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
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?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog-related plans for 2014
December 30 2013
Years ago, my sister’s New Year’s resolution was to give up New Year’s resolutions, and she was one of the few people who stuck to her plan. (Success rates are generally less than 10%.) Her secret was resolving to do something that she wanted to do anyway. If your resolutions for 2014 are dog-related, make success more likely by choosing to focus on one or a few things that are of real interest to you.
Simple ideas for dog-related resolutions are plentiful. Here are 10 possibilities.
1. Leave that cell phone in your pocket on walks so that you are truly present and spending time with your dog. It’s the time you spend together that builds the relationship, and this is one of the easiest ways to enjoy each other’s company.
2. Try a new activity with your dog. Classes in agility, tracking, fly ball are common in many areas. Hiking, weight pulling, dock jumping, herding, lure coursing and canine freestyle are just a few of the other possibilities.
3. Provide better nutrition for your dog. This is a big task for most of us, but even a few simple steps can make a difference. Try a higher quality dog food, add fresh vegetables to your dog’s diet or vow to measure your dog’s food for every meal so there’s no risk of overfeeding.
4. Give back to the canine community. There are so many ways to help out such as walking an elderly neighbor’s dog, volunteering at a shelter or rescue, fostering a dog, or giving money to an organization that improves the lives of animals.
5. Teach your dog something new. Practical training skills such as walking nicely on a leash, waiting at the door or a solid stay all pay big dividends. Other possibilities are to teach your dog a new game so you can play together more. Fetch, tug, find it, hide and seek, and chase games are all options, though depending on your dog, not every game may be a good fit.
6. Make plans for your dog in the event that you die first. Financial planning so you can provide for your dog when you are no longer here as well as making arrangements for someone to be the guardian for your dog are two important steps.
7. Give your dog more exercise. This can be daunting so plan to make one small improvement to start. Perhaps add 10 minutes to a weekend walk or set up a play date with a dog buddy a couple of times a month. When it comes to increasing activity, every little bit helps, so taking one step in the right direction is a wonderful goal at this, or any, time of year.
8. Take better care of your dog’s teeth. Consult with your veterinarian about a dental cleaning or about brushing at home. Dental care helps improve overall health and can make your dog’s breath more pleasant, too.
9. Make plans in case of a medical emergency. Whether it is putting aside a little in savings each month or investigating pet insurance, the peace of mind that you’ve got it covered in the event of an emergency is worth a lot.
10. Go new places with your pet. Novelty is great fun for most dogs, so try to go a few new places this year. Perhaps a new pet store or a new hiking trail will provide your dog with an experience that is really enjoyable.
Love them or hate them, New Year’s resolutions are common this time of year. Do your plans for 2014 include any dog-oriented New Year’s resolutions?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Helping vulnerable people feed their dogs
December 28 2013
Low income means tough choices. Should I buy medications or heat my home? Do I pay my rent or buy shoes? Who gets to eat—me or my pets?
It’s this last question that inspired volunteers with Meals on Wheels to add pet food to deliveries for seniors and disabled individuals who are at risk of hunger. People who were taking food to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities noticed that many of them were doing without the food they desperately need in order to make sure their pets had something to eat.
As dog lovers, this is no surprise to most of us. Many of us have a “my dog eats before I do” mentality in the event of economic stress, but not all of us have had to act on it. Once volunteers became aware of this new threat to adequate nutrition for the people they serve, they became enthusiastic partners with a program called AniMeals on Wheels.
This program allows volunteers to deliver pet food along with the meals they bring to human clients. It relies on donations and volunteers for all pet food and deliveries and involves collaborations with a number of pet programs in multiple states. Despite the popularity of the program and the huge amount of food donated, the need is even bigger. They are never in a position where they don’t need more donations of pet food.
AniMeals on Wheels is one of many programs nationwide that seek to address the problem of hunger in both people and dogs. It’s important to understand that until there is enough food for their pets, the problem of hunger in low-income seniors and the disabled will not be solvable.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Her own qualities helped her survive
December 24 2013
A few days ago, Crosby the Golden Retriever was rescued from the Charles River by officers in the Wellesley Police Department. Crosby had fallen through the ice and was unable to return to shore. The ice was too thick for her to break through and swim for safety. It was too thin to support her weight and allow her to walk to shore, even if she had been able to climb onto the ice from the water.
