Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Denver Bronco helps military vets get service dogs
January 31 2014
Eric Decker is a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, but making it to this year’s Super Bowl is only one of his recent accomplishments. More important in the eyes of many is the start of his foundation Decker’s Dogs.
Decker’s Dogs is a part of Operation Freedom, which is the branch of Freedom Service Dogs of America that focuses on helping members of the military transition from active duty and combat to civilian life. They are paired with trained service dogs that allow them to function with less fear and fewer restrictions so that they can be more independent and happier. Many vets have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), suffer from panic attacks and flashbacks, have TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injuries) or are suicidal, and service dogs can make life better for people with such issues as well as those facing other challenges.
All of the dogs in Operation Freedom, including those in Decker’s Dogs, are rescued from shelters and trained to be service dogs. Dogs are provided to clients free of charge, but it takes roughly $25,000 and many months to train a single service dog. That’s where Eric Decker and his wife Jessica come in. Since starting Decker’s Dogs, they have raised many thousands of dollars, and placed their first service dog. They plan to place two more by this summer.
Maybe you are rooting for the Denver Broncos or the Seattle Seahawks in the upcoming Super Bowl. Perhaps you didn’t know who was playing and certainly don’t care who wins. Either way, it’s still easy to cheer for Decker’s Dogs and the veterans and dogs whose lives they change.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Infantile features have power
January 29 2014
Those big puppy dog eyes may be powerful in addition to just being cute. According to a recent study, they may actually affect human choice about which dogs to adopt. The researchers who conducted the study “Paedomorphic Facial Expressions Give Dogs a Selective Advantage” found that dogs whose facial expressions made them look more puppyish were adopted more quickly from shelters than dogs who did not show such facial expressions. (Paedomorphism is the retention of infantile or juvenile traits into adulthood.)
One of the most prominent paedomorphic features is large eyes relative to the size of the face. This trait can be enhanced by raising the eyebrows which makes the overall height and size of the eyes seem bigger. It was this action of eyebrow raising that was studied in the experiment.
A total of 27 dogs were a part of the study. To minimize variation in facial features, all of the dogs were of similar types: Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Mastiffs and mixed bull breeds. Dogs were filmed for 2 minutes and researchers recorded the number of eyebrow raises and tail wags that each dog performed as well as noting how much time the dog spent at the front of the kennel. Frequency of eyebrow raises was associated with shorter times until adoption. Specifically, dogs who raised their eyebrows 5 times during filming were adopted in an average of 50 days, those that performed 10 eyebrow raises were adopted in an average of 35 days, and dogs who did it 15 times had an average waiting time until adoption of only 28 days.
Interestingly, they found that amount of tail wagging and time at the front of the kennel were not strongly associated with time until being adopted even though such traits are typically considered favorable behavioral signs of friendliness. It would be interesting to know if the eyebrow raising behavior correlates with temperament and suitability as a pet or if it is a behavior that serves more strictly to encourage caregiving behavior in humans.
These results may shed light on the domestication of dogs. It has been proposed that the juvenile traits of dogs arose as a byproduct of selection against aggression. This line of reasoning claims that people chose to associate with the least aggressive canines, and that the evolution of puppyish features and behavior developed as an accidental consequence of those choices. Experiments support the idea that selecting against aggression does lead to the evolution of juvenile traits. However, this latest study suggests that the puppylike features themselves may have influenced which canines became closely associated with humans and that such features may have evolved earlier in the process of domestication than previously thought.
Do your buddy’s puppy dog eyes exert a powerful influence over you?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Beware of thieves using this tactic
January 25 2014
In a new twist to an old trick designed to separate honest people from their money, a well-known scam in disguise is being targeted at dog lovers. If someone is interested in buying a dog online, they may be vulnerable to this con.
They are offered a dog, often of a rare and expensive breed, at a too-good-to-be-true price, but during the course of transporting the dog to them, additional fees crop up. They may be asked to send $1600 for insurance to ship the puppy or $1000 for vaccinations and a new pet carrier. Requests for food or for emergency veterinary care are sometimes made. Fees as much as $4600 have been requested to spring the puppy out of quarantine. By the time many victims realize that something isn’t right and that the puppy will NEVER be delivered, it’s too late, and any money they have already sent is gone forever.
