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Karen B. London

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog Behavior: Beware of Simple Names for Complex Problems
Dog Training / Dog Behavior

During their first appointment, my clients told me that their dog had “severe territorial aggression,” and that they had been advised to euthanize him. I looked at the wide-eyed and quaking Hound mix hiding under a chair and had a strong suspicion that the label given to this dog was far from accurate.

As it turned out, the dog was actually terrified of strangers. Not only was his problematic behavior based in fear and totally unrelated to any concept of territory, he had never hurt anyone. He whined, barked and showed his teeth to anyone he didn’t know who got too close to him, giving them an awful scare, but even when people tried to pet him (unwise, but it happened!), he didn’t bite.

Over the years, situations like this have made me increasingly disillusioned about the labels that are so often applied to dogs’ behavior problems. I find that labeling often does more harm than good, especially when the label is wrong.

It’s not surprising that we want to label dogs’ behavior issues: it matches the system we use for people. In the realm of human health care, labels are necessary because billing codes are required for insurance coverage of both treatment and medications.

Having a label for a dog’s behavior problem may also make it easier for us to access information and resources. Learning that it is a known syndrome or problem often makes us feel better even before there’s any discussion about what to do to improve the behavior. It’s a natural human tendency—just naming a problem can give us a sense of control over it. But sadly, mislabeling interferes with arriving at an appropriate response to the problem, whatever the problem turns out to be.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to labeling behavior problems is that it provides a verbal shorthand that speeds up communication. There’s an appealing simplicity to using a short phrase or two to identify a dog’s issue rather than going into great detail about each incident, especially when many people are involved. (It’s not unusual for an evaluation team to include a behaviorist, a veterinarian and a trainer, as well as other experts.)

On the other hand, describing the behavior in detail lends an accuracy to the situation that labels sometime obscure.

For example, every year, multiple clients seek my help with separation anxiety because they have been told (erroneously) that their dog suffers from it. The dog may be showing behaviors often associated with separation anxiety —including excessive barking, eliminating indoors or destructive chewing—but the real problem can often be revealed with a thorough description of the dog’s behavior before, during and after the guardian’s departure.

When the real issue is boredom, incomplete house training or a simple (which is not to say easy!) case of adolescence, changing the undesirable behavior by approaching it as a case of separation anxiety is unlikely to be successful. Rather than medication and complex protocols to desensitize the dog to departures and the cues that precede them, the real solution could be to add activities and enrichment opportunities, return to Housetraining 101 or provide a long exercise session before putting the dog in a crate with appropriate, long lasting chewables.

It is also common for people to consult with me because their dog is “protective” of them. Lila brought in Banjo because every time anyone got near Lila, Banjo barked, growled and lunged. Lila was concerned that he would hurt someone, but delighted by his bold confidence. Trouble was, after taking a case history and observing Banjo in a variety of contexts, I could tell that he was not protecting her so much as he was possessing her. He guarded toys, food, sleeping spaces and anything he considered of value, including Lila. He was not her brave protector, but an insecure dog who considered her to be the best bone in the world, and he was not going to let someone else have her. Mislabeling Banjo’s behavior as “protectiveness” rather than of “possessiveness” hindered attempts to change this behavior, and interfered with Lila’s understanding of who Banjo was.

Another negative of labeling behavior problems is that it oversimplifies the situation. If a dog is called a “fear biter” or even labeled with the more professional sounding “fear-based aggression,” it implies a simplicity that is just not there. Even among the many dogs whose fear drives aggressive behavior, differences are enormous. Dealing with a dog who is afraid of red-headed children (and therefore reacts badly when in the presence of one) because he was once traumatized by an attack from such a child requires a very targeted approach to overcoming that fear. Modifying such a specific behavior is different than working with dogs who are afraid of everything; dogs who missed out on socialization early on but are great with familiar people; or even dogs who panic and bite as a reaction to loud noises such as gun shots, fireworks or the crash of pot hitting a tile floor.

