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Karen B. London

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog’s Blood Saves Cat’s Life
Procedure necessary after ingesting rat poison

Rory the cat can claim that dogs are his best friend, too, or at least that one particular dog is. When Rory was in dire need of a blood transfusion, Macy the Labrador retriever was rushed to the vet to donate and that saved Rory’s life.

Rory the cat had consumed rat poison and his life was at risk. Due to bad luck, Rory had eaten the poison too late in the day on Friday for the lab to be able to determine the type of blood needed to ensure a match. The wrong type of blood could cause Rory to die, but the veterinarian treating Rory found out that there was a chance of saving Rory if he was given a transfusion of canine blood.

Rory’s guardian contacted Macy’s guardian, who is a good friend, and that’s how Macy came to be the life-saving blood donor. The procedure was not without risk. The canine blood could have killed Rory, but he certainly would have died without it. Cat’s antibodies don’t react to canine blood at first exposure, which is why the blood transfusion worked. The transfusion gave Rory enough time to replace the red blood cells he needed to recover. He’s doing well and Macy is just fine, too.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Obama Opposes Breed-Specific Legislation
White House releases official statement

“We don’t support breed-specific legislation.” So begins an official statement from the White House. Breed-specific legislation includes any law or regulation that restricts which dogs people can have based on their breed. The most common breed to be banned is the pit bull. The statement goes on to mention research showing that breed-specific legislation is essentially ineffective at preventing dog bites and injuries, and that it is a waste of the public’s resources. The official statement is presumably a response to an online petition that requests a ban at the federal level on laws that target dogs based on their breed.

It has not been possible to determine accurately bite rates by breeds, and in the absence of reliable data, perceptions are often skewed towards whatever is reported in the media rather than the actual number of bites. At various times, certain breeds have had serious PR problems, and it changes over the years. Decades ago it was rottweilers and doberman pinschers who seemed to face the most discrimination. Now it’s pit bulls who are most often assumed by many to be dangerous just because of what they look like, and not based on any information about specific individuals and their behavior.

The statement from the White House supports the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation that in order to improve public safety, we are better off with a community-based approach to dog bite prevention. The laws about dangerous dogs that deal with individuals who have a history of aggressive behavior are far more sensible than bans on entire breeds of dogs. Dogs vary greatly in their behavior and that variation is substantial within all breeds.

Our society has come a long way in stopping discrimination against people based on appearance, origin and who they are related to. It’s encouraging that we are moving in that direction when it comes to dogs, too. I’m so pleased about this big step towards eliminating discriminatory legislation. What’s your take on it?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A New Dog at The White House
The Obamas welcome Sunny

If you’re famous, it’s news if you eat out, if you change your hairstyle and when you actually do something important. So, for the likes of Carrie Underwood, Tim Tebow, Hilary Swank and Mark Zuckerberg, acquiring new dogs has meant that stories and photos of their new dogs show up in the news. Barack Obama and his family are in the news all the time, of course, but there’s been a burst of activity about their dog since they welcomed Sunny into their family a few days ago.

Michelle Obama tweeted the news with a simple, “So excited to introduce the newest member of the Obama family—our puppy, Sunny!” Unlike Bo who truly was a puppy when he joined the Obama family, Sunny is technically an adolescent at 14-months of age, but I understand the general use of the term “puppy” for dogs of all ages. Both dogs are Portuguese Water Dogs.

Like Bo, Sunny was purchased from a breeder, which is a disappointment to many, including people at The Bark. The Obamas missed an opportunity to rescue or adopt a dog, which would likely have had a huge ripple affect and done so much to help many dogs find their way into the hearts and homes of loving families. As they did with Bo, they donated to a local Humane Society in honor of Sunny.

She’s a beautiful dog and I hope Sunny and Bo continue to entertain us with their joyful play sessions and tender moments with the Obama family. Personally, I am thrilled that they have each other for canine company, which I think is so valuable whether you’re living at The White House or not.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Interested in My Expertise
Boy, did I misread the situation!

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be really wrong about something. I’m not someone who always needs to be right, which is lucky, because I was amusingly off the mark this time.

We have several different mail carriers for the route on which I live, including some regular substitutes. I recognize them all, though our interactions are limited to the hello, how-are-you, and thank you sort of exchanges. Then, a little while back, I noticed that one of the mailmen was acting a bit odd around me. He hesitated when he saw me, sometimes looked down avoiding eye contact, and generally seemed a bit uncomfortable. He sometimes seemed embarrassed, but he also seemed to be staring at me in his mirror if I came out to get the mail after he passed.