This pet scam is a type of 4-1-9 scam, the most famous of which is the Nigerian Scam. In that scenario, the criminal contacts potential victims and claims to have a large fortune that needs to be transferred out of Nigeria. They say that in exchange for helping them with the transfer, they will be given a percentage of the millions of dollars. A variety of reasons are given for being unable to do so without help from an overseas partner. Usually, they have to do with legal technicalities related to their position in the government. Once the victim expresses interest, they are told of various fees and expenses required to make the transfer happen. People are often willing to pay a little now for the promise of a large fortune later, which is how they fall prey to the crime. Fees for multiple failed transfers and legal fees only serve to part people from their money.
Beware of all related scams and don’t let adorable puppy pictures cloud your good judgment. As investigators of such crimes often say, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Making this challenge more manageable
January 22 2014
“I would walk my dogs more often if they acted like that!” the man said as Lucy, Baxter and I passed him on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. Both dogs were walking calmly, one on either side of me. They were relaxed, their leashes were loose, and it was a pleasant walk for all of us. While I was dogsitting for them, I was happy to take them out for two long walks a day and some round-the-block-to-pee outings.
It’s fun to take dogs out when they are well behaved, but the sad truth is that if it is miserable to take dogs out for a walk, those walks don’t happen as often as they should. That’s especially true if multiple dogs are involved. After all, it’s one thing to have a single dog pulling you around the neighborhood, but it’s far worse when it feels like a complete sled dog team is putting their muscle into hauling you around. It’s no fun and it’s not safe, especially in winter if you live where there is snow and ice.
The good news is that there are various ways to improve your experience when walking multiple dogs. I like to place the options in two different categories in my mind. Some are short-term solutions and others are for the long term.
One way to make your walks with more than one dog more enjoyable is to change the equipment you are using. Just adding head collars such as the Gentle Leader or the Snoot Loop can make a huge difference. These collars fit over the nose of your dog and act very much like halters on horses. When fit properly, it’s like having power steering for your dogs, and they have helped many people have control over their dogs in a gentle humane way. Another option is the Easy Walk Harness, which also puts physics on your side so that dogs are unable to pull as they can with basic flat collars. I don’t recommend prong collars or choke chains because they can injure and scare dogs.
Before taking all your dogs out on walks with any new equipment, I recommend taking each one alone at least once. These various collars and harnesses are not difficult to use, but it’s sensible to get the feel of walking each dog with something new before trying it en masse. Taking dogs out one at a time allows you to concentrate on how each individual is adjusting and reacting to the change. If you need to make an adjustment to make it fit better, it’s easier to handle that without the rest of the crew.
Walking one dog is easier than walking two, three, four or more, and another short-term option is walking the dogs one at a time. While this is less efficient and results in either more time walking for the humans or less time walking for each dog, it is still preferable to nobody getting a walk. There are people who adopt this strategy permanently, but for most people, it’s just a way to give dogs exercise while working up to walking dogs together once again.
Working towards group walks means training! It may not be intuitive, but if dogs are to be expected to walk nicely on leashes, they have to be taught to do so. Just like any other skill, it takes practice for your dogs to learn and perfect. It is best to work on training each dog in individual sessions before working with them all simultaneously.
The first step in training a dog to walk nicely beside you is to encourage him to be by your side and reinforce him when he’s in the right spot. In an open area with no other dogs present such as a fenced-in yard, let your dog know that you have tasty treats (or a ball or squeaky toy if your dog prefers toys over treats) and then help him earn them every time he walks beside you. Click your tongue, smooch, slap your leg, or wave a treat next to you, and let him have the goodies for taking a stride or two next to you. If he gets ahead of you, turn around and treat him for catching up. Make sure to give him the treats when he is next to you rather than in front of you since you are teaching him it’s fun to walk next to you, NOT that’s it’s fun to be out in front. The goal is to be interesting to your dog so that he wants to be next to you. Changing your speed and direction will make you more interesting to most dogs, so make sure you speed up, slow down and make a lot of turns.
Once the first step is going well, the next step is to teach your dog that it’s fun to pay attention to you and that wonderful things will happen if he decides on his own to join you and walk next to you. In a safe open area, walk in big circles. Resist the urge to help your dog attend to you. The idea is to teach him that he will be glad if he decides to walk next to you, and he can’t learn that lesson as effectively if you encourage him in any way. The goal is for him to learn that choosing you over everything else in the environment will result in good things for him. It’s important to use high quality treats and reinforce your dog for making good decisions about his behavior and attention.
