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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. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

News: Guest Posts
Dogs in Neighborhood Communications
Dog related posts account for the most posts

Our neighborhood uses a social networking service, like NextDoor, that anyone in the community can join to facilitate information sharing. The most common topic is pets, and the majority of pet posts are about dogs. As you might expect, there are messages about summer rentals, firewood for sale, free furniture, garage sales, wildfires, plans for block parties and many other issues, but dogs are the number one topic in our neighborhood.

Unfortunately, there are far more postings of pets who wander away or go visiting friends in the neighborhood than any other issue, but on the bright side, reunions are common and typically swift. Lost dog posts and found dog posts are about equally common, but they rarely concern the same dog. (Generally, dogs are reunited with their families within hours of a post, and private messages rather than matching posts are usually involved.)

Even some of the posts that are not aimed at bringing people and their dogs back together relate to canines. For example, there are offers of free dog crates, or people trying to sell bags of dog food that are not the right kind after all. There have been posts to share that the coyotes are howling so that people make sure to have their pets safely inside and posts asking if any kids want to earn money cleaning up dog poop from yards. (Not many takers on that one!)

My world and my communications—personal and professional, face-to-face and on social media—so often involve dogs. I’ve never assumed that this is true for most people, so it was eye-opening when I joined the neighborhood group to see how many of the messages are about dogs. 

Have others of you found a similar pervasiveness of dog-related messages even in groups that are not specifically set up to connect dog lovers?

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
The Professor Paws Project
A “Dog-torate” in Occupational Therapy

Niko may very well be more popular than any Big Man on Campus has ever been. He’s not that big, and he’s actually not a man, but this Labrador Retriever spends far more time in college classrooms than most students, and he is adored. Niko is trained as a service dog, and is a key member of the Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. The goal of this program is to help students in the occupational therapy program, healthcare professionals and members of the community learn about service dogs.

The world of service dogs is filled with information that is not common knowledge. Because people are not aware of all the ways that service dogs can, well, be of service, many people are missing out on additional ways to live independently and in fully satisfying ways. More education is part of the solution.

Not very many people know all the ways that service dogs can help people with disabilities, or the proper etiquette to observe around a service dog. Fewer still are familiar with what protections the law offers to service dogs and their people. This lack of knowledge usually means that people may behave in ways that are annoying or unhelpful in the presence of a service dog. For occupational therapists, such gaps in their knowledge could mean doing their jobs less effectively. Service dogs are often underutilized in plans to help a person achieve independence and improve their higher quality of life. The Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa aims to change that. With Niko’s help, professors at OU-Tulsa are able to educate students about service dogs with practical, interactive hands-on experience and demonstrations.

By teaching students and other members of the community about service dogs, Niko helps reduce the barriers faced by people who need and work with service dogs every day, and that means that people’s lives are enhanced by the program. Over 500 people receive education each year through the Professor Paws Project, which was developed by Assistant Professor Mary Isaacson. To honor this contribution to the community, the City of Tulsa has just designated May 9, 2017 as “Professor Paws Day”. On that day, Niko will officially walk in the graduation ceremonies. (Think of it as Niko receiving his “Dog-torate”.)

Niko is not the first service dog to be involved with the education of occupational therapy students at OU-Tulsa. Before Isaacson trained Niko, she trained a service dog named Samson, and began incorporating him into her classroom instruction. Samson regularly attended classes, which allowed her to demonstrate the specific ways that a service dog can have an impact on a person’s daily life. Whether it is opening the fridge, retrieving dropped items, helping remove someone’s socks, or turning lights on and off, students were able to see what a difference such assistance can make to a person with a disability.

After training, Samson was placed with a high school student with cerebral palsy. That was 6 years ago, and now Samson lives on a college campus and continues to assist the same person. Having Samson participate in classes during his training and before his placement was so beneficial to students that people recognized the value of having a dog present on campus permanently.

