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
Dogs help tidy up
February 26 2013
Between the muddy paws, the dog hair, the gooey toys and the drool, it’s easy to argue that dogs create a certain challenge to cleanliness. I know of only a few dog guardians whose homes are in the kind of shape that makes them look like magazine spreads on decorating. At some point, most of us just throw up our hands and decide that this is how we live. Except for special occasions, we are okay with that, and proceed peacefully with our lives.
Yet to blame our dogs for the messes in our homes is to miss part of what’s actually going on. Many dogs do a lot of cleaning up for us, but we don’t tend to notice that until we are away from them for a while. A friend recently told me that he dropped a piece of chicken on the ground at his parent’s house and his mom was appalled when he made no move to pick it up.
He apologized and took care of it, but did explain that at home, if he’s making chicken salad and a bit hits the ground, one of his dogs will eat it up. Problem solved. The same goes for most foods—steak, cheese, green beans—as well as crushed ice, which regularly drops from their broken ice dispenser. It doesn’t melt and make a puddle on the floor because his dogs are way too quick to let that happen. If something falls to the floor that the dogs can’t have such as the entire steak they plan to eat that night or something bad for them like chocolate or onions, a calm “leave it” tells the dogs that even though it’s on the floor, it is not fair game.
What does your dog clean up off the floor, saving you the trouble?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Don’t wait until it’s too late
February 22 2013
It makes me tremendously happy to look at photos of dogs from my past. As I get older, I make more of an effort to capture expressions, behavior and moments that I know I’ll want to see even after the dog is gone. It’s easy to assume that I could never forget certain images that seem seared into my brain, but experience has taught me that to rely completely on my memory is a gamble.
I have many photos of my dog Bugsy and I cherish each one. I love the photos of him playing with his best buddies, holding a toy, cocking his head at me in the way that he did so often, lying down next to my young son as a baby, running with both my husband and with me, waiting at the door, looking longingly out the front window, tugging with me, heeling with my husband, and jumping straight up in the air with all four paws several feet off the ground.
The one picture I really wish that I had of him is with his lip stuck and curled up on the side of his teeth—not in an aggressive way, but just in a disorganization-of-the-face kind of way. Many dogs have their lip assume that undignified position from time to time, but it happened to Bugsy so often that I think of him every time I see a dog whose lip is stuck to his teeth in a random spot. It’s not the most attractive expression, but I find it especially endearing because of Bugsy. The closest I have is a photo of Bugsy chewing on a greenie in which his upper lip is puffed out. It’s a photo I like because it shows how shiny his coat always was, but it fails to capture the expression I remember so well.
I encourage everyone to be sure to take photos of their dogs doing all those day-to-day things—eating, playing with a toy, sleeping, standing at the door eager to go out—as well as those visual images unique to your dog. In my case, I missed that opportunity with Bugsy in one way, and I regret it. If your dog puts his head on the bed in the morning, holds three toys in her mouth at once, stretches in a particular way, waves with a front paw or sleeps in a position that defies description, that’s what you should be sure to capture in photos. It’s pictures of dogs being uniquely themselves that are most precious to me than the ones in which they look the most beautiful.
What pictures are you so grateful to have of a departed dog and which pictures do you regret never taking?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cues to tell dogs to poop
February 20 2013
I personally don’t want to be outside saying “Go Poop” out loud to my dogs. I’m not sure why, with all the potty humor I enjoy, that this is embarrassing to me. It makes no sense, especially as I am perfectly comfortable telling them to “Go Pee” in front of anyone, but I require more subtle cues to let dogs know that I am asking them to poop.
It is so useful to have a cue that tells your dog to eliminate. So often, dogs go outside and are occupied with sniffing this and sniffing that or just enjoying the fresh air. Usually, such a leisurely approach to going to the bathroom is not a problem, but occasionally, for whatever reason, we need our dogs to take care of business in a more prompt way. That’s when it’s great to have a specific cue that tells them to urinate or to defecate.
I have used different words to tell dogs to poop, but my two favorites are “Get Busy” and “Hurry Up.” I like these because they allow me to express what I am feeling in the situations in which I am telling my dogs that I want them to eliminate now, before I must go away and leave them for a time. I really DO want them to get busy, and I certainly appreciate it if they can hurry up about it.
Usually, I have had dogs who are quite regular and poop quite predictably morning and evening during walks or runs, or perhaps in the yard before or after such outings. Still, even these dogs sometimes seem a little off, and it helps to have a cue to tell them, essentially, “Go if you can now.”