The third step is to add a leash and go on a walk to work on this behavior. Shower him with treats every time he is in the right position. If he is behind you, encourage him to catch up and reinforce him for doing so. If he gets ahead of you, turn around so that he has the opportunity to catch up to you and receive treats. This is a good time to add in the cue “heel” so that eventually you can cue him to perform this behavior. Say “heel” every time you move forward when he is by your side. Heeling is not easy for dogs, so make sure to give a lot of treats in these early stages of training. Giving too few treats is one of the most common mistakes of novice trainers. Remember to be generous like experienced trainers are! Later, you can reduce the frequency of treats. Intersperse short sessions of heeling on the walk, relying on your equipment in the interim periods to prevent your dog from pulling. Most dogs require lots of practice before perfecting this skill, and many short sessions are more effective than a single longer one.
The last step is to put your dogs together and walk as a group. If you have many dogs, you may need to start with pairs of dogs, then triples and then work up to the whole canine family walking together. Some people find that walking all of their dogs on one side works best, but others have an easier time with one dog on one side and one or more dogs on the other. Only you can decide what is best for you and your dogs, but it’s a good idea to observe your dogs to help figure out the best option. Sometimes a dog is uncomfortable walking beside a particular dog and it makes sense to honor that and adjust positions accordingly.
I enjoyed all my walks with Lucy and Baxter, and that’s what I wish for anyone, whether they have more than one dog or not. The combination of equipment that helps eliminate pulling and training dogs to heel should make walking your dogs a recreational activity instead of it feeling like a grueling endurance event.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Strategies for both you and your dog.
January 22 2014
My favorite wooden salad servers are decorated with Bugsy’s teeth marks. Excluding unprovoked attacks on innocent squeaky toys and the occasional disemboweling of one of his stuffed animals, he wasn’t a destructive chewer by nature, and never damaged anything else. When I came home from work and saw him enjoying these Costa Rican souvenirs, I could hardly blame him, and felt no irritation whatsoever. I understood: it was hunting season.
Because we had a strong aversion to being mistaken for deer and accidentally shot, our exercise was severely limited during the 10 days that hunters roamed the area. Instead of two daily off-leash romps in the woods around our 150- acre farm, we took leash walks down the road. It was clearly not enough for Bugsy, who compensated by chewing on the wooden “sticks” that were conveniently lying around. Every time I use the salad set, I’m reminded that even with well-trained dogs, exercise matters if you want good behavior.
Training obviously helps with problem behaviors, but it’s not the only way to avoid trouble. Dog trainers have long valued the role of exercise in minimizing irksome canine activities such as barking, chewing, jumping around like lunatics, being unable to settle down or sleep well, digging, whining and relentless attention-seeking.
One casual experiment supports these views: a group of dogs was divided in half; one half worked on formal training while the other half had their exercise increased to two 30-to-45-minute sessions a day. After six weeks, the dogs who had additional training showed improvements in both their responsiveness to cues and their problem behaviors. The dogs who had extra exercise also exhibited problem behaviors less frequently, although their responsiveness to cues had not improved.
The relationship between exercise and behavior is complex and sometimes surprising. For example, Schneider et al. (2013) reported that more exercise was correlated with lower levels of fear, less aggression towards familiar dogs and reduced excitability. Jagoe and Serpell (1996) found that dogs acquired for the purpose of increasing their owners’ level of exercise have a lower incidence of certain types of aggression, including possessive aggression and socalled dominance aggression. Lindsay (2005) hypothesized that this is due to the general physiological effects of exercise. So, how does exercise affect behavior through physiological means?
Endogenous chemicals (those produced by the body) may play a role in the effects of exercise on physiology and behavior. Like people, dogs can achieve an emotional state described as the “runner’s high,” which may be why the chance to go for a run is greeted with enthusiasm by our canine companions. It may also be why so many people believe the old saying, “A tired dog is a good dog,” though the admirable behavior exhibited by dogs who are well-exercised may be due more to chemistry than to fatigue.
A runner’s high is caused by chemicals called endocannabinoids, which signal the reward centers of our brains. Endocannabinoids lessen both pain and anxiety as well as create feelings of well-being. Running triggers higher levels of these compounds, which is why running makes us feel good.
