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Karen B. London

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Worst Mess Ever
Coming home to destruction

Leaving a dog alone and unconfined at home works out beautifully for millions of families. People leave to go to work, and return to find a dog who is pleased to see them and a house that is exactly as it was in the morning. However, the experience of coming home to a dog who is pleased to see them AND mass destruction is hardly unusual either.

Often this has happened unexpectedly since steps were taken to prevent such trouble. There are many dogs who struggle to handle the responsibility of freedom in the house and are usually confined, but that’s not always foolproof. Sometimes a dog figures out how to open the door to the laundry room. Other dogs jump a gate that was thought to be too tall. In other cases, there is confusion within the family, with each thinking someone else had put the dog in the proper place for the day. True Houdini dogs seem to be able to break out of crates or other means of confinement, no matter how secure they may seem.

Sometimes the mess that dogs make is a result of thinking that a puppy or adolescent dog has put destructive chewing behind them. Though they do quite well for several days or weeks, one day, they are back to their old habits. For some dogs, a thunderstorm or other anxiety-causing event can trigger bouts of chewing and mayhem. Dogs who are unable to tolerate time alone may cause destruction because they are literally in a panic about being separated from the family, and they are just not themselves in that emotional state. (Such dogs need help to overcome this issue and it’s best not to leave them alone until they are emotionally capable of handling being left alone.)

Sometimes the destruction occurs because something way too tempting has been left within reach. Even dogs who normally allow the house and everything in it to remain undisturbed will chew something amazing just because it’s there. I know of dogs who, understandably, have been unable to resist appetizing steak bones in the garbage, a leather belt and pair of shoes that are usually in the closet, wooden salad tongs that were left to dry by the sink but slipped off onto the floor, and a new couch cushion just begging to have the stuffing ripped out of it.

Over the years, most dog owners have come home to destruction of clothes, food, and furniture, or even a good old-fashioned trash party. What’s the worst mess you’ve ever come home to courtesy of your dog?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Inherited Dogs
Keeping them in the family

“You’re probably wondering why we even got this dog,” was the first thing a new client said to me. She predicted one of the first questions I was going to ask, because this family seemed overwhelmed even before acquiring a high energy, lovable but slightly out of control, adolescent Vizsla cross.

The woman has recently had surgery, her husband has Parkinson’s disease and some other health issues that affect his mobility, and they’re in the middle of a move to a house without stairs. They already have three dogs, including two elderly ones who require a lot of care and a cat that doesn’t cope well with change. Even taking into account that there is no perfect time to adopt a new dog, their choice begged the question, “Why now?”

The answer is an all too common one. Their daughter is a college student who had adopted the dog as a puppy. She was now moving in with some friends who had chosen an apartment that does not allow dogs, and she had simply dropped the dog off at her parent’s house explaining that when she could have a dog again, she would take him back. Sure, they could have said no, but like many dog lovers, they couldn’t bear the thought of turning away this sweet dog.

Many people inherit dogs from family members. Inheriting dogs often means welcoming a dog into the family suddenly, unexpectedly, and at an inconvenient time. Most often I’ve seen the pass from college students to Mom and Dad, or to children following the death of a parent. It’s natural to want to keep the dog in the family, even if doing so is very challenging.

If you’ve ever ended up with a dog that originally belonged to someone else in your family, why did that happen and how did it work out for you?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Human Point of View
Dogs’ behavior suggests they understand it

Dogs take the human perspective into account when deciding whether to take food that they have been told not to take. This is the conclusion of a recent series of experiments by Juliane Kaminski, Andrea Pitsch and Michael Tomasello described in a research paper called Dogs Steal in the Dark.

The experiments all had a similar set up, in which a dog was in a room with a food item on the floor. Dogs were pre-tested to ensure that they understood the cue not to take the food. They were told not to take the food and then the experimenters recorded whether the dog took the food or not and if so, how long it took for them to do so. In the first experiment, a human was present in the room and there were four conditions: 1) the food and the human were both in darkness, 2) the food was illuminated but the human was in the dark, 3) the food was in the dark but the human was illuminated, and 4) the food and the human were both illuminated.

The dogs took the food most often when both the food and the human were in darkness, and least often when they were both illuminated. The dogs took the food faster when it was not illuminated, but whether or not the human was illuminated had no effect on the time until the food was taken. These results suggest that the level of light in the room had an influence on the dogs’ behavior.

