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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
The Importance of Context
He was talking about a dog

It’s a good thing his kindergarten teacher knew that Carson was talking about a dog when he burst into the room Monday morning and shared his news:

“We got a sh*tter!”

His teacher had been hearing for weeks that they were going to add a new dog to the family. This allowed her to probe into the situation to find out what he meant rather than send him to the principal’s office because of what he said.

So, she was prepared to ask him things like, “Is your new puppy a setter?” “Does the puppy shed a lot?” and “Did you get a Shih-tzu?” That last one was the right question because it prompted Carson to say, “Oh, yeah, that’s it. We got a Shih-tzu. Her name’s Coconut.”

Coconut is now over three years old, and every time I see her, it makes me happy. Mostly, I feel cheerful around her because she is sweet and sociable as well as soft and adorably fluffy. (Really, I defy anyone to visit with her and NOT be happy!) But part of the reason, she makes me smile is that it always makes me remember Carson’s gleeful and well-intentioned—if not totally appropriate—announcement in kindergarten.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Explaining a Glitch in Fetch
It makes sense after all

We were playing fetch with Super Bee, a friend’s dog, and her unpredictable behavior was making the game less fun for us. All was smooth when we threw the ball and she went to retrieve it. One hundred percent of the time, she gleefully ran it down, picked it up, and brought it back. The difficulty occurred in the transfer of the ball back to us so that we could throw it again.

Though she reliably dropped the ball and let it fall to the ground, she sometimes darted at the ball and snatched it up again, only to drop it once more. She didn’t do it every time, but she did it enough that it was a problem. Besides interrupting the flow of the game and being a little annoying, this glitch in the game created a risk that she would hurt my sons if either of them reached for the ball at the same time that she went for it.

I adjusted the game so that I was always the one to pick up the ball, and then I handed it to my sons alternately to throw it. I only reached for the ball after a pause of a few seconds, which seemed to be after she had made her choice about whether to go for the ball again or let me pick it up so it could be thrown for her. It didn’t guarantee my safety, but I managed to avoid trouble. I also noticed a pattern.

Whenever the ball stayed in place on the ground or rolled toward her, Super Bee let me pick it up without making an attempt to take it again. However, if it rolled away from her, she charged at it and grabbed it in her mouth. My best guess is that when the ball rolled away from her, she acted as she did when the ball had been thrown—she retrieved it. The ball was moving away from her, which seemed to be the stimulus for that behavior. It was as though she was on autopilot and couldn’t stop herself from retrieving a ball moving away from her.

Super Bee is an enthusiastic and possibly obsessive fetcher who can’t help but chase after a ball when it is thrown. Even when she is hot and tired enough that she might rather rest in a cool spot, if someone throws a ball, she will go after it. When we play with her, we make sure to stop fetch games long before she becomes fatigued or overheated.

Now that we understand her tendency to “retrieve” balls that roll away from her after she drops them, we only reach for balls that don’t do that. If a ball is moving towards her or is not moving, it’s safe to pick it up. (Another option would be to cue her to drop the ball directly into our hands, which would eliminate the possibility of it rolling.) Taking the unpredictability out of the game makes it more fun and safer, too. Because we understand what is happening, my sons and Super Bee can play fetch without my intervention (though I still supervise!) When it seemed like she was grabbing the ball again instead of letting us throw it, her behavior seemed irksome. Knowing that she is simply retrieving a moving ball because she can’t help it, it’s easy to find the behavior interesting and to wait patiently until she drops it again.

Does your dog ever do this?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do You Play Bow to Your Dog?
Starting play the canine way

If you want to extend a special kindness to your dogs, consider communicating in ways that naturally make sense to them. Play signals are one opportunity to do this. When dogs want to play, they let others know with play signals, which they use to get play started and to keep it going. These signals can mean different things, but the message is always aimed at keeping play safe by telling other dogs that intentions are playful. A play signal tells another dog “I want to play."

It also communicates that even if the behavior to follow is borrowed from other contexts such as fighting or predation and involves biting, chasing, shaking, or slamming into one another, it is playful in nature. There is no intent to cause harm. Using play signals to communicate makes it less likely that a dog’s actions will be misinterpreted, which can cause play to escalate into aggression.

By far the most common play signal is the play bow, which consists of a dog getting down on her elbows with her back end higher than her front end. This posture is often assumed abruptly, as though the suddenness of the movement is part of the signal as well.