If you just snorted derisively and thought that running makes you feel terrible and you can’t imagine why people put themselves through such misery on purpose, you aren’t alone. Though most dogs are excited about running, the human species, outside of a small percentage of fanatics of the sport (or weirdoes, as we are sometimes called), isn’t interested. Yet, the potential to activate the chemicals that cause a runner’s high exists within all of us. The capacity to experience that rush of good feelings is shared by dogs and people, even if we aren’t all dipping into it as frequently as our long-ago ancestors, for whom running long distances was part of daily life.
A study by Raichlen et al. (2012), “Wired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high,’” investigated the phenomenon. The researchers predicted that running would result in chemical reactions in the brain associated with pleasure in species with a history of endurance running, but not in species whose natural history does not include running. They studied three types of mammals—humans, dogs and ferrets—and found that the two with distance running in their evolutionary pasts (humans and dogs) exhibit elevated levels of one particular endocannabinoid (anandamide) after running on a treadmill. Ferrets, noncursorial animals, had no such chemical response.
Both canine and human brains are made to enjoy running, but this pleasurable, rewarding quirk of chemistry is not universal among mammals. Ferrets, as the study showed, derive no pleasure from it. (Friends who despise running have expressed alarm at the results of this study—it makes them wonder if they are part ferret.)
The behavioral benefits to dogs of running may be related more to contentment than to fatigue. Perhaps, what we call “tired” is actually better described as “happy,” “relieved of anxiety and pain” and “experiencing feelings of well-being.” If so, exercise may indirectly benefit dogs’ behavior because it elevates mood rather than simply makes them too worn out to misbehave. Since endocannabinoids lessen the anxiety that can be a source of problem behaviors, it’s easy to see how exercise could help.
Running is also associated with the production of other chemicals that reduce anxiety in mammalian brains. Schoenfeld et al. (2013) reported that mice given the opportunity to run handled stress and anxiety better than sedentary mice. The study observed the brains and brain activity in both groups of mice and found that runners had more excitable neurons in the ventral hippocampus, which plays a role in anxiety, than did sedentary mice. However, the active mice also had more cells capable of producing the calming chemicals that inhibit activity in that area of the brain, which lessens anxiety. The study supports the idea that for mice, at least, running improves regulation of anxiety through inhibitory activity in the brain. It is possible that the situation is similar in dogs, though without studying them specifically, we can’t know for sure.
Of course, behavior and physiology, and the links between the two, are never completely straightforward. There is evidence that cannabinoids can cause hyperactivity at low doses, even though they have calming effects at higher doses. What does this mean for our dogs?
Age, breed and individual differences play a role in the amount of exercise required to keep dogs’ halos on straight and prevent them from sprouting little horns, behaviorally speaking. Some thrive on small amounts of exercise. For others, the same amount of exercise— perhaps a leash walk at a leisurely pace—has the opposite effect. It invigorates them, and may actually induce hyperactivity. (That’s a bit discouraging for those of us whose goal is rarely, if ever, to pep dogs up, though some who compete in canine sports try to do exactly that.)
Recently, I was concerned that I might be inadvertently energizing a dog my family was watching. Super Bee, a Border Collie, belongs to professional runner and Adidas Ultra Team member Emily Harrison. Emily often trains with her dog, so Super Bee typically runs 60 to 70 miles a week. To say she is extremely fit is an understatement along the lines of me saying I sort of like dogs.
While Super Bee was with us, we made exercise a top priority. She went along on all of my morning runs, and my husband ran with her in the evenings. We supplemented this activity with long sessions of fetch; luckily, neither our kids nor Super Bee became bored with this game. Still, knowing that despite our best efforts, we would be unable to give Super Bee her usual amount of exercise, I worried that the shorter sessions would just amp her up.
Despite that risk, I never considered not exercising her, and I’m certainly not advising skipping out on getting a little bit of exercise if that’s all you can do. Exercise and the outings involved in getting it have benefits well beyond those provided by elevated endocannabinoids. There’s value in understanding the effects of various amounts of exercise on our dogs; various types of exercise, from hiking to swimming to playing tug, may have different effects as well.
Though we did not exercise her as much as Emily does, we made a good effort. Super Bee even seemed tired (or should I say contented?) a couple of times! It didn’t last long, but we’re still proud of our accomplishment. It probably contributed to Super Bee’s model behavior while she was with us.