In the second experiment, the food was either illuminated or in the dark, but the human left the room after giving the cue not to take the food. The goal of this experiment was to determine if dogs were avoiding food when it was lit. The results were that the dogs almost always took the food no matter what light situation it was in, but they took it faster when it was illuminated than when it was in the dark. This indicates that the dogs are not simply avoiding food that is illuminated.

In the third experiment, the researchers investigated whether the overall amount of light in the room was important to dogs or whether they were responding to the specific location of the illumination. There were two different situations tested. For one group of dogs, the human in the room was always illuminated. Half the time, the food was illuminated, and half the time the light was directed at another spot in the room. For the other group of dogs, the human in the room was always in the dark and half the time, the food was illuminated, and half the time the light was directed at another spot in the room.

In this study, whether or not the human or the food was illuminated had no influence on the likelihood that the dogs took the food, but they waited longer to take the food when it was illuminated. This suggests that the location of the lit area matters, as opposed to dogs just reacting to the overall amount of illumination in the room. This shows that the visibility of the human is not the factor that causes the difference in behavior.

Overall, the conclusions drawn from these studies are that dogs do take into account illumination when taking food that they have been told not to take. Dogs were more likely to take the food when it was dark compared to when it was light. They took the food faster when the food was in darkness when a human was present, but took the food faster when it was illuminated when they were alone. Whether or not a human in the room was illuminated did not affect their behavior.

This research supports the idea that dogs are aware of and consider the human point of view when deciding whether to take food or not. To put that into a larger context, this relates to the ever-increasing body of evidence that dogs have a theory of mind, meaning they have an understanding that other individuals have different perspectives, knowledge and emotions.

This is very well done research that teases apart a number of variables to add to what we know about the canine mind. Unfortunately, most of the articles in the popular press only say, “Dogs steal more food in a dark room than in a light room,” which is a huge oversimplification of the complexity of this interesting work.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
He Can Do Stairs?
He was polite, not unskilled

While dog sitting a big Chocolate Lab, I noticed that when we humans went upstairs, he stayed at the bottom of the steps. He had that, “What about poor me?” look about him, and I assumed he was not comfortable with stairs. Perhaps he had no experience with them, or a bad experience had made him nervous about them. There are a lot of dogs who don’t like stairs, and I assumed Bear was one of them.

Except for running up to get something, we mainly use the upstairs for sleeping. As his giant crate was downstairs (it’s too big for our bedrooms!) I didn’t consider it a problem. He was not going to be left out of our activities because of it, and he would be sleeping in his crate anyway, so I didn’t give it much thought.

My main interest in the situation was that he looked so dear standing at the bottom of the staircase looking at us longingly that I wanted to take some pictures of him. I took one, and then he wandered away from the spot. Hoping to encourage him to come back so I could continue with the photo session, I quietly smooched.

His response was to run up the stairs immediately and greet me with enthusiasm. (When I say “enthusiasm” I’m sure everybody can picture what I mean, because who among us has not been on the receiving end of such a canine greeting?) It was just as effortless for him to go down the stairs as to go up. This is not a dog who has any issues with stairs.

My assumption about his ability to negotiate stairs was completely off the mark. It turns out that his reticence to climb them was rooted in good manners rather than a lack of skill. He had not been invited to go upstairs, so he did not go upstairs. When he heard me smooch, he took it as an invitation and he considered himself welcome upstairs. He has since been my shadow every time I go up or down.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Extendable Leash Accident
Dog slightly hurt and very afraid

The dog was running away as fast as he could from what scared him, but unfortunately, he couldn’t get away from it. That’s because he was running away from his extendable leash, and it was still attached to him. The dog had hit the end of the leash and pulled hard enough to jerk the handle from his guardian’s hand. The handle had come flying towards him as the leash fed back into it at top speed and the internal mechanism broke. He became more and more terrified as the “monster” first charged him and then continued to come after him. Despite his speed, he was unable to escape.

His guardian was eventually able to catch him, and remove the leash. He did have a cut where the handle had hit him hard, but that healed quickly, thankfully. Though the dog calmed down considerably once he was no longer being “attacked” by his own leash, the dog’s serious fright would have lasting consequences. Like most dogs, he used to associate the leash with the happiness and fun of going on a walk or a run, but now he associated it with being afraid.

To help a dog in this situation, I recommend switching to a standard 6-foot leash and a new collar, and associating them with treats, toys, and walks from the first time the dog sees them and they are put on. The goal is to avoid transferring any of the negative feelings associated with the old leash and collar, and make a complete switch to another system that only ever has happy feelings associated with it.