What cues, if any, do you use for elimination?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
To a dog, it’s all for fun
February 15 2013
I went outside with Bear, the super-sized chocolate lab who was staying with us for the weekend, and it was immediately apparent that we had different goals. My plan was to collect some firewood and bring it inside. Bear may not have had any plans ahead of time, but as soon as he saw the stacks and stacks of firewood, he developed an idea based on his response to seeing the wood pile. His response was, “So many toys, so little time,” and his idea was apparently to enjoy as many sticks as possible.
As I pulled my first log off the pile, Bear did the same, choosing a small piece that was intended to be used in starting the fire. I tossed mine in the canvas log carrier, Bear took his over to an undisturbed patch of snow and began to chew on it. I interrupted my wood collecting for a game of fetch with Bear. I tossed his stick over and over, and each time, he dug it out of the powdery snow. Every once in a while, he would deposit the stick by my feet, but instead of waiting for me to throw it, he went to the wood pile to select a new, presumably better, stick. This went on until I decided to go back to my original collecting duties.
Soon I decided that it would be fun to take a picture of Bear removing a stick from the pile, and this is when it became clear that we were working at cross purposes. Bear was busy chewing on a couple of his favorite new sticks, but I was cold and ready to go inside. Rather than wait until the next time he decided to select a new stick, I attempted to hurry things along.
Multiple times, I attempted to chuck a stick of the size he seemed to prefer onto the pile so that he would retrieve it and I could capture that moment with my camera. Each time, he caught the stick in mid-air, which was quite an impressive feat, but no good for my wish to photograph him removing a stick from the wood pile. After the first couple of attempts, I looked around to see my husband standing inside by the nearby sliding glass doors laughing. I joined him in finding it hilarious, and laughed, too. (I rarely fail to recognize when I am caught in the act of being ridiculous.)
I decided to wait until Bear was good and ready to choose a stick according to his own schedule, and that’s when I was able to photograph him with his selection. Have you ever been trying to get something done and found that since your dog thought it was a just a game, it took you far longer to accomplish?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Living life with greater joy
February 13 2013
Nobody illustrates living in the moment better than dogs, and it was immediately apparent that this dog was a role model in this regard. Bear is a chocolate lab who stayed with us over this past weekend while his guardian was out of town. We loved every minute of it, in large part because Bear himself is so happy. This is a dog who is sucking the marrow out of life, so to speak.
On my first walk with Bear around the neighborhood, I was reminded that though I try to carpe diem as much as the next person, I have room for improvement. Within minutes, I saw that this dog with large bones and a big heart to match was living the good life and that if I just followed his lead, my happiness would increase. I took in a few lessons from Bear.
Do everything with enthusiasm. Whatever Bear was doing, he gave it his all. If he was sniffing snow, he was up to his ears in it. When he was running, he was doing it at full speed. When my kids were petting or brushing him, he surrendered completely and relaxed under their skilled hands.
Find your purpose. Everyone should have things that drive them, and in Bear’s case, it’s fetching. Sticks, toys, socks that were tossed in the laundry basket, snowballs and any other flying object were toys to him and his purpose was to retrieve them. He is very thorough in his work, and never, NEVER tires of playing fetch. He knows it’s what he loves best (not counting his guardian!), and he’s eager to play anytime. He often initiates the game with anyone who looks like a willing partner. He has found his passion in life, and that’s a great part of happiness.
Accept things as they come. He was so at ease with whatever the days brought. Staying at a new place with new people? No problem. A long walk with a couple of friends and their dogs? Great. Running around in the backyard catching snowballs? Excellent. Massage time? Perfect. Time for rest and a snooze. Fine. Outside for one last chance to pee and then bedtime? Okay. He is so agreeable, so well adjusted, and comfortable with so many situations. His middle name could definitely be Go-With-The–Flow.
I thought we were making an even trade—the fun of a canine visitor for us, the opportunity to travel without the constraints of a dog for his guardian. It turns out that we came out way ahead because of Bear’s philosophy lesson about enjoying life. I don’t know what my neighbors thought as they saw me running and playing with him as we frolicked near our house, laughing constantly as we went up and down the local streets. I’m hoping they understood that I was just living in the moment, finding joy with a dog who spreads it everywhere.
Of course all dogs tend to bring us joy, but can you share a story about a dog who was absolutely brimming over with contagious enthusiasm for life?
How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think
February 12 2013
The Genius of Dogs is written in a pleasant, conversational style that is enjoyable to read. Its strength lies in the sections on the history of canine-specific research, which are easy-to-read, informative summaries of the progression of particular lines of study.
