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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Community Care
Supporting guardians of dogs with medical issues

My facebook news feed is full of dog jokes, stories, news, and pictures. Lately, it has also had an unfortunate number of medical scares on the canine health front. I’ve seen everything from joyous “It’s benign!” posts to “It’s broken, but at least she won’t need surgery,” to the more somber, “We appreciate your prayers and thoughts now that we know how serious her condition is.”

Anyone who has received bad news about a dog’s health is suddenly faced with many issues at once. There are obviously medical decisions and financial issues, both of which are beyond my areas of expertise. But people faced with serious medical problems in their dogs need other kinds of support and help that anyone can offer.

Sometimes the biggest help is just acknowledging that a friend is facing real heartache because of an ill family member. It’s also useful to bring in food (for the people!) because it can be so hard to care for yourself when you are busy attending to a sick dog, and sometimes people feel too upset to eat unless food is literally put in front of them. Caring for other members of the family—walking other dogs, picking kids up from school or bringing them to a play date at your house, filling in for a shift at work—frees up time and energy for a caregiver who may be overwhelmed both physically and emotionally.

Visiting for a strictly social call or just to listen to the latest on treatment and prognosis is often appreciated. This is especially true if the appointments and various care requirements mean that the guardian’s social life has been affected by having an ill dog. Offering to run errands may be just what a friend needs to ease the burden. Many people also appreciate help around the house such as yard work, cleaning, or even laundry, especially if the care has resulted in round-the-clock duties that have them seriously sleep-deprived and facing the challenge of attending to basic tasks.

If you have dealt with a serious health crisis with your dog, what have your friends and family done that was the most helpful to you?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog and Human Compulsive Disorders
Similar brain abnormalities in both species

A new study has found that Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder (CCD) have abnormalities in brain structure that are much like the ones in humans who have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  The study, conducted by eleven researchers, is called “Brain structural abnormalities in Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder” and was published in the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry.

The research suggests that more research about anxiety disorders in dogs may be a promising avenue for developing new ways to treat them in people. It also stands to reason that more research about anxiety in people may prove fruitful in finding new ways to alleviate suffering for dogs with similar problems.

Canines with CCD and humans with OCD typically perform repetitive behaviors. In humans, excessive hand-washing and endless checking that appliances are off or that doors are locked are common. In dogs, common behaviors are flank-sucking, blanket-sucking, licking and tail chasing. In both species, anxiety disorders can interfere with quality of life and daily routines, and can also cause injury as skin is chafed and rubbed raw by licking, washing, or sucking.

It’s no big surprise that the brains of affected individuals have similarities. After all, it has been known for a long time that members of both species exhibit related symptoms and respond to the same medications, and that there’s a genetic basis for these disorders in dogs as well as in humans. Still, the discovery that brain abnormalities are also alike adds to our understanding of the parallel nature of anxiety disorders in us and in our best friends.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Sewage Sniffing Dog
Well-suited for fighting pollution

If ever there was a situation of a working dog doing what comes naturally, it’s Sable sniffing out sewage leaks. A dog whose job is to smell poop is about as natural a fit as a teenager whose job is to play video games.

Sable is a 7-year old rescue dog who is helping the people of Beckley, W. Va. by finding the source of sewage leaks that are polluting local waterways. She was hired through a state Department of Environmental Protection grant to the Piney Creel Watershed Association. Sable works for a group called Environmental Canine Services in Michigan.

The sewage system in the area where Sable has been sniffing out leaks is old and needs repairs in a lot of places. Because much of the system is buried, it is difficult for people to figure out where to put their efforts. When Sable catches a whiff of human waste, she barks to let her handlers know. By pointing out the areas of actual leaks, she is saving the community a lot of time and money so that they can focus on those areas that need immediate repair.

I’ve had several jobs that I truly loved and that really suited me, but I don’t think I’ll ever be quite as well matched to my work as Sable is to hers.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs Who Don’t Look Their Age
Surprises among the old and young

The other day at a park, I saw what I thought was a Pomeranian puppy. At just over three pounds, she was pretty small and had that fluffy look of those who are new to the planet. Additionally, she was leaping around with more enthusiasm than knowledge of where her body parts were. I didn’t just THINK she was a puppy. I was sure of it. Yet I was wrong—it turns out she was four years old.

Even though I know that teacup and tiny toy Pomeranians are full grown around the size of this dog, she still seemed like a puppy to me. It was not just her diminutive size that was misleading. Her coat and her behavior fooled me, too. She moved like a young dog and her fluffy coat was the result of having been shaved in the past. She was not the first dog whose age has been a surprise to me.

Several times, I’ve seen Golden Retrievers with full spectacles of white and thought they were probably at least six or seven only to find out they are actually just about to turn four or even barely three. Sometimes dogs who are naturally very calm seem older to me than they are, but some dogs, especially those who have been bred for high energy and high drive, seem young even when they are already a decade old.

