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.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
So, obviously the dog is included!
January 18 2017
We all know that there’s a special place in our hearts for our dogs, but it turns out that there’s a special place in our brains for them, too. It’s right in the same spot where our minds keep track of everyone else in the family, according to a study about accidentally calling someone by the wrong name. When a parent says, “Sadie! Max! Zoe! I mean, Jack!” sometimes, the dog’s name shows up in the string of names as we search our files, so to speak, to find the right name. (Apparently, this kind of name soup is epic among parents—no surprise there.)
In the paper, “All my children: The roles of semantic category and phonetic similarity in the misnaming of familiar individuals” in the journal Memory & Cognition, cognitive scientists found that this analogy of “searching your files” is a good way to think about the scrambled name phenomenon. Mixing up friends’ or family members’ names is a very common “cognitive glitch” as people in the field say. It is not caused by a bad memory or by aging processes that affect brain functioning. It’s simply a result of the way our brains categorize those we love.
When your brain is attempting to retrieve a name so that you can say it, it’s likely that another name in the same group will come to your lips instead of the one you meant to say. That’s because in order to find the name you’re looking for, you are essentially opening and flipping through the whole set of names in that group, which includes all beloved family members. That explains why so many of us have not only been called by our brother’s name or by our sister’s name, but by the dog’s name as well. Our brains, just like our hearts, file our dogs as loved and cherished family members.
The scientists who conducted this study reported that we are far more likely to throw the dog’s name into the mix than the cat’s name, or the hamster’s name, or any other animal’s name. It also showed that the category in which the person belongs (family, close friends, etc.) was far more influential in causing a mix-up than any phonetic similarity between names.
Isn’t it great to know that when you call others by the wrong name, it’s evidence of your love for them all?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Puppies are most responsive to this type of talk
January 14 2017
Baby talk may make grown-ups sound ridiculous to many people, but that doesn’t take away from its value. Extensive research has shown that human infants are better able to learn language when we talk to them using higher pitches and at a slower speed than when we talk to other adults. This style of communication is called “infant-directed speech”, and it’s natural for many folks to slip into it when addressing young individuals, especially those who are not yet verbal.
A new study called “Dog-directed speech: why do we use it and do dogs pay attention to it?” suggests that the same principle may be operating when humans speak to dogs—another of our social partners who don’t fully understand our language. People tend to talk to their dogs in a way that is similar to the way they address children. There may be value in this “dog-directed speech” as well.
This study investigated the behavior of two species, and reported a major finding about each of them. On the human side, only women were studied, and researchers found that they used dog-directed speech with dogs of all ages, but used higher pitches when they were talking to puppies than when addressing fully grown dogs. For the canines, this worked out well based on their age-related responses to the way we talk to them. Adult dogs were equally responsive to normal speech and dogs-directed speech. Puppies, however, became more engaged when addressed with dog-directed speech than when the women spoke to them as they normally talk. Specifically, it was the higher pitch in the dog-directed speech that influenced how attentive puppies were.
There are many questions that flow naturally from this study and its intriguing results. Do men talk to their dogs with higher-pitched, slower speech patterns, and does the age of the dog influence the degree to which they do it? Do dogs who look more juvenile because of larger eyes, shorter muzzles and bigger heads elicit dog-directed speech more than dogs who have a more mature look? Does dog-directed speech facilitate language learning in dogs as it does in human babies?
Do you talk to your dog using a different speaking style than the one you use for adult humans?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Protect the Cue
January 13 2017
No matter how much work you put into training your dog, it often seems like there’s an army of folks conspiring against you, determined to derail your efforts. Maybe Uncle Ian loves to roughhouse with your dog, or perhaps your daughter’s best friend encourages him to jump up on her every time she visits. It could be that your dog-sitter forgets to give him a treat if he comes when called, or your neighbor thinks it’s hysterically funny to chase your dog when he steals a sock and runs away.
Out of necessity, I have developed defensive strategies to prevent other people from wrecking both my own and my clients’ best-laid training plans.
