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.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Does Reproductive Capability Matter?
Its association with lifespan and cause of death

In a new study called Reproductive Capability is Associated with Lifespan and Cause of Death in Companion Dogs, researchers report on the links of reproductive status (intact or spayed/neutered) with both lifespan and cause of death. Previous studies have suggested that sterilization increases the risk of certain cancers. However, if spaying and neutering actually does increase life span, then any cancers that are more common in older dogs may only appear to be more common in sterilized dogs because sterilized dogs live longer.

The overall conclusions of this new study are that there is a link between lifespan, cause of death and reproductive status. Sterilization was associated with longer lifespan. The mean age of death for intact dogs was 7.9 years and for sterilized dogs was 9.4 years. Sterilization increased life expectancy 13.8% in male and 26.3% in females.

In this study, researchers found differences in the cause of death between the reproductively capable group and the sterilized group. Compared to reproductively capable ones, dogs who were spayed and neutered were more likely to die of cancer and immune-related diseases, but less likely to die from infectious diseases, trauma, vascular disease and degenerative diseases. These differences in causes of death were consistent when the data were compared between dogs of the same age.

Data are from 40,139 dogs in a veterinary teaching hospital who died from 1984 to 2004. Juvenile dogs, dogs with a congenital issue that caused death, and dogs whose reproductive status, cause of death, or age were unknown were eliminated from the over 80,000 dogs originally considered for inclusion in the study. Reproductive capability was defined in this study as intact versus spayed or neutered, and does not mean the sterilized dogs had not reproduced. It’s unknown if they had reproduced prior to being sterilized. There were no data on how many times intact dogs had reproduced, only that they were still reproductively capable.

Though the results of this study are intriguing, it is important to recognize the limitations in the data and therefore in the conclusions. Though the groups—intact or sterile—are assumed to differ in no other way, that may not be the case. It is possible that the members in the sterilized group have received more regular or better medical care throughout their lives, for example. The sterilized dogs may come from different sources such as rescue groups or shelters rather than from pet stores or breeders. In other words, differences in life span or cause of death may not relate to reproductive status, but to one of these other factors. This study shows links of reproductive status with lifespan and cause of death, but we cannot assume that reproductive status is the cause of these differences. They may be correlated for some unknown reason.

Some other concerns I have about the data are that the dogs had all been referred to a veterinary teaching hospital for medical reasons, which means that the dogs in the study may be largely dogs with serious health issues rather than typical dogs. This means that conclusions based on this study may not be applicable to dogs in general.

I’m glad that studies are expanding on the question of lifespan and reproduction by looking at causes of death instead of just reproductive capability. I think this study is a great start at exploring questions that are of interest to all of us who love dogs, but I do think we need to exercise caution in order to make sure that we are distinguishing between studies that show correlations between various factors and those that demonstrate a causal relationship between those factors.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Celebrating Success
A great day begins with great behavior
Marley deserves a high five!

It was not even 7:30 in the morning and Marley had already made me proud twice since we rolled out of bed. To a person not familiar with dogs, his behavior might not seem notable, but most people who have ever lived with dogs will understand why I felt like celebrating.

The first praiseworthy moment was during our morning run. Marley noticed the herd of deer before I did, and responded by becoming a little more excited and bouncy than usual. His energetic behavior just made me think he was having a bout of the spring sillies until about 30 seconds later when I realized that there were eight deer who had completely frozen at the sight of him. Eager to avoid a problem, I began talking to Marley in a happy voice, “Good boy, Marley, what a good dog you are, good boy, good boy, good boy,” and sped up a bit to move beyond the deer faster. Though he kept glancing back at the deer, Marley stayed with me, and calmed down quickly. Preventing dogs from chasing deer is always a goal of mine, and I was thrilled with the way Marley handled the situation.

Twenty minutes later, we were back home and Marley had the opportunity to exhibit great behavior again. I was walking to the kitchen table carrying a bowl of oatmeal when I slipped on a wet spot on our tile. I’m not naming names, but a certain dog had drooled all over the floor after drinking from his bowl. I managed to catch myself before I fell, but the bowl flew out of my hands, and despite a bobbled attempt, I could not catch it. The oatmeal and the bowl hit the ground, but luckily, the oatmeal landed on the easy-to-clean wood floor, and the bowl bounced on the wood, then onto the rug, and did not break. (How lucky can you get?) Marley started to head to the oatmeal, but stopped when I said, “Leave it.” Yay! I rushed to get him a stuffed Kong from the freezer, which served the dual purpose of reinforcing him for his excellent response to my cue and keeping him occupied while I cleaned up the mess.