A related drawback of labeling behavior problems is that the label implies a solution, again, much like the human medical model, in which a diagnosis necessarily points to a specific treatment. Boxed-in thinking about how to change undesirable behavior can short circuit continued investigation. Using the label “arousal-based aggression” gives the impression that the situation is thoroughly understood and that all that is needed is an appropriate behavior modification program, one that emphasizes predictability and includes exercises to help the dog learn to practice self-control. However, that label may mask the dog’s anxiety and the need for intervention to address it.

Then, there’s the issue of shame; giving a dog’s problem a label makes it seem more serious and alarming to many guardians and may also make them feel unnecessarily ashamed of their dog’s behavior. That’s especially true of any label that includes the word “aggressive,” which carries such a stigma. It’s too bad that a stigma exists, but since it does, it makes sense to be mindful of it when discussing dogs’ behavior with their guardians. People are often devastated to be told that their dog is aggressive, especially if the dog is sweet and loving within the family. It can be even harder for a family whose dog is behaving out of character due to an injury or other physical ailment to accept a label of “aggression.” If the dog is in such pain that the problem behavior is just the dog’s attempt to keep people from touching him because he has learned it will hurt, I would rather say that— even if it is long and a little unwieldy—than call the dog aggressive. Even if it is modified by the term “pain-induced,” the word makes people feel bad, and that’s not helpful.

It’s common for people who are told that their dog is “fear aggressive” to be more daunted and overwhelmed than if they are told that their dog is fearful, and is acting the way he does because he can’t say, “Please, oh please, don’t come any closer—you’re scaring me! And for heaven’s sake, don’t pet me because I can’t handle that except from my closest friends.” If people understand that dogs are barking, growling or biting because they are desperate to increase the distance between themselves and whatever scares them—other dogs, people, trash cans, bicycles—and will only stop if we can help them overcome their fears, there’s less judgment and more hope. Focusing on the behavior itself— what the dog does—and discussing the motivation behind it avoids problems that can arise with simply labeling the behavior.

I recently consulted with a family whose dog was a victim of a labeling error that had hindered their ability to help him. This family’s sweet, three-year-old Newfoundland was urinating inside the home and because their veterinarian could find no medical reason for it, she had referred them to me to handle the “housetraining” problem. One complication with this particular label is that there is no agreement across disciplines about what it means. To many people, house soiling without a medical cause is always related to housetraining, but behaviorists recognize that many issues involving urination indoors can be signs of appeasement behavior or a need to mark territory, among other possibilities.

It was a challenge to get contextual information from the family about the problem because they just kept saying, “He pees everywhere, and it’s such a mess!” and then detailing the clean-up, which was no doubt considerable given that the dog weighed 125 pounds. With persistent inquiry, however, I was finally able to get a fuller picture; it turned out not to be a housetraining problem after all. The dog’s housetraining was solid, but he peed during greetings. As a puppy, he urinated whenever he greeted anyone, but now he only did it when greeting the husband or the occasional male visitor, especially if the visitor reached for the dog.

Recognizing that the inappropriate urination was a specific type of social issue (often called “submissive urination” and somewhat unusual in dogs older than 12 to 18 months of age) rather than one of bladder control— or not knowing or caring where it was appropriate to eliminate— made it easier to address the real issue: the husband’s approach to his sensitive dog. Though he thought he was doing right by his dog by being firm and applying stern, consistent discipline, he was open to a new approach. I was able to help the family by teaching the husband kinder, gentler and more effective ways to interact with his dog and influence the dog’s behavior. As a result, the dog stopped urinating in the house. No program designed to solve a housetraining problem would have achieved this result, which had the added benefit of improving the overall family dynamic as well.

The temptation to put a name on a problem is strong, and many of us are quick to embrace it. However, while labeling seems like an intuitively obvious approach, the downsides are too important and too numerous for me to be on board with it. Labels can get in the way of seeing the dog, focusing our attention on a pathology and turning the dog into an example of a specific behavior problem rather than what he or she actually is: a complex individual and a unique case.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog is Official Greeter at Assisted Living Home
Izzy stayed after her guardian died

Izzy lives at an assisted living senior center in Tennessee, even though her guardian, Jim, died months ago. When Jim came to live at the Brookdale Kingston senior living facility, he was able to bring his dog Izzy with him. Izzy was friendly to everyone, and became close to many of the residents and to the staff.