Training dogs is simple in theory but complex in practice. The goal is to teach a dog to perform various behaviors on cue, so that when we ask a dog to “sit,” the dog’s behind hits the ground, and when we say “come,” he runs to us without hesitating. All we have to do is to teach the dog what those cues mean and make it worth his while to comply, but the details of how to do that are anything but straightforward.
Complexity enters the picture in so many ways, including: How to teach the dog the behavior (shaping, luring, capturing). How to reinforce the dog (using a primary reinforcer such as a treat, belly rub, game of tug or new chew toy versus a secondary reinforcer like a click or a cue for a favorite behavior). Proofing the dog to be able to respond to a cue in a variety of situations (including distractions up to the level of “squirrel”). The trainer’s skills and expertise (timing of the reinforcement, length of training sessions and when to stop them, the order and speed of progression through each step in the process).
On top of all those challenges, other people can mess with our cues, and this can cause them to lose meaning, change meaning or be weakened—to break the association we have built in our dog’s mind between the cue and the desired behavior. People sometimes even create new cues that promote undesirable behavior. Luckily, there are many ways to prevent other people from hijacking a dog’s training cues.
The Poisoned Cue
It takes a lot of consistent work over many months to teach a dog a totally reliable recall—to come when called every single time. I like to think that for a well-trained dog, the cue “come!” means “Whatever I’ve got here, she’s got something better over there.” In actual practice, that level of perfection—the dog always receives something so wonderful that he is glad he came when he was called—is hard to achieve, but the goal is to be as close as possible.
Many of us achieve a good recall with cues we don’t intentionally use. For example, lots of dogs come every time they hear the crinkle of a bag of treats or see us pick up the leash. To most dogs, those actions are linked with getting treats and going for a walk because of the exceptionally strong association between the cue and what follows.
From the dog’s point of view, the spoken command “come!” rarely predicts something so reliably great. This is partly because we’re up against other people who call our dogs-in-training to come and don’t reinforce them when they do so. Luckily, you can usually swamp these occasional “oops” moments with plenty of better experiences.
The real recall-killer, however, is calling a dog to come and then doing something that is aversive rather than reinforcing. When a dog associates a cue with something bad, the cue has been poisoned, and the dog will resist responding to it. So, if a dog runs to a groomer who called him to “come” and then clips his nails and gives him a bath—both of which he hates—the cue is being poisoned. The aversive can be something obviously bad (being yelled at) as well as something less obviously negative (the end of play time).
A cue is rarely poisoned by just one or even a few misuses, but repeated bad experiences are a different story. Because it’s difficult to fix a poisoned cue, the best option is to change it. Yes, it’s possible to reverse the dog’s negative association with a cue, but it’s less work to build a new association. For example, “here!” or “this way!” are good alternatives to “come.”
Teach a New Response
Years ago, I lived in an old farmhouse while it was being renovated, so workers were in the house with my dog, Bugsy, while I was at work. I knew and trusted these men, and wasn’t worried about his safety and well being. In fact, they loved my dog so much that their enthusiasm became a problem.
Each time they arrived, there were effusive greetings all around, which included encouraging Bugsy to jump up on them. He was a big dog and they got a kick out of how close he was to their height when he was on his back legs with his front paws on their chest. The problem was that I didn’t want my dog’s front paws on anybody’s chest. In fact, after I adopted Bugsy, I spent months “de-jumping” him—teaching him not to jump up like that.
A week into the remodel, I came home to a dog who jumped on me with great joy and enthusiasm. Though I was, of course, pleased to see him, the joy and enthusiasm were all his. I was totally joyless and unenthusiastic about the return of this behavior; among other things, I was concerned about him knocking over a child or my frail elderly neighbor, or upsetting people who like to keep their clothes free of dog prints.
Also, as a professional dog trainer who referred to Bugsy as “the best résumé I’ve ever had,” I saw a lot of awkwardness in my future. If he jumped on people during public appearances or when I was using him as a demonstration dog in group classes, I was going to look foolish. Immediate action was necessary. My first strategy—asking the guys not to encourage Bugsy to jump up on them and explaining the reasons why—had no effect.