So, before breakfast, this dog had resisted the temptation to chase deer and had responded to the cue “leave it” in a real life situation. I knew it was going to be a great day!

What has your dog done lately that has you celebrating?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
9 Ways to Improve your Relationship with your Dog

Whether they occur within a species or between them, relationships are much the same in what they require to grow and flourish, and books about improving your relationship with a partner, child or friend offer very similar advice. The ideas that follow could also apply to other close bonds, but in this case, they refer specifically to improving your relationship with your dog.  

1. Spend time together. A relationship is about being with one another and sharing experiences, so time spent together strengthens it, especially if you spend that time in enjoyable ways.

2. Communicate clearly. Misunderstandings and confusion are the enemies of good relationships, so be as clear as you can when you communicate with your dog. Be consistent with your training signals. Since dogs tend to learn visual signals faster than vocal cues, use the former when possible. Dogs pay attention to what we do more than to what we say, which means that we should attend to what we do when we communicate with them. You’ll feel closer when there’s greater understanding between you.

3. Put a little love into their food. The way to many a dog’s heart is through the stomach, and preparing healthy, tasty food for your dog shows you care. You can choose to cook for your dog or simply focus on providing the best nutrition in the most delicious way possible.

4. Train your dog. Well-trained dogs are allowed greater freedom. If they come when called, they get to spend more time off leash. If they don’t go for the food on the table, they can stay nearby during meals. Training also reduces frustration because when you ask your dog to do something he’s been taught to do, he knows what you want.

5. Be playful. There’s a reason I called my last book Play Together, Stay Together. Scientists have observed that across a variety of species, parents who play with their children have the closest relationships with them, and this also seems true in relationships between people and dogs. Playing games and having fun strengthen your bond.

6. Remain calm. Losing your temper, yelling or freaking out in any way upsets everyone in the vicinity of the emotional storm, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with them. No matter what’s going on, exude a sense of tranquility so your dog can count on you to keep your cool.

7. Learn more about canine behavior, especially body language and facial expressions that indicate stress. When you can identify the signs that your dog is anxious or scared, it will be easier for you to protect or remove your dog from situations that make him uncomfortable. If your dog can count on you to keep him safe, the trust between you will be better and so, therefore, will your relationship. There are a number of excellent books and DVDs on this subject; look for the works of Patricia McConnell; Suzanne Hetts, Daniel Estep and David Grant; and Barbara Handelman.

8. Pay attention to your dog’s likes and dislikes. Knowing your dog’s preferences, favorite games and foods means that you can give him what he really wants and be the source of all things wonderful. Similarly, keep track of what your dog can’t stand. A good starting place is to know the things that most dogs find unpleasant: head pats, citrus or strong floral scents, loud noises, being stared at, being dressed up in clothes that impede their ability to move and being hugged.

9. Touch your dog. There is strong evidence that physical contact such as grooming and petting lowers stress in shelter dogs, which is measured by reductions in both heart rate and the stress hormone cortisol as well as by an increase in the anti-stress hormone oxytocin. This has led researchers to believe that physical contact plays a role in enhancing the bond between people and dogs. Focusing on your relationship with your dog is arguably the most important aspect of living with a friend of the canine persuasion. After all, it’s not a desire to help the economy by spending money at the vet and the groomer or to ensure that our clothes are covered in fur that drives us to have dogs. Rather, we love dogs as friends and as family members, and being with them enhances our life in unique ways. It’s all about the relationship, which is worth improving no matter how magnificent it is already. 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Poop Bags and Receptacles
Chicago neighborhood will remove them

Many neighborhoods provide bags for dog waste and receptacles for discarding them. People with dogs generally appreciate this service. It’s wonderful to have a bag available if you’ve forgotten one. It’s also helpful if your dog has a three-poop walk, and you brought two bags, which is usually enough considering he rarely goes more than once. People with dogs, and those without, appreciate that this type of service presumably helps keep an area cleaner.