Besides the well-known physical benefits of exercise, its psychological and behavioral benefits are profound and contribute to a high quality of life. The reduction of annoying behaviors and the good behavior that arises directly or indirectly from exercise certainly make the beautiful relationship between people and dogs that much better. What more could we want for our dogs than the highest quality of life, minimal anxiety, the most elevated feelings of contentedness and the best possible relationship with us?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s an unusual offer, but the dog is back
January 15 2014
There’s a similarity among dog lovers in that we would give “anything” to get a lost dog back, but when it comes to being specific about what that means, we’re all different. Abigail Miller of Dayton, Ohio offered a pack of cigarettes and a case of beer for the return of her lost dog, Zoro.
Both of her dogs escaped through a gate in her yard, and though Miller found Ajna at a local shelter a few days later, Zoro was not there. After seeing Miller’s flier with its unusual reward, a man reported that he had seen a dog matching the description. His information led her to the house where Zoro had been taken and to a couple who had found and intended to keep him. Ten days after the escape, Zoro came back home to Miller’s.
The man who found Zoro declined the reward, so Miller plans to give him food from the restaurant where she works instead. When asked about the reward, Miller said that she could afford it and that she hoped it would be unusual enough to catch people’s attention.
Have you seen rewards offered for lost dogs that depart from the usual cash offerings?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tips for helping your dog “go” this season
January 14 2014
“Help! My dog won’t “go” in the snow!” Some dogs hold it so long that it’s worrisome and others simply choose to go inside the house, even if this is something they would never do when the weather is more to their liking. Elimination problems when there is snow are common, especially for dogs who have never been in snow and for small dogs who struggle with cold to any degree. There are likely at least two reasons why dogs show a reluctance to eliminate when snow covers the ground.
Most dogs learn at a very young age what surfaces are appropriate for bathroom use. While still puppies, they experience certain substrates such as grass, leaves, concrete, or indoor training pads or litters, and those are what they are likely to prefer for the rest of their lives. When dogs encounter snow, they often just don’t know that it is okay to eliminate on it. Puppies who learn their housetraining skills during a snowy winter are far less likely to have this problem. So, even though I consider raising a puppy in winter to have its miseries, an advantage is that the dog is less likely to balk at eliminating in the snow each winter.
Another issue for dogs with the snow is the obvious one—it’s cold! There is the cold air itself and also the cold snow on their paws (and on their legs and bellies in some cases!) For dogs unfamiliar with snow, especially small dogs who are not fans of cold under any circumstances, they simply hate the feeling of cold and snow. This makes them resistant to head out at all, and unable to relax enough to go once they are outside, which is perfectly understandable.
Luckily, they are ways to help your dog so that eliminating in the winter is still something that happens on the ground outside rather than on the carpet inside. One method that many use is shoveling out a patch of grass for them along with a path from the door to the potty area. I’ve had clients who have tried to minimize the work involved by shoveling a path to an area protected from the snow such as under a balcony or even under a trampoline. Most dogs are more likely to head out to take care of business if it’s easier to walk there and if there is a snow-free area available to them.
Many dogs do better if you go out with them. Not everybody wants to head out with their dogs in freezing temperatures to wade through the snow together, but if you find that it leads to success, it may be worth it to you. In some cases, several outings may be required. You can go out with your dog, and if he doesn’t eliminate within 5-10 minutes, take him inside with you, keeping him right with you on leash so he can’t sneak off and “go” in the house. After another 5-10 minutes, head outside together to try again. You can repeat this many times, and though it takes considerable effort, it does work for most dogs.
Some dogs struggle the most to eliminate in the yard when it’s snowy, but do better on walks through the neighborhood. If it’s not so cold that your dog’s paws can’t take it, walks may inspire your dog to eliminate. Being away from the yard is helpful, and the activity may make your dog’s need to go more urgent. Leading your dog to areas where other dogs have already gone (yellow snow has its benefits!) may encourage your dog, too.
Training your dog to eliminate on cue has helped many dogs potty in all sorts of new and confusing situations, including snow, but it’s most helpful to teach your dog this skill before the weather is working against you. There are two steps to this training process:
1) Reinforce elimination behavior by giving your dog a really great treat every time he pees or poops. Don’t wait until your dog comes running back to the house to give him the treat or he’ll think he earned the treat by running over to you. Stand right near him as he goes and give him the treat the instant he is done eliminating so he connects going potty with receiving a treat.
2) Once you have done this many times and he begins to look at you expectantly for that treat after eliminating, add in the cue. Take him outside as usual to eliminate and give the cue you want to use to tell him to eliminate, making sure to say it before he goes. Common cues are “Hurry Up”, “Get Busy” and “Go Potty.” With enough practice, a dog will learn that when you say the cue, he should take care of business. Continue to reinforce him with treats once you have added in the cue so that he knows he did the right thing and is happy that he did.