As Jim’s health got worse, other people stepped in to help take care of her. Staff members took her for daily walks. Other residents and their visitors spent time with Izzy, and she became an even more beloved member of the community. When Jim passed away, there were no relatives who could take care of Izzy, so she stayed at the assisted living center. Residents and employees said they were so glad that they didn’t lose Izzy, too, after Jim passed away.

At first, Izzy continued to spend a lot of time in Jim’s room, but over time, the staff began to move both Jim’s and Izzy’s possessions out of that room. Izzy eventually moved into the office of the facility’s sales and marketing manager. She spends much of her day visiting with residents all over the facility (except the dining room which is off limits to her). If she needs a break from all of the loving attention, she heads to the dog bed under a staff members’ desk to rest or nap.

Izzy’s job is “official greeter” and she is a good worker, making sure to welcome all visitors. She also attends social functions such as parties and socials. Besides playing with her rubber chicken, she loves to go door-to-door to say hello to each resident. She used to get a treat at each stop along the way, but when she started to lose her girlish figure and had some bellyaches, that changed.

If having Izzy live at the facility becomes a problem in the future, there are staff members who are willing to adopt her. For now, the plan is for Izzy to spend the rest of her life at Brookdale Kingston. She is happy there and makes others happy, too.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Why DO dogs react to cats
Scientific study into the cues causing dogs’ reactions

“Fighting like cats and dogs” is an expression that succinctly describes the worst case scenario of dog and cat interactions. Not all dogs and cats have to get along with each other to live full and happy lives, but it sure is important to know which dogs can live with cats and which ones can’t. That’s especially critical for shelters seeking to find homes for dogs, because nobody wants to adopt a dog who will terrorize their cat. Though there are many ways that shelter staff can evaluate a dog’s response to other dogs and to people, there is far less information, and no validated assessment tool, for evaluating how a dog will react to cats. In most cases, we don’t even know what it is about a cat that sets dogs off, other than the useless knowledge that the dog is reacting because the cat is a cat.

A recent study seeks to change that by adding to what we know about which triggers from cats set dogs off. “Dogs’ responses to visual, auditory, and olfactory cat-related cues” concludes that the sound of a cat and how a dog reacts to it may be of critical importance when evaluating dogs. In the study, dogs reacted more to the auditory stimuli of cats than to visual stimuli of cats, but the stimuli they used were not directly comparable.

The visual stimulus was an animatronic children’s toy, the auditory stimulus was a recording of cat vocalizations, and the olfactory stimulus was cat urine. Because only the auditory stimulus was the actual stimulus that a dog would perceive in the presence of a cat, it is hard to accept the conclusions of the study. The actual odor of a cat and the sight of a live cat are different than the stimuli presented in the study.

The researchers found that dogs who had previously hurt a cat were more attentive to the auditory stimuli than other dogs were, though there was no difference in the behavior of dogs in either group towards the visual cat stimulus. The olfactory stimulus was associated with dogs spending more time sniffing than when no olfactory cue was present.

Responses to cat sounds could be a useful predictor of whether or not a dog will get along with cats, but more research is necessary. (It would be of particular importance in future studies to consider the stimuli presented during assessments.) The results of this study could also be explained by concluding that dogs attend more to realistic cat stimuli and that dogs who have previously hurt a cat are especially attentive to realistic cat cues, which in this study only applied to the auditory cue.

News: Guest Posts
Shock Collar Found on Dog After Day Care
Guardian objects to its unauthorized use

The last time Luke picked his dog Mya up from day care in Chicago, he found a collar he did not recognize underneath her regular collar. It was a black collar with a box on it, and the number “6” written on it in pen. He photographed the collar and did a little research, discovering that the collar is marketed to control barking with increasing intensities of tones and of shock.

Luke had been taking his dog Mya to this day care a couple of times a week for six months. He hoped the social time with other dogs and people would help her deal with her anxiety. Sadly, the experience may have done her far more harm than good. She vocalizes when she is distressed, and the day care’s response to that distress was to punish her with a shock collar. Luke was upset to realize that if this collar is the “number 6” collar, there are probably at least five more of them. (Another guardian responded to a post on a neighborhood Facebook page about what happened to Mya by posting a picture he had taken of the “number 7” collar his dog had on one day at pick up time.)

