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
It’s worth it, but taking care of dogs is hard
September 10 2016
It’s fun to share our lives with dogs—most of the time. Sometimes, though, having a dog feels like work, and not just when there is a real crisis such as a dog suffering from a major illness or injury. The regular daily trials and tribulations of dog guardianship require plenty of opportunities for sacrifice and hard effort.
All people find challenges in different aspects of living with and caring for a dog. For me, it’s the pressure to get home to them. Don’t get me wrong—I certainly want to get home to dogs, but the feeling that I have to get home by a certain time can be stressful. Many of us live with a bit of a canine-imposed curfew. There have been many times when I have wanted to run an errand or meet a friend for even a brief time immediately after work, but I need to head home first to let dogs out, give them exercise and feed them. I don’t like the way going home to dogs can feel like an imposition on my freedom. Most of the time, it’s not a big deal. It’s just that from time to time, it feels like a drag to do what I know is right for dogs when that doesn’t serve my immediate desires.
There are a lot of people whose big struggle is dealing with all the dog hair. Many of us may feel like no outfit is complete without dog hair. However, fewer of us believe that no home decorating scheme is complete without massive quantities of fur everywhere. Some dogs shed constantly and in large quantities, but even dogs who only donate their fur sparingly can put a strain on household cleanliness.
Perhaps the most common complaint about having a dog is picking up poop. Whether this involves picking it up in bags on walks or regular clean-ups of the yard, I hear a lot of complaints about this part of having a dog. I know of nobody, including, myself, who considers this chore associated with being a dog guardian to be anything but a big, unpleasant nuisance.
Having a dog is worth any and all of the trouble that comes with it, but that doesn’t mean every moment is pure joy. What aspect of having a dog feels the most like work to you?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The influence of each species’ feeding ecology
September 8 2016
Humans tend to be risk-averse, which is often illustrated by our decision when offered either $100 or the opportunity for a 50-50 shot at receiving either $200 or nothing. In general, humans go for the sure thing. We are not, as a species, risk-prone, or we would gamble on the shot at getting the bigger payoff.
It turns out that a number of studies across a broad range of species have shown that how a species responds to risk is predictable based on their feeding ecology. Animals who depend on erratic, ephemeral food sources, such as meat that they hunt or fruits that are patchy and only ripe for a brief time, tend to be risk-prone. They are willing to gamble on the big payoff. Species that eat diverse types of food or food that is more reliably available, such as vegetation, are risk-averse.
Some of our primate relatives are like us, and some are the opposite. For example, bonobos and lemurs (who both eat a very diverse diet that is mainly vegetarian) are risk-averse like us, choosing a sure thing of lower value over a chance at something better. Chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys—both meat and patchy fruit eaters—are different, being risk-prone and choosing the option that may yield a big reward but could leave then empty-handed. This pattern has appeared in closely-related species birds, too, where those who eat insects are risk-prone, while species who eat seeds are risk-averse.
Scientists haven’t fully explored how widespread this pattern of feeding ecology predicting risk-taking behavior is, but wolves and dogs are an interesting test case. These two species diverged quite recently in an evolutionary sense, but their feeding ecologies differ greatly. Wolves are primarily hunters and dogs are mainly scavengers. Hunting has a high failure rate, but the rewards of a big kill are enormous. In contrast, the source of food for the vast majority of dogs worldwide is human refuse, which tends to be available far more regularly.
In a recent study called “Exploring Differences in Dogs’ and Wolves’ Preference for Risk in a Foraging Task” scientists investigated whether wolves and dogs conform to the pattern seen across so many other species. Based on their different feeding ecologies, they predicted that compared with each other, wolves would be risk-prone and dogs would be risk-averse. The study was done at Wolf Science Centre in Austria, using dogs and wolves who were raised and live at the facility and have had the same overall experiences there.
The subjects of the study were trained to choose either a bowl that contained a dry pellet of food or a bowl that had a fifty percent chance of containing a piece of meat and a fifty percent chance of holding a stone. After each choice, the subject was given the contents of the bowl. All the wolves and dogs in the study were subject to tests to confirm that they understood the choice they were making and also to confirm that they preferred the meat to the dry food pellet.