After observing that the men patted their chests to encourage Bugsy, I came up with a solution. I taught Bugsy to sit whenever people patted their chests. In other words, I wrecked the workers’ ability to invite him to jump up by making that action a cue to sit. After a few weeks, my efforts paid off. A fellow who had just started working with the crew told me that he tried to get my dog to jump up, patting his chest as he told me this, but that the silly mutt couldn’t seem to figure it out. He actually implied that maybe my dog was stupid because he sat instead. (It’s not my dog who can’t figure out what’s going on, I thought, with considerable satisfaction.)
To prevent the workers from finding another way to invite Bugsy to jump up, I showed them how to cue him to shake, wave or high-five after he sat to greet them. Luckily, they found these tricks more entertaining than having him put his paws on their chests, so I didn’t have further problems.
When it comes to a defensive strategy, choosing atypical cues has an upside. If your cues are standard (“sit,” “heel,” “down,” “come”) and you use “okay” as a release for “stay” and “leave it,” then your dog is more vulnerable to training sabotage from other people. Someone can poison the cue or make it irrelevant by saying it endlessly even when the dog is clearly not going to respond. This often happens with “come” and also with “drop it,” which many people say to a dog who is holding something in his mouth. The result is that the dog learns that those sounds are meaningless, making it harder to teach him to respond to them appropriately in the future.
If you use unusual cues, or words in a foreign language, you protect yourself and your dog from these problems. How likely are most of us to come across people who try to communicate with our dogs using the Dutch “af,” meaning “down,” the French “ici” for “come” or the Czech “zustan” for “stay”? Avoiding the release word “okay” in favor of the less-common “free” or even a random choice such as “jailbreak!” or “all done” prevents interference from other people.
Specific defensive strategies are useful, but none are as effective as taking charge of the situation and doing everything you can to be assertive about what happens around your dog. Few people are skilled in dog training, but for the most part, they mean no harm. (If someone is purposely wrecking your dog’s training, they don’t deserve to be around either of you.) Most people will do the right thing with some direction, and that can prevent them from causing training trouble.
So, manage the situation. That may mean preventing access to your dog, especially in your absence. It can also mean saying in a straightforward way, “He came when he was called, so give him this stuffed Kong,” as you hand it over.
If someone is encouraging your dog to steal things and play keep-away, tell them exactly what to do instead, and why: “This will teach him to make a game of stealing things, and I don’t want that. Instead, let’s encourage him to trade that sock for a handful of treats.”
If someone is playing rough with your dog, tell them, “He’s not allowed to play that way because he gets too excited and starts biting, but here’s a tug toy that he will like playing with even more.” If that fails to change the person’s behavior, you can intervene by enticing your dog into a game of tug with you, or by saying, “When he gets overly aroused like this, I put him in his crate with something to chew on so he can calm down,” and then do exactly that.
Dog training would be tricky enough if we could do it in our own bubble with no interference from anyone else. As it happens, we do it in the real world where all kinds of unplanned challenges crop up. As frustrating as this can be, there are ways to counteract the actions of these would-be spoilers. Ultimately, we are each responsible for training our dogs and protecting them from setbacks in that training—any way we can.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs use creativity to break free
January 11 2017
Most people love that dogs are good problem solvers except when they hate that dogs are good problem solvers. Take the age old battle of dog versus crate. This is one of the situations in which we fuddy-duddy humans object to our dogs’ creative thinking and hamster-like wiggling ability. When we crate dogs, we are usually doing it for their safety and the safety of our homes. Millions of dogs love the coziness and security of their crates, and happily trot in to spend some restful time there, but the people who recorded the following videos have dogs who are not in that category. These dogs will apparently do anything to escape their crates, and they are successful at doing so. The many ways that our canine buddies set themselves free show that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
This dog breaks out after much effort, and while I admire his acrobatics and persistence, it is concerning that a dogs who make a break for it in this way will injure themselves. Luckily, this particular dog seems to have accomplished the goal without suffering any damage, but his level of desperation is concerning because he is literally forcing the issue.
What’s interesting me about this next dog is not the “how” of her escape, but the “why” of it. She was so drawn in by the calls of a litter of puppies in the shelter that she was apparently compelled to escape her kennel to be near them. Her own litter of puppies had recently been taken from her, so it’s likely that she her post-partum physiological state made her especially receptive to the needs of puppies.