The response by the day care did nothing to alleviate Luke’s concerns about what was happening to his dog while at day care. He found it disturbing that when he walked into the day care and held it up, the initial response of the employee was to say, “Uh oh.” Employees, along with the day care’s ownership, have variously claimed that the collar is only designed to vibrate in response to a dog barking, that they don’t use the collar at all and that there was a mix-up during which Mya was accidentally given a collar belonging to another dog. When Luke asked why his dog was wearing the collar, he was originally told that it was obviously because his dog was barking too much. He never authorized, nor would he ever authorize, the use of such a collar. He is currently looking for a new place for his dog to spend time.

Mya and Luke’s story is another cautionary tale about the importance knowing what goes on when your dog is in someone else’s care, which is especially challenging if a business is not forthcoming about their methods.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Howling in Zootopia
It’s extremely contagious behavior

Dogs frequently join in when they hear other dogs howl, and even in response to wolves doing it. In this clip from the movie Zootopia, the filmmakers nailed the contagious nature of this canine behavior for comic effect.

 

In the next video, a dog in front of a television that is playing this movie clip begins to vocalize in response to the realistic howling. The additional howling by the German Shepherd enhances the movie soundtrack considerably. Please note another amusing feature in the video. I refer to the large number of toys on the chair and the massive collection of bones and chews that are piled in the corner. I’m sure this décor is familiar to many of us!

All around the world, dogs are howling, and we know that this behavior is contagious. Please let me know if your dog responds to the howling in Zootopia!

News: Guest Posts
Neighbor Harassed Dog With His Drone
It turned out to be a costly mistake

You don’t need to be a vengeful person to feel great satisfaction about the consequences faced by an Illinois man who used his drone to tease his neighbor’s dog repeatedly. The man flew the drone past the shared eight-foot privacy fence and then close enough to nearly hit the dog. The dog became stressed out by it, especially after many experiences with the man making it dive low to a position just over the dog’s head, pulling out of the dive and then circling around and performing the same maneuver multiple times.

The dog’s guardian said that for many months after getting the drone, this neighbor “insisted on flying like the biggest jerk possible” and the description is apt. In addition to going after the dog over and over, he would position his drone right in front of other people’s houses, including at their windows, and also race cars down the road.

Though the dog’s guardian asked him not to fly it into his yard, explaining that it was scaring the dog, the neighbor’s only response was to tell him to go away and to laugh at him. Though the guardian contacted the police, they were unable or unwilling to do more than ask the man not to fly over his neighbor’s house and yard. The situation might never have been resolved if the dog hadn’t taken matters into his own mouth.

One day, when the drone was buzzing over his head, the dog (a 70-pound Malamute) caught the drone and destroyed it. It may be a powerful machine, but a dog’s jaws can easily tear a drone into pieces, especially with the proper motivational factors of fear, annoyance and frustration. Naturally, the owner of the drone was upset, even though most of us would say he had it coming.

The drone owner reacted in two ways. First, he came over to the house where his drone had died its untimely death, swearing up a storm and threatening the dog’s guardian. Second, he served the dog’s guardian with a summons to appear in small claims court. His demands were $900 to replace the drone and $300 for not being allowed access to what was left of his drone for several hours.

Suing the dog’s guardian did not go as planned for the owner of the drone. The judge did not accept claims that the dog’s guardian had purposely trained his dog to destroy the drone. Furthermore, the dog’s guardian had sought legal advice and countersued the drone owner for the costs of veterinary care for his dog ($700 for an x-ray to determine if the dog had swallowed any hazardous part of the drone, $250 to sedate the dog for that procedure, $400 for a full dental exam plus cleaning and repair, miscellaneous costs for anti-anxiety medication and wet dog food in case he had hurt his teeth and couldn’t eat his regular kibble). The guardian brought in receipts along with videos documenting the months of torture his dog endured being pursued by a drone in his own yard.