Among the well-covered topics are Belyaev’s genetic studies on foxes; the vocal communication of dogs; and Rico and Chaser, the dogs famous for knowing the names of hundreds of objects. Other sections of the book are less successful. More than once, I found myself puzzled by conclusions that didn’t follow logically from the available data. This gave me the impression that the authors already had opinions about how dogs’ minds work and were trying to force the data into supporting those viewpoints.
A notable weakness comes in the discussion of Hare’s own research. Although the authors say they will include work that contradicts Hare’s results, they fail to mention any of the reputable studies disputing his major findings about dogs’ responsiveness to human gestures. Notably absent are the well-known research studies challenging Hare’s conclusion that dogs are better than wolves at following human gestures.
Hare has reason to be proud of both the volume of research into canine cognition his experiments have inspired as well as his trailblazing open-mindedness in using his own pet dog as a subject at a time when such use was discouraged. His innovative work has motivated a new generation of scientists to ask new questions about how dogs think and communicate. I’d love to see him embrace the full range of studies that expand on his original work with dogs, as these are part of his legacy.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs interrupt slumber in many ways
February 8 2013
I was exhausted, but not too tired to shout, “You’ve got to be kidding!” at my alarm clock when it went off. My dog had woken me up half a dozen times in the middle of the night, and my face had the ugly morning look to prove it. This was a dog who usually slept peacefully through the night and was in no rush to start his day each morning.
On this particular night, though, the poor fellow was suffering from diarrhea, and he was waking me up by uncharacteristically whining and scratching on our screen door to be let out into the yard. Though I was sleep deprived, I was very aware how lucky I was. Better to wake up to noise repeatedly than to a revolting clean-up job in the morning. I was also able to encourage him to drink water and just be there for him. It was only one night of misery for him, and therefore only one night of misery for me.
It’s not the only time I’ve had my sleep schedule disrupted by a dog, though. Of course, there are the puppy times with their expected middle-of-the-night and early morning outings. There are the times when I’ve woken up long before morning because I have been either trapped in the covers by a dog lying on top of me in an awkward way or gradually pushed out from under the covers by a dog taking up more than a fair share of the bed. I’ve been woken up by a dog (who was new to my home) barking at every odd noise, but thankfully that only lasted about a week.
I know of friends who have hardly slept at all in the last few weeks or months of an old dog’s life as around-the-clock care, including carrying them outside to relieve themselves, became part of the routine. Others have dogs who find the wee hours of the morning a delightful time to play with the cat, or whose dog seems to think that it is perfectly acceptable to demand to be served breakfast at 4:30 in the morning. (It’s not!) Canine snoring accounts for a lot of nighttime disturbances, too.
How has your dog prevented you from getting a full night’s sleep?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
George W. and Laura Bush grieve
February 2 2013
Barney Bush has died at the age of 12 from lymphoma, according to a statement by former President George W. Bush. Along with a statement, Bush released a photograph of his own oil painting of Barney, which he signed “43.”
Barney the Scottish Terrier was a cherished member of the first family throughout the Bush presidency. Cookies shaped like him were a popular part of the press preview of the White House holiday decorations in 2006. He was well known for his enthusiasm when accompanying the President on hunting and fishing trips and for seeking treats from those working in the White House. Perhaps his greatest fame came from an incident in which he bit a reporter in 2008.
Bush spoke lovingly of his dog, “Barney was by my side during our eight years in the White House. He never discussed politics and was always a faithful friend. Laura and I will miss our pal.” Barney’s niece, Miss Beazley, who shared some of those years at the White House with Barney, remains in good health.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
“The Voiceless Victims”
January 31 2013
A temporary exhibit at the Crime Museum in Washington D.C. allows guests to see some of the equipment used by the illegal dog-fighting industry. Among the items in "The Voiceless Victims" exhibit are tools for conditioning dogs, for forcing breedings, and for antagonizing dogs through pain. There are also sticks used to force dogs to release other dogs, and an electrocution device used to kill dogs. It’s not a pretty topic, but it’s educational to see the true horror that is dog fighting.
Though dog fighting is illegal throughout the United States, it is happening all too often in far too many communities. Besides showing the tools of dog fighters, this exhibit also includes items that forensic scientists use to assess the suffering and deaths of dogs who are the victims of dog fighting.