It can be costly to supply the bags and maintain the containers, and the $5000 annual price tag explains why the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago will cease to provide both of them at the end of this month. In my neighborhood, there are bags and trash cans to help people with dogs, and I love it. It’s especially great when I am running. One of my favorite three-mile loops has three such stations, so I never have to run very far with a full bag.

Does your neighborhood or favorite park provides poop bags and containers to toss them in? If so, how much do you rely on them? If not, do you wish they were available?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Heads on Tables
Does it happen in your house?

I remember as a child hearing my mom say, “Karen, Karen, sweet and able, get your elbows off the table, this is not a horse’s stable.” I thought the rhyme was entertaining and my mom thought it was effective. I soon learned that I was not allowed to rest my elbows on the table. Similarly, I teach tall dogs that they are not allowed to have their heads on the table.

We were dogsitting a large dog named Bear whose height made it easy for him to rest his head on our dining room table. After photographing him at the table, I used the cue “leave it” to let him know that the table was off limits to him. I reinforced him with a chew toy for choosing to back away from the table and thereafter reinforced him for resisting the urge to put his head there again. He seemed familiar with the rule already, so I suspected that he had the same rule at home. We avoided leaving food on the table so that there was less temptation, but he followed our guidelines agreeably.

Though I don’t want dogs to put their heads on our table, I can’t deny that they look awfully endearing when they do so. Do you let your dogs rest their heads on the table, and if not, has it been challenging or straightforward to teach them that this behavior is not allowed?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Different Size Families
Advantages and disadvantages for dogs

When my husband and I lived 1300 miles apart for four years, our dog was with me. Yes, our dog adored my husband and was always ecstatic to see him, but day to day, year after year, it was usually just Bugsy and me in our Wisconsin farmhouse. We had a wonderful relationship. There is a special closeness that develops from spending so much time together and being the main social presence in each other’s home life. Bugsy did a lot to fill the void of being in a long distance marriage, and he benefitted by receiving a huge amount of attention from me.

On the down side, I worried that he only had me to take care of him. If something happened to me like a car accident, what would happen to him? I always left my toilet seats up and had multiple water bowls out just in case an emergency kept me away from home. I also had contingency plans with neighbors and friends to check on him if they noticed I was not home when I should have been.

I know a man who lived alone with his dog when he was doing biological research in northern Canada, and their relationship was far more intense. They were literally each other’s only company for months at a time, and the dog once saved his life by fighting off a bear. As a result, the dog became closer to him than anyone. In fact, years later when his new girlfriend tactfully mentioned that the dog was keeping her awake at night by nearly pushing her off the bed, he was less than sympathetic. He told her that only once she had lived alone with him in a cabin for years and had saved his life, she would have priority over the dog, and not until. That relationship eventually ended, and he went back to living with the true love of his life—the dog.

As fulfilling as intense relationships between one person and one dog are, there are advantages to a dog of living with more humans. In larger families, schedules often stagger a bit which means that the dog is not left home alone for a full workday. There are many people to walk the dog and play fetch, tug or any other game. Dogs in larger families may be groomed or pet more, and have the benefits of different personalities and preferences. Maybe one kid loves to groom the dog, while another never tires of fetch. Perhaps one adult takes the dog for long runs for exercise while the other adult prefers leisurely walks that allow for plenty of time for sniffing all those interesting spots on the grass and mailboxes. Dogs in big families may have more opportunities for interaction because somebody is usually available at any given time.

Of course, in large families, dogs may slip through the cracks because everyone is sure that someone else already walked the dog or played with him. Sometimes family members can be so busy with each other that there is not enough purposeful attention given to the dog. And though many dogs love it, the chaos and high volume of life with a big family can be overwhelming to some dogs.

I say that if the dog is loved and cared for, the size of the family is not the key issue. Still, there are advantages and disadvantages of different size families, and those can vary for individual dogs. What are your experience with dogs and families of various sizes?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Pavlov Dog Monitor
A new app with issues

The number of new dog products and apps is staggering, and it seems like everybody wants to make a buck selling to dog lovers. Let the buyer beware! So much of what’s available may not deliver on its promises. Recently, I heard about the Pavlov Dog Monitor, an app that I think has issues.

