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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
Dogs Attend to Color
It matters more than brightness

One of the most persistent errors about dogs is the claim that they are colorblind. It has been known for decades that dogs can see colors, but research into the details of how they use their color vision can still reveal new information. In a recent study called “Colour cues proved to be more informative for dogs than brightness”, researchers asked the simple question, “Do dogs attend to color or brightness when learning the cues that indicate the presence of food?

In the experiment, researchers trained dogs to make a choice between boxes concealing food. The boxes were each marked with a colored paper, and the dog had to learn which one indicated a piece of meat was inside. Dogs were trained to discriminate between either light yellow and dark blue or between dark yellow and light blue. Then the dogs were tested to see if the cue they used to make correct choices was the color of the paper or the brightness of the paper.

For example, a dog who had learned to choose the box marked by a dark yellow piece of paper was tested with a choice between a box marked by light yellow or a box marked by dark blue. The experimenters were asking whether the dog had learned that “dark” indicates the presence of meat or whether “yellow” does. They found that dogs were making choices based on color, not brightness, in the majority of cases. It was a small sample size of only 8 dogs, but it suggests that dogs not only see color, which has long been known, but that they pay attention to it more than to the depth of color.

It is not surprising that if dogs have the ability to see color that they would use that color functionally in various situations. Asking whether dogs distinguish dark from light when the opportunity to distinguish by color is also present may be an important preliminary step in understanding what dogs attend to. However, I would be even more interested to know whether dogs favor color over shape, color over size or even color over various sounds to make their choices, as all of these seem more biologically relevant to dogs seeking food than brightness does.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Early Dog Walker Dies at 81
Jim Buck preferred dogs to office work

Best known for his dog walking business that cared for up to 150 dogs a day, Jim Buck is considered the first professional dog walker in New York City. (In New York, they often refer to him as the first professional dog walker, but as a person who lives elsewhere, I can’t help but notice how often “first” and “first in New York” are used synonymously. For example, his obituary says, “Mr. Buck . . . is widely described as the first person to professionalize dog walking in New York City and, by extension, the United States.”)

Buck came from a wealthy family, but chose a path different than most. He dropped out of college and chose to walk dogs rather than work at an electronics company, as he did for a while. He said he preferred walking his own dogs and other people’s dogs to suiting up and going to the office.

He was a tall, thin man, often described with a comparison to slender breeds of dogs such as the sight hounds. He was also an original thinker, realizing that there was a business opportunity in providing dog walking services to people working long days in the city. His business, Jim Buck’s School for Dogs, employed dozens of people to help him walk client’s dogs. When he started, his was the only such business in New York City, though now there are huge numbers of them.

Among the stories about Buck and his business is the tale that he used to test potential employees by having them walk an Otterhound nicknamed both Oliver the Artful and Oliver the Awful. Oliver regularly entered phone booths and refused to come out. Buck wanted people who would solve the problem by gently coaxing him out rather than attempting to use force. He claims to have preferred to hire women because he thought they were generally more compassionate to dogs who misbehaved.

It was a different era, and Buck dressed well, as was typical at that time. He wore through his fancy shoes every two weeks, employing the services of a cobbler to repair his shoes regularly. He could easily afford his expensive clothes and shoes because his income as a dog walker was around five times that of the average American and he made more through his business than he ever did at his office job.

Jim Buck retired about 10 years ago and died at the age of 81 on July 4, 2013.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Etiquette With Dogs
The silverware question

A friend stopped by while I was preparing a Kong to put in the freezer for later. After stuffing in some treats, some kibble, a biscuit and the canned food to hold it all together once it was frozen, I cued Super Bee to wave. When she lifted her paw properly in response, I held out the spoon I had used to scoop the wet food in and she began licking it. She looked so dear to me as she daintily (there’s no other word for it!) used her tongue to remove what was stuck to the spoon.

Still smiling at the sight of her lovely face, I looked up at my friend, whose face looked significantly less lovely at that moment. It had a look that combined horror and disgust. She asked me, “Is that a spoon you plan to use to eat?”