Though the play bow is a universal invitation to play among dogs, people can do it, too. A human can imitate this action by getting down on all fours, putting both elbows on the ground and leaving the bottom up in the air. Dogs usually perform play bows in a springy, fast motion with a bounciness to it, so if you want your play bow to be as well-received as possible, try to mimic that rather than calmly moving into the posture like you are doing flow yoga.

A modified play bow for people is possible, too, and it’s a little easier because you can remain standing. All you have to do is lean over from the hips, bend both legs, and spread your arms out at a 45-degree angle. To appear most playful to the dog receiving this signal, go into the pose quickly, perhaps even doing a little jump to go into the pose. Then, do something playful, like run away from your dog to start a chase game.

Many dogs love it when people do play bows, modified or not. I’ve seen dogs whose faces light up when their guardians first play bow to them. I’ve often wondered if seeing their humans perform a play bow makes them happy because there is no confusion—they already know what it means. In any relationship, it’s beautiful to understand and to be understood.

Do you play bow to your dog? If so, how does your dog respond?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine Car Restraints
Center for Pet Safety tests products

Lindsey Wolko knew that dogs are safer in cars if restrained, which is why her cocker spaniel Maggie was in a safety harness the day Wolko braked hard to avoid an accident. Despite that, Maggie was seriously injured and very scared when she slammed into the driver’s seat and her legs became tangled in the harness. She has since fully recovered from the damage to her spine and hips, but many dogs sustain even more serious injuries and not all of them recover.

Since then, Wolko has learned that all too few of the products that are sold to insure dog’s safety actually do what they are supposed to do, in part because they are not properly tested. She is determined to change that in order to keep dogs safer and prevent injuries to them. That’s why she founded the nonprofit Center for Pet Safety.

Preparing to test products involving designing canine crash test dummies in three different sizes. There are model dogs of 25 pounds, 45 pounds, and 75 pounds. All of the crash test dummies have a steel frame and accurately recreate the true center of mass and weight distributions of dogs.

In a recent series of tests that made up the 2013 Harness Crashworthiness Study, most of the canine restraints experienced catastrophic failure. That means that either the restraint allowed the dog to become a projectile or it released the test dog from the restraint. Only one product, the Sleepypod’s Clickit Utility Harness, consistently performed successfully, offering protection to the dog and to other passengers in the car by keeping the dog from leaving the seat.

Has your dog been injured in a car accident despite being restrained with a product that was supposed to offer protection?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Therapy Dogs Make Flying Better
“Pups and Planes” program launched

Therapy dogs have long been helping people who are staying in hospitals, students taking finals, those individuals who have recently experienced trauma and those who suffer from generalized anxiety. All of these people feel better after their contact with a friendly canine, and now that same benefit is available for people about to fly or who have just landed.

The San Antonio International Airport has teamed up with Therapy Dogs, Inc, and Delta Pet Partners of San Antonio to create another facet of their ambassador program. “Pups and Planes” launched last Monday and now offers travelers the services of volunteer handlers and their dogs. This program has five dogs participating right now, though more are expected to join. All of the dogs are trained therapy dogs.

Passengers are given the opportunity to interact with the dogs, petting them and spending time with them before they board their planes or just after they land. The goal is to reduce tension and anxiety in passengers and create a calm environment in the airport. The dogs cheer people up, giving them a break from the most common negative emotions of travelers—boredom and stress.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cats Steal Dog Beds
A familiar scene in many homes

In any household, there is bound to be conflict, whether it is between human brothers and sisters who can’t agree on what game to play, dogs who want the same chew toy, or spouses who can’t find a movie to watch that looks good to both of them. When you add in conflicts across species, there are even more opportunities for discord.

People and pets may not feel the same way about a variety of subjects. Is it a colored pencil for a child’s art class or a stick to be gnawed on by the dog? Should the hamster be quiet all night so the humans can sleep, or is midnight to 6 a.m. the perfect time to run a squeaky wheel?

And as for cats and dogs, the big question might be, “Just whose bed is that anyway?” It seems that cats are notorious for making themselves right at home on the dog’s bed, no matter how big the bed is or how small the cat. In this video, a number of dogs of various breeds, ages and sizes must contend with cats who have taken over their bed.

Do you have dog and cat conflicts over beds in your house? Who usually emerges victorious?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Matchmaking by Dogs
Succeeding where people have failed

Some friends of ours owe their marriage to their dogs. Their four-legged friends didn’t have anything to do with their original meeting, but without them, they never would have gotten together.