As a result, the goal all along for Niko has been different than for Samson. Rather than being placed with someone as a service dog or working directly with patients, Niko will remain at OU-Tulsa in order to continue educating people about service dogs. As far as staff at the university know, the Professor Paws Project is the only program of its kind. However, its success suggests that this might not be true for long.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Two Dogs Eat Ice Cream
They have different styles

Daisy and Cooper are both ice cream-loving dogs. When their guardian takes them through the drive thru of a fast food restaurant, they share an ice cream cone. Just for laughs, watch the way each dog eats. They definitely have different styles!

The first time I watched this, I felt sympathy for Cooper as he watched Daisy lick the ice cream while he had to wait. Waiting helps dogs practice dealing with frustration and developing self-control is good for them, so I wasn’t opposed to requiring him to be patient. I just felt for Cooper watching another dog eat what he so clearly wanted. After watching it, I was impressed with everyone in the car. The guardian controlled the situation so that each dog was able to enjoy a treat. Daisy was remarkably calm considering that she must have known that she was right next to a dog who could swallow the entire cone in less than a second. Cooper admirably waited his turn despite his eagerness to eat the ice cream.

Could your dogs share a single cone, and if so, how would you make sure they each got some?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Behavior Advice: Helping Your Dog Adjust to a New Home
Tips on easing the stress of moving

Move is a four-letter word. (So is “pack” by the way, but that whole issue is subsumed within the horror of the move.) It’s not just you who hates moving—everybody does. The misery associated with it affects our dogs, too. There’s no way you can avoid some of the unpleasantness of moving, but there are ways that you can ease your dog’s transition to a new home.

Keep old routines. All of the changes associated with moves are inherently stressful, so do what you can to keep some things the same. If you can maintain the same general routine as before, that is helpful to dogs. So, if your dog is used to getting up, going into the yard, eating breakfast and then going on a walk, try to follow that same pattern in the new place. If you have to change things up because of a new job or other commitments, try to keep as much of the old routine in place as possible for at least a couple of weeks. Once your dog has settled in, additional changes will be easier to handle.

Don’t buy new gear right now. It is natural to want to buy new stuff when you move to a new place. For your dog’s sake, confine those urges to your own gear—towels, furniture, trash cans etc.—and leave his stuff alone for at least a few weeks until he is used to the place. Yes, I know it’s discouraging to bring a nasty, fur-covered old dog bed and water bowls with dings in them into your new home, but those things are comforting to your dog, so don’t take them away. If your urge to buy new things for your dog is overwhelming, indulge it with new toys or things to chew on, but resist the temptation to replace his regular gear for now.

Lots of loving. Giving your dog lots of attention and spending time with him playing, walking and just being together sounds simple. After all, that’s what you normally do, right? The problem is that when you move, you can become overwhelmed with so many details to attend to and all the work that has to be done. Of course, you never think you are someone who would ignore your dog or skip his walk, but a move can make anything possible. It’s unrealistic to think that you will be able to do as much for your dog as you could if you weren’t moving, but commit to spending quality time with him every day and that will help him out a lot.

Leave treats, stuffed Kongs and familiar things when you depart. Even dogs who have been perfectly comfortable for years being left alone when you leave may struggle in a new home. Most dogs are extremely place sensitive and need to learn to be okay when left alone at the new house. Try to wait as long as you can before leaving your dog alone at the new house, even if that means awkwardly taking him everywhere for a few days or so. If you’re moving with other family members, one option is to take turns staying home with him for those first few days so that at least one of you is always with him. When you do have to leave him, start with short departures if you can. Always leave him with something he loves such as a Kong stuffed with treats or something new (and safe even without supervision!) to chew on. If he has his usual dog bed, crate or blanket that he knows from the old house, these may comfort him.

Spend time on the floor with your dog. One of the things that helps dogs to feel at home someplace new is familiar smells. You can add those familiar smells to your house faster by spending time on the floor with your dog. Being on the floor together also adds to the time you spend giving him the loving that he needs during this stressful time.