The researchers found that the pattern of risk-taking seen in other species also applied to wolves and dogs. As expected, wolves were more risk-prone than dogs. However, there is more to this study than that simple conclusion. Wolves learned the system faster than the dogs, and the researchers acknowledge that they may have understood it better than the dogs. Additionally, dogs’ preference for the meat versus dry food pellet was not as strong as it was for wolves. Therefore, the risk of losing out and getting nothing for the chance to get something only a little better than a food pellet may not have been worth it to dogs. There was greater variation among individual dogs in risk-taking strategy compared with wolves, who were more similar in their choices, so it’s possible that there are dogs who are risk-prone as well as dogs who are risk-averse. (Dogs made the risky choice from 38 to 76 percent of the time, while wolves took the risky option 70 to 95 percent of the time.)
Overall, despite the conclusions made from the data in this study, direct comparisons of the choices made by these two species may require further study. It would be very interesting to learn more about decisions to take risks by dogs and wolves in a study with more than seven of each species, though I realize possible subjects for a study such as this are limited. It would also be fascinating to know about the decisions foxes and coyotes would make if presented with the same choices. Comparative research that include dogs as one species among many allow us to learn a great deal about how their evolutionary history and ecology have affected their behavior. It’s one of many ways that we can deepen our understanding of the animals who share our homes and live in our hearts.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
What you say and how you say it both matter
August 31 2016
Humans use both words and the intonation of speech to decipher the meaning of language, and it turns out that our dogs do, too. In a research paper called “Neural mechanisms for lexical processing in dogs” scientists investigated how dogs process the meaning of language. They found that dogs’ brains have even more in common with humans’ brains than previously thought. (It’s not clear when we will collectively stop being surprised by this, but I hope we always remain excited about new evidence to explain why we feel that dogs are kindred spirits.)
In this study, dogs who have been trained to remain still while their brain activity is recorded listened to recordings of their trainers talking. There were four types of recordings: 1) words of praise spoken with intonation typically associated with praise, 2) words of praise spoken with a neutral intonation, 3) neutral words spoken with intonation typically associated with praise, and 4) neutral words spoken with a neutral intonation.
Researchers analyzed the brain activity of the dogs in response to each of the recordings, and came to several conclusions about the way that dogs respond to words and the intonation of human speech. The dogs processed the vocabulary in the left hemisphere of their brains, which is where humans also process the meaning of words. The dogs processed the intonation of the words separately, in a different region of the brain. Just as humans do, dogs processed the intonation of human speech in the right hemisphere of their brain. Dogs also process sounds that convey emotion without words in this same region of the brain’s right hemisphere.
Dogs process both words and the intonation of human speech to decipher meaning. Just as humans do, they process these two aspects of speech separately, then integrate them to determine the full meaning of what was said. Only the praise that was spoken like praise—higher pitched than normal speech and with more variation in pitch—activated the reward centers of dogs’ brains. Though they may understand words of praise said in any manner, it only makes dogs happy to hear us praise them when we do it with proper feeling.
This research does more than reveal yet another similarity in the way that human and dog brains process information. It also suggests that the ability to connect a word to a meaning did not develop with the evolution of spoken language. Rather, it is a more ancient ability that can be made use of in the context of the human-dog relationship to link specific sounds to specific meanings.
The take away messages from this research are that dogs process two parts of spoken language—words and intonation—the same way that humans do and if you want to make your dogs happy, you have to praise them like you mean it!
There’s so much “funny” out there
August 30 2016
We are taking care of a puppy whose tag has contact information on one side and says “Have your people call my people” on the other. It so accurately reflects the way many dog lovers view their position in the world—as the dogs’ people.
That tag is not the only amusing dog phrase to catch my attention in recent weeks. While traveling in Sri Lanka this past summer, I saw a bumper sticker proclaiming, “I like big mutts and I cannot lie.” Some of the windows of the vehicle were smeared all over with what I’ve come to learn is called “nose art”. The dog was no Picasso, but he was very productive, having created more art than most dogs ever will.
