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
Watch and learn
October 17 2012
I recently saw this video of a training session focusing on transferring a cue and I was awed by it. It’s easy to read about training in a textbook, but it’s actually rare to see textbook training. This video shows trainer Laura Monaco Torelli training her Rhodesian Ridgeback Santino. She is transferring his visual cue, which tells him to spin in a circle to the right, to the verbal cue “twist.” I thought the training was so beautiful that I want to share it. I must admit in all honesty that Laura is a friend of mine, but it is her training skills and not our friendship that has prompted me to write this post.
The video is not edited, which I like. When videos are edited, often for good reason, it’s hard to know if you are getting the full story of the training session. Watch this video to see excellent training, and see below for more on what I like so much about it.
Laura sets up some good training basics and sticks to them. She is very clear about her goals of transferring the cue and of ending on a good note. She works without a leash, which is always best for training (if it’s safe) since the leash won’t get in the way and because the dog has the freedom to choose where to be. She works in short sessions of one minute. Training takes a lot of mental energy for both dogs and trainers, so short sessions are best. In the breaks between sessions, she gives Santino lots of happy attention and makes it fun for him. She mixes other cues into her training session, which makes it more interesting for her dog and also assures that he is really responding to each cue rather than always doing the same behavior. She uses a high rate of reinforcement for Santino, which is so important when learning something new.
Laura uses a clear visual signal without extraneous movement. This is typical of people who train marine mammals, which is where Laura got her start with training.
Laura begins with high rates of reinforcement for Santino’s attention and his choice to wait for a cue rather than simply offering behavior and hoping that he hits on the right one. It is so critical in training for an animal to be attending to the trainer and to cues rather than just performing random behaviors, but this has to be taught and reinforced just as other actions do. I love that she reinforces him a lot for attending to her, which is the basis of all training.
She links the verbal cue with the visual cue clearly, saying the new cue “twist” before giving the visual cue of her hand motion. They must be paired in this order and linked tightly in time for the transfer to be successful.
Laura’s timing is impeccable. She clicks as Santino starts the behavior she’s looking for, whether it’s for a right spin or any of the other behaviors she cues him for during the session.
Her delivery of the treats is clean, and by that I mean that it is clearly separated in time from the clicks she gives him. It’s important not to pollute the marker (also called a bridge or a secondary reinforcer) with the food by having them overlap in time.
Great training requires great choices, and Laura makes a lot of them. Her decisions about what to reinforce are spot on. It’s easy to see that in the video, but it’s hard to make those choices in real time, many per minute, in a situation where microseconds matter. She also chooses wisely to start by warming Santino up with the original visual cue in the first one-minute session.
Early on in the second session, Laura gets to the cue to spin rather than reinforcing him a lot of times for attention. I like that progression from the previous minute because he is already deeply into training mode.
The steps she takes to fade out the hand signal are methodical and gradual. She moves from following the verbal cue “twist” with a full hand signal to a smaller and smaller one until her last cue is faded to the point of just being a slight movement with her shoulder that doesn’t even involve her hand at all.
She wisely ends at this point when the dog has either responded to the verbal cue or to just that tiniest hint of the original visual cue. Ending on a good note is a goal of all training sessions, but recognizing that moment is an art.
Laura is always thoughtful of her dog, aware of distractions such as his thirst, activity behind her that he can see through the window, and “treat dust” on the ground.
Notable in this video is that Laura obviously enjoys the training and likes being with her dog. I love that she lights up around him, and adores him. She refers to him as “handsome” multiple times. (I prefer to describe him as a “bronzed god”, but her term works, too.)
Seeing training done well, as in this video, is instructive for anyone seeking to improve training skills. Are you like me? By that I mean, does it make you want to have a training session with your dog RIGHT NOW?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Controversy is guaranteed
October 12 2012
When Michael Vick mentioned over the summer in an interview with Piers Morgan that he would like to have another dog someday, many people reacted with concern and even revulsion. (Vick served 18 months in federal prison on dog fighting charges. He was banned from having a dog during the three years of his probation that followed his release from prison, but that ban expired in July 2012.) Vick told Morgan that he would want another dog for the sake of his children, saying, “I can’t take that dream away from them. That’s selfish on my behalf . . . Got to find a way to make it right.”