I tried to convince myself that I was imagining it, but that didn’t work. I’m a trained behaviorist as well as a very social member of society, and something just wasn’t quite right. He seemed more interested in me than was appropriate, and he certainly knew where I lived. It was making me feel very uncomfortable.

Finally, one day when I was outside cooling down after a run, he pulled the mail truck over by where I was, looked right at me, and said, “Karen, I have a question for you.” I waited, feeling sure that this would not be good.

Then, he said, “Do you work with dogs?” When I said that I was a behaviorist and trainer, he asked if I would mind if he asked me a question, to which I agreed. The question was about a dog in his family who was very friendly, but who jumped up a lot during greetings, especially when anybody came through the front door. We talked for a bit about what he could do to change the dog’s behavior, and in the next week or two, we checked in about the dog’s progress, which was rapid.

From the day he asked me about the dog, our interactions returned to being normal—friendly and relaxed. Here I thought something sinister was going on, when he simply wanted to ask me about his dog, but clearly felt unsure about whether he should. (It’s surely the case that because they see the sort of mail we receive, all of our mail carriers know way more about us than we know about them!)

He knew he needed help, but seemed unsure about asking for it from someone on his route. I love that he wanted to improve his dog’s behavior and I love that his dog is doing so well. Most of all, I love that I was so spectacularly wrong.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Understanding Dogs
Unexpected help with cultural adjustment

I am so grateful for the help a couple of dogs recently gave me in the middle of a period of cultural adjustment. This week, my family traveled to Costa Rica, where we will spend the next four months. I love this country, having spent close to a year here over the course of five previous trips. I speak Spanish, but it does not feel at all like using my native language of English, which is effortless and easy. (Hopefully no editors who have ever worked with me will be surprised to read that I consider myself so proficient in English, but that’s a whole different issue.) After 36 hours of speaking Spanish and translating for my husband and kids who are learning Spanish but remain less comfortable with the language, I was exhausted.

We were outside speaking with our neighbor Eduardo when I realized my bilingual brain needed a break. Just then, a couple of dogs from the neighborhood started to play together, and we all paused to watch them. They are small dogs of about 15 pounds, very peppy and extremely playful. They were leaping on one another, playing chase, taking turns in their roles, pausing frequently, performing plenty of play bows and using other play signals, all while maintaining a low and constant level of arousal. It was the kind of beautifully appropriate play session that anyone who has ever taught a puppy class would be ecstatic to observe.

When the dogs came over to me, I was able to interact with them just as I do with dogs anywhere. They responded to the way my body leaned, the tone of my voice, my posture, my energy level, and the direction I moved. The familiarity and lack of uncertainty were exhilarating. I always enjoy meeting friendly new dogs, but in this case, there was an extra perk. I understood what was going on and it was easy to observe and react appropriately. My brain was not translating, and I was not guessing or using context to fill in gaps. I was simply interacting with some new friends.

I’m fond of saying that I understand dogs, but that “canine” is definitely not my first language, which simply means that I’m aware that only dogs can understand dogs as native speakers. And yet, in that moment, I felt more comfortable with the ease of communication with canines than with people in a language other than English. It was such a joy to be with dogs, with whom I am so comfortable and so familiar. It was a surprising gift that these dogs gave to me as I adjust to life in a foreign country. I often find that when I am tired, I am only truly able to converse with ease in my native language, but dog “language” is apparently an exception. Hallelujah for that!

Sometimes we know when dogs will help us feel better and we even expect it: When we are heartbroken but we know that they still love us. When we have a bad day at work and we get to come home to them. When we head out to walk them because it’s the right thing to do, but being out does us every bit as much good. Yet the unexpected times that dogs give us a little lift are some of the best simply because they blindside us. How have dogs unexpectedly helped make you feel better?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Early to Rise
Many dogs love the morning

It’s typical to suffer some sleep deprivation when living with a puppy, but it’s not only young dogs who encourage people to start the day earlier than we might like. A lot of dogs wake up early, ready to begin the day’s adventures at first light.

Puppies, and some of the older dogs, too, simply need to relieve themselves, but others are peppy and ready to go without any such bathroom urgency. Of course, many of these dogs have ample time in their schedules for daily naps, so there are well rested and refreshed when many people would still prefer some extra Zs.