“Yes, after it goes through the dishwasher,” I answered. She still looked aghast, so I added, “We wash all of our silverware after anybody uses it. Then it’s clean so we can use it again.” This made such sense to me that I felt silly saying it, but obviously my friend found it troubling.

She went on to tell me that most people with dogs or cats would never share their spoons with each other. She said she didn’t mean to make me feel bad, but that what I was doing seemed really gross and didn’t I agree? I did not agree so her speech didn’t make me feel bad, but it did surprise me.

I don’t want to use a spoon after my kids (or any other humans) have used it without washing it first, but then I treat it as clean and ready to go, and I feel the same way about spoons that dogs have used.

Are your dogs ever allowed to lick your silverware?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
After a Dog Bite
The biter's suffering continued

There was a lot of blood, which is typical for bites to the ears. The little white dog who was bitten was sitting calmly in her guardians lap while her injury was attended to. Despite having been surprised by a totally uncalled for bite as she entered the backyard to join the party, she was doing okay. She was clearly hurt, but this stable dog was accepting the loving comfort of her guardian and didn’t seem as upset as one might expect.

If only the dog who had bitten her had been in such good shape, psychologically speaking, but he was a mess. He had no physical injury, but he was traumatized. He is a fearful dog who had been overwhelmed by the party long before another dog—his biggest fear—had shown up. I had been watching him uneasily for a little while before the incident and had told my kids to stay away from him. I had no way of knowing that he would end up biting, but I could see that he was scared, which put me on red alert because I know that’s the cause of so much aggression.

I didn’t see the bite happen, but I heard a ruckus, and hoped that it was just noise and nothing worse. We were attending an event where we knew almost nobody and in the introductions, I had mentioned that I work with dogs and specialize in aggression. After the bite, the guardian of the dog who had bitten called me over with the plea, “I need you!” Luckily, the dogs had already been separated, which is the only thing that went as I would have advised all day.

The guardian of the dog who had bitten asked me, “What should I do?” and I told her that the kindest thing she could do for her dog was to get him out of this situation. We agreed that he was very afraid, which is why he had bitten, and she told me that he can’t tolerate other dogs at all, but that he had been letting people at the party pet him, which was big progress. The dog may not have behaved aggressively to people petting him, but he was tongue flicking, tucking his tail, trying to move away from them, and his pupils were dilated. He wasn’t just nervous—he was terrified.

The woman did not want to leave the party and said so. I urged her to go home and let her dog escape a situation in which he was clearly miserable, but she didn’t want to go, and stayed there with that poor scared dog for hours. I felt so bad for him and wished that I could have persuaded her to take him home.

I also wish that I could have been more proactive about preventing the bite in the first place. Long before the bite, I thought it would have been a good idea to take the dog home, but if I told people to take their dogs home every time I saw them in situations that seemed beyond what they could handle, I would say it so often I would make the boy who cried wolf seem uncommunicative. It’s not advice that most people want, and I don’t give it in settings when I am not working unless I am asked. And even in this serious case with a bite involved, I was asked and that advice was not followed. The few other times that something bad has happened and I’ve advised people to get the dog out of the situation, they did, so this guardian’s decision to stay was exceptional.

It’s no fun to leave a social event or even to leave your dog behind and attend on your own, but so often these actions are in the best interests of the dog. I feel so bad for both dogs, and I also feel bad that I wasn’t able to lessen the suffering.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Tough Choices About End of Life
Deciding when to euthanize

Not everybody is at ease with the idea of euthanasia under any circumstances, and I understand that. Many people have moral conflicts with deciding to end the life of a pet, no matter what the reason. My perspective is that this is a highly individual decision but that I personally am comfortable with euthanizing my pets once their quality of life is so compromised or they are in such pain that keeping them alive feels like it’s more for my sake than for theirs. It’s my view that a peaceful death by euthanasia frees them from pain and misery, and is the final gift of love I am able to provide. I know many disagree, and I’m not suggesting that one way or another is right—I’m just describing my own personal take on this issue.

That doesn’t mean that I haven’t cried buckets and been inconsolable when I’ve euthanized a dog. It’s horrible beyond imagination, and I’ve never really recovered from it in any case. I always hope for any dog (or any person for that matter) to surrender peacefully to death while sleeping. When that doesn’t happen in time, facing the tough decision of when to euthanize is a challenge. Sometimes it’s obvious when it’s time because the dog has reached a point of literally being unable to move, being in constant and unmanageable pain, showing no joy at all or no recognition of anything or anyone.

