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
Attentiveness matters for safety and convenience.
October 8 2013
Ian’s dogs—Maggie, Molly and Jake—display various levels of attentiveness while they’re together on the trail. Maggie looks back every few seconds, as though she’s afraid he’ll disappear. Molly’s mainly interested in Ian when she’s thirsty. Jake checks in from time to time, typically when he’s startled by an unusual sound or comes to a bend in the trail. When Ian calls them, they all run joyfully to him. In response to their names, each pauses and looks toward him, suspending activity while waiting for more information. Each has also been trained to look at him in response to the cue “watch.” Though these dogs have different levels of natural attentiveness, they are uniformly skilled at responding to cues for attention.
Ian can hike with his dogs off-leash, confident that they will pay attention to him if he asks them to, even though at least one and sometimes two of them are less interested in him than in the world around them. Only Maggie consistently gives him her attention spontaneously, but they all attend to him on cue. Spontaneous attention and attention that’s given on cue are both valuable.
Inborn or Learned
Few dogs are as naturally attentive as most of us wish; if yours isn’t, don’t feel bad, don’t feel guilty and for goodness sake, don’t wonder what you did wrong! Your dog, like most dogs, just isn’t inclined that way. For some guardians, that’s a good thing. Plenty of people prefer dogs with their own interests who can amuse themselves and aren’t staring at them expectantly, riveted by their every action.
While a strong relationship can help with attention issues, I’m not suggesting that a good relationship will guarantee a high level of attentiveness: it won’t. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, and if your dog is not highly attentive in all situations, it certainly doesn’t mean that the relationship is flawed or in any way lacking. It just means that for whatever reason, your dog is focusing on other aspects of the environment.
Many people find that their dogs are so engrossed in the environment and all its wonderful smells that getting them to pay attention outdoors feels like swimming upstream. Though such “nose to the ground” dogs are indeed among the most challenging when it comes to working on attentiveness, many of them are actually attending to their people without obvious signs of doing so. It’s common for those with dogs who are particularly responsive to the environment to note that their dogs always know where they are when they’re out and about. However, the dogs’ top priority in that context isn’t interacting with people, it’s interacting with the environment. They tend to show their affiliation in other ways at other times, and that’s where the strength of the relationship is more obvious to the casual observer.
Many factors affect your relationship, including your respective personalities and your interactions over time. If your dog associates you with treats, enjoyable training, massages, outings, toys and games, you’re more likely to have his attention. In the best of relationships, there’s also an intangible quality: some individuals hit it off in an indefinable, magical way. Strong bonds of love are often made of those special and inexplicable connections.
If a relationship is damaged or not very strong, the dog may give more attention to someone else. Some of the saddest cases in my practice have been those in which the dog isn’t that interested in the person. For example, a man moved back in with his mother and spent tons of time walking and playing with her dog. The dog adored him, but took virtually no notice of the woman. Multiple times each day, she cued him to hug her, which meant jumping up on her, putting his paws on her shoulders and staying that way while she squeezed him. She wanted affection from the dog, but the dog clearly disliked it.
We improved the relationship between the woman and her dog by having her engage with the dog in ways that were fun and satisfying to him. Once she had developed the habit of taking him out for walks, playing fetch with him daily and massaging him afterward, he was drawn to her, and the amount of attention he gave her increased accordingly. She stopped asking him for hugs, and he spontaneously cuddled up beside her. She no longer had to beg for his attention or affection.
Putting Attention on Cue
The problem many of us have with a dog who is not responsive to cues, especially outside, is not so much a matter of devotion but of training. For most dogs, learning a “pay attention” cue in the face of a whole world of wonder is essentially a difficult, high-level trick and must be taught as such. Yes, some dogs learn this quickly and thoroughly without too much trouble, but that’s unusual. For most dogs, expect topquality responses only after consistent, long-term training efforts.
In the larger scheme of things, a cue to pay attention is essential because it is the basis of all training. You can teach a dog just about anything if you have his attention, but it’s virtually impossible if you don’t. Asking for a dog’s attention is a top priority for professional trainers, which is why it is often the first skill taught in classes or private lessons.