Last week, Vick tweeted a picture with the caption “we workin’” of his daughter studying while he reviewed film of a recent game. On the table was a box of dog biscuits, which prompted speculation that he had a dog. Though he retweeted with a different photo and initially refused to talk about it, he has since released a statement through his publicist confirming that his family does, in fact, have a dog. The type, age, and sex of the dog were not revealed.
The statement says, “Our pet is well cared for and loved as a member of our family.” It also states that he will continue to work towards animal welfare and helping promote positive change. He acknowledged that he understands that his decision to have a dog will elicit strong emotions in many people. He has often noted that he knows many people will never forgive him for what he did during the time that he bankrolled and was actively involved in dog fighting. Like a typical statement by celebrity publicists, it comes off as attempt at damage control with the obvious effort to say all the right things.
As in any controversy, there’s more than one side. The perspective supportive of this development is that Vick is legally allowed to be a dog guardian after having paid his debt to society, he is certain to be heavily scrutinized with regard to his dog, and the kids are not paying for the sins of their father with regards to being dogless. The other perspective, the one not supportive of Vick being a dog guardian, is that it’s hard to know if he has changed and will do right by this dog, there is the risk that the dog will be mistreated, and that he seems to have kept it a secret, only slipping up with a photo that showed the biscuits. (Of course, it’s easy to see why he wasn’t eager to ignite more controversy, which could easily explain why he hadn’t gone public before.
I feel uneasy about Vick being a dog guardian, though I desperately hope that it will be a positive experience for the dog as well as his children. How do you feel about it?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
We talk about dominance, but do we really understand it?
October 9 2012
If a dog has behavior issues such as a tendency to mount other dogs, any form of aggression, an overly pushy play style or poor response to training, some people are sure to claim that “dominance” is the culprit. But are they right?
The ongoing dialogue about dominance in the dog world is more problematic than an unattended puppy in a shoe store but it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. While some hate the concept so much that they refer to it as the “D-word,” others swear by it, considering it an indispensable guiding principle for all interactions with dogs. Having a civil discussion on the subject, much less reaching a consensus, is a challenge, as debates often become quite heated.
Scientific inquiry offers an opportunity for greater understanding of this topic, though writings on the subject with titles such as “Social dominance: Useful construct or quagmire?,” “Social dominance is not a myth: Wolves, dogs, and other animals” and “Deconstructing the concept of dominance: Should we revive the concept of dominance in dogs?” reflect continued controversy. While dominance, or social dominance as it is often called, has been studied extensively in a number of species, relatively little work has been done in this area on the domestic dog, and more research is badly needed.
Adding to the frustration and confusion, when it comes to domestic dogs the term is commonly applied to two different types of relationships. The first relates to interactions between dogs. In this usage, dominance is defined as the power to control access to desirable resources and refers to the relative status of two dogs. In the absence of another dog, an individual dog cannot be said to be “dominant” as a personality attribute because dominance refers to the relationship between dogs.
The second, and more controversial, type of dominance relationship relates to interactions between humans and dogs. In this paradigm, humans dominating dogs is considered the path to well-trained dogs. Those who follow this school of thought claim that you have to control your dogs by being dominant over them in order to make them behave and may make suggestions such as not allowing your dog to sleep on your bed or walk through the door ahead of you, or even to spitting in your dog’s food and making a resting dog move rather than walking around him. Today, fewer trainers subscribe to these ideas than in the past.
Dominance Between Dogs
Becky Trisko, PhD, ethologist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., focused her 2011 doctoral dissertation on social interactions within a group of 24 dogs who regularly engaged with one another at daycare. The behaviors she analyzed included aggressive threat and conflict, muzzle lick, crouch, passive submission, retreat, high posture, muzzle bite, mount and chin-over.
Trisko found a dominance hierarchy among the dogs, although only about 30 percent of the pairs had clear dominance relationships. Dominance rank correlated with age (older dogs tended to rank more highly) but not with size. And contrary to popular belief, neither mounting nor performing chinovers were related to status. As a point of interest, not once in 224 hours of observation during this yearlong study did she observe an “alpha roll.”
Muzzle licking was consistently done by subordinate dogs to individuals of higher rank and was highly predictive of relationships between individuals. The clearest signals were those associated with voluntary submission, or deference. Trisko observed that dominance relationships were not about coercion, force or fighting, but rather, about an understanding by both individuals of their relative social status.