Not only did the drone owner have to pay nearly $2000 to the dog guardian, he is being investigated by the FAA for a variety of infractions. These include not registering his drone, flying a drone within five miles of an airport, flying it too close to other people, flying it out of his own line of sight and flying it far above the maximum allowable altitude. He is banned from flying a drone over the property where the dog and his guardian live.

It’s a joy to find out that the person who treated a dog (and various people) so badly not only did not get away with it, but got what he deserved.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Why Losing a Dog is So Hard
Daily changes and a lack of rituals intensify the struggle

Losing a dog is often every bit as intense as losing a family member or close friend, but I’m confident I don’t have to convince anyone reading this of that fact. Instead, I’d like to discuss two of the reasons why that is so.

One issue is that our dogs affect our daily life in ways that few of our friends or family members do. We live with our dogs, and that impacts so many little details of our days—when we wake up, our exercise patterns, our rush home after work, what we buy, and who we have over—to name a few. As much as we love our dearest friends and family members, only a small percentage of them are integral parts of our daily lives. That particular form of closeness explains why many recent widows find the grocery store such a source of misery. It’s hard to go on such a common errand and NOT buy the items that have filled the cart for years or even half a century. After the death of a dog, when the morning routine varies and there are no more walks after work with our best friend, so many simple moments carry a similar reminder of loss.

A second issue is the lack of social customs to help us mourn publicly and to ease us into the next phase of life. There are typically no funerals, no religious ceremonies, no obituaries and no organized assistance from the community to acknowledge the solemnity of the event. Our sacred rituals lag behind the new understanding of the place that dogs have in our lives and in our hearts. The lack of these predictable, shared cultural responses can make it harder to move on.

To be fair, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than suffering through the death of a child or of an identical twin, but for many people, the grief of losing a dog has the potential to be as bad as for any other loss. As that becomes more widely accepted in society, it is easier for people to cope with the loss of a dog. The acceptance that our bonds with dogs are intensely strong lessens the shame and embarrassment many associate with grieving for a dog. In an environment in which nobody would even think of uttering that horrid phrase “just a dog”, it would be easier to go through the natural grieving process and move forward.

Loving our dogs as much as we love our friends and family does not diminish the love we have for members of our own species. It just illustrates that the realm of humanity is too small to contain the greatness of our love for others.

Have you grieved for dogs like you have grieved for people?

News: Guest Posts
Peeing on the Leash or on Other Dogs
Is your dog guilty of either offense?

Taking many male dogs out for a walk can be like taking your own little watering can out for a spin—a splash on the light post, a few drops for the fire hydrant, a dribble over an old pile of poop, a good soaking of the neighbor’s prize roses. Males aim their urine for marking purposes, so there’s no doubt that they are able to direct the stream quite accurately.

They are able to put their precious urine where they want it to go, but I’ve yet to see a dog who purposely avoided spraying something in the great outdoors. For the most part, that matters very little to us humans. One patch of grass or tree is pretty much like the next from our perspective. Yet there are times when I wish that dogs would try to avoid dousing various things that get in the way, especially their own leash and any other dogs who are out on the walk with them. I’ve never seen a dog make any effort to make sure that these objects stay dry as they share their liquid calling cards with the neighborhood.

Leashes get wet pretty regularly on walks. Few people have avoided this little drawback of dog guardianship. It happens especially often with dogs who turn around multiple times before lifting a leg. Many dogs do this, circling two, three, four or more times in essentially the same spot before peeing. This behavior serves to tangle them up in the leash or at least to step over it, leaving the leash in the perfect spot to get caught in a urine stream. It’s irksome for anyone holding the leash or who owns the house where the leash is to be hung up later, isn’t it?

Also at risk of being hit by pee is any other dog in the vicinity, especially if both are on leash, guaranteeing that they are in close proximity to one another. Since dogs out on walks together so often sniff the ground together and make little effort to get away from one another, I suppose it’s inevitable that someone gets peed on. As one is still stiffing an amazing smell, the other one decides to mark that exact spot, paying no attention to the fact that his buddy’s head is in the way. Sigh.

