ternity and Mutt-ernity benefit (officially called Puppy Parental Leave) should come as no surprise. The company has been dog friendly since it began 10 years ago, when their official mascot, Labrador Retriever Bracken, watched the two human founders begin their first batch of beer. Now, employees’ dogs are welcomed at all of their offices and in their 50 breweries and bars worldwide. (Their headquarters in Aberdeen, Scotland regularly has 50 dogs at the office.) Customers’ dogs are also always welcome.
Most people have to take vacation time in order to spend sufficient time with a new dog, which means that many are not able to manage it. For years, I’ve advised people to bring home a new dog over the weekend and to take Friday or Monday off to make it a long weekend if possible. Now, I can just advise them to get a job at BrewDog!
I’m sure many people would love to work for this company because of their generous treatment of employees by the management. Treating the people who work for you well is a good investment that pays dividends in loyalty, and also expands the pool of potential hires. Giving people the freedom to adjust to a new dog also lessens the likelihood of future problems that result in missed work days and low morale.
The company founders say that they understand that their employees care about two things above all else—their beer and their dogs. That might be an oversimplification, but then, again, it might not be.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How does your dog react to people, cats and dogs?
February 18 2017
Recently, I had a client whose resource-guarding dog reacted very differently depending on who in the household approached him when he had a toy. His responses varied with the species of the individual.
The other dogs in the house are watched closely if they come near the dog in question when he has a toy. He will go still except for his eyes, which track their every move. If they try to pick up one of his toys, he will growl and charge at them. He will take toys from them and hoard them even if they all started out with matching toys given to them by the guardians. If you only saw him around other dogs, he presents as a classic high-level resource guarder—what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine. However, he reacts very differently to the other two species sharing his home.
The human adults and the child in the household can do whatever they want with this dog’s toys. They can pick them up, remove them from the dog’s mouth, walk by them or even step on them. The dog is completely relaxed no matter what happens to his toys at the hands (or the feet) of the people in his family.
The cat can walk by toys, approach the dog while he is playing with a toy or even cuddle up with him when he has one without eliciting any reaction. If she picks up a toy up or lies down on top of one, the dog rushes over and takes it.
This dog lets people do anything related to toys, and lets the other dogs in his house do nothing related to them, but takes an intermediate stance with the cat. He is unwilling to tolerate the cat taking possession a toy, but as long as she does not attempt to do that, he does not object. It’s difficult to know exactly why this dog behaves as he does, though I think it’s safe to assume that he does not regard the dog as a human/dog cross. It’s possible that the dog’s actions are based on species, but the differences may simply reflect his response to each of the individuals in his multi-species household.
Do you have a dog who reacts differently to the various species in your home when they approach his toys?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
They show a bias against them
February 16 2017
In a study called “Third-party social evaluations of humans by monkeys and dogs” scientists evaluated capuchin monkeys and domestic dogs to investigate their responses to people after watching them interact with other people. Specifically, researchers studied their evaluations of people who were either helpful or who refused to help another person. There’s an entire behavioral area of research involving what are called “third-party social evaluations” which simply means the study of how individuals respond to people after watching them interact with others.
In the experiment with dogs, the person pretending (for the sake of science) to be in need of help was the dog’s guardian. The dog watched as the guardian spent about 10 seconds attempting to open a clear container holding a roll of tape. In the “helper” situation, the guardian then turned to one of the people on either side of him/her and held out the container. The helper held the container so that the guardian could open it. The guardian removed the roll of tape, showed it the dog, put in back in and replaced the lid. In the “non-helper” condition, the person who the guardian turned to for help responded to the non-verbal request for assistance by turning away, at which point the guardian continued with the unsuccessful attempts to open it. In both cases, there was a person on the guardian’s other side, who was not asked for help.
At the end of this role-playing situation, both the person who was asked for help and the other person next to the guardian offered the dog treats. When the person had helped the guardian open the container, dogs were equally likely to take the treat from either person. However, when there was a refusal to help, dogs were more likely to choose the treat held by the person who was not asked for help. Dogs chose to avoid taking treats from people who were not helpful. This study found similar results in capuchin monkeys, and the same pattern is well known to occur in children.
It is interesting that dogs act as though they assume that people are okay and trust them—until they have evidence to the contrary. In this study, they gave people the benefit of the doubt, reacting just as well to people who were never asked for help as to those who did provide help. Once they observed someone refuse to help their guardian, though, they avoided taking treats from them. This matches the experience many of us have with dogs in that behaviorally healthy, well-socialized dogs seem to like and trust people in general. It as though dogs pursue a “trust unless specific information advises me to do otherwise” strategy regarding social interactions.
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