This is especially valuable for dogs who don’t frequently offer their attention spontaneously. For naturally attentive dogs, attention training is largely about putting a behavior that frequently happens on cue. Teaching dogs to give attention when they don’t consistently offer it on their own requires more time and effort because you have to teach the behavior and associate it with a cue.
The two most common cues for attention are “watch” and the dog’s name. “Watch” tells a dog to look at your face, and it’s a great way to keep a dog from paying attention to things that cause him to act in an undesirable way. Saying the dog’s name lets him know that he should pay attention to you and wait for more information. Once you have your dog’s attention, it’s easier for him to respond to other cues, including “down,” “stay” and “come,” or simply to follow you in a new direction on a walk. It’s important to reinforce these behaviors so your dog’s glad he did what you asked. If he learns that he’ll receive a treat or have a chance to play for giving you his attention in response to the cue “watch” or to his name, he will be more likely to give you his attention when asked in the future.
Paying attention will be easier for your dog in some contexts than in others. Typically, dogs are more likely to pay attention inside than outside, and when there are no distractions—no squirrels or cooking aromas on the breeze.
Like any other skill, giving attention on cue requires practice and takes time to teach. Gradually working toward giving attention in increasingly challenging environments is a good strategy. Improving the relationship so that the dog is more inclined to pay attention will also improve your dog’s responsiveness to you.
Ideally, dogs keep track of where their person is. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to sniff in the grass, romp with a canine buddy and still occasionally check in. Though dogs with certain natural tendencies are more disposed to do this, others can be trained to act the same way.
When I’m teaching dogs to exhibit this behavior, I do it in places that allow them to be safely off-leash, where they can wander and sniff to their hearts’ content. When the dog is in his own world and not attending to me at all, I position myself so that I can see the dog but he can’t see me. When he looks up and seems just a little concerned, I call him to come, reinforcing him for his successful search. (If he becomes stressed, I come out of my hiding spot so he can see me, and still reinforce him for coming to me.)
This is a good way to perfect recalls and teach your dog that it’s wise to keep track of you, but it only works with dogs who are connected enough to care when they think for a moment that their person is lost. It is not helpful with aloof dogs or those who are completely unperturbed by your absence, and it’s just cruel to disappear on a clingy, nervous dog. Reserve this technique for those who are stable enough to handle your absence and connected enough to care—which, fortunately, is the majority of dogs.
Remember, when we talk about our dogs paying attention to us, we are really talking about two things: spontaneous attention and attention given on cue. There are many ways to improve both kinds of attentiveness, but that doesn’t mean you can change a dog’s essential nature. All the training in the world isn’t going to turn an aloof and independent dog or a dog who is wildly distracted by the smells of the great outdoors into one who is compulsive about checking in and never lets you out of sight. It is, however, possible to teach any dog to respond properly to the cue “watch” and to his name, and to come when called.
It’s also possible, and desirable, to strengthen your relationship with your dog to increase his attentiveness to you. The more fun and satisfying your interactions are, the more likely your dog is to give you his attention spontaneously or on cue.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Those little pests are nothing new!
October 5 2013
Mummified dogs are not a new archaeological discovery, but finding bloodsucking parasites on them is. Over 400 dog mummies unearthed from the El Deir excavation site in Egypt have been found, and one young dog among them was infested with a number of parasites that have been preserved.
There were over 60 ticks found on this poor dog and there was one louse, too. The scientists who found this dog suspect that a tick-born disease that kills red blood cells was probably responsible for the death of this dog at such a young age. Besides the ticks and the louse, remains of two types of fly larvae were found on it, suggesting that the dog’s body had time to attract carrion flies prior to being mummified.
Mummifying animals was common in ancient Egypt. It was done to provide food and companionship for people in the afterlife and to make sacrifices to the gods, yet nobody is sure of the reasons for the dog mummies at El Deir. It is unclear if they had specific human guardians or how they died. Perhaps they were purposely bred to be sacrificed as cats commonly were, but we just don’t know.