Most recently, I found myself chuckling over a dog-related saying at a client’s house. She had a prominently displayed wooden sign that read, “You’re not really drinking alone if your dog is home.” Though I myself lack any “wine-appreciation” genes, I knew right away that I would enjoy working with this woman.
Is your home, car or dog adorned with a canine-themed phrase that makes you laugh?
Interactive displays for canines by experiential artist Dominic Wilcox
August 26 2016
More Than insurance company commissioned British designer Dominic Wilcox to create a contemporary art exhibit for dogs. It is part of an ongoing effort by the company to improve the physical and mental health of dogs by encouraging people to play with them more.
One goal was the development of an exhibit like those in the best science and children’s museums that stimulate visitors and entice them to interact with the displays. Another part of Wilcox’s assignment was to come up with an exhibit that would fit in at any of the world’s best museums of modern and contemporary art.
The displays in “Play More” are varied and focus on different senses. There are paintings in colors within the dog’s visual spectrum and hanging at just the right height for them to view easily. The Watery Wonder exhibit is a series of fountains in water bowls with the water jetting from one bowl to another. Cruising Canines simulates an open-window car ride by blowing a fan to send the scents of raw meat and old shoes to the dogs seated behind cutouts in a two-dimensional car. Dinnertime Dreams is a 10-foot representation of a dog bowl filled with 1000 balls that each resemble dog kibble. Catch is a video of a Frisbee™ disk bouncing around a screen and consistently held many dogs’ attention.
Two dogs admire “Drumstick Park,” a park scene painted by Robert Nicol and placed at canine eye-level.
“Cruising Canines” simulates an open car window with a giant fan wafting favorite canine scents (raw meat and old shoes) through the air.
A dog is captivated with “Catch,” a multimedia installation that simulates a Frisbee bouncing around a screen.
Dog pals posing with the 10-foot wide “Dinnertime Dreams”—filled with dog food shaped balls.
The exhibit’s designer Dominic Wlicox and friend next to one of the exhibit’s meat-inspired sculptures.
It’s a daunting task to create a series of interactive displays for canines to enjoy that are also contemporary works of art worthy of display in a modern art museum. I think Wilcox succeeded, but you can judge for yourself in this video.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Individual variation explains a lot
August 24 2016
Dogs are well known to be chowhounds. The idea that they love food more than anything else is practically (excuse the expression) dogma in the fields of canine behavior and dog training. The trouble is, recent research suggests that it is not true for all dogs.
In a study called “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food” scientists investigated whether dogs prefer treats or praise, and whether their choice can be predicted by their brains’ response to both stimuli. In one experiment, they measured the level of activation of the brain’s ventral caudate, an area known to function as a reward center, in response to items that predicted various outcomes. A toy car predicted that verbal praise was coming, a toy horse predicted that food on its way and a hairbrush was associated with nothing. Dogs were trained to make these associations with a series of 40 pairings of each object with what it predicted. The activation of the specific region of the brain was measured with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is possible because the dogs in the study have all been trained to remain motionless while in the scanner.
The average activation of the reward center of the brain was higher in the food and praise conditions than in the neutral condition, which shows that the dogs did learn the associations between the objects and what the objects predicted. (Each dog’s responses in the brain to seeing the toy horse and NOT receiving the expected praise was also measured.) There were 15 dogs in this experiment, and most of them had a similar response in the reward center to the food or to the praise. Four showed a stronger response to praise and two showed a stronger response to food. The average response to praise and to food did not differ.
In another experiment, dogs were placed in a Y-maze and given the opportunity to choose which arm of the maze to go to. One arm led to a food bowl with treats and the other arm led to the dog’s guardian, who provided petting and praise. Each dog was tested in the Y-maze 20 times. Seven dogs in the study chose the guardian the more times than the food, and seven dogs chose the food more often. One dog chose the guardian and the food an equal number of times.
