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
Reactions to Pregnant Women
Dogs’ behavior may change
Pregnant Karen & Tulip

Sniffing your belly. Backing away from you when you walk. Being more responsive to your cues. Being less responsive to your cues. Staying right near you all the time. Growling at you. All of these are possible reactions by dogs to a pregnant guardian.

I’m often asked if dogs are able to sense when a woman is pregnant. I spoke to Rachel Rounds, a journalist in the UK who was expecting, and she incorporated my answers to her questions into her article “Clingy, need and moody. It’s Rachel who’s expecting – but it’s her dog who’s gone all hormonal.”

I’m not aware of any research that directly addresses the question of whether dogs know that their guardian is expecting, but it would be very surprising if dogs didn’t at least pick up on some of the accompanying changes and react to them. Dogs can obtain an amazing amount of information about other dogs just from smelling each other or even each other’s urine (e.g. Male or female? Intact or spayed/neutered? In heat? Young or old? Familiar or a stranger?) Given what we know they are able to perceive with their nose, it’s a bit hard to imagine that they can’t detect at least some of the many hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy in a person living in their house.

At the risk of giving too much information, I can detect pregnant urine. I knew of a few friends’ pregnancies before they announced them just because I happened to use a bathroom at a social gathering immediately after them. Since I, a mere human, have a nose for it, it’s more than likely that dogs do, too. Of course, it’s hard to say whether dog know what the change in odor means, but it seems unimaginable that they don’t detect it.

Once a pregnancy is far along, women change their movements a bit, partly because of the normal loosening of the joints, and partly because carrying another person in your abdomen is cumbersome, to say the least. Dogs are very sensitive to movement and posture of the most subtle form in other individuals. That pregnant kangaroo stance and that waddling gait are far from subtle, and cannot be hidden from people or from dogs.

Pregnancy is often accompanied by behavioral changes, and these can extend beyond the woman expecting to other members of the household. Those changes may have to do with the schedule—more sleep, fewer walks and runs, more time spent redecorating—or may be emotional with shorter tempers, conflict, stress, or other issues in dealing with one another.

Most dogs are going to pick up on at least some of the changes associated with pregnancy, and these can certainly have an influence on their behavior. Did you notice any changes in your dog’s behavior when you or someone else in your family was pregnant?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Peeing on the Christmas tree
Another holiday hazard

The first year I took my dog to my in-laws for the holidays, I was concerned that he might pee on the tree, so I took steps to make sure that he didn’t do so. I went back to Housetraining 101 for the first 24 hours of our visit. By that I mean that 1) I took him out to the yard and for walks often so he had plenty of opportunities to eliminate. 2) I reinforced him with top quality treats for peeing outside, and I did it every time to make sure that he knew where he was supposed to go in this unfamiliar place, and 3) I never let him out of my sight while we were inside. In addition, I practiced using “leave it” for a variety of objects in the house that were off limits, including the tree, and I reinforced his correct response to this cue with treats, play, and chew items. He never goofed, and I felt good about helping him avoid a mistake that might have lowered his popularity with the family.

Every year I am inundated by requests for advice about how to prevent dogs from peeing on the Christmas tree. It’s a legitimate concern and I’m always pleased at how many people are thinking ahead and being proactive about dealing with a potential behavioral issue.

It does happen sometimes that dogs use the Christmas tree as the bathroom, and regrettably, it so often involves a handmade tree skirt or other priceless family heirloom. On the bright side, many people find that their fears are never realized—the majority of dogs who are thoroughly house trained do not eliminate indoors just because a tree is suddenly under their roof.

To make sure that your tree stays dog pee free this year, there are several strategies, and your success is more likely if you take advantage of all of them. Largely, this is a management issue, so focus on preventing your dog from having an opportunity to eliminate on the tree. Consider blocking your dog’s access to the tree with gates or other barriers. Supervise your dog so that there is no chance for your dog to sneak towards the tree. Watching the dog constantly is the best way to guarantee that your dog will not decorate the tree in a way you don’t like. With smaller dogs, tethering your dog to you with a leash is another way to be sure you know where your dog is and what he or she is doing. Be alert to the signs that your dog may be about to eliminate such as sniffing or circling. Take your dog out often and reinforce elimination in acceptable locations.

By the time a dog has started to lift a leg or squat, it is often too late to stop your dog from urinating. If you do see your dog doing this by the tree, make a sound that’s loud enough to cause a startled reaction, but not so loud that it’s scary. Take your dog outside immediately and reinforce your dog for urinating outside with treats and praise. If the tree has pee on it, clean it thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner so the area will not smell like the bathroom to your dog.

I hope that those of you who have a tree inside are able to help your dog understand that this is a special, indoor tree and that it doesn’t mean that there is now a bathroom inside. Has your dog every peed on your Christmas tree, or have you been able to prevent this behavior?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Free Webinar by Patricia McConnell
Helping Adopted Dogs Adjust to New Homes
Trisha McConnell and Willie

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. is giving a free webinar this Thursday, December 6, 2012. Did you catch that? It’s a FREE webinar given by Trisha McConnell, who is a scientist, canine behaviorist, dog trainer, and