Officers in cold-water survival suits swam out to her and hauled her 50 yards back to shore. Without their help, she is unlikely to have survived. She was swimming back and forth in the freezing water when rescuers arrived and without help, she would have been at great risk of drowning due to hypothermia, exhaustion, or a combination of the two.
When I watch the video of her rescue, I see many factors that helped Crosby to survive. The rapid response, skills, and equipment of the police department obviously played a critical role. The technology that allowed the guardian’s location to be pinpointed from her 911 call was also important.
As a canine behaviorist, what I notice most is how the dog’s own qualities played an important part in her survival. Specifically, I observed that this dog was fit, emotionally stable, and social, all of which contributed to the success of a challenging rescue.
Fitness. Swimming in freezing water is exhausting. We don’t know how long Crosby was in the river. It wasn’t long enough for her to freeze, but it was long enough for her guardian to call for help, for police officers to arrive, to prepare for the rescue and to reach her 50 yards from shore. Some dogs would not have had the physical abilities required to stay above the surface that long, so Crosby’s fitness was a huge asset in this emergency situation.
Emotional stability. Nobody could watch the video and claim that Crosby looked happy at any point, but she did not seem panicked either. She was calm in the water before she was rescued, while the officers pulled her to shore and afterwards as she was dried off and entered the vehicle. It’s hard to imagine that she wasn’t frightened, but she held it together. If she had freaked out, it would have been entirely understandable, but it would have made her rescue less likely. A dog (or a person) who is too emotionally distressed is less able to cope with immediate dangers. Because she was able to stay calm, she helped herself stay afloat until she was rescued.
Social. By social, I’m not referring to dogs who are wag-the-back-end-off-during-greetings friendly. I just mean dogs who are comfortable around strangers. Dogs who are not social enough in this way may shy away from rescuers. Tragically, this is a real issue for dogs in water catastrophes and in fires and also for those who flee after car accidents. Crosby was clearly at ease with the strangers helping her in the water, and the one on land drying her off so she could begin to warm up. Even a dog who is frightened of people may be scared enough in an emergency situation to allow them to help. However, a dog like Crosby who is social will almost surely be able to accept the help of people working to rescue her.
I’m not taking anything away from the skills of the police officers who rescued Crosby. They performed an exemplary rescue of a dog who was in real danger. It’s just that I can’t help but observe that Crosby made the rescue just a little bit easier than it might have been with a dog who was not so fit, emotionally stable or social.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Let the adventures begin
December 20 2013
Lucy and Baxter, a pair of Border Collie mixes, will not be traveling across the country with their guardians over the holidays. Instead, they traveled across town to stay with us, starting two days ago. As I write this, they are lying on the floor—one under the table and one next to me—and I am enjoying their peaceful company. (Earlier in the day, I was enjoying their energetic playfulness, but I’m pleased they are having a snooze now.)
Lucy and Baxter will stay with us a little over a week, and during that time, we will be among the many households whose dog population has grown. Just as people move around and go visiting at this time of year, so do dogs.
Some dogs go with their guardians during holiday visits, and others go to dog sitters. Either way, many dogs find themselves in new situations with unfamiliar surroundings. These changes sometimes lead to unexpected little incidents.
Many families have stories of dogs who have eaten holiday dinners either before they were served or right off the dining room table. Others tell of a dog shooting out the front door and going on a little jaunt through the neighborhood when a niece or nephew left the door wide open. There are dogs who have unwrapped all the presents while the humans were attending church, and dogs who ate the treats that were intended for Santa and his reindeer.
A client told me about the time her dog locked himself in the bathroom at her grandma’s house, which was a real problem since it was the only one in the house and 7 people were staying there for the weekend. One friend can hardly speak for laughing when she tells how her dog uncharacteristically lifted his leg on a very mean uncle who nobody had ever stood up to. He left in a huff and everyone was really appreciative.