In other cases, it’s not so clear, which is why a new tool that helps guardians and veterinarians decide when that moment has arrived may be useful. Researchers at Michigan State University developed a survey for probing into the specifics of a dog’s quality of life when undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The idea is to develop an objective way to assess quality of life, which is such an important consideration when deciding whether to continue life-prolonging measures or to face the possibility that it is time to say good-bye.

Questions address a range of behavioral issues and observations before treatment, a retrospective on the dog’s behavior six months prior, and continued observations throughout their treatment at regular intervals. The questions address aspects of dog behavior including play, measures of happiness, and signs of disease. Both guardians and veterinarians have questions to answer based on their own observations. A small pilot study of 29 dogs found high levels of agreement from clinicians and guardians. Researchers plan to expand their original work to a study with hundreds of dogs and to other illnesses and medical issues as well.

Do you think an objective tool such as this might help you decide when to euthanize a dog, or do you feel comfortable with just “knowing” when that sad day has come?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
July Fourth Celebrations
How well does your dog handle them?

If you love the Fourth of July, it may be one of the few times that you find yourself thinking about the differences between you and your dog instead of the similarities. (It will probably also happen if you ever decide compare your respective views on cow pies.) Having the day off to barbecue, watch a parade, and see the fireworks may be heavenly to most people, but not for most dogs.

Okay, perhaps they’ll enjoy the barbecue if enough of the yummy stuff makes it to the ground, but even then, they may find their insides upset later on. And the parade may appeal to the most social of dogs and those without any kind of personal space issues, but the crowds can be overwhelming and scary to dogs not accustomed to such large groups of people. For small dogs especially, there is a very real danger of being stepped on or otherwise squashed in such a setting.

Of course, the big misery for dogs on Independence Day is the fireworks. Dogs who fear loud sounds, especially those with a phobia of thunderstorms, suffer the most. But even dogs who go through much of the year with nothing more than a normal startle response to a dropped pot or a car backfiring can freak out when dealing with the prolonged nature of these annual celebratory explosions. That’s why I urge people to keep their dogs home and away from fireworks even if they are sure their dog can handle it. I’ve seen many stable dogs who had no reaction one year but fell apart the next. It’s not worth the risk!

It pains me personally that this is one of the most dreaded days for the canine set because it’s my birthday, and I’ve always considered myself lucky to celebrate with the whole country. I love the fireworks, and as a little girl, I believed my Dad’s jokes that they were just for me. I still enjoy his nickname for me—his little firecracker—even though I now understand that even though he sometimes meant it in a good way, sometimes he didn’t. I love to share my favorite activities with dogs, but unluckily for me, my birthday is the one day of the year that it is the most difficult.

Some celebrations on this holiday may be pleasant for quite a few dogs—a small gathering of people for a simple meal, walking around town together away from the biggest crowds, and certainly spending time with you if you have the day off. On the other hand, the fireworks and the parades bother the majority of dogs.

How do you handle the Fourth of July with your dog and what parts of it do you share?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Unlikely Dog Sitters
People who come through for others

As a positive methods dog trainer, it’s natural for me to look for behavior that I like and reinforce it, and I don’t just do that for dogs.  The species that I personally spend the most time with is people, and lately I’ve noticed similar commendable behavior in many of them. The commonality is a willingness to take care of other people’s dogs no matter how inconvenient or challenging that may be. I applaud and admire all those who watch other people’s dogs in times of need, especially the following two who have done so when it was far from easy.

A week ago, I saw a neighbor pushing a double jog stroller and walking three dogs. After rushing over to see her 11-day old baby for the first time and offer congratulations to the new 22-month old big sister, I realized that her daughter wasn’t the only new addition.

“Did you get a new dog?” I asked, secretly thinking that of all the bad times to get a new dog, the first week or so after having a baby has got to top the list.

“No,” she replied, “It’s my sister’s dog. My mom was supposed to watch her while she’s in Hawaii, but at the last minute, she couldn’t, so she asked me.”