Be patient. This may be the most obvious advice of all, but being patient and letting dogs adjust at their own speed is wise. Some dogs will be perfectly comfortable within a few days, many take a few weeks to settle in and some dogs can take months or more to feel at home in a new place. No matter how long it takes your dog to adjust, your patience is more likely to speed things up than impatience ever could.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
For Every Dog There is a Season
And a time for every purpose under heaven

It’s fun to watch dogs enjoy snow, especially the first one of the season. Some dogs truly come alive in winter weather, and are never more joyful than when they are plowing nose first through the drifts and leaping around in snow that is up to their shoulders or even higher. For dogs who love it, snow brings out their most playful tendencies.

Other dogs clearly love the springtime when the weather begins to warm up and they no longer have to decide between the misery of heading outside to pee and the misery of continuing to cross their little legs. There are plenty of dogs who do not enjoy cold weather, even if they do have a lovely coat, but especially if that coat is quite short. These dogs could all be named Crocus or Daffodil, because they perk up and become cheerful when the snow melts and the ground thaws.

Summer dogs are often swimmers and if hot weather allows them access to lakes and streams, that could explain why they are so happy in the heat. Other dogs who love the year’s warmest weather may simply enjoy basking in the sun and taking it easy—like the proverbial hound dog on a southern porch, though they need not be either hounds or southern.

Fall dogs become more energetic when the summer heat fades away. These dogs draw energy from the crisp, cool air and many of them consider piles of leaves the best toy in the world. It’s a pleasure to watch a dog dive into what humans have raked together and come shooting out the other side. I’m sure if they could shout out, “Wheeeeee!” they would do so as they frolic in this way.

Not all dogs have a favorite season. Does yours?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Frequency of Urination Related to Dog Body Size
Little dogs pee more often on walks

Scent marking is a common form of communication across a wide range of mammals. Although dogs can scent mark in various ways, they most often use urine, which is obvious to anyone who has watched dogs pee here, there and everywhere out on walks or during play time.

Urination, and other forms of scent marking, allow animals to convey a large amount of information in an indirect manner. That means that they can communicate without direct interactions. That has the advantage of avoiding the costs of social interactions, which can include stress, the energetic costs of interacting and potential injury. In many species, body size is closely correlated with competitive ability, which is why scent marking may be especially important to smaller individuals, who may be unlikely to fare well in direct encounters.

Dogs have an enormous size range for a single species, but only recently has the effect of size on frequency of scent marking been investigated. Researchers wondered whether smaller dogs take advantage of the indirect nature of scent marking through urine to be more competitive with larger dogs.

In the recent study, “Scent marking in shelter dogs: Effects of body size”, researchers walked 281 shelter dogs (mostly mixed breeds) that they categorized by size. Small dogs measured 33 cm or less at the withers, large dogs measured 50 cm or more, and medium dogs were above 33 cm but less than 50 cm. They recorded urinations during the first 20 minutes of each walk, noting whether they were directed at a target or not. (Targeted urinations were those that occurred after sniffing a spot on the ground or on some other surface, and those that involved urinating somewhere other than the ground even without sniffing it first.) The study found that smaller dogs marked more often than medium or large dogs and that they were more likely to direct their urine at targets compared to large dogs. Though smaller bladder capacities of smaller dogs could explain increased frequency of urination, that cannot account for the increased frequency of urinating on targets.

As expected, males also marked more frequently and directed their urine at targets more often than female dogs did. The length of time that dogs had spent in the shelter was positively associated with frequency of directed urinations, but not with total number of urinations. Size had no effect on the frequency of defecations on walks, but dogs who had been at the shelter longer were a little bit more likely to defecate on walks.

The authors concluded that smaller dogs use scent marking in the form of urination more frequently that medium or large dogs. It is possible that they are using scent marks in order to avoid direct interactions.