Once your dog can eliminate on cue, you can give him the cue in situations where he might not be sure that the area is acceptable, such as in snow or in a rocky area without grass. It’s just one more way that specific training allows you to communicate with your dog and make it easier for him to understand what to do.
Does your dog resist going potty in the snow? If so, how have you handled it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
They respond to photos of familiar faces
January 10 2014
You know your dog knows who you are, right? That enthusiastic greeting when you come home is proof positive that he recognizes you. But what clues him in to your identity—the sound of your footsteps, your voice, your unique smell, that palpable charm? That may all be possible, but recent evidence suggests that dogs can actually recognize faces.
The ability to recognize faces is important for social animals. When living in a group, identifying individual members and being able to distinguish them from one another is essential for keeping track of specific social interactions. For dogs as well as humans, this skill is highly developed.
In a recent study called How dogs scan familiar and inverted faces: an eye movement study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers investigated facial recognition in the domestic dog. They concluded that:
These results are similar to those found when studying humans and other primates with the same technique used in this study—tracking eye movement. Across the many species that have been studied previously, primates are more interested and spend more time looking at faces of members of their own species. Similarly, primates look at the eyes of faces, just as dogs did.
This study also investigated dogs’ responses to faces that are shown upside down. Such inversions are interesting to cognitive scientists because there is evidence in other species that inverted faces are not processed the same way as faces that are oriented in the normal way.
Humans are able to identify faces quickly and accurately because we have a mechanism to identify faces that is separate from the system used to identify other sorts of objects. The face is looked at as a complete structure with tiny differences in the configuration of its parts rather than as separate parts as we do with other objects. When faces are upside down, the process of facial recognition is disrupted and we are forced to identify the face as we would other objects, as parts that must be looked at and evaluated individually rather than as a whole. The facial recognition that is usually so effective doesn’t work well on inverted faces. They are processed as other sorts of objects are—piece by piece—rather than as an integrated whole, which is why we are not as good at identifying faces in this way.
Dogs, according to this study, fixate on upside down faces longer, suggesting that it is more difficult for them to identify them than when they are upright. They do spend a lot of time looking at the eyes even in upside down faces, which suggests that they do recognize these images as faces despite their position.
Because dogs have lived with humans for so long, they provide an interesting model for studying facial recognition since they are adept at identifying individual faces in their own as well as in our species.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It influences their orientation during elimination
January 6 2014
A new study called Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field published in the Journal Frontiers in Zoology has demonstrated that dogs can sense and respond to magnetic fields. It is the first time that this has been shown in this species. Researchers found a measurable change in behavior based on the conditions of the magnetic field.
Specifically, they found that under certain conditions, dogs choose to pee and poop with their bodies aligned along the north-south axis and avoided orientation along the east-west axis. They studied 70 dogs from 37 different breeds over a two-year period, observing 1893 defecations and 5582 urinations. Observations were all made while the dogs were off leash and in open fields so that they were not influenced by walls, fences, fire hydrants or other objects.
The researchers collected data on dog directionality (and hopefully all the poop, too) and found that the way dogs face is not just a matter of chance. They ruled out such factors as time of day, angle of the sun and wind conditions. Their analysis found that the Earth’s magnetic field explained dogs’ orientation when doing their business. Interestingly, the pattern only emerged when the magnetic field was stable, which was only about 30 percent of the time. The Earth’s magnetic field can become unstable due to such factors as the variation in solar winds and the sun’s magnetic field. During such periods of instability, dogs did not show a preference for aligning themselves along the north-south axis and oriented randomly.
This research has been written about extensively in the media, possibly because any scientific research that involves potty talk is inherently amusing to journalists. Though the behavior that the researchers studied was elimination, to focus on that is to miss what’s really important about the study.
What I think is so fascinating is the revelation that dogs are able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field and that their behavior is influenced by it. It has been known for a long time that dog senses, particularly the sense of smell, mean that they are responsive to stimuli that we humans aren’t aware of, but the fact that dogs can act, in some manner, as though they have an internal compass is just as fascinating.
Previous studies have found that cattle, deer and foxes sometimes align their bodies with respect to the magnetic field. Sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field has previously been demonstrated in species that migrate such as birds and whales, and also in honey bees, whose navigational abilities are legendary.