Some dogs clearly object to being peed on. My buddies Saylor and Marley illustrate this. Marley is a bigtime marker, and Saylor loves to follow him to sniff whatever he is sniffing. As a result, on occasion, he has inadvertently marked her head, neck or back. However, he has not done it lately, as far as I know, because Saylor now leaps out of the way. She takes advantage of her quickness and agility to avoid Marley’s pee, often jumping swiftly in whatever direction is required. It seems obvious to me that Saylor recognizes the behavioral signs of an impending pee and wants nothing to do with it. As soon as he starts to lift his leg, she is out of there.

I’m mostly accusing males of peeing on dogs and on leashes, but females can do it, too. It may be less likely for dogs who squat to pee (typical for adult females) than for dogs who lift their leg to do so (usually males), but it is by no means just a male issue.

Has your dog peed on his own leash or on one of your other dogs?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pink and Blue Accessories
Another way we treat our dogs like our children

We all know that it has become common for people to consider their dogs to be like their children. They are often referred to as “fur babies” or “four-legged kids”. Among the many signs of that are the colors of dogs’ accessories. Leashes, collars and tags are far more likely to be pink for females and blue for males than ever before. Long gone are the days where most dogs wore a basic brown collar with a matching leash, or the era after that when primary colors were common for dogs of both sexes.

There have been many color changes for human babies’ clothes and accessories. The current pink-for-girls, blue-for-boys code is less than 100 years old.) It’s no surprise that the colors we choose for our dogs has a fluidity to it as well.

Now, many guardians pamper their pooches with a variety of accessories in their gender-specific color. I was recently taking care of my good buddies Marley (male) and Saylor (female) and noticed that they have leashes and tags in their gender-indicating color. (They both wear navy blue Penn State colors because their guardian is a proud alumna of that university. The color says nothing about trends in gender-specific accessories for dogs, and everything about the great pride of the Nittany Lions.)

The color that a dog wears may seem like a small thing, but it represents a shift in the way people view dogs. Choosing pink for female dogs and blue for male dogs is another way that we acknowledge the role that dogs play in our lives, and it goes beyond leashes, tags and collars. The interest in blue and pink accessories extends to bowls, blankets, dog beds, toys, clothing, and everything else we buy for our dogs.

Are your dog’s accessories blue or pink because of gender?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Fooling People But Not Dogs
A study of the Delboeuf illusion

Visual illusions reveal the inner working of the eyes and of the brain, and when used in comparative studies, they can teach us a lot about the differences and similarities in vision and neurological processing between species. A common research approach involves using illusions that affect perception of size and investigating whether the illusions affect choice. Allowing research subjects to choose between various options can elucidate the illusions’ effects on members of various species.

One such illusion is the Delboeuf illusion, which causes identically sized objects to appear different in size depending on what surrounds them. In the image below with dark circles of identical size, humans (and other primates) tend to overestimate the size of the circle on the left, which is surrounded by a ring that is smaller than the ring around the circle on the right.

In practice, this is the reason that people seeking to eat smaller portions of food are advised to use a smaller plate. That makes it appear as though there is more food on that plate than when the same portion is served on a larger plate. Can dogs who are watching their figures make use of this same tactic? In other words, are dogs also susceptible to the Delboeuf illusion? The answer is no, according to a study in Animal Cognition called “Do domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) perceive the Delboeuf illusion?”

In the study, one set of trials tested whether dogs could correctly choose larger portions of food over smaller ones. Dogs were given a choice between two piles of biscuits on plates—one pile of biscuits weighed 18 grams and the other weighed 32 grams. Once dogs chose to go for one plate, the other one was picked up and no longer available. Sometimes both portions of food were on small plates, and sometimes both were on big plates. Each dog was offered this choice multiple times. Pooling the date into one big analysis, dogs consistently chose the bigger pile of biscuits.

In another series of trials, dogs were offered a choice between equal portions of food that were presented on different size plates. The dogs had to choose between 32 grams of food on a large plate and 32 grams of food on a small plate. If dogs are susceptible to the Delboeuf illusion, the expectation is that they would choose the smaller plate even though the quantity of food was identical on both plates. Instead, dogs’ choices were no different than if they picked a plate at random with no reference to its size. They were not significantly more likely to choose the large plate or the small plate, providing evidence that the Delboeuf illusion does not affect dogs the way that it affects humans. Dogs are not fooled by the size of the plate.

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