News: Guest Posts
Maja and Her Great Dane, Rosie
Both have prosthetic legs

They lost their legs under very different circumstances, but the shared experience brought them together. Maja Kazazic suffered serious injuries as a teenager when a bomb exploded near her, killing five friends in her home country of Bosnia during the war. Rosie lost her leg when her dog mom accidently stepped on her, causing an injury that became infected and required her leg to be amputated. The breeder originally planned to euthanize her, but Maja rescued her, just as a stranger once rescued Maja.

When Maja met Rosie, she knew she was the perfect dog for her, and they bonded quickly. Maja says she knew right away that they were a good match, thinking “This is my dog. I don’t know what this dog is, but any dog who wears a prosthetic is my dog.” Maja is adept at helping attach Rosie’s prosthetic leg each morning, as she has done for herself for many years. Both of those legs were made by the Hanger Clinic, which is the company that made the tail for Winter the dolphin (best known from the movie Dolphin Tale). That company received a call from a veterinarian who wanted to know if they could help Rosie by making a leg for her, to which they replied, “Absolutely!” The Hanger Clinic also contacted Maja and told her that they had a dog who would be perfect for her, in part because Maja had always wanted a Great Dane.

There is a lot more to Maja and Rosie’s relationship, though, than lost legs. They are happy together, and both love to be active, whether that involves running, agility, golf or being in the water. Maja is now a trained service dog and Maja is a motivational speaker.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Ears Held Back
This action has many meanings

The eyes may be the mirror to the soul, and careful observations of both the mouth and the tail can yield all sorts of information about a dog’s intentions and emotional state, but the ears are a different matter altogether. The ears are more challenging to read and understand, and they usually have to be viewed in conjunction with other visual signals to make a useful interpretation. That is especially true when the ears are pulled back or held close to the head.

Ears that are tucked close to the head often indicate negative emotions. One possibility is sadness, which often results in ears that are tucked down close to the sides of the head. Dogs may show this when a favorite person departs. I once saw a dog pull his ears back like this when he saw some of his dog buddies playing but he couldn’t join them because he was on a stay.

Ears that are pulled back often indicate fearfulness, especially if combined with other facial signals associated with this emotion, such as a fear grimace in which the corners of the dog’s mouth are pulled back or dilated pupils. Sometimes dogs put their ears back when they are nervous, and that will often be combined with tongue flicks, panting, tension in the body, or other signs of anxiety. This is a common behavior in dogs who must be in the car but dislike road trips, or dogs who are overwhelmed by too many children at once.

When a dog’s ears are in their natural resting position, it typically indicates that a dog is comfortable in the situation. When dogs greet each other, it is common to see one dog maintain his natural ear posture, suggesting that he is at ease, while another dog puts them back, indicating the opposite. Putting the ears back in this context may be an appeasement behavior.

There are at least two more possible meanings associated with ears that are pulled back. Dogs who are about to bite often pin their ears tightly to the head. It has been suggested that this may simply protect them from injury by keeping them out of the way of any teeth in the vicinity that mean business. Finally, males will pull their ears back when they are courting a female, and this action is one of many that means he is interested in her.

The motion of pulling the ears back is quite obvious, but the meaning is not always so apparent.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
When Your Partner Doesn’t Want a Dog
Persuasive strategies to consider

You’re all ready to adopt a dog! Perhaps you’ve been dreaming of this moment for years, or maybe it just occurred to you today that you need—really need—a dog in your life. There are so many wonderful dogs waiting for a home and the love of a family, and your life may soon be enhanced by a new best friend of the canine persuasion.

But what if you need to convince your partner—husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend—to get on board with your obviously fantastic plan? Well then, you have some work ahead of you, and it may not be easy. Your dream of adopting a dog is on hold. How can you proceed?

The first step is to figure out what your partner’s objections are. Many people who are opposed to getting a dog like the idea in general, but are held back by one or more particular concerns. If you can come up with a solution to what your partner views as the problem, you increase your chances of successfully convincing him or her to adopt a dog.