Basically, the Pavlov Dog Monitor is designed to allow people to monitor and train their dogs remotely with the use of smart phones, Facebook, and an iPad. The guardian records two videos. One is a correction video with a message such as “Bad dog, no barking” and the other is a video saying, “Good dog.” The first is played to the dog when the dog barks and the second is supposed to be the “treat” for a period of quietness. One concern is that simple praise is unlikely to be enough to reinforce a dog for being quiet, especially if the dog has not been conditioned to enjoy the praise. Another is that telling a dog to stop barking is generally completely ineffective. A final concern is that the instructions tell you to place your iPad near your dog. I predict that not all the iPads will survive being left alone and in reach of a dog.

According to the company that developed the app, “Episodes of repeated barking, destructive activities, or intense behaviors are a thing of the past,” which I think is totally unrealistic. They say that their product will succeed at dealing with barking problems and separation anxiety where toys to prevent boredom, nanny cams, and shock collars have failed.

They suggest that it be used to treat separation anxiety, which is worrisome, as that suggests that they have little understanding of how serious a condition separation anxiety is and that it is not synonymous with problem barking and destructive chewing. The goals of the app are to change bad behavior and to use social media to build a bond between the dog and the person, but it’s awfully hard to build a bond without actually being together.

These statements don’t sound like they are coming from people who really know dogs, and in fact, the company specializes in developing hardware and software products. This is their first dog product. The name of the app should immediately make anyone suspicious about the level of canine expertise behind it. The app attempts to make use of operant conditioning and has nothing to do with the classical conditioning, which is the type of learning Pavlov discovered and for which he became famous.

As I said, there are a lot of dog apps out there. Which ones would you recommend?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Five Running Games to Play with Your Dog
Dog Play

Just as the iconic image of the Great Dad shows him playing catch with his kids, the iconic image of the Great Dog Guardian would show a person running around with a dog. A few minutes—or even a few steps—are all you need, so don’t resist these easy ways to add joy to your dog’s day.

1. Chase. This game is simple: You run and your dog chases you. Clap or make a “smooch” sound to get your dog’s attention, and then run away from him. When he’s within a few feet of you, turn and reinforce him with a treat, a toy or the start of another chase. Stopping before he reaches you prevents the chase game from turning into the “nip the human on the back of the leg” game. (Don’t play the “chase the dog” game—it will teach him to run away when you approach and ruin his recall.)

2. On Your Mark, Get Set, Go. Combine a little trick work and self-control practice with running. Teach your dog to lie down when you say “On your mark,” do a play bow to the cue “Get set” and start running when you say “Go.” Très cute.

3. Fartlek. Runners worldwide use fartlek training to increase their speed. The word, which means “speed play” in Swedish, refers to the practice of interspersing short bursts of speed within a training run. To play with your dog fartlek style, surge ahead and run few paces, past several houses or even down the block. Chances are your dog will happily follow your lead. (And yes, even serious runners think it’s a funny word.)

4. Hard to Get. This short keep-away game can jump-start a play session. Squeak, bounce or wave a toy around to get your dog’s attention as you run away from him. Just make sure you don’t tease him by playing keep-away too long. The excitement created by a moment of playing hard to get can start another game, but going on too long without giving your dog access to the toy can result in frustration or anger rather than playfulness.
5. Crazy Owner. People who are unpredictable in their movements are fascinating to dogs. With that in mind, use the “crazy owner” game to get and keep your dog’s attention. Hold a bunch of yummy treats to lure your dog to your side and then start moving away from him. Change speed and direction often so he never knows what you are going to do next. For example, run five steps, turn and jog slowly for 10, then execute a quick reverse and sprint in the opposite direction. Offer him praise and treats every time he’s right by your side, and keep moving like a crazy person to maintain his interest.

Many people love to play with their dogs. Still more want to play with their dogs but think their dogs aren’t playful, or that they only like to play with other dogs. Certainly, some dogs are more naturally playful or more toy-motivated than others. Yet, I’ve found that time and again, the majority of dogs who are described as “not playful” by the people who know them best actually do love to play, as long as the games are based on running and chasing. Give them a try!

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Culture of Dog Parks
A change is in order

Dog parks have always been controversial, but they’ve also always provided opportunities for dogs to run and play off leash in wide-open spaces. It’s hard to deny the cliché that dog parks create both the best of times and the worst of times. To me, the overall issue is that the culture of dog parks is a work in progress and I have strong feelings about the direction I’d like that progress to take.