In another study exploring dominance relationships between dogs, Simona Cafazzo and three colleagues observed a group of feral dogs in the suburbs of Rome. Their primary finding was that the dogs formed a linear dominance hierarchy, meaning that the individuals in the group could be ranked in order from highest to lowest in status. (Other possible social structures include having one individual who dominates all others who are equally low-ranking or societies in which the relationships are not transitive— e.g. A dominates B, B dominates C, C dominates A). A linear dominance hierarchy indicates that the dogs in this study were capable of forming stable social groups, although many have claimed that feral dogs cannot do so. Additionally, they found that submissive behavior was most predictive of dominance relationships, rank correlated with age, and males within an age class outranked females. Rank order in the linear dominance hierarchy predicted access to food resources, with those of higher rank having priority access.
Dominance has been studied in puppies as well as in adult dogs. John Bradshaw and Helen Nott reported that interactions between littermates were inconsistent over time, and that observations of such interactions did not predict which puppy would come out on top in any competitive situation; “winners” varied from one day to the next. Despite much discussion of choosing (or avoiding) the dominant puppy in a litter, interactions between littermates do not reveal dominance relationships, much less any kind of linear hierarchy.
The Dangers of Misunderstanding Dominance
While no studies have thoroughly investigated whether dominance relationships exist between people and dogs, there is evidence that such training styles can create problems. Herron et al. investigated such techniques, often called “dominance reduction training,” and found them to be counterproductive. The confrontational methods associated with training styles that insist that we “get dominance over our dogs” caused aggressive responses in 25 percent of the dogs in their study. Techniques such as grabbing a dog by the jowls and shaking; hitting or kicking; staring; performing alpha rolls (also called “dominance downs”) and physically forcing a dog to release an item were more likely to result in aggressive behavior than were gentler, positive methods. Using such forceful methods can actually create problem behavior as well as increase a dog’s fear and anxiety. Based on what we know about dominance relationships between dogs, this is not surprising. As Trisko notes, “If dominance relationships between dogs and humans are at all similar to dominance relationships between dogs, then dominance does not apply to all relationships and when it does apply, it does not require the use of intimidation or physical force.”
A basic ethological premise is that we must understand the animals we study. In fact, this principle is considered so absolute that it is most often phrased as a commandment: Know thy animal! Understanding how social dominance does and does not apply to dogs is part of knowing who dogs are. Trisko makes this point: “If we really want to understand our dogs’ behavior, especially their relationships with other dogs, ignoring dominance will hinder us.” Bekoff agrees. “That’s who they are, that’s how they behave. They form status relationships, and we have to understand that.”
When it comes to the issue of dominance, common ground is not easy to find. Few would dispute the need for further research, though even the most carefully designed studies may not be enough to bring agreement on this particular subject. As Bekoff has noted, “People get on this kick with dominance. They don’t pay attention to the data.”
Arguments about dominance and its relevance to dogs, their relationships with each other, and our relationships with them are sure to continue. Though I prefer resolution to conflict, I can’t help but see the wisdom in moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert’s remark: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it."
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do you value your dog’s insights?
October 9 2012
Years ago, my dog unexpectedly stiffened when I stopped on the street to talk to my neighbor for the first time. Though this man approached my dog gently and appropriately, my dog backed way and refused to interact at all. It was embarrassing because the man seemed friendly enough, and my dog was usually comfortable meeting people in that context. I had just moved to a small town and was eager to meet other people. My dog’s behavior was off-putting and felt like a bit of a setback socially. My new neighbor was nice enough about it, but he did seem a little offended.
Later, when I mentioned this to the family who owned the house I was renting, they were horrified, but not with my dog. They were appalled that I had spoken to the man my dog had rejected, telling me that he everyone in town knows he is mean. They warned me to be careful, telling me about his history of violence, specifically towards his ex-wife and children, and also towards other people in town. They advised me to have no contact with him at all. I later learned, as one does in a small town, more about the injuries he had caused classmates years ago in school, about the restraining order his family had against him, and various other unsavory details about him.
“If your dog doesn't like someone you probably shouldn't either” is a popular expression, reflecting the general view that our dogs are good judges of character. My dog seems to have had the proper reaction to my neighbor immediately, though I did not. Has your dog ever reacted people who didn’t alarm you, though perhaps they should have?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Trivia game fuels donations
October 4 2012
On the site freekibble.com, there’s a daily multiple-choice trivia question, and if you answer it, 10 pieces of kibble will be donated to an animal shelter. It doesn’t matter whether you are right or wrong. As long as you click on an answer each day, food will be donated.