I enjoy the variation in dogs, and that applies to their behavior, their temperaments, their athletic abilities, and even how they age. Some dogs behave as though they are puppies until the very end of their lives at which point they suddenly enter a brief geriatric phase. Other dogs lose the puppy sillies in adolescence and proceed to act like wise, respected elders for many years.

Most of the time, I really do correctly guess dogs’ ages within a reasonable margin of error. When I’m wrong, it interests me because it is usually a combination of appearance and behavior that throws me off.

If you’ve been wrong about a dog’s age, what was it about the dog that deceived you?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Close Encounters in Dog Parks
How to handle trouble at dog parks.

The dog gave her a bad feeling even before he charged at her. Later she would say that she felt the fear in her body before it reached her mind. That can happen when a dog stiffens, stares intensely or runs right at you, and this dog did all three. Once he picked up speed, a low growl in his throat, her “bad feeling” became definable as fear. She was worried for her own safety and even more scared for her dog. The out-of-control dog’s guardian was either not paying attention or was utterly unconcerned with the terror her dog was causing. She did not react at all when she was politely implored to call her dog (“Will you please call your dog?”), and continued to do nothing when the terrified woman finally screamed, “Stop your dog and put him on a leash, PLEASE!” As the dog got closer, and with no idea what to do to prevent an attack, the frightened woman’s only thought was, I have to keep my dog safe!

Whether you consider the dog park to be an indispensable part of your daily routine or no better than a gladiator pit, chances are that if you’ve spent much time in one, you’ve had an encounter in which a dog scared or injured you or your dog. So what do you do when you find yourself in one of those potentially dangerous situations?

Answering that is a little bit like giving advice on how to respond to a mugging. Should you stand your ground? Should you fight? Should you run? Should you just hand over your wallet and jewelry? Similarly, in the case of threatening dogs, there’s no right answer for every situation, but there are guidelines that can potentially minimize the chances of physical harm.

In the case of charging dogs, understand that you may have to be the one to take action if the dog’s guardian doesn’t. Some people don’t consider their dog’s behavior to be a problem (no matter how egregious it may appear to everyone else). Others know they can’t call their dogs away from trouble and they can’t catch them, so they simply do nothing. I wish it weren’t so, but counting on the misbehaving dog’s guardian to be part of the solution will often get you nowhere. However, saying, “Will you please call your dog?” is unlikely to make the situation any worse.

Not making the situation worse is an important factor when considering what to do. When choosing among the possible ways to respond to a charging dog, it’s critical to consider both the likelihood of being effective and the risk of escalating the tension and increasing the dog’s potential for behaving aggressively.

One key strategy is to try to change the dog’s emotions from a negative state to a positive one. The easiest and fastest option is to talk to the dog in an enthusiastic, happy voice: “Oh, who’s so good, what a good boy, aren’t you a love, are you a sweet boy, what a good dog, good dog, good dog.” I know it can feel irksome to say such things to a dog who is scaring the daylights out of you, but this is not about honesty or even sincerity—it’s about trying to prevent serious trouble.

Besides gushing praise, you can say other things that may shift the dog into a better mood. This usually seems ridiculous to people unless they’ve seen it work, but dogs’ emotional states often change in response to phrases such as “Time for dinner!” “Do you want a treat?” and “Where’s your ball?” Many dogs are conditioned to react happily to one or more of these phrases, which means they have the power to diffuse a tense situation.

Similarly, most dogs have been conditioned to feel happy when they see a leash, since a leash means a walk. So, holding up a leash and saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” may change a dog who is charging in a menacing way into a dog who is just enthusiastically approaching you. None of these “happy talk” strategies carry a significant risk of making the situation any more dangerous for you or your dog. (Holding up a leash does, of course, encourage the dog to continue heading toward you, which could add some risk.)

Saying “sit” sometimes works because it’s the one cue that the vast majority of dogs know well enough to respond to in just about any context. I’ve never heard of a dog becoming more aggressive when asked to sit in this situation. Cues such as “off” or “down” are less likely to work because so few dogs are reliably responsive to them, especially when they’re highly aroused.

Toys make many dogs happy, so if you can, toss a ball or other toy in the dog’s direction, or squeak a toy if you have one. If a dog can be switched to a playful mood with a toy, the charge will naturally cease. If not, the dog will likely just ignore the toy, and you are no worse off than before you tried to engage the dog playfully.

Despite its simplicity, tossing treats is also an effective strategy. Dogs who are acting aggressively out of fear are most likely to be positively affected by the appearance of treats, but dogs who are highly aroused, frustrated or just behaving like bullies may be distracted by treats and change their behavior. Again, if they ignore the treats, there is likely no harm done. You can throw the treats behind dogs to get them to turn around, or right at them to make sure the treats are noticed. Handfuls are more likely to be effective than single treats. (Caveat: There is some risk of trouble if the worrisome dog, or any dog in the vicinity, is food-aggressive.)