The relative value of praise versus food in the first experiment was highly predictive of the choices that dogs made in the Y-maze experiment. Dogs whose ventral caudate showed a strong response to praise were more likely to choose their guardian over food but dogs who did not show such a strong response to praise relative to food were more likely to head for the food when given a choice.
Regrettably, the results of this study have erroneously been reported in many places as proof that dogs prefer praise and belly rubs to treats, and suggested that using treats in training is therefore unnecessary. It has been written in many places discussing this study that 13 of 15 dogs prefer praise to food, and that’s not correct. What the researchers actually wrote is that in 13 of the 15 dogs, the ventral caudate showed either roughly equal activation to food and to praise or greater activation to praise than to food.
It’s quite interesting that roughly half of the dogs chose their guardian over food. For those dogs, social interaction such as praise and belly rubs may be more effective than treats in training. However, caution is important when acting on the findings in this study because the research may overestimate the response of dogs to their guardians relative to food in situations outside the laboratory setting.
The lab may have been stressful, causing a bias in dogs towards an increased interest in their guardians when compared with food. They may have been seeking comfort from their guardians in a way that they might not be during typical training situations. The scientists do point out that these dogs have been trained to stay still in the scanner and that the lab is a familiar environment. That does not mean the dogs are as comfortable as they are at home or in other areas such as on neighborhood walks, at the park or at the training center where they attend classes. It’s important to know what dogs choose in the actual training setting before changing what reinforcement to use based on lab research.
Additionally, although dogs may value social connections over food when the social interaction is with their guardian, not all training occurs between guardian and pet. I do a lot of training with dogs who I adore, but I don’t share quite the same bond with them as they do with their own guardian. So, just because dogs may prefer affection from their guardian over food does not mean that they prefer affection from just anyone over food. Finally, in many training scenarios, dogs receive praise in addition to food during training, and that may be more effective than either one alone.
Many people swear that their dogs prefer praise and petting to treats, and others are just as certain that food wins out every time with their dogs. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that individual variation in preferences is huge. If you feel strongly about what matters most to dogs, there’s a good chance you’re right—when it comes to your dog, anyway.
Do you think your dog would go for food or for praise and affection if given the choice?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Important enough to be a featured story
August 21 2016
I’ve been a dog trainer long enough (almost 20 years) to see a massive change in the perception of the field. It used to be considered more a hobby than a job, even though many of us were already making a living doing it full time. I remember someone once telling me that it was “almost as though you have a real career”. Now, dog training is recognized as serious business and as a valuable contribution to society. In fact, it’s so legit that the CIA discussed its top 10 dog training tips in a featured article alongside articles such as “The Korean War Controversy: An Intelligence Success or Failure?” and “The Spymaster’s Toolkit”.
What’s even more exciting to me than seeing how seriously the CIA takes its dog training is realizing that the CIA’s Top 10 Dog Training Tips are absolutely spot on. The first tip is “Make it fun” and the last one is “Always end on a positive”. Everything in between is just as likely to make your typical dog trainer nod, smile or click. Dogs who work for the CIA begin their training as part of civilian training programs such as Guide Dogs for the Blind or programs in which inmates in jail train puppies in basic skills.
Dogs in the CIA aim to do what other members of this agency try to do—keep people safe—though their specific job is primarily sniffing out explosives. In addition to that detection work, dogs may be involved in apprehending suspects and educating the public. The K-9 program at the CIA emphasizes training as well as lots of exercise and plenty of time to play.
It was news to me that the CIA’s methods of developing great working dogs combine consistent and positive training with making sure the dogs have happy, balanced lives. Did you already know this?
By the Numbers
August 19 2016
Congratulate the canines in your household for showing up on earth at just the right time, because, compared to those dogs who lived 25 years ago, today’s dogs have many advantages.
1. Coercion training has been largely replaced by kinder, gentler positive methods. While not everyone is training with modern techniques, the trend continues to gain momentum. It is more effective and better for the relationship between dogs and people to teach dogs what to do and then reinforce them for being right—with toys, treats, play or affection—than to issue commands and deliver a leash pop or a shock in response to an incorrect response.