With training, lots of dogs learn that they will not be going outside at dawn and must amuse themselves or simply wait until the humans have arisen on their own, or at least with the help of their alarm clock. A few pester people by jumping on the bed, licking faces, barking, whining, or otherwise failing to allow the people to sleep in.

I’ve only ever had one dog who was not naturally an early riser. When I woke up to go to work or out for a run, he was dragging. As I got ready to take him out, he would yawn, stretch, and look at me pathetically as he lumbered over to the door. It required encouragement to get him going on the days I was up early, but it was delightful on the days I slept in. It was such a pleasure to sleep late knowing that my dog was not waiting eagerly for the day to begin or crossing his paws in desperation as I snoozed. On weekend mornings, we both happily began the day in a leisurely way. He was rare in that way. I appreciated that trait then, and remember it fondly now.

How early does your dog wake up to greet you and greet the day, and what tactics are used to convince you to haul yourself out of bed prematurely?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Animal Behavior Society Conference
Many presentations featured dogs

Last week, the Animal Behavior Society conference was held in Boulder, Colorado and was attended by hundreds of scientists. Besides being the 50th annual meeting, this conference was notable because of the strong representation by people who study dogs or work with them in other ways.

I first attended an Animal Behavior Society conference in 1994 and I remember no talks or posters about our best friends. Most talks were about insects, fish, and birds, all of which have long been subjects of study in the field of animal behavior. Studying dogs was not respected at that time and many people considered that research on the species was not applicable to science in general because dogs didn’t have a natural habitat other than living with people. I hadn’t started working with dogs professionally yet, and my talk on my graduate research was called “Nest Site Selection by a Member of a Wasp-Wasp Nesting Association.” Oh, how times have changed.

At this conference, dozens of people presented work, whether applied or basic, about dogs, including 21 Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, or CAABs. (The certification is available to people with PhDs who work in applied animal behavior and have a number of other qualifications. There are currently about 50 of us CAABs.) This conference had more presentations about dogs than any previous ones. There were a number of interesting talks and posters about dogs including:

Differences in social and cognitive behavior between congenitally deaf and hearing dogs

The black dog syndrome: Factors influencing difficulty of canine adoptions

Social bonds between humans and their “best friends”

Improving enrichment for shelter dogs by changing human behavior

Are dogs exhibiting separation related problems more sensitive to social reinforcement?

Do puzzle toys have long-term benefits on canine cognitive functioning?

Inter-dog aggression in the home environment: A behavior modification case study

A comparison of the cognitive development of adolescent dogs

Successful treatment of canine human-directed resource guarding with multiple triggers

I loved attending talks about a variety of species, but seeing how much change there has been in the scientific community’s views about dogs over the last 20 years made this conference extra special.

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Blaming People For Behavior Problems
It’s counterproductive and unfair

When I tell people that I work with dogs with serious behavior problems including aggression, the response is often something like, “Isn’t it the people’s fault? I mean, don’t you find that the dogs are acting that way because the people haven’t trained or raised them right?”

I always disagree, saying as gently as I can, “No, most of the dogs I see are really challenging dogs who would have problematic behavior in any situation. And most of the families I work with have had other dogs with perfectly lovely behavior.” It’s true—the dogs are the ones with the problem in my experience, not the guardians.

Many clients blame themselves, too, probably because the idea that anyone can make any dog behave in any way they desire is so prevalent in our culture. This can lead to guilt and shame that prevents people from seeking help as well as making them feel terrible. Most of the clients I see have dogs with aggression, and the vast majority of the people have had many dogs over the years without such problems. It makes no sense to assume that the dog has gone bad because of mistakes by the people or their inadequacies when they have raised other dogs who did not turn out the same way. People are seeking help and accusing them of being at fault is both unfair and counterproductive.

Many dogs who are aggressive or have other equally serious behavioral problems are naturally wired to struggle with social issues. Some are ill or in pain, while others have a past that is unknown but may involve limited exposure to the world (inadequate socialization) or some ordeal in the past that affected them and their behavior profoundly.

I find myself explaining over and over to clients and people I meet socially that I object to blaming guardians for the serious behavior problems of their dogs. Sure, the behavior of some rowdy dogs may be a result of inadequate training or inconsistencies by the guardians, but slightly rude or out of control dogs are very different than dogs with much deeper issues. When it comes to dogs whose behavior problems represent abnormal (as opposed to just boisterous) behavior, it’s important to realize that the people didn’t cause the problem.