Financial: It costs money to have a dog, and the prospect of extra expenses scares a lot of people. It’s important to figure out how easily your budget can accommodate an increase in spending. If you can save money ahead of time for the dog, that shows your partner that you understand the concern, that you are serious about budgeting for it. It also indicates that your household can make it work. Sometimes it’s necessary to cut something else out of your budget to convince your partner that financial concerns need not hold you back.

Lifestyle Changes: Many people worry that having a dog will make it harder to go out in the evenings, to go away on for the weekend, or to take vacations during holidays or time off from work. It’s a legitimate concern—having a dog means that spontaneous outings present challenges, so it’s important to have a plan to meet them. Find out who can care for your dog when you are away or if you want to go out after work. Consider professional facilities, dog walkers and neighbors you could hire to help you. Do some research on local pet-friendly cafes and restaurants as well as vacations that could easily accommodate (and even be enhanced by!) your dog. Whether or not you can convince your partner that this issue can be resolved depends a lot on your current lifestyle and what kind of trips you enjoy. Hiking and camping with dogs is great fun, but a tour of the great cities of Europe will involve arranging care for your dog.

Fear of failing the dog: Having a dog is a lot of responsibility, and that can make many people nervous, especially if they have never had a dog before. Find out about resources in your area such as trainers, behaviorists and veterinarians. Educating your partner about the basics of dog behavior and care will help you both feel more confident about bringing home a new dog.

Household Cleanliness: Not everybody is unbothered by muddy paw prints and (let’s be honest) nobody is totally okay with dog vomit or what happens to the carpet while housetraining is still a work in progress. The really gross things tend to happen rarely, but the slobbering by the water bowl and dog hair showing up here, there and everywhere are daily occurrences for many of us. If this drawback to getting a dog is your partner’s concern, you are not alone. Many people without dogs are somewhere on the scale of hesitant to totally freaked out about the prospect of a dirtier house. Whether you promise to step up your housecleaning or shell out the money to hire people to clean your house, it’s essential to have a solution to this problem. It’s also sensible to choose a dog who is less likely to drool and shed than the nightmare your partner is probably picturing.

Affecting Other Pets: If your partner is concerned about how a dog will affect your cat, for example, consider yourself lucky to have such a thoughtful and caring person in your life. It’s very sad when a cat who has been happy in a home is suddenly living under the bed or only in one room because it is terrified of the dog. A dog will fit into the family far better if you choose one who gets along with cats, so make that a top priority. Additionally, it is wise to commit to doing the initial introduction with a professional trainer or behaviorist to make success more likely.

Along with addressing any of the specific concerns that your partner has about adopting a dog, here are some additional tips that may help you convince your partner. Let your partner have the final say in choosing which dog you adopt, and a lot of input into what kind of dog to consider. There are so many variables (old, young, big, small, long hair or short, hound or terrier or other type). Since your partner is—at best—on the fence about the whole dog thing, you may be able to tip the scales in your favor by giving them a weighted vote on which dog to adopt.

Let your partner know how important this is to you, and be prepared to make the case that since it matters to you, it should matter to him or her. This is a tricky one. Although it makes sense that if you want a dog so much, your partner should consider agreeing just because it is so important to you, there’s obviously a flip side to that. If adopting a dog is so unappealing to your partner, you need to consider that simply because it matters to your partner. Feeling very differently about this subject can cause a serious rift in a relationship, and the only sensible advice is not to let this difference ruin the relationship unless it truly is a deal breaker for you.

Adding a dog to your life is a big step, and that can be intimidating. A trial run of sorts could help your partner feel more comfortable about it. Consider watching a friend’s dog for a little while or fostering a dog so you can try out what it feels like to have a dog in your life without the long term commitment. The joy of sharing your home with a dog temporarily—whether it belongs to a roommate, a visitor or a traveling friend— has convinced many people to adopt a dog of their own.