I love stories of visiting dogs and the things they do. Of course I am mindful that eating many holiday offerings or escaping the house are among the dangers facing dogs at this time of year, and it’s important to do our best to protect dogs. A combination of training dogs and managing situations to prevent trouble are essential, but things have a way of happening over the holidays.
We have yet to have an incident with Lucy and Baxter worthy of a story, unless you count me taking a truly spectacular (but non-injurious) fall when I tripped over their dog bed in the dark. Thankfully they were not on it at the time.
If you are you caring for extra dogs this holiday season or hosting people with dogs, has anything memorable happened yet?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine vanity plates
December 17 2013
People tend to express what matters most to them on their license plates, so for many people, the choice is obvious—identify yourself as a dog lover to anyone who sees your car. It costs extra to have a personalized license plate, but it’s clear that for many of us, it’s worth the extra expense to be able to proclaim a love for dogs to the world.
With so few letters to work with, it’s pretty incredible how many dog-related vanity plates are out there. The space limitations do little to deter people from having plates with a dog theme. Among the ones I’ve seen or been alerted to by dog-loving friends and colleagues are the following:
Can you add others that you’ve seen or that you’d like to have?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Personal preferences vary
December 13 2013
I’m not proud to admit it, but once when we were fostering a puppy, frustration and lack of sleep led me to moan to my husband, “Whose bright idea was it to say yes to having a puppy in the house?” (The answer, obviously, was me.) The puppy who led me to complain was a four-month old field bred English Springer Spaniel who was active by any standards and who didn’t like to eliminate on leash, but was perfectly happy to do so in her crate. If she settled down to relax with something to chew on, it never lasted more than about two minutes. Sigh.
When she was just a few weeks older, we were not quite so mentally and physically exhausted and life improved for us. She was a delight in play and on outings of all kinds, and we had great fun training her because she was so enthusiastic about the process. She was also so adorable that it was impossible to take a bad photo of her. The cuteness of puppies goes a long way with me, but I can’t help feeling that it does not completely compensate for the challenges of puppyhood. I know many people disagree and love the puppy stage more than any other.
Adolescent dogs pose challenges to most guardians. During this developmental period, most dogs become more independent and less likely to stick close to you at all times. Without the adorable puppyness to protect them and without the calming influence of age, adolescent dogs are at risk of being too much trouble to guardians who were not prepared for a dog, and somehow failed to realize that all puppies do grow up. Adolescence is the age at which more dogs are surrendered to shelters or rescues than any other age.
Some rules and routines, lots of exercise and play, plus a good solid base of training (especially recalls) during puppyhood usually buffer people and their dogs from the worst that adolescence can bring. That makes it easier to love having a dog of this age. There’s the joy of new possibilities and activities, a minimum of health issues or related limitations and fun to be had in so many ways. Yes, even a well-trained dog at this stage of life is likely to respond to a known cue occasionally by looking at you with an expression that says, “Yeah, I heard you. I’m just not interested in doing that right now.” And yes, adolescence brings some unpredictability in behavior in almost all dogs, but many people enjoy this lively, exploratory phase.
Dogs in middle age are often the easiest to live with. From the age of about three years to six or seven years, dogs are typically in a lovely intermediate stage. They are active and willing to do just about anything, but often more flexible than when they were younger. If the morning walk gets postponed a couple of hours, they are less likely to react badly with pacing, whining, chewing, or other issues. (I say “less likely” because it can still happen, and some dogs are never tolerant of a lapse in activity or a change in schedules, no matter what their age.)
Many dogs in this age range have a good base of training, and can handle many situations. Training is a lifelong pursuit, but dogs of this age whose guardians have worked hard on training have usually mastered what they need to know by now.
It is often wonderful in many ways to have a middle-aged dog, but not everyone realizes their good fortune at the time. The appreciation often occurs when they acquire a younger dog who is full of vim and vigor. There’s nothing like such a dog to make people yearn for the easy keeper stage that had been taken for granted with the previous dog.
Old dogs are a special wonder, having outlived many of their peers. I love to meet those dogs who have 13, 14, 15 or more years behind them and marvel at their graceful aging. Sometimes old dogs can make me feel a little bit emotional as I see their bodies failing them. When they struggle to see or to stand up to greet me, or I see one chase a ball with a speed that’s more walking than running there’s a certain sadness to it, but it’s matched by a sweetness, too. Geriatric dogs are the lucky ones who have had full lives, though nobody could convince me that even a single dog has ever lived long enough.