I’ve seen quite a few dogs who have had a bad experience when an extendable leash was pulled out of the hand of the person holding it, and I also know that some dogs enjoy the freedom of them. What do you think about extendable leashes based on your experiences with them?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine Clean-Up Crew
Dogs help tidy up

Between the muddy paws, the dog hair, the gooey toys and the drool, it’s easy to argue that dogs create a certain challenge to cleanliness. I know of only a few dog guardians whose homes are in the kind of shape that makes them look like magazine spreads on decorating. At some point, most of us just throw up our hands and decide that this is how we live. Except for special occasions, we are okay with that, and proceed peacefully with our lives.

Yet to blame our dogs for the messes in our homes is to miss part of what’s actually going on. Many dogs do a lot of cleaning up for us, but we don’t tend to notice that until we are away from them for a while. A friend recently told me that he dropped a piece of chicken on the ground at his parent’s house and his mom was appalled when he made no move to pick it up.

He apologized and took care of it, but did explain that at home, if he’s making chicken salad and a bit hits the ground, one of his dogs will eat it up. Problem solved. The same goes for most foods—steak, cheese, green beans—as well as crushed ice, which regularly drops from their broken ice dispenser. It doesn’t melt and make a puddle on the floor because his dogs are way too quick to let that happen. If something falls to the floor that the dogs can’t have such as the entire steak they plan to eat that night or something bad for them like chocolate or onions, a calm “leave it” tells the dogs that even though it’s on the floor, it is not fair game.

What does your dog clean up off the floor, saving you the trouble?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Photographs For Remembering
Don’t wait until it’s too late

It makes me tremendously happy to look at photos of dogs from my past. As I get older, I make more of an effort to capture expressions, behavior and moments that I know I’ll want to see even after the dog is gone. It’s easy to assume that I could never forget certain images that seem seared into my brain, but experience has taught me that to rely completely on my memory is a gamble.

I have many photos of my dog Bugsy and I cherish each one. I love the photos of him playing with his best buddies, holding a toy, cocking his head at me in the way that he did so often, lying down next to my young son as a baby, running with both my husband and with me, waiting at the door, looking longingly out the front window, tugging with me, heeling with my husband, and jumping straight up in the air with all four paws several feet off the ground.

The one picture I really wish that I had of him is with his lip stuck and curled up on the side of his teeth—not in an aggressive way, but just in a disorganization-of-the-face kind of way. Many dogs have their lip assume that undignified position from time to time, but it happened to Bugsy so often that I think of him every time I see a dog whose lip is stuck to his teeth in a random spot. It’s not the most attractive expression, but I find it especially endearing because of Bugsy. The closest I have is a photo of Bugsy chewing on a greenie in which his upper lip is puffed out. It’s a photo I like because it shows how shiny his coat always was, but it fails to capture the expression I remember so well.

I encourage everyone to be sure to take photos of their dogs doing all those day-to-day things—eating, playing with a toy, sleeping, standing at the door eager to go out—as well as those visual images unique to your dog. In my case, I missed that opportunity with Bugsy in one way, and I regret it. If your dog puts his head on the bed in the morning, holds three toys in her mouth at once, stretches in a particular way, waves with a front paw or sleeps in a position that defies description, that’s what you should be sure to capture in photos. It’s pictures of dogs being uniquely themselves that are most precious to me than the ones in which they look the most beautiful.

What pictures are you so grateful to have of a departed dog and which pictures do you regret never taking?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Hurry Up and Get Busy
Cues to tell dogs to poop

I personally don’t want to be outside saying “Go Poop” out loud to my dogs. I’m not sure why, with all the potty humor I enjoy, that this is embarrassing to me. It makes no sense, especially as I am perfectly comfortable telling them to “Go Pee” in front of anyone, but I require more subtle cues to let dogs know that I am asking them to poop.

It is so useful to have a cue that tells your dog to eliminate. So often, dogs go outside and are occupied with sniffing this and sniffing that or just enjoying the fresh air. Usually, such a leisurely approach to going to the bathroom is not a problem, but occasionally, for whatever reason, we need our dogs to take care of business in a more prompt way. That’s when it’s great to have a specific cue that tells them to urinate or to defecate.

I have used different words to tell dogs to poop, but my two favorites are “Get Busy” and “Hurry Up.” I like these because they allow me to express what I am feeling in the situations in which I am telling my dogs that I want them to eliminate now, before I must go away and leave them for a time. I really DO want them to get busy, and I certainly appreciate it if they can hurry up about it.