This dog is methodical in her escape. There is no evidence that she is distressed or emotionally aroused in any way. She seems simply to prefer to be out of her crate than in, so she takes the necessary steps to make that happen in a calm, organized way. She shows evidence of having the emotional stability of an astronaut, to the point that I can practically here her saying to herself, “Work the problem.”
One of the sweetest videos of dogs escaping their crates is this one, because the crated dog had outside help. It’s great to have a pal who can help you get out of a jam!
Has your dog been victorious in a contest of Dog versus Crate, and if so, do you know how the escape happened?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The same genomic regions affect human social behavior
January 7 2017
The remarkable social abilities of dogs include the many ways that they are able to interact with humans. Dogs seek out humans for food, companionship, assistance and information. They have evolved these social skills throughout their recent evolutionary past because of the advantages of communicating and cooperating with people. Genetic changes in the domestic dog over thousands of years are the source of these behavioral changes, but there remains a lot of variation in both canine genetics and canine social behavior.
A recent study (Genomic Regions Associated With Interspecies Communication in Dogs Contain Genes Related to Human Social Disorders) investigated behavioral and genetic variation in hundreds of Beagles with similar upbringing and similar previous experiences with humans. Researchers studied the dogs’ social behavior by presenting them with an impossible task. Dogs were given a container that held three treats, but only two of them were accessible to the dog. The third treat was impossible for the dog to obtain. Using video, researchers quantified the time dogs spent looking at the people in the room with them, approaching them, and being in physical contact with them. Different dogs showed different tendencies to seek human interaction when they faced an unsolvable problem.
To investigate possible genetic sources of this behavioral variation, the scientists used a process called GWAS (Genome-Wide Association Study). Basically, this means that a large number of parts of the entire DNA of each dog were examined to discover potential genetic variants that were associated with the social behavior. This study shows a strong genetic aspect to differences in human-directed social behavior by dogs. Researchers found multiple sections of DNA that were associated with differences in social behavior. In some cases, specific alleles (gene variants) were strongly associated with the tendency to seek out humans for physical contact.
Interestingly, the genes associated with variation in dog behavior in this study have been found to be related to various behavioral issues and social behavior complexes in humans. Specifically, autism, bipolar disorder and aggression in adolescents with ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) are all variations in human behavior whose genetic contributions come at least in part from the same areas of DNA that influence human-directed social behavior in dogs. This suggests that dogs may be an appropriate and valuable model for studying these aspects of social behavior in people.
News: Guest Posts
How many different situations does your dog understand?
January 5 2017
Dogs respond to our behavior when we are preparing to leave the house. Reactions are different depending on where we are going. Each type of excursion is associated with a distinct set of (human) behaviors that occur prior to the departure. Dogs pay attention to these different behaviors because they carry a lot of information that matters to them.
The going-to-work behaviors that dogs observe their guardians perform mean that the person is leaving for much of the day. Those behaviors can include packing a lunch, blow drying hair, putting on dress shoes, carrying a specific bag or backpack and possibly being rushed and impatient. Dogs typically respond by sighing, going to lie down, and perhaps acting bored or disinterested. Their reaction reflects their understanding that they will not get to come along.
The actions that take place before a run may be putting on running shoes, grabbing a water bottle, stretching or eating something specific like toast or a banana. It’s easy for dogs who are running buddies to figure out that they get to come along and become excited in anticipation. Many will jump, spin, bark or do some other behavior associated with their enthusiasm or happiness. Some will bring the leash to their guardian, and others will stick very close, as if making sure that they are not accidentally left behind.
The behavior that is often most distressing to dogs involves the actions associated with travel. When many dogs see people filling suitcases, gathering items for a trip or anything else they connect to a long departure, their reactions reflect their displeasure. It’s as though they are thinking, “Uh-oh. I don’t like the looks of this at all.” Some dogs whine, some look sulky and others try to get in the way of our packing efforts.