It can be hard to have an older dog because they may need a lot of physically demanding, exhausting extra care, and expensive medical bills may be a drain on finances. Remembering them in earlier, more carefree or pain free times, perhaps as a mischievous puppy or a young adult with endless stamina hurts the heart. Still, there’s a special kind of love involved in caring for a dog to ease the way through the later part of life and even to the very last second of it. Though a dog’s golden years may be wonderful, many dogs need a little extra patience and care. Knowing that the time to say good-bye draws near reminds me of how precious the special moments together are. That can make the great love for a dog a little bigger even when you didn’t think there was any more love to be had.
Each age has its advantages, and I sometimes think I like whatever age the dog is. If forced to choose, though, I suppose I’m especially fond of the oldest of dogs. Which age do you like best?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Another way in which dogs are perfect
December 8 2013
For most runners, finding training partners is a challenge because of many factors: social compatibility, scheduling issues, trail versus street preferences, tendency to be competitive. Additionally, and perhaps most limiting, they must run at close to the same pace.
Enter the dog, and voilà, problem solved! Dogs have the ability to run at a wide variety of paces. As long as they are healthy and free of any prohibitive medical issues, including injuries, most dogs can comfortably run at the pace of any human runner.
In my town of Flagstaff, Ariz., you can see that range of paces daily. On the most popular running routes, you’re bound to see slow folks with a dog trotting along side as well as professional elite runners zipping by in a serious hurry with their dogs, and everything in between. One of my running partners is a mixed breed named Marley, and he is happy at a lot of different speeds.
Here’s me running with Marley while we cool down at a very slow pace after our run.
And here’s my husband with Marley going at a much faster pace.
Marley is equally comfortable at either speed.
It’s true that sometimes dogs do better with faster runners and are more likely to pull or leap around with slower runners, but specifically training the dog to run nicely on leash at the slower pace is the key to enjoyable runs for both people and dogs. Also, there are occasionally intermediate paces that a dog struggles with simply because that pace is not quite right for any particular gait, but mostly, our dogs adjust to any pace.
As a bonus, the social and scheduling issues that face us with most humans are irrelevant. People enjoy running with their dogs, and suggesting a running outing and having our dog beg off because of being tired or because of another appointment isn’t going to happen. Dogs are the perfect any-pace running partners. As if we needed a reason to love them any more. . .
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
People don’t see the dog you love
December 5 2013
There are so many drawbacks to living with and loving an aggressive dog. You have to manage or prevent any situations that cause your dog to behave aggressively. That may include feeding time, the arrival of visitors, or seeing other dogs. There’s the constant concern of an incident happening despite your best efforts at prevention. It may be impossible, or at least challenging, to join others for group walks, journeys to the park or to visit family over the holidays. But sometimes the worst part about having an aggressive dog is that other people don’t see the dog you love.
They only see the dog going crazy, barking at the delivery guy or lunging at every dog in the neighborhood. The creature they see is a snarling, growling, snapping dog who exhibits little behavior that makes getting to know him seem remotely appealing. They don’t see the sweet dog who cuddles with you at night and makes you smile when he tosses his toy in the air himself and tries to catch it with amusing, but largely unsuccessful, acrobatic moves. They don’t have the opportunity to see the dog who does a down stay all through dinner, who comes when called perfectly at home and performs any number of charming tricks on cue.
After years of working with them, I can assure you that most dogs with aggression issues are lovely to be around in most situations, however badly they may behave in others. Almost every client whose dog is aggressive makes some comment to me along the lines of “Other than when he’s biting (or lunging, barking, growling) he’s such an angel!” and I believe them. Many aggressive dogs are not at their best when out in public around strangers or other dogs, but are kind and lovable around the family, including small kids and even the cat. When you have a dog like that, it hurts when other people don’t see the good side of your dog, even though that’s what you see most of the time.
If you have an angel who is all too often an angel in disguise, what do you wish other people could see in your dog that you see every day?
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