Questions are highly variable. Some concern public figures. Recently there were questions concerning Richard Nixon and his dog Checkers as well as The Duchess of Cornwall and her new dog Bluebell. Other questions relate to breeds with questions being as variable as the breed that was developed by the Russian army to handle very cold temperatures (Russian Black Terriers) and which type of mix is most common in this country (German Shepherd). There are also questions about college mascots, the origin of expressions such as “Beware of Dog” which has its roots in ancient Rome, and random questions including the fact that a Pit Bull named Wallace who was rescued from a shelter became a World Champion Disc dog.
It’s fun to check out the daily question, and doubly so because doing so helps feed dogs in shelters. As the founder of the site, Mimi Ausland says, “Every dog and cat deserves a decent dinner.” (There is also a related site called freekibblekat.com.) Ausland was 11 years old in 2008, which is when she launched the site, which has provided 8 million meals to homeless animals.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Legal issues involve drug-sniffing dogs
October 2 2012
Later this month, the United States Supreme Court will hear two cases that involve working dogs. Both cases concern drug-sniffing dogs.
The issue in Joelis Jardines versus Florida concerns whether police violated the defendant’s fourth amendment rights, which protect him from illegal search and seizure, by having a dog sniff his door without a warrant. In other words, does the sniffing by a trained dog constitute a search? If that’s the case, the police must have probable cause prior to directing a dog to sniff even the outside of a residence. Jardines was convicted of marijuana trafficking based on evidence found in the search of his house, which was conducted with a warrant that was obtained because of the dog’s alert.
In Florida versus Harris, the court will decide whether a dog alerting to narcotics constitutes the necessary probable cause required to allow police officers to conduct a search without a warrant. The defense has claimed that the fact that a dog has been trained to detect drugs does not provide sufficient proof that the dog is any good at doing so. They claim that the prosecution bears the burden of proof that the dog’s skills in this regard are reliable. In this case, Harris was charged with possession of materials with the intent to make methamphetamine. The materials used to manufacture this drug were found in Harris’ car after a police dog alerted to drugs on his car door during a traffic stop.
The decisions in both of these cases could have considerable impact on the use of dogs in law enforcement.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Handling sudden needs
September 27 2012
Most of us have regular routines regarding who cares for our dogs when we are out of town, whether it’s a kennel, neighbors, friends, or relatives who step in to keep our pups happy and safe. Most of us have also been caught in a bind when plans fell through and we needed to make back-up plans, usually in an awful hurry. For example, I received this e-mail from a friend of mine whose dog care plans had fallen through the day before he was headed out of town. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation then you will be able to hear the desperation behind this simple request between friends.
>“How much do you love us? No, really? How much? ;-) We're out a dog sitter this weekend. Our neighbor can commit to watching Brick, our good girl, but is elderly and she can't commit to watching Pearl. Is there ANY chance you could watch little Pearlie girl? Clearly, she's all puppy, but she has a good heart and I still have some shekels in my pocket. Could we bring her out to your place tomorrow afternoon through Sunday? Let me know. . . And, if you say no, that's ok. I know you love us.”
I have previously written about this family’s adorable dog Pearl, describing how she ran into a neighbor’s house and unrolled most of a roll of toilet paper and ran about the neighborhood being chased and having a grand old time. She is a love of a dog, but a bit mischievous.
Normally, we would have said yes to hosting Pearl for a few days, but in this case, we had to say no to the opportunity. We were in the middle of having the floors redone in two rooms of our house—a situation that was incompatible with dog sitting any dog, and especially such a young and energetic one. Luckily, Pearl’s family did find a responsible friend to take care of her, but it was stressful for them until they figured out a back-up plan.
Do you have a back up for when your usual dog watching system doesn’t work for whatever reason?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
New product reacts to your mood
September 25 2012
Tail envy may not be the talk of many psychiatric conversations, but there’s a new product to deal with it, anyway. The company Neurowear has created a tail that responds to a person’s emotional state. This clip on tail is called “Shippo” and moves as your mood dictates. If you are happy or excited, it will wag, but if you are calm and contemplative, the tail simply hangs down.