Getting something in the mouth of the charging dog has protective value. Throw any object you happen to have that is not a safety hazard. Balls or other toys are best because they’re most likely to be of interest, but your hat, a scarf or a water bottle that can keep the dog’s mouth occupied may work, too. Throwing something away from you carries a low risk of trouble; if the dog is right by you and you try to place the item directly in the dog’s mouth, the risk is obviously greater.

The goal of any action should be to de-escalate the tension, not to increase it. These suggestions all aim to make the situation better, and carry very little danger of causing harm. Other strategies can also be effective, but carry more risk of intensifying the trouble.

Saying “Hey!” or “No!” abruptly in a deep voice may sometimes be effective, but it can also make some dogs more intense in their charge. Speaking in a firm way may frighten a fearful dog or be taken as confrontational by dogs who are on the offensive. Though I often hear people recommend pepper spray, I don’t. While it may stop a dog from attacking you, it also makes some dogs more aggressive. And, depending on wind direction, it can backfire and affect you or your dog.

Though I’m also not a huge fan of using citronella spray to stop a charging dog, it’s a better option than pepper spray. It will deter some dogs, but it’s far more likely to be ignored by the dogs it doesn’t stop rather than cause them to become more aggressive. Challenging the dog in any way is very risky.

Challenges include staring, yelling, making an angry face, hitting, kicking and picking up a big stick or rock and threatening the dog with it. Though they may work occasionally, all of these confrontational techniques are far too likely to make a dog more tense and more aggressive.

All the woman could think of doing to protect her dog was to get out of the park immediately. She began moving away from the threatening dog toward the nearby gate, encouraging her own dog to move with her by telling him what a good boy he was, saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” and squeaking the toy in her hand. Not only did this affect the emotions of her own dog, it had the same impact on the charging dog, whose body relaxed the tiniest bit as he slowed down. The intense look on his face changed to a slightly calmer one. She and her dog continued to back up toward the exit. When the charging dog was almost to her, she threw the toy just past him and away from her own dog. The dog who had just scared the bejeebers out of her ran after it. As he did so, she and her dog quickly slipped through the gate and went to their car; once there, suffering the aftereffects of the panic she felt, the woman almost threw up. Her dog—who was shaking and whining—was clearly upset by the experience as well. Though the woman’s quick actions prevented physical injury, the emotional impact of their big scare was damage enough.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Cannes Dog Award
Blind dog wins Palm Dog award

This year, a blind poodle has won the Palm Dog award for his performance as Liberace’s dog Baby Boy in the film “Behind the Candelabra.” He did not travel to France to accept his award, which consists of a leather collar that says “PALM DOG” in gold letters. Baby Boy is blind and has cataracts, and his ailing health played a part in the plot of the film. He beat out the Chihuahua who was nominated for playing Paris Hilton’s dog in the film “The Bling Ring.”

Since 2001 the unofficial Palm Dog award has been a part of the Cannes Film festival. It is presented to honor the best canine performance of the festival, and owes its name to a play on words relating to the Palm d’Or, which is the top award at Cannes. Previous winners include Uggie, the Jack Russell Terrier who played Uggie in “The Artist, and Lucy in the film “Wendy and Lucy.”

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Cleveland Kidnap Victims Could Keep Dogs
Rescue group is currently fostering them

The three women who were held for a decade in Cleveland lived with three dogs—two terrier-poodle crosses and a chihuahua—in addition to the alleged kidnapper. Following the escape of the three victims, the dogs were taken from the man who was arrested.

So far, there is no indication that the dogs were mistreated. After their guardian was arrested, they were groomed and microchipped. They are now being fostered by Dogs Unlimited Rescue. They will stay in their foster homes until the women who spent such a long time in the same house with them decide if they want to adopt the dogs.

The chief animal control officer in Cleveland has said that the women may have bonded with the dogs. Because of that, if any of them want to adopt one or more of them, he wants them to have the opportunity to do so. If the dogs were a source of comfort to the women, it is good to know that the option of adoption is there.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Skateboarding Dog
The activity suits him

Carmen the bulldog is obsessed with his skateboard. According to his guardian, they can’t go out without the skateboard because the dog doesn’t want to leave the house unless he knows that his favorite toy is coming, too. He recently appeared on television showing his skills.

It’s fun to watch Carmen skateboard because it’s obvious that he is having fun, but that’s only part of what made me happy when I saw this video. Another factor is that it is a reminder that different body types lend themselves to different activities and that whatever a dog is good at, enjoys and can safely do is probably a great activity for that dog.

We’re all used to seeing quick dogs participating in agility and spry dogs making spectacular catches of discs thrown unbelievably far away. We know that certain types of dogs swim well or run fast, but seeing Carmen on the skateboard reminds me that dogs with a lower center of gravity excel at certain physical endeavors, too. I’m sure there are tall, leggy dogs who also skateboard with success, but it’s especially easy to see why a dog built like Carmen loves his skateboard.

What activities does your dog love to do and do they match what you’d expect based on build?

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