Scientists involved with this excavating project are exploring questions about the source of the dogs. They are also hoping to find more parasites on the dog mummies in order to investigate the origin and spread of diseases and to deepen our understanding of the role of parasites in the history of the species.
Evidence that ancient dogs suffered from ticks, lice and other ectoparasites is prevalent in ancient writings such as those of Aristotle, Homer and Pliny the Elder, but this is the first archaeological evidence that corroborates those texts. It’s certainly no surprise that dogs living a couple of thousand years ago faced the danger and nuisance of ticks and lice. It would be astounding if it were a recent development in the lives of canids, but it’s still interesting to have such concrete evidence.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cultural differences to ponder
October 3 2013
There were stray dogs in the restaurant with us, and this was a high quality restaurant. The Buddha Café in Tortuguero Village, Costa Rica is a lovely chic place to dine with a cool vibe where you can be seated with views of the water from the veranda. It’s no greasy spoon, and yet dogs were wandering in off the street. Charmingly, nobody seemed to mind.
Dogs are certainly allowed in some restaurants in the United States, most often at outdoor cafes or in especially hip, progressive cities, but those are generally well-groomed dogs who are attended to by caring guardians. The dogs I saw while eating out last week were stray dogs living in a humid tropical jungle climate. Some looked healthy, while others looked decidedly unwell, and none could honestly be described as clean.
People weren’t just tolerating them out of a sense that it was hopeless to shoo them out of this open-air restaurant. They behaved genuinely warmly to them, feeding them a few leftovers and happily watching them lying around on the floor or begging at tables. I had no problem with the dogs being there, although I did tell my kids not to pet them. Normally I’m happy for my kids to interact with the various friendly dogs we meet, but I don’t want them to touch dirty or sick stray dogs while eating—call me overprotective.
I’m used to eating in places where dogs are allowed, but eating where stray dogs in all conditions are welcomed without hesitation is new to me. Have you had this experience while traveling or at home? How do you feel about it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Yes, they’re pressing charges
September 30 2013
The woman showing them the pit bull told Kenny Erickson and Ashley Preston that the dog took to them well. There’s a reason for that: Lexi belonged to them but had been stolen from their yard a couple of months earlier.
They had been searching for Lexi for months, and many people supported their efforts and helped them. Someone who knew that their dog had been stolen learned that a woman was giving away a dog who matched the description of Lexi, and told the couple. They rushed right over.
The woman trying to find the dog a new home admitted that the dog had been stolen. Now that her nephew, who had been caring for the dog, was in jail, she needed to find her a new home.
Kenny and Ashley didn’t let on that the dog was theirs because they wanted to make sure that legal channels were properly followed so that the thieves wouldn’t get away with the crime. Of course, the most important thing was being reunited with their dog, but they also wanted to make sure that people who steal dogs are punished. It took a lot of self-control not to just grab their dog and run, but they managed it.
After alerting police to the situation, they were happily able to reclaim their dog. The woman who was trying to find a home for her has been cited for possession of stolen property and faces charges of theft as well. Kenny and Ashley want people to understand that if they steal dogs, they could be caught and dislike that many people think that stealing a dog is no big deal. (I have no idea which people think it’s not a big deal, but then, I move in dog-loving social circles.)
After the pain of having their dog go missing, I’m so glad that this family’s story ended well.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Where are dogs living longest?
September 28 2013
It is hard to decide which of the many wonderful qualities of dogs is the best one, but it’s easy for me to say what is the worst thing about dogs: They don’t live long enough. We all wish dogs lived longer and most of us are hungry for information about which factors may give us more time with our dogs. It’s possible that where our dogs live is one such factor.
A state-by-state analysis of dog lifespan shows Montana and South Dakota at the top with dogs living an average of 12.4 years. Other states with long-lived dogs include Oregon, Colorado and Florida where the dogs are typically living over 11 years. In contrast, Mississippi and Alabama have an average lifespan of just over 10 years.
These data come from Banfield Pet Hospital and only include those states in which they have facilities, which means that Wyoming, North Dakota, Maine, Vermont and West Virginia are not included. It also means that the data may only reflect the specific dogs seen in their practices rather than fully representing each state’s dogs.