Shippo uses the same technology that medical equipment utilizes in the measurement of brain activity, including the patterns that indicate seizures. With a sensor on the forehead to measure electricity, a clip on the ear to detect the pulse, a motor in the tail itself, and communication between the sensors and the tail via Bluetooth, it’s a pretty complex toy.
They may not make important medical devices that save lives, but Neurowear’s creative use of technology can do a lot for our quality of life. Who among the dog-loving population has not wished to have a tail, at least every once in a while? If I had the choice, I would love to have a Great Dane’s type of tail. I have such fond memories of childhood when the otherwise gentle Danes I loved would clear a coffee table of everything with one casual wag. It always made me laugh.
What kind of tail would you choose?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is your dog hard to tire out?
September 21 2012
I picked my kids up from the climbing gym a few weeks ago after they had spent an hour and a half there. It’s great exercise—physically demanding both aerobically and from a strength perspective—and many parents claim that their kids sleep really well afterwards. Not mine. They just don’t seem to tire out easily at all, and the fitter they become, the harder it is to wear them out. The instructor actually said to me on this occasion, “They’re pretty energetic still. I don’t know what to tell you. We tried to tire them out, but they could probably climb for several more hours.” To be clear, they were not misbehaving, but neither were they worn out.
Many dogs are like my kids in that they are not easily exhausted. In fact, for many dogs, the exercise that we typically give them—a long leash walk—doesn’t tire them out at all. It invigorates them. It’s discouraging to consider that when we take our dogs out for a walk, we may not be tiring some of them out, but rather, pepping them up. That’s certainly what a brisk walk does for me. A run, especially a hard run or a really long one does exhaust me, but a walk does not. My kids are even harder to tire out. Like many dogs, the only way to truly tire them out is to spend a lot of time in the ocean or a lake. The sun and swimming can accomplish what more typical forms of exercise can’t.
It’s a great feeling to be tired, worn out, and ready for a relaxing evening followed by a good night’s sleep. It’s a great kindness to provide our dogs with that same experience. However, it’s not as easy with some individuals as with others. Some dogs are suitably tired out by long leash walks, but others require hours of off-leash running at high speeds or long play sessions romping with other dogs to have their exercise needs satisfied.
Do you have a dog who seems to perk up from 30 to 60 minutes of exercise and really needs a lot more activity? What does it take for your dog to be happily tired?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
From the Philippines to California for surgery
September 17 2012
A dog in need of surgery is about to travel from her home in the Philippines to the United States for the medical care that’s not available where she is. Kabang has had a life filled with more adventures than most dogs. Her name means “spotty” in her family’s native language, and though that probably refers to her appearance, it certainly applies to her luck as well.
She was found as an abandoned puppy two years ago by Rudy Bunggal. Since his family struggles to acquire enough food, there was a very real possibility that she would find her way to their dinner table. Instead, though the Bunggals continue to face food shortages, Kabang remains a cherished pet who is closely bonded to Rudy’s daughter Dina and his niece Princess, and protective of them as well.
Her protective tendencies made this dog a national hero when she charged in front of a motorcycle that nearly hit Dina and Princess. The girls and the motorcyclist were merely bruised in the incident, but Kabang was not so lucky. Her face was caught in the spokes of the motorcycle, causing her to sustain terrible injuries. The accident, which saved the lives of two members of her family, resulted in the loss of a large part of her face.
After the accident, Kabang disappeared and she was feared dead until she showed up weeks later at home. It was at this time that her story made national and international headlines. Local veterinarians offered to euthanize her, but the Bunggals refused to allow it. Although she is not believed to be in pain currently, her injuries leave her susceptible to infection, and surgery is necessary to keep her healthy.
Surgery is expensive, though, especially when the care she needs is not available locally. Having heard about Kabang, a woman in New York set up the site careforkabang.com in order to raise money, and also convinced Philippine Airlines to donate the ticket to fly the dog and his guardian to the United States. The goal to raise $20,000 was recently reached, and Kabang will soon be headed to UC Davis for surgery. The reconstruction is an attempt to regain enough function in Kabang’s face that she can continue to be a happy, healthy family pet. She will still look very different than she did before the accident, no matter how successful the surgery is.
The world joined in to help this dog. To Kabang and her family, the help of many strangers will make a world of difference.
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