When I expressed surprise at the timing of this dog sitting request and offered to walk any or all of her dogs at any time, she just smiled and said, “Oh, I don’t mind. She’d do the same thing for me.”

That may well be true, but I am still impressed that she so cheerfully took on the responsibility of a third dog when she clearly had her hands full with two children under the age of two and a pair of dogs of her own.

I have a distant cousin who also deserves praise for taking on the responsibility of dogs even though her health issues and age would make a refusal completely reasonable. She is well into her 80s with a range of health issues that cause her a lot of pain and also limit her mobility. Despite that, she regularly watches the dogs of her human children, all of whom require more care than her own dog does.

In the last few months, she has taken care of four different dogs at her children’s request. She has watched a rambunctious puppy, a 15-year old dog with arthritis and a serious neurological issue who needs to be lifted in and out of the car, and two untrained 4-year old dogs who constantly make those around them feel like they are in some sort of circus fun house.

She is very caring to attend to these dogs despite the strain on her physically, and presumably emotionally, especially since she is often asked to do so on short notice. In one case, her son dropped off the 15-year old dog while she was not home, left no explanation, and my cousin only knew how long she would have the dog because of how many cans of food were left. Obviously, their family dynamics and boundaries might make an easy target for criticism, but I prefer to focus on the kindness involved in this woman taking care of the dogs. It’s easy to see that they are very happy when they are with her and that there is much adoration all around.

I’m still grateful to my neighbor Stephanie and my fellow dog trainer Shannon who took care of our dog Bugsy when I was in the hospital giving birth to my first son. It was such a relief not to have to worry about him and or about having to call before the sun came up since we had been given permission to call them “at any time of day or night.”

Is there someone who has taken care of your dogs who deserves a special thank you for extra effort?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs Are Like Children To Us
Science supports what we’ve long believed

Our dogs are our kids. It’s not rocket science—we love them, they love us. They look to us for comfort and care. We call them our fur kids or our four-legged children. So, even though it’s not news to us, it’s validating to see science confirm what we already thought was true: Our dogs are like children to us.

Children have been shown to explore the world most confidently if they have a strong attachment to their caregiver (usually a parent.) They use the parent as a secure base from which to explore their environment if they have learned that the parent is dependable and reliable, and this phenomenon is called the secure base effect.

In the recent study, The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs—Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task, researchers conclude that dogs are bonded to their guardians in the same way that infants are bonded to their parents. They found that dogs use their guardians as a secure base, just as children do.

In the study, dogs were tested in each of two experiments and their behavior was quantified. In the first experiment, dogs were given the opportunity to obtain food from interactive dog toys, and the amount of time the dogs spent attempting to extract the food was recorded. The dogs were tested in three different experimental situations: 1) with their guardian absent, 2) with their guardian present and encouraging them, and 3) with their guardian present but silent and unresponsive. Researchers also recorded how much time the dogs spent in close proximity to their guardians as well as to the experimenter, who was present in all conditions.

The results of this experiment showed that the different situations had an impact on how long the dog manipulated the interactive toy in an attempt to extract the food. The dog manipulated it longer when the guardian was present than absent, but there was no difference in response to whether the guardian was encouraging the dog or remaining silent. The dogs spent an equal amount of time close to their guardian regardless of whether they were receiving encouragement or not. They spent more time close to the experimenter when their guardians were absent than when they were present, suggesting that the experimenter offered some security, social support or comfort in the experimental context.

The second experiment was designed to determine if the effects seen in the first experiment could be explained simply by the fact that in the situations in which the guardians were present, there were two people in the room, whereas in the guardian-absent condition, there was only one person. In other words, what if dogs are not affected by having their guardian as a secure base, but simply react to the presence of more than one person in the room? So, in experiment two, the first experiment was modified to include a fourth condition in which an unfamiliar person (rather than the guardian) was present along with the experimenter.

The results of the second experiment were that dogs manipulated the interactive toy longer in the presence than in the absence of their guardians, regardless of whether an additional unfamiliar person was in the room. The dogs spent more time near their silent, unresponsive guardians than to the unfamiliar person, who also refrained from interacting with the dog. The addition of the unfamiliar person condition allowed the researchers to determine that the guardian had a specific effect on the dog’s performance that cannot be explained by the presence of just any person.