However, there are a number of reasons that lifespans may vary from state to state. These include nutrition, exercise opportunities, rates of spaying and neutering and the types of disease prevalent in the area. The breeds and sizes of dogs that are most popular in those states may matter, too.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Struggles of a new dog
September 21 2013
Among the themes I hear from clients repeatedly is that their new dog just isn’t like their old dog. Maybe this dog is just lukewarm on retrieving but their previous dog would happily fetch at any time. Perhaps the new puppy still isn’t housetrained, but their old dog was perfect at it by the age of three months. It could be that the new dog just isn’t that willing to cuddle on the couch for hours, but the other dog did, and it was so nice. Whatever the specifics are, the commonality is that the new dog is facing expectations based on a dog the family had before, and it’s all but impossible to measure up.
I’m a younger sister myself, and I well remember the expectations of teachers that I would be just like my older sister who was an extraordinary student and never got into any trouble at all. It was a lot of pressure. It makes me very empathetic to dogs who are dealing with excessive expectations because of another, older dog. In fact, I often say to clients who are making such comparisons that I myself know what it’s like to have a perfect older sibling, and I urge them to find what they love about their new dog and focus on that.
It’s natural to compare a new dog with a previous dog, but exercising caution is wise. Thinking, “Wow! This dog is more energetic than our other dog,” can have great value if it makes you realize that you really need to find a way to give more exercise to the new dog, who is clearly an extra peppy individual. On the other hand, if the previous dog was 14 years old and arthritic, it’s important to remember that your new dog is an adolescent who obviously isn’t going to be anything like a geriatric dog, and thank goodness for that.
While comparisons are inevitable, it’s so important to remind yourself to treat each dog as an individual, without assuming that there will be similarities with your previous dog. That’s true even if they are the same breed or happen to look just alike right down to the black eye patch or you trained them the same way. Not only is this fair to your new dog, but it may help you recognize what is really special about the dog who may be the new love of your life. The new dog may be great at learning tricks, or may not be interested in chewing on your only ridiculously expensive pair of shoes. The new dog may be easier to hike with than your previous dog or may sleep through thunderstorms at night. If you pay attention, it’s likely that you’ll notice traits that compare favorably with all the dogs who you’ve had before.
Have you ever struggled with a new dog because you couldn’t help but make comparisons with the “perfect” dog you used to have?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
What pet would you choose?
September 20 2013
Perhaps it’s too horrible for many of us to contemplate, but if you couldn’t have a dog for some reason, what pet would you choose instead? There’s no replacing dogs, but other pets do offer some of the same benefits. Whether it’s companionship, exercise, training fun, participating in activities together, the peacefulness that comes from being with animals, or the satisfaction of caring for others, dogs offer so much to our quality of life.
There’s a reason they’re called our best friends—dogs seem to do more for us than so many other pets, but it would be dishonest to suggest that they are the only ones that can provide any of these benefits to us. Rabbits, cats, birds, rats, ferrets, fish, hamsters, snakes and horses all provide some of the same benefits to various degrees. They are all common pets for people who have dogs and for those who don’t.
There are many reasons that people who have always had dogs may decide not to acquire another. It may be too difficult to provide them with enough activity in the face of aging or a health problem. A housing situation such as those designed for the elderly may not allow dogs. A new job with an extensive travel schedule may raise concerns about properly caring for a dog. Allergies in yourself or in a family member may make a dog problematic. A new relationship in which no dogs becomes a key compromise may mean not having a dog. (I realize many readers have expressed their disinterest in developing a relationship in which dogs were a point of contention, but this is an issue for many people and there’s no right answer.)
I know it’s the stuff of nightmares—not being able to have a dog—but if you couldn’t have a dog, what pet would you choose instead?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Different strokes for different folks
September 17 2013
The dog had a lush coat and I couldn’t keep my hands off of it. Touching his fur felt so good and I couldn’t stop petting him and luxuriating in his glorious coat. It is my favorite sort of fur—thick, healthy and soft. He’s a mix that is not possible to identify with certainty, and his coat was all the better for it.