Do you find that people are being blamed for dogs’ serious behavior problems? What’s your take on this?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs Who Respect the Elderly
They are treasures

The elderly woman was taking each step ever so carefully, with one hand gripping her cane and the other hand gently holding a leash. At the other end of that leash was a terrier mix who was taking baby steps and clearly making an effort to avoid tripping his guardian. He was going more slowly than most dogs ever do, and he kept glancing up at her in such a way that I couldn’t help but think that he was checking on her. (“Yep, we’re still moving. I just wanted to be sure!”)

The dog was going at a pace I associate with arthritic or injured dogs and those who are older than most dogs ever become, but this was a young adult rather than a geriatric dog. I watched them walk laboriously halfway down the block and then turn around. The dog never put a bit of pressure on the leash and remained at a slight distance from the woman, which meant that he was never an impediment to her balance or movement. I was impressed with this dog’s behavior.

Part of the reason I was so impressed is that I knew this dog was not always calm and slow. I had just seen how he acted when out on a walk with a man in his 20s and it was hilarious. He jumped and bounced and spun and generally acted like joy was exploding out of him. He twisted his leash around the man, pulled towards a tree that he then put his front paws on and barked at. When they moved past the tree, the dog danced along, going very fast and showing suitable canine enthusiasm for the outing. It was all quite endearing, and though the dog was energetic, he was never completely out of control.

However, the control he displayed when his leash was handed over to the elderly woman was extraordinary. He acted like he understood her frailty. It reminded me of service dogs I have seen who romp and frolic like any dog when allowed, but go into a steady, calm work mode when that is what is required. I sat on my park bench completely entranced by the entire sequence of events with this terrier mix. I was so interested that I went over to ask the young man about it.

He told me that his grandmother is the dog’s guardian. For almost a year, the grandson has come over each day to exercise the dog, who is 4 years old. His grandmother insists on walking him daily herself even though her health has declined to the point where she spends 10 minutes just walking past a few houses before making the return trip. Sometimes she takes her walk before the dog has had his exercise with the grandson and sometimes after. Either way, he goes at her pace, never pulling, never leaping, and never paying attention to the squirrels, cats or other dogs that are usually so arresting.

When I asked if they had trained the dog specifically to be gentle with his elderly guardian, he said no. This is just one of those dogs who is socially astute enough to respond beautifully to the specific needs of the lady in his life. The grandson’s behavior—coming over daily to help his grandmother—is also commendable.
 

Have you known a dog who was similarly lovely around an older person and was just as much a treasure as the dog I observed?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Disagreement About Dog Domestication
Conflict among scientists who study it

Research about canine genetics and the domestication of dogs is an exciting area of study with many players, so it should surprise nobody that there is disagreement within the field. Multiple groups of researchers from around the world have compared the genomes of dogs and wolves. While they generally agree about the genetic changes that have produced differences between dogs and wolves, their conclusions about the domestication of dogs vary wildly.

The disagreement concerns fundamental aspects of the evolution of dogs such as where, when and why dogs evolved from wolves. So, the location, the timing, and the reason for domestication that various groups propose are not even close.

One group suggests domestication occurred around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East and that it was the development of agriculture around that time that was the catalyst for domestication. Another group claims that it happened around 32,000 years ago in the south of China and related to scavenging alongside the people living there. A third group narrows the time frame for domestication to between 16,000 and 11,000 years ago, and believes that the wolf population from which dogs arose is extinct, making it hard to determine the location of domestication. This third group believes that dogs became domesticated near hunter-gatherers rather than in the presence of an agrarian society.

Much has been made about the discord among scientists studying the domestication of dogs, but it’s hardly surprising. The cutting edge of science is always marked by strongly held opposing views. In the best situations, the intense disagreement among people working in the same field is a crucial part of making progress. Competing hypotheses are critical for the advancement of science. As people challenge each other’s views, all are spurred to study the subject more deeply and design experiments to investigate that which has been called into question. From the ongoing work, the conflicts are eventually resolved as some ideas fall by the wayside and others gain increased support from new data and discoveries.

Sometimes the conflict is cordial and in other cases, it can be very bitter. At this point, the scientists studying dog domestication say that though there is a certain amount of rivalry, they get along and enjoy talking with each other. That may be harder to maintain as people move to the next phase of research into dog domestication and seek to sequence DNA samples from ancient dogs and wolves. The availability of archaeological bone samples is extremely limited so there will be a lot of competition among scientists for both funding to conduct the research and access to the material necessary to do so.

In other words, we can expect a lot of fights over bones in the near future.

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