If you’ve ever persuaded a partner to adopt a dog, how did you do it?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog Behavior: Beware of Simple Names for Complex Problems
Dog Training / Dog Behavior

During their first appointment, my clients told me that their dog had “severe territorial aggression,” and that they had been advised to euthanize him. I looked at the wide-eyed and quaking Hound mix hiding under a chair and had a strong suspicion that the label given to this dog was far from accurate.

As it turned out, the dog was actually terrified of strangers. Not only was his problematic behavior based in fear and totally unrelated to any concept of territory, he had never hurt anyone. He whined, barked and showed his teeth to anyone he didn’t know who got too close to him, giving them an awful scare, but even when people tried to pet him (unwise, but it happened!), he didn’t bite.

Over the years, situations like this have made me increasingly disillusioned about the labels that are so often applied to dogs’ behavior problems. I find that labeling often does more harm than good, especially when the label is wrong.

It’s not surprising that we want to label dogs’ behavior issues: it matches the system we use for people. In the realm of human health care, labels are necessary because billing codes are required for insurance coverage of both treatment and medications.

Having a label for a dog’s behavior problem may also make it easier for us to access information and resources. Learning that it is a known syndrome or problem often makes us feel better even before there’s any discussion about what to do to improve the behavior. It’s a natural human tendency—just naming a problem can give us a sense of control over it. But sadly, mislabeling interferes with arriving at an appropriate response to the problem, whatever the problem turns out to be.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to labeling behavior problems is that it provides a verbal shorthand that speeds up communication. There’s an appealing simplicity to using a short phrase or two to identify a dog’s issue rather than going into great detail about each incident, especially when many people are involved. (It’s not unusual for an evaluation team to include a behaviorist, a veterinarian and a trainer, as well as other experts.)

On the other hand, describing the behavior in detail lends an accuracy to the situation that labels sometime obscure.

For example, every year, multiple clients seek my help with separation anxiety because they have been told (erroneously) that their dog suffers from it. The dog may be showing behaviors often associated with separation anxiety —including excessive barking, eliminating indoors or destructive chewing—but the real problem can often be revealed with a thorough description of the dog’s behavior before, during and after the guardian’s departure.

When the real issue is boredom, incomplete house training or a simple (which is not to say easy!) case of adolescence, changing the undesirable behavior by approaching it as a case of separation anxiety is unlikely to be successful. Rather than medication and complex protocols to desensitize the dog to departures and the cues that precede them, the real solution could be to add activities and enrichment opportunities, return to Housetraining 101 or provide a long exercise session before putting the dog in a crate with appropriate, long lasting chewables.

It is also common for people to consult with me because their dog is “protective” of them. Lila brought in Banjo because every time anyone got near Lila, Banjo barked, growled and lunged. Lila was concerned that he would hurt someone, but delighted by his bold confidence. Trouble was, after taking a case history and observing Banjo in a variety of contexts, I could tell that he was not protecting her so much as he was possessing her. He guarded toys, food, sleeping spaces and anything he considered of value, including Lila. He was not her brave protector, but an insecure dog who considered her to be the best bone in the world, and he was not going to let someone else have her. Mislabeling Banjo’s behavior as “protectiveness” rather than of “possessiveness” hindered attempts to change this behavior, and interfered with Lila’s understanding of who Banjo was.

Another negative of labeling behavior problems is that it oversimplifies the situation. If a dog is called a “fear biter” or even labeled with the more professional sounding “fear-based aggression,” it implies a simplicity that is just not there. Even among the many dogs whose fear drives aggressive behavior, differences are enormous. Dealing with a dog who is afraid of red-headed children (and therefore reacts badly when in the presence of one) because he was once traumatized by an attack from such a child requires a very targeted approach to overcoming that fear. Modifying such a specific behavior is different than working with dogs who are afraid of everything; dogs who missed out on socialization early on but are great with familiar people; or even dogs who panic and bite as a reaction to loud noises such as gun shots, fireworks or the crash of pot hitting a tile floor.