The exhibit includes evidence that was taken from the Michael Vick dog fighting kennel as well as from a case in 2009 that was the largest dog fighting raid in our country’s history. The exhibit has been assembled by the ASPCA, and will be up through September 2013.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
January 30 2013
Question: My pup was responding well to our recall training at the park, getting reinforced with high-value treats like meatballs and behaving in a way that made us so proud. That all changed when a sweet elderly man at the park starting giving all the dogs Milk-Bones. Not only did our dog fail to come when called while he was feeding her, for the next couple of weeks, she rarely came when we called her in other contexts. My question is about how dogs learn and what makes their training seem to fall apart? What can I do to prevent such setbacks in the future, and how can I know when our dog has really “gotten it” so that I can be sure she will come, no matter what?
Answer: Most people have experienced some variant of what you describe, and these setbacks can be very disheartening. The situation at the park was not so much one in which a dog’s training fell apart as it was one in which a dog was asked to do something that she had not yet been trained to do. Responding appropriately to the cue to come to you when there is nothing particularly new or interesting to distract her is totally different than returning to you when someone else is feeding her treats.
What you learned courtesy of the treat man at the park is that your dog does not know how to come when called while she was getting treats from somebody else. Furthermore, she seems to have learned that even when called, she doesn’t have to come, which may explain why her recall got worse (let’s not say “fell apart”!) and why she did not come when called even in other situations.
The real secret to dog training is that there are 100 steps involved in teaching a dog something so that she can do it in any situation. Step one for teaching recall may be calling your dog to come from five feet away in your living room, with nothing else going on but you and your meatballs, and step 100 is calling your dog to come when she is 500 feet away, chasing a deer. Many people charge from step five to step 95 without realizing what a challenge this is for a dog. This is the equivalent of asking a student to go from addition and subtraction to reinventing calculus, figuring that the student already knows how to do math, so what’s the problem?
Teaching a dog what a cue means is often the easiest part. Proofing the dog to that cue, or getting the dog to respond to that cue in all situations, is the challenge. Just because your dog knows how to come when called when nothing else has captivated her attention doesn’t mean that she can do it when she is really enthralled by the smell of a rabbit, the food she is eating or her best play buddy. Training your dog to come away from these distractions requires that you train her to do so in a series of steps of gradually increasing difficulty.
Avoiding setbacks by not skipping steps is a challenge that requires great discipline on your part. The key is that throughout your training work with her, you must not call your dog unless you are confident that she will respond. For example, if you had never trained her to come when called away from someone giving her food, most trainers would tell you that the odds of success were not in your favor. A wiser course of action would have been to simply go get your dog. Of course, this is not convenient and requires only letting your dog off-leash in areas where you can go get her if she doesn’t come, but it is only temporary.
When you call a dog to come and she doesn’t respond, how you handle the situation is important for your future success with this cue. If you do nothing, or if you keep calling her over and over, you are teaching her not to respond unless she feels like it. Either she learns that she doesn’t have to come because there is no consequence for not coming, or she learns to tune out the “come” cue; it becomes background noise and loses its meaning to her.
One possible response is to go up to her, show her the meatball treat she could have had, and then walk away. Another is to take her out of the park so she learns that if she does not respond, she does not get to stay at the park.
A third possibility is to immediately set up a similar situation as a training opportunity. Put the meatball right up to her nose, move a few feet away and call her to come. Lure her with the treat if necessary—anything to get her to come away from the food the man is giving her, and then reinforce her for doing so. Then, allow her to go back to the treat man to get whatever he has. Allowing your dog to get both reinforcement from you and what she gave up in order to come to you makes responding to your cue a winning situation all around. Setting up winning situations for your dog over and over again in all sorts of contexts is what proofing a dog for a cue is all about.
During training, have something better than what she gave up so she learns that coming to you is always worthwhile. This means that if someone is giving her liver biscotti, you give her chicken. If they are giving her a lot of nice petting attention, you give her a belly rub. If they are luring her with an ordinary ball, you reinforce her with a super bouncy ball.
In terms of your question about dogs really “getting it”—it’s hard to know for sure that your dog is proofed to respond to a cue in any situation if you have not explicitly practiced and trained her to handle a variety of environments. That said, the more situations and types of distractions in which your dog has learned to respond to the cue, the more likely it is she will respond appropriately in a novel context. Eventually, all situations are sufficiently similar that she can be said to be “fully proofed” for a particular cue. Some dogs get there faster than others, but for virtually every dog, it takes a lot of practice in a wide range of situations involving different places, with different distractions and from different distances.
For more information about canine learning, the best book on the subject is Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them by Pamela J. Reid, PhD. For specific advice on teaching a reliable recall to your dog, the best resource is the video Lassie Come! by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD.
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