Some departures are so brief that most dogs don’t make too much fuss over them. If you look outside, slip on your flip-flops and go outside suddenly, a dog who has seen this many times before likely connects those actions to your daily visit to the mailbox. Dogs may watch you from the window the whole time you are gone just to make sure they’ve read the signals correctly, but few experience much distress.
There are so many cues that tell dogs whether or not they are going when you leave, and give details about what’s to come. A bike helmet often means they stay behind (though in some families, it means just the opposite). Picking up the leash is a clear sign that they get to go with you. Shopping bags mean they are staying behind, as does a stuffed Kong being prepared. Grabbing poop bags is a good sign from the dog’s point of view, but grabbing your tablet is not. Dogs pay attention to what we do before we leave because information about their immediate future resides in our actions.
I’ve generalized about the reactions by dogs to various pre-departure behaviors. Obviously, a dog who is too new to the household to know the various patterns will not react predictably to your actions. Dogs who struggle when left alone, especially those with separation anxiety, are often too emotionally overwhelmed and panicky at any sign that you are leaving without them to cope with details distinguishing various situations. (Such dogs are often the most astute at figuring out whether they will be coming with you or being left behind, though.) Most dogs become quite attentive if they’re unsure about what is happening and can’t tell what your actions mean. If the cues that tell them what kind of departure is impending are mixed up or don’t match your usual pattern, most dogs focus closely on what you are doing to try to figure it out.
How many different situations involving your departures can your dog distinguish, and how nuanced are his reactions to each one?
News: Guest Posts
December 31 2016
Like other holiday articles, dreidels are not part of daily life. These once-a-year items can cause a variety of responses in dogs, depending on the individual. For some dogs, they pose challenges, eliciting fear, arousal, caution or even panic. The dog in the following video is clearly not enjoying his dreidel experience at first, although he seems to become more comfortable with it as time goes on.
Other dogs always have a lot of fun with the dreidel, which means that their guardians can share this part of Chanukah with them. This dog apparently understands that it is a game.
The next dreidel-experiencing dog is particularly playful and probably enjoys any object that moves on the floor with or without his help.
There are plenty of dogs who fall in between these extremes. Like the dog below, they may find the dreidel riveting, but not really enjoy seeing it spin.
In my house, dogs don’t participate in the game of dreidel. I have never had a dog who was interested in doing anything but attacking them or running away from them. Just like fireworks on the Fourth of July, or trick-or-treaters at Halloween, a spinning dreidel is a part of my holiday celebrations from which I protect dogs.
If dreidels are part of your festivities, how does your dog react to them?
News: Guest Posts
Has it happened to you?
December 29 2016
A couple of times a decade, a fall of a truly spectacular nature occurs in my life because of dog-related forces. This morning, for example, an unlikely combination of bad luck and bad timing led to this score: Laws of Physics—1, Karen—0. I was walking Saylor, a sweet, cuddly adolescent dog with more power than you’d think based on her medium size and willowy build. Her strength is most obvious when she sees another dog, but usually I can distract her with treats and (reasonably) calmly walk by another dog without revealing her reactivity to anyone. That’s not how life unfolded today.
We had received more than a foot of snow this weekend. It’s still deep in places but has turned slick in others. (You can probably see where this is going.) On a sidewalk that had not been shoveled, I spotted a sled that resembled a boogie board. Detecting a potential issue, I actually said out loud to Saylor, “Don’t step on that sled. You’ll go flying,” without expecting her to understand. It was just my way of getting her attention so we could veer around it. Saylor noticed the dog before I did, and moved in his direction before I could make an adjustment or give her treats. The dog leapt up on the fence in front of the house so that his head and forelegs were over the fence. He remained there, threatening to make it all the way over, and barked aggressively.
Saylor had charged in his direction with such speed and power that my next step was right on the sled. It traveled in the way that children everywhere want sleds to move—fast and with no friction—resulting in an immediate slam to the ground with my entire backside hitting at the same time. I still had a firm hold on the leash, but that just meant that in addition to my undignified position in a pile of snow, my arm was thrashing about as she lunged at the dog attempting to climb the fence.