A related drawback of labeling behavior problems is that the label implies a solution, again, much like the human medical model, in which a diagnosis necessarily points to a specific treatment. Boxed-in thinking about how to change undesirable behavior can short circuit continued investigation. Using the label “arousal-based aggression” gives the impression that the situation is thoroughly understood and that all that is needed is an appropriate behavior modification program, one that emphasizes predictability and includes exercises to help the dog learn to practice self-control. However, that label may mask the dog’s anxiety and the need for intervention to address it.

Then, there’s the issue of shame; giving a dog’s problem a label makes it seem more serious and alarming to many guardians and may also make them feel unnecessarily ashamed of their dog’s behavior. That’s especially true of any label that includes the word “aggressive,” which carries such a stigma. It’s too bad that a stigma exists, but since it does, it makes sense to be mindful of it when discussing dogs’ behavior with their guardians. People are often devastated to be told that their dog is aggressive, especially if the dog is sweet and loving within the family. It can be even harder for a family whose dog is behaving out of character due to an injury or other physical ailment to accept a label of “aggression.” If the dog is in such pain that the problem behavior is just the dog’s attempt to keep people from touching him because he has learned it will hurt, I would rather say that— even if it is long and a little unwieldy—than call the dog aggressive. Even if it is modified by the term “pain-induced,” the word makes people feel bad, and that’s not helpful.

It’s common for people who are told that their dog is “fear aggressive” to be more daunted and overwhelmed than if they are told that their dog is fearful, and is acting the way he does because he can’t say, “Please, oh please, don’t come any closer—you’re scaring me! And for heaven’s sake, don’t pet me because I can’t handle that except from my closest friends.” If people understand that dogs are barking, growling or biting because they are desperate to increase the distance between themselves and whatever scares them—other dogs, people, trash cans, bicycles—and will only stop if we can help them overcome their fears, there’s less judgment and more hope. Focusing on the behavior itself— what the dog does—and discussing the motivation behind it avoids problems that can arise with simply labeling the behavior.

I recently consulted with a family whose dog was a victim of a labeling error that had hindered their ability to help him. This family’s sweet, three-year-old Newfoundland was urinating inside the home and because their veterinarian could find no medical reason for it, she had referred them to me to handle the “housetraining” problem. One complication with this particular label is that there is no agreement across disciplines about what it means. To many people, house soiling without a medical cause is always related to housetraining, but behaviorists recognize that many issues involving urination indoors can be signs of appeasement behavior or a need to mark territory, among other possibilities.

It was a challenge to get contextual information from the family about the problem because they just kept saying, “He pees everywhere, and it’s such a mess!” and then detailing the clean-up, which was no doubt considerable given that the dog weighed 125 pounds. With persistent inquiry, however, I was finally able to get a fuller picture; it turned out not to be a housetraining problem after all. The dog’s housetraining was solid, but he peed during greetings. As a puppy, he urinated whenever he greeted anyone, but now he only did it when greeting the husband or the occasional male visitor, especially if the visitor reached for the dog.

Recognizing that the inappropriate urination was a specific type of social issue (often called “submissive urination” and somewhat unusual in dogs older than 12 to 18 months of age) rather than one of bladder control— or not knowing or caring where it was appropriate to eliminate— made it easier to address the real issue: the husband’s approach to his sensitive dog. Though he thought he was doing right by his dog by being firm and applying stern, consistent discipline, he was open to a new approach. I was able to help the family by teaching the husband kinder, gentler and more effective ways to interact with his dog and influence the dog’s behavior. As a result, the dog stopped urinating in the house. No program designed to solve a housetraining problem would have achieved this result, which had the added benefit of improving the overall family dynamic as well.

The temptation to put a name on a problem is strong, and many of us are quick to embrace it. However, while labeling seems like an intuitively obvious approach, the downsides are too important and too numerous for me to be on board with it. Labels can get in the way of seeing the dog, focusing our attention on a pathology and turning the dog into an example of a specific behavior problem rather than what he or she actually is: a complex individual and a unique case.

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