Before the dogs took matters into their own paws, Margaret had asked Nick out at least four times at the coffee shop where he worked. Nick claims Margaret was too subtle and he didn’t realize that comments like, “Oh, we should take the dogs out for a walk sometime,” were actual invitations. Margaret says what little she knew about Nick included that he had a new puppy. She also says, “Keeper has always been my comfort blanket, so I figured that if Keeper could come on the first date, that was enough encouragement to put myself out there and ask him.”

That’s all there would have been to the story if it had not been for Keeper and Zuma. Luckily, they had the power to bring these two people together, though it was a year or so after Margaret’s first attempt.

After their interactions at the coffee shop, Nick and Margaret next ran into each other while out walking their dogs. She was hiking with her dog Keeper, who ran way ahead on the trail. When Keeper returned, she had Zuma with her. Though Margaret had no idea whose dog it was, it was clear that Keeper was enthusiastic about her new canine friend.

Hoping to return this new unknown dog to her rightful guardian, Margaret continued hiking, now with two dogs. The three of them went on together for a little while until they joined up with Nick, who was searching for his dog Zuma. Naturally, Zuma has long been forgiven for running out of sight since her actions led Nick to his wife.

It was immediately obvious to the dogs and to Margaret that they were meant to be together. Nick didn’t realize it until after the dog walking encounter, but then he quickly got with the program. They started dating and about two weeks later they moved in together. Almost two years to the day after their dogs connected them, they were married. That was three years ago and their dogs remain best friends, too.

Margaret and Nick can thank their dogs for prompting them to date, become engaged, and to marry. What relationships in your life do you owe to your dogs?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Train Your Dog Month Approaches
Events include webinars and contests

The focus of the fourth annual Train Your Dog Month in January 2014 is on training the family dog with the manners necessary to improve the daily life of both people and dogs. The basic skills are those in the Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) program of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT).

In honor of Train Your Dog Month, APDT will offer free webinars to anyone who is interested in learning more about teaching basic skills to dogs. The behaviors that will be covered include sit, down, stay, coming when called, loose-leash walking, and wait. Additionally, there will be Facebook events promoting the value of taking dogs to training classes and the quality-of-life advantages enjoyed when dogs know basic behaviors and can perform them when asked.

In addition to webinars and chats on Facebook, there are contests to celebrate and support this event. Two of them involve the creation of videos, so get ready to find your inner filmmaker! The Training Testimonials contest is open to anyone, so whether your credentials consist of being a dog guardian or being an experienced professional dog trainer, you can enter. Awards and $25 VISA gift cards will be given to the three people who create the best one-minute or shorter videos of testimonials about the improved relationship and quality of life due to training your dog. Winning videos will be those that best illustrate the benefits of training a dog to the general public.

One contest that is only open to APDT members involves making a C.L.A.S.S. “Viral” Video. The object is to show the everyday dog guardian the basic principles of the Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) program in two minutes or less. The winner will be given free registration to the 2014 APDT Conference.

Having trained dogs personally and professionally for many years, I’m a huge believer in the value of having dogs who are trained well. It’s a lot of work, but also a labor of love to train your dog and teach good manners. It’s also a great kindness since it really can make your dog’s life better. It’s easier to give trained dogs freedom, to take them all kinds of places, and to allow them to be a greater part of your life. Also, the ability to communicate what you’d like your dog to do minimizes the frustration, misunderstandings and danger that can damage quality of life and put a strain on the relationship.

Train Your Dog Month is a great way to begin a whole new year of training your dog!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Afghan Shelter Serves Animals and People
Dogs and soldiers reunited

During wars, many soldiers informally adopt dogs or cats, and these new relationships can be life-saving both literally and emotionally. Yet when the soldiers return home, they must say good-bye to these friends. When they leave their pets behind, soldiers have great fear for their animals’ safety.

Former British soldier Louise Hastie and the Afghans with whom she works are reuniting soldiers with the animals that befriended them during the war. Hastie is in charge of the Nowzad Animal Shelter in Kabul.

The shelter began as a result of the efforts of Royal Marine Sergeant Pen Farthing who became the friend and guardian of a dog he named Nowzad. The dog’s name comes from the town of Now Zad in Helmand Province, and he was originally a fighting dog. When Farthing broke up an organized dogfight near his compound, he met the dog and just couldn’t resist caring for him. Soon others became his friends, too, and he cared for them all. Farthing tells his story in the book One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Afghanistan.