Of course, people have long asserted that dogs can find their way exceptionally well, and I’ve even known people who said that it was like their dogs had internal compasses. Finding out that dogs can in fact sense the Earth’s magnetic field, just as compasses can, makes their navigational abilities perhaps more understandable, but no less extraordinary. It was in part dogs’ remarkable homing abilities that made the researchers suspect that dogs might be sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field in the first place.
Why dogs are choosing to orient themselves in this way is the big question, and hopefully future research will pursue it. I look forward to seeing research on that subject as well as experiments investigating other canine behaviors that may be influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s more than just a cute trick
January 2 2014
Years ago I taught my dog Bugsy to “back up” with the intention of adding it to his trick repertoire. It means just what it sounds like—to move away by taking steps backwards. My dog already knew how to crawl, wave, high-five, spin, shake, rollover, bow, and sit pretty, but I was searching for something new to teach him. I remembered seeing horses do this on cue and finding it adorable. I decided it would be Bugsy’s next trick, but I never imagined how useful it would be.
It began as a trick, which are behaviors I ask dogs to do on cue just for fun, but I began to use it functionally in an ever-increasing number of contexts. Bugsy already had a solid “stay” and knew how to “wait” (pause and refrain from going forward until given permission) when asked. Still, there were many situations in which telling him to “back up” was more helpful.
Dogs can sometimes get in the way, and asking them to “back up” solves the problem. I’m thinking of situations such as when I’m trying to open the front door, the pantry or the fridge and there are many pounds of lovable canine filing the space I need.
Being able to tell a dog to back away from a trash can, the dishwasher, another dog’s food bowl, a toy, or anything found on a walk that looks gross or even dangerous is so useful. It’s true that the cue “leave it” will also work in those contexts. However, having a dogs create physical distance between themselves and the forbidden object sometimes helps them resist temptation. “Leave it” only tells most dogs that they may not grab something, but it gives them no help deciding what to do instead. The cue to “back up” instructs them with a specific incompatible behavior to perform. (A dog cannot simultaneously approach the dishes in the dishwasher and back away from them.)
There’s really no end to the situations in which asking your dog to “back up” is useful. I’ve used it when I need a dog to move away from a child or a person who does not love dogs, out of a crowded kitchen, out of my way as I carry a large pile of blankets that prevents me from seeing where I am stepping, away from a freshly painted fence, away from a swinging door, a swing or a car door, and away from an intersection with skateboarders flying by too close for comfort. I’ve asked dogs who were carrying large sticks to back away from people just for safety’s sake, and I’ve used this cue to tell a dog to increase the distance between himself and another dog if I see trouble brewing. It is endlessly practical, and I soon found myself using it way more often than wait or stay.
In addition to its great practicality, “back up” has the appeal of being relatively easy to teach. Start with your dog standing in front of you and attending to you. Move toward your dog calmly. When he takes a step backward, reinforce immediately with a click/treat or a treat. For some dogs, a couple of steps in their direction work best but for other dogs, a slight lean is most effective.
Continue to reinforce your dog for taking a step backward until he is doing it reliably. Then, continue moving toward your dog until he has taken more than one step backwards. Reinforce him for multiple steps. Once he understands that backing up is a way to earn treats, say the cue “back up” before moving toward him, and reinforce him for responding appropriately. With practice you can phase out the motion towards him so that he is backing up in response to the cue alone. You can use a visual cue such as extending your arm towards him instead of the verbal cue or in addition to it.
I use the verbal cue “back up” for this behavior, but other trainers use different ones. A few common cues for this same behavior are “back out”, “get back” and “beep beep.” Any of these cues will work equally well, so choose the one that you like best, keeping in mind that it’s best to avoid using a cue that sounds similar to any cues that your dog already knows for any other behaviors.
Some dogs will respond to your motion towards them by sitting down or by turning around. If your dog is a sitter during this training, try holding a treat a few inches over his head and moving it towards his back end slowly. This causes most dogs to step back rather than sit, and you can then reinforce the behavior. If your dog’s tendency is to turn, try to train him in a narrow hallway or between two large pieces of furniture so that there’s not enough room for him to turn around. Presented with such an obstacle, most dogs will try to back up as an alternative, providing you with an opportunity to reinforce the behavior you are looking for.
Does your dog have a cue that means to back up, and if so, when do you use it?
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