Usually, I have had dogs who are quite regular and poop quite predictably morning and evening during walks or runs, or perhaps in the yard before or after such outings. Still, even these dogs sometimes seem a little off, and it helps to have a cue to tell them, essentially, “Go if you can now.”

What cues, if any, do you use for elimination?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Wood Pile Made of Toys
To a dog, it’s all for fun

I went outside with Bear, the super-sized chocolate lab who was staying with us for the weekend, and it was immediately apparent that we had different goals. My plan was to collect some firewood and bring it inside. Bear may not have had any plans ahead of time, but as soon as he saw the stacks and stacks of firewood, he developed an idea based on his response to seeing the wood pile. His response was, “So many toys, so little time,” and his idea was apparently to enjoy as many sticks as possible.

As I pulled my first log off the pile, Bear did the same, choosing a small piece that was intended to be used in starting the fire. I tossed mine in the canvas log carrier, Bear took his over to an undisturbed patch of snow and began to chew on it. I interrupted my wood collecting for a game of fetch with Bear. I tossed his stick over and over, and each time, he dug it out of the powdery snow. Every once in a while, he would deposit the stick by my feet, but instead of waiting for me to throw it, he went to the wood pile to select a new, presumably better, stick. This went on until I decided to go back to my original collecting duties.

Soon I decided that it would be fun to take a picture of Bear removing a stick from the pile, and this is when it became clear that we were working at cross purposes. Bear was busy chewing on a couple of his favorite new sticks, but I was cold and ready to go inside. Rather than wait until the next time he decided to select a new stick, I attempted to hurry things along.

Multiple times, I attempted to chuck a stick of the size he seemed to prefer onto the pile so that he would retrieve it and I could capture that moment with my camera. Each time, he caught the stick in mid-air, which was quite an impressive feat, but no good for my wish to photograph him removing a stick from the wood pile. After the first couple of attempts, I looked around to see my husband standing inside by the nearby sliding glass doors laughing. I joined him in finding it hilarious, and laughed, too. (I rarely fail to recognize when I am caught in the act of being ridiculous.)

I decided to wait until Bear was good and ready to choose a stick according to his own schedule, and that’s when I was able to photograph him with his selection. Have you ever been trying to get something done and found that since your dog thought it was a just a game, it took you far longer to accomplish?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Provides Philosophy Lesson
Living life with greater joy

Nobody illustrates living in the moment better than dogs, and it was immediately apparent that this dog was a role model in this regard. Bear is a chocolate lab who stayed with us over this past weekend while his guardian was out of town. We loved every minute of it, in large part because Bear himself is so happy. This is a dog who is sucking the marrow out of life, so to speak.

On my first walk with Bear around the neighborhood, I was reminded that though I try to carpe diem as much as the next person, I have room for improvement. Within minutes, I saw that this dog with large bones and a big heart to match was living the good life and that if I just followed his lead, my happiness would increase. I took in a few lessons from Bear.

Do everything with enthusiasm. Whatever Bear was doing, he gave it his all. If he was sniffing snow, he was up to his ears in it. When he was running, he was doing it at full speed. When my kids were petting or brushing him, he surrendered completely and relaxed under their skilled hands.

Find your purpose. Everyone should have things that drive them, and in Bear’s case, it’s fetching. Sticks, toys, socks that were tossed in the laundry basket, snowballs and any other flying object were toys to him and his purpose was to retrieve them. He is very thorough in his work, and never, NEVER tires of playing fetch. He knows it’s what he loves best (not counting his guardian!), and he’s eager to play anytime. He often initiates the game with anyone who looks like a willing partner. He has found his passion in life, and that’s a great part of happiness.

Accept things as they come. He was so at ease with whatever the days brought. Staying at a new place with new people? No problem. A long walk with a couple of friends and their dogs? Great. Running around in the backyard catching snowballs? Excellent. Massage time? Perfect. Time for rest and a snooze. Fine. Outside for one last chance to pee and then bedtime? Okay. He is so agreeable, so well adjusted, and comfortable with so many situations. His middle name could definitely be Go-With-The–Flow.

I thought we were making an even trade—the fun of a canine visitor for us, the opportunity to travel without the constraints of a dog for his guardian. It turns out that we came out way ahead because of Bear’s philosophy lesson about enjoying life. I don’t know what my neighbors thought as they saw me running and playing with him as we frolicked near our house, laughing constantly as we went up and down the local streets. I’m hoping they understood that I was just living in the moment, finding joy with a dog who spreads it everywhere.

Of course all dogs tend to bring us joy, but can you share a story about a dog who was absolutely brimming over with contagious enthusiasm for life?

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