I’m not picky when it comes to petting dogs and loving it—corded, wiry, heavy, double, smooth, wavy, curly, or a combination. I love the feel of canine fur and like to spend a lot of time in contact with it. (My dry cleaner can confirm this.) Yet, certain coats appeal to me most.
I especially like the dogs whose coats are between the double coats of the northern breeds like Huskies or Akitas and the combination coats of Border Collies or Tibetan Spaniels. I like the thickness of the double coat combined with the silkier texture of the combination coat.
There is tremendous variation in coat preference among people. I have friends and colleagues who are drawn to wire-haired dogs or who love any dog with a curly coat or who always choose short-haired dogs. I suppose some of the preference is about what we were exposed to as children. Another piece of it may be about a special dog we met quite by chance, and whose coat type becomes our standard of perfection. Many of the preferences may be random personal choices that are no more explicable than why one person might choose blueberries over raspberries or prefer the color blue to the color green.
Do you have a favorite coat type, and if so, do you have any guesses about the origin of your preference?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Love in the past and present
September 12 2013
Many years ago, I acquired a 2½-year old Lab mix from a family who was rehoming him. The conflicts with their other dog had become alarming and had compromised the quality of life for the entire household. My bond with my new dog formed quickly and was strong until he died and beyond.
It’s phenomenal how well dogs can form new attachments and love so many people throughout their lives. Humans can do that, too, though this is far from common in the animal world. I couldn’t help but notice the happiness my dog expressed when we ran into his original family around town, which happened a few times a year.
Whenever he saw them, he went, for lack of a better term, completely bonkers. He jumped straight into the air like he was on a pogo stick, with all four paws nearly five feet off the ground. His face showed pure joy as he greeted them, and they were much the same in their expressions. Though there was so much love on both sides, they chose to place him in a home where he was not at risk of being harmed by fights with their other, older dog. I’m so grateful for that because otherwise he would never have entered my life.
Though my dog was thrilled to see the people he lived with from 8 weeks to 2½ years of age, he never attempted to stay with them. After each reunion, he invariably returned his attention to me and did not hesitate as we walked away. There were no backward glances and he did not seem confused in any way. Though I can’t know exactly what he felt or thought, I can make guesses based on his behavior. I think he was happy to see the people he knew from the past because he loved them. He also loved me and I believe that he naturally felt more connected to me because we were currently spending time together, sharing a home and a life.
I always enjoyed his reaction to his first family because I liked seeing him happy for any reason. I would have been horrified to see him react to them with avoidance, fear or any other negative emotion. A show of indifference would not have been much better as that would have made me wonder if he would be capable of ceasing to care about me, too. It also made me happy because I could see how much it meant to the family to be honored with an over-the-top exuberant greeting from the dog they loved. It had been a heartbreaking decision for them to give him up for the safety of both dogs. They were overjoyed to see that he still loved them, too, and was excited to see them.
How does your dog react to seeing a previous guardian or a foster family? Or, if you were previously the guardian or foster family to a dog you’ve been able to see again, how does the dog act at the reunion?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tagging on Facebook
September 9 2013
I was super amused when Facebook asked me to tag “Colita” in a recent post. I did not know that dogs were fair game for tagging or that facial recognition software could be used with them on Facebook. I’m amazed how well the technology works for dogs, because show most people a litter puppies and they struggle to tell them apart.
Okay, they’re fine when it comes to breeds with distinct markings like border collies, Jack Russell terriers, or beagles. Show them 10-12 golden retrievers or bichon frises, though, and most people will rely on alternative methods rather than facial recognition to tell some of the more similar littermates apart. Perhaps I should get used to expecting more from technology. After all, I’m always impressed that Facebook can correctly distinguish between my husband and his identical twin brother when many people, even those who know them well, can’t.
In recent years, rescue groups have started to use facial recognition software to help find lost dogs. The app Finding Rover uses facial recognition software to help reunite guardians with lost dogs. And the Auckland SPCA in New Zealand is using facial recognition software to help match people with their doggleganger—the dog that looks the most like them.
Facial recognition software is being used in new ways for important purposes, but all I really want to know is whether you tag your dogs on Facebook. Do you?
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