“I’m okay!” I said immediately to my husband, who was walking Marley—a dog much older and more calm than Saylor. I assumed (correctly) that my husband would be concerned that such a fall might have caused serious damage. I feel a bit stiff, but I’m grateful to have avoided the usual worries—broken wrist, concussion, bruised tailbone. My pride was far more damaged than my body. I got up laughing, headed away from the debacle of the sled, snow and barking dog on the fence, and worked on calming Saylor down.
I would love to have the incident on video because I’m sure it was hilarious, if not the sort of footage I would use to promote my dog skills. It’s all just part of life with dogs! If you’ve taken a similar spill, please share your story. (And I hope you were also unhurt.)
News: Guest Posts
Did he obey or copy the people around him?
December 23 2016
Pilota, a Brazilian mutt, did not abandon his peeps during a drug raid. This photo of him lying down with members of his gang when the police ordered everyone to do so shows how he responded to the situation. Pilota (Portuguese for pilot) initially barked when police officers showed up at his home in southern Brazil, but when officers ordered everybody to lie down, he ran over and joined the people already on the ground.
Many have speculated that he was either following police orders or that he was just copying what everybody else around him was doing. Either way, becoming quiet and lying down on his back in apparent surrender along with everybody else was a wise move. Pilota’s actions may have saved his life because Brazilian police often shoot dogs immediately during a raid.
In the picture, Pilota appears to be giving appeasement signals, which are the signals social animals use to communicate that they are not going to challenge other individuals. His belly is exposed, his ears are back, his tail may be tucked and he has turned his gaze to the side. All of his visual signals suggest that he is actively communicating his intention of full surrender. This dog is doing everything he can to let the police officers know that he will not charge at them or fight them.
Though there were some arrests made after police found guns, ammunition, marijuana and cocaine in the raid, Pilota was among those who went free.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s the quickest way to present a “well-trained” dog
December 20 2016
If your dog knows a trick, people are more likely to consider him well-trained than if he doesn’t. It doesn’t matter that it is far easier and faster to teach a dog to crawl, rollover or high-5 than it is to teach a dog to stay, come or heel. Performing the trick is often more impressive to people. There’s an erroneous assumption that dogs naturally do the standard dog obedience behaviors, but tricks seem like out-of-reach behavior that is above and beyond what typical dogs can do. It’s not true at all, but the perception of that truth is why there is great value in training your dog to do a trick.
I’ve had a few clients over the years who have needed for various reasons to convince someone that a dog is very well trained with short notice. One needed to introduce his dog to a landlord before being allowed to rent an apartment. A second was visiting her boyfriend’s parents and wanted to make a good impression. A third situation involved a family who were scheduled for a home visit as part of their adoption process and had concerns that their dog’s behavior might detract from their appeal. In each case, along with a crash course in the basics, I advised them to teach their dog a trick that they could show off. The potential renter taught his dog to beg, the girlfriend taught her dog to wave, and the couple seeking to adopt trained their dog to bow. All of them reported what I had suspected, which is that the trick did more to convince people that the dog was well-trained than the less flashy “normal” behavior.
Asking your dog to perform tricks always offers an opportunity to show him in the best light, but it’s especially useful if you don’t have enough time to make his training basics rock solid. One key time-saving strategy is to choose the trick that is most natural for your dog so he can learn it quickly. Many behaviors that are already in your dog’s normal repertoire can be turned into tricks. If your dog stretches a lot, consider “bow” as a possible trick. If he bats at things with his paw, he may be good at “high-5”. If your dog backs away from things, teach him to “back up”. Many dogs are naturals at “roll over”, “get your toy” or “spin”. If your dog already does a certain behavior, it is often possible to teach him to do it on cue in just a few quick sessions, and that is what turns it into a trick.
Teaching tricks gives you an edge when you have to get some training done in a hurry because you can choose to teach your dog whatever is easiest for him, and skip anything that poses a challenge. That’s not possible with basic obedience skills because you can hardly skip heel or stay because it doesn’t suit your dog’s natural behavior. Whether your dog naturally likes to come when called, people expect your dog to do it. Tricks are often unexpected and suggest that your dog will do whatever you ask of him. In other words, they offer evidence that your dog is well-trained.
Has your dog had the opportunity to look good by performing a trick?
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