2. Behaviorists abound to help people with their dogs’ issues. Twenty-five years ago, it was more common to euthanize dogs for problems such as aggression, destructive chewing or repetitive behaviors than it is today. Now, many of these concerns can be resolved by working with a qualified animal behaviorist.
3. Options are plentiful for dogs who suffer pain due to injuries, arthritis or other medical causes. Acupuncture, while an ancient art, is relatively new on the scene for canine pain management, and the multitude of dog massage techniques, including TTouch, means that many dogs are relieved of pain rather than living with it or suffering from the side effects of medications.
4. It’s easier to travel with dogs now. More hotels accept dogs, and riding in the car is safer due to the use of crates and canine seat belts. Fewer dogs are left at home during family vacations and outings, and fewer are sliding around in the backs of vehicles.
5. Walking on-leash is a part of life for most dogs, and compared with 25 years ago, there are more relatively humane and effective options. It’s hard to imagine a dog who wouldn’t prefer a Gentle Leader, Snoot Loop, Halti or SENSEation harness to the choke chains that once were common.
6. Canine play is considered important in ways that were unheard of years ago. Play is widely viewed as critical for developing and maintaining good relationships between people and dogs, and as a result, more than ever, dogs are having fun with their people on a regular basis, and playing with better toys. The toy options are dizzying; from Kongs and Chewbers to Dogzillas and Nina Ottosson’s puzzle toys—the world of dog toys has moved well beyond balls and sticks!
7. Dog-centered activities are more numerous now. Agility, flyball, herding, tracking, lure coursing, rally-O and dog training classes as diverse as basic obedience and even tricks and games are common, as are “dog camps,” places where people and their dogs can enjoy such activities in the company of the like-minded.
8. Compared with 25 years ago, dogs are welcome in more places. Many people take their dogs to work, and more shops and businesses are allowing dogs as guests. On a more fundamental level, more dogs are now living inside our homes rather than outside as before. This greater hospitality may stem from the biggest change of all over the last 25 years, which is that more than ever, dogs are now considered members of the family. The wholehearted inclusion of dogs in our families—a perspective once voiced only by the very brave or slightly quirky—has become a mainstream idea over the past quarter-century.
Then or now, perhaps one of the greatest things about being a dog is that the tendency to sit around with friends and bark about “the good old days” doesn’t exist. I like to think that for dogs, the “good old days” are happening right now.
Dog's Life: Events
Partner with the Clear the Shelters initiative encouraging pet adoptions.
August 17 2016
Dealing with the media can get in the way of Olympic athletes’ training, but it’s obvious that none of them were complaining about a recent photo shoot to promote Clear the Shelters. This is a nationwide adoption effort to find loving homes for pets in need.
Even paired with such famous Olympians as Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Gabby Douglas and Venus Williams, the puppies stole the show. The expression on the puppy with Nathan Adrian is so cute it almost hurts to look at him! The little guy held by Michael Phelps is obviously in tune with others, realizing that the greatest swimmer of all time is uncharacteristically dry and needs to be licked. Justin Gatlin and Alex Morgan both enjoy a laugh with their puppies.
There’s a lot of love on the people’s faces in all the photos. Though a few of the puppies look a little overwhelmed, they were all adopted into loving homes. Gymnast Aly Raisman fell in love with Gibson, the Maltese-Shih-Tzu puppy who posed with her, and ended up adopting him. He was just one of the over 45,000 pets in need nationwide who was adopted thanks to Clear the Shelters.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Canine Synchronized Swimming Commercial
August 12 2016
The Rio Olympics inspired a Farmer’s Insurance commercial featuring dogs enjoying a flooded home. The five dogs play in the water and perform a synchronized swimming routine.
In a related ad, the same water-filled home serves as the venue for a dog diving competition.
Seeing these commercials provides some compensation for the misery that comes from staying up way too late watching the Olympics every night!
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