Due to the war and high poverty levels, the needs of animals in this country have understandably not been met, and Hastie hopes to change that. Sending animals to former soldiers is one option, but the costs are a challenge. Transporting a single animal to the United States costs $4000, and though the soldiers often contribute, charitable donations are also a big part of the process.

Farthing was able to bring just three of the many dogs he loved to Great Britain to be with him. So far, the shelter has transported 400 dogs and cats abroad to be with the soldiers who became their guardians, and has taken in and cared for thousands more. The shelter provides medical treatment of various kinds, including vaccinations and spay/neuter surgeries in an effort to fight the problem of animal overpopulation long term.

It’s an uphill battle to save animals in a country where financial limitations are so extreme and cultural views of dogs are not uniformly positive. Every dog saved is one who would have suffered otherwise, and every soldier who is reunited with a best friend is far better off as well.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Behavior Matters: Attention, Please!
Attentiveness matters for safety and convenience.

Ian’s dogs—Maggie, Molly and Jake—display various levels of attentiveness while they’re together on the trail. Maggie looks back every few seconds, as though she’s afraid he’ll disappear. Molly’s mainly interested in Ian when she’s thirsty. Jake checks in from time to time, typically when he’s startled by an unusual sound or comes to a bend in the trail. When Ian calls them, they all run joyfully to him. In response to their names, each pauses and looks toward him, suspending activity while waiting for more information. Each has also been trained to look at him in response to the cue “watch.” Though these dogs have different levels of natural attentiveness, they are uniformly skilled at responding to cues for attention.

Ian can hike with his dogs off-leash, confident that they will pay attention to him if he asks them to, even though at least one and sometimes two of them are less interested in him than in the world around them. Only Maggie consistently gives him her attention spontaneously, but they all attend to him on cue. Spontaneous attention and attention that’s given on cue are both valuable.

Inborn or Learned
Many factors influence the level of a dog’s attentiveness. Some naturally attentive dogs are clingy and some are social butterflies who are just drawn to people. Still others are a bit possessive, treating their guardians as though they are the best bones in the world and need constant attention to maintain their safety. While these traits can be modified, they cannot be created out of thin air or fundamentally changed. Dogs either have this behavioral tendency or they don’t.

Few dogs are as naturally attentive as most of us wish; if yours isn’t, don’t feel bad, don’t feel guilty and for goodness sake, don’t wonder what you did wrong! Your dog, like most dogs, just isn’t inclined that way. For some guardians, that’s a good thing. Plenty of people prefer dogs with their own interests who can amuse themselves and aren’t staring at them expectantly, riveted by their every action.

Relationships
The strength of your relationship has an impact on your dog’s attentiveness. If you have consistently been a source of what makes your dog happy, attention is a likely side effect. A lot of love between the two of you and a strong history of fun together make paying attention to you worthwhile for your dog.

While a strong relationship can help with attention issues, I’m not suggesting that a good relationship will guarantee a high level of attentiveness: it won’t. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, and if your dog is not highly attentive in all situations, it certainly doesn’t mean that the relationship is flawed or in any way lacking. It just means that for whatever reason, your dog is focusing on other aspects of the environment.

Many people find that their dogs are so engrossed in the environment and all its wonderful smells that getting them to pay attention outdoors feels like swimming upstream. Though such “nose to the ground” dogs are indeed among the most challenging when it comes to working on attentiveness, many of them are actually attending to their people without obvious signs of doing so. It’s common for those with dogs who are particularly responsive to the environment to note that their dogs always know where they are when they’re out and about. However, the dogs’ top priority in that context isn’t interacting with people, it’s interacting with the environment. They tend to show their affiliation in other ways at other times, and that’s where the strength of the relationship is more obvious to the casual observer.

Many factors affect your relationship, including your respective personalities and your interactions over time. If your dog associates you with treats, enjoyable training, massages, outings, toys and games, you’re more likely to have his attention. In the best of relationships, there’s also an intangible quality: some individuals hit it off in an indefinable, magical way. Strong bonds of love are often made of those special and inexplicable connections.

If a relationship is damaged or not very strong, the dog may give more attention to someone else. Some of the saddest cases in my practice have been those in which the dog isn’t that interested in the person. For example, a man moved back in with his mother and spent tons of time walking and playing with her dog. The dog adored him, but took virtually no notice of the woman. Multiple times each day, she cued him to hug her, which meant jumping up on her, putting his paws on her shoulders and staying that way while she squeezed him. She wanted affection from the dog, but the dog clearly disliked it.