If I had my choice, there would be big changes in the overall behavioral norms for people at dog parks. Specifically, I would love to see a world of dog parks in which:

1. People would always be attentive to their dogs, watching them and monitoring them.

2. People would know when and how to intervene in dog-dog interactions and they would do so. This would require that people understand dog body language and behavior in general, and know their own dog’s limits and comfort zones specifically.

3. Only people and dogs who are social, friendly, and capable of handling a huge range of interactions would attend. In other words, it would not be considered reasonable to bring dogs with aggression issues to the park in order to “socialize” them.

4. People would set their dogs up for success at the dog park. For example, if a dog is fine around other dogs with a ball but acts possessive around the disc, then people would only bring a ball and save the disc play for places with no other dogs.

5. It would be standard practice to train dogs to respond to cues that are useful at the dog park. That is, dogs would reliably sit, stay, come, and leave it in response to cues from their guardians.

6. People would interact with their dogs, playing with them and enjoying time together along with allowing their dogs to play with other dogs. I’d like it to become taboo to come to the dog park to hang out with human friends while ignoring the dogs.

At your local dog park, are people behaving in ways that are conducive to positive experiences for both people and dogs or are some changes in order?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Eight New Dog Training Trends
What’s new with the dog pros

Dog training is a dynamic field (although probably not as dynamic as dogs themselves), and at the annual national conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) in Louisville, Ky., in mid-October ’08, it was fascinating to witness the ways in which the field continues to evolve. Following are, in my opinion, some of the most notable trends in dog training, all of which figured prominently in conference talks, workshops and dinner conversations.

1. An emphasis on people. Historically, dog trainers have paid more attention to canine ethology than to the behavior of their clients, but now, these instructors are also looking at how people learn, how to encourage them to practice at home, and how to most effectively communicate what they need to do to accomplish their dog-training goals.

2. An intense interest in play behavior. For years, play has been considered a fun topic and very enjoyable for dogs, but with the exception of its relevance to socializing puppies, it has not been widely considered to be worthy of serious attention. Now, canine play is a hot topic in dog training on several levels: establishing and maintaining the relationship between people and dogs, maintaining a high quality of life, and even solving serious behavioral problems. This year’s conference devoted an entire day to a play symposium, during which all of these topics were explored.

3. Fewer crossover trainers. The change from coercion training to positive reinforcement is not new, but what is new is that now, most positive trainers have always trained that way. Fewer people are learning coercive techniques in the first place and therefore, there are fewer trainers to cross over.

4. An emphasis on science. For years, scientifically based training principles have been gaining ground in the dog-training world. This trend continues, with more trainers than ever coming from a scientific background or pursuing continuing education with a scientific basis and an emphasis on the critical thinking skills that allow trainers to distinguish anecdotes and opinions from facts based on scientific evidence.

5. Training as a profession. Many trainers have left careers in business or other professional fields and brought that professionalism to dog training. As a result, more people are training full time rather than doing it part time as a second job or as a hobby.

6. A broader range of information to offer. Instead of focusing narrowly on dogs’ responses to cues such as sit, heel and come, dog trainers now consider what is necessary for dogs’ overall well-being and to improve their quality of life. As a result, most trainers are able to help clients directly (or indirectly, through referrals) in the areas of canine massage, nutrition, exercise and enrichment activities.

7. A focus on family dogs. Dog training used to be directed toward competitive events, primarily obedience and dog shows. Now,many dog-training schools are focusing on teaching pet dogs the skills necessary to be mannerly members of society—walking nicely on leash, greeting others politely and coming when called. These skills are different from competition skills such as a perfect heel, a formal recall and a long sit-stay.

8. Relationships as a top priority. Training is universally considered to be more effective and more quickly accomplished when a strong relationship exists between the person and the dog. As a result, that relationship has become a bigger part of the equation. This recognition means dog trainers are emphasizing ways to develop and strengthen those relationships in connection with the way people train, play and interact with their dogs. Along with that understanding comes the idea that dogs are members of our families. This view, which used to be expressed timidly, almost apologetically, is not only widely accepted now, but unquestionably mainstream.

So, what’s the take-away message? Here it is: It has never been easier for you and your dog to get quality training from a highly skilled, educated professional who focuses on your needs as well as those of your canine companion. And what a great combination that is.