Prior to participating in this experiment, all dogs were tested for their willingness to eat food in the absence of their guardians. They were also scored for their tendency to exhibit separation distress when kept away from their guardians. Interestingly, there was no relationship between the time spent manipulating the toys in the absence of their guardians and the amount of separation distress they showed, which means that the results of the experiments cannot be explained by a tendency of the dogs to manipulate the toy less because of the distress of separation.

This is the first study to demonstrate that the relationship between dogs and guardians is similar to the relationship between children and their parents in that both involve the secure base effect. This raises concerns about experiments into cognitive abilities that involve problem solving that is far more complex than in this study because the absence of guardians could significantly lower performance by the dogs.

It also confirms the view that most of us have about the canine members of our family—they are like kids to us!

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Biggest Distractions for Dogs
Squirrels, bicycles, deer, runners

You are enjoying a pleasant walk with your dog when you are suddenly faced with a distraction. The severity of the situation depends on your dog’s natural excitability and level of training along with the specific distraction that has appeared. The situation might be no big deal, a chance to proof your dog’s training, a bit of a hassle or a serious problem verging on a catastrophe.

The iconic distraction is the squirrel. It’s no coincidence that when people are pointing out that their dog is distracted by something, they just say, “Squirrel!” in an excited way. It’s true that squirrels cause incredible challenges for many dogs and their guardians. Many dogs will alert, tense up and chase a squirrel if given the opportunity. Others will bark, whine or spin in circles. There are dogs who will lie down silently before bolting towards the squirrel, as though they have been stalking it. And yet, there are plenty of dogs who aren’t overly interested in squirrels and don’t react at all. Perhaps those dogs are just not easily distracted, but some of them just find other things distracting instead.

Among the animals that can be distraction nightmares for guardians are sheep, chickens or other birds, cats, other dogs, horses, deer, and elk. Any sort of person can be problematic as a distraction, but top honors usually go to shrieking children, bicyclists, skateboards, roller bladders, and runners. Distractions can even be inanimate objects such as plastic bags blowing by, trash cans, trucks, cars, motorcycles, and balloons.

What’s your dog’s biggest distraction—the one thing you really hope you never see on a walk?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Protecting Dogs During Parties
Should they stay or should they go?

We were heading to a neighborhood party where the majority of the guests were most excited about the beer pong and the glorious buffet. As for me, the main draw was an opportunity to see Schultzie, whose guardians were hosting. I have already written about Schultzie, who I love. We have had the joy of dogsitting for her several times, and I couldn’t wait to see her.

You can imagine my distress when I arrived and was told that Schultzie was at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for the night. Yes, I was disappointed, but I was also relieved that Schultzie would be safe and free from the angst that affects so many dogs at parties. Most dogs can handle a few guests, but bigger events pose significant issues for many of them.

There are the physical risks: being stepped on, going outside through a door that is inadvertently left open and ending up in the road, being hit by errant throws in ladder ball, disc golf or any other garden games so common at summer gatherings, consuming something unhealthy that drops on the floor or that a well-intentioned guest offers—including alcohol.

There are also psychological risks: it may be too loud, the dog may be unable to locate the guardians, the amount of activity may be overwhelming, unusual behavior by guests may cause stress in the dog, and staying up later than usual may be problematic.

There are many solutions for making sure that dogs do not suffer because of a party at their house. They can visit friends or family members and avoid the party altogether, as Schultzie did. They can be taken to a professional boarding facility. If they are comfortable with it, they can spend the party cozy in a crate in a closed room, or just be put in a closed room without the crate.

Another option is for the dog to be under the watchful eye of a person who is constantly watching them and running interference to make sure that the dog is protected from any party dangers. This is a big job, similar to watching a toddler. It is not enough for the person to casually attend to the dog. That can lead to a situation in which someone asks where the dog is and the answer is something like, “Hmm, she’s around here somewhere,” which indicates inadequate supervision.

How do you protect your dog from the risks when you are entertaining large groups of people?

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