We improved the relationship between the woman and her dog by having her engage with the dog in ways that were fun and satisfying to him. Once she had developed the habit of taking him out for walks, playing fetch with him daily and massaging him afterward, he was drawn to her, and the amount of attention he gave her increased accordingly. She stopped asking him for hugs, and he spontaneously cuddled up beside her. She no longer had to beg for his attention or affection.

Putting Attention on Cue
“My dog pays me no mind when she’s outside off leash.” “My dog is always blowing me off.” “She knows she’s supposed to listen to me, but she ignores me if anything else is going on.” These are all common complaints from people struggling with getting their dogs to pay attention on cue.

The problem many of us have with a dog who is not responsive to cues, especially outside, is not so much a matter of devotion but of training. For most dogs, learning a “pay attention” cue in the face of a whole world of wonder is essentially a difficult, high-level trick and must be taught as such. Yes, some dogs learn this quickly and thoroughly without too much trouble, but that’s unusual. For most dogs, expect topquality responses only after consistent, long-term training efforts.

In the larger scheme of things, a cue to pay attention is essential because it is the basis of all training. You can teach a dog just about anything if you have his attention, but it’s virtually impossible if you don’t. Asking for a dog’s attention is a top priority for professional trainers, which is why it is often the first skill taught in classes or private lessons.

This is especially valuable for dogs who don’t frequently offer their attention spontaneously. For naturally attentive dogs, attention training is largely about putting a behavior that frequently happens on cue. Teaching dogs to give attention when they don’t consistently offer it on their own requires more time and effort because you have to teach the behavior and associate it with a cue.

The two most common cues for attention are “watch” and the dog’s name. “Watch” tells a dog to look at your face, and it’s a great way to keep a dog from paying attention to things that cause him to act in an undesirable way. Saying the dog’s name lets him know that he should pay attention to you and wait for more information. Once you have your dog’s attention, it’s easier for him to respond to other cues, including “down,” “stay” and “come,” or simply to follow you in a new direction on a walk. It’s important to reinforce these behaviors so your dog’s glad he did what you asked. If he learns that he’ll receive a treat or have a chance to play for giving you his attention in response to the cue “watch” or to his name, he will be more likely to give you his attention when asked in the future.

Paying attention will be easier for your dog in some contexts than in others. Typically, dogs are more likely to pay attention inside than outside, and when there are no distractions—no squirrels or cooking aromas on the breeze.

Like any other skill, giving attention on cue requires practice and takes time to teach. Gradually working toward giving attention in increasingly challenging environments is a good strategy. Improving the relationship so that the dog is more inclined to pay attention will also improve your dog’s responsiveness to you.

Ideally, dogs keep track of where their person is. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to sniff in the grass, romp with a canine buddy and still occasionally check in. Though dogs with certain natural tendencies are more disposed to do this, others can be trained to act the same way.

When I’m teaching dogs to exhibit this behavior, I do it in places that allow them to be safely off-leash, where they can wander and sniff to their hearts’ content. When the dog is in his own world and not attending to me at all, I position myself so that I can see the dog but he can’t see me. When he looks up and seems just a little concerned, I call him to come, reinforcing him for his successful search. (If he becomes stressed, I come out of my hiding spot so he can see me, and still reinforce him for coming to me.)

This is a good way to perfect recalls and teach your dog that it’s wise to keep track of you, but it only works with dogs who are connected enough to care when they think for a moment that their person is lost. It is not helpful with aloof dogs or those who are completely unperturbed by your absence, and it’s just cruel to disappear on a clingy, nervous dog. Reserve this technique for those who are stable enough to handle your absence and connected enough to care—which, fortunately, is the majority of dogs.

Remember, when we talk about our dogs paying attention to us, we are really talking about two things: spontaneous attention and attention given on cue. There are many ways to improve both kinds of attentiveness, but that doesn’t mean you can change a dog’s essential nature. All the training in the world isn’t going to turn an aloof and independent dog or a dog who is wildly distracted by the smells of the great outdoors into one who is compulsive about checking in and never lets you out of sight. It is, however, possible to teach any dog to respond properly to the cue “watch” and to his name, and to come when called.

It’s also possible, and desirable, to strengthen your relationship with your dog to increase his attentiveness to you. The more fun and satisfying your interactions are, the more likely your dog is to give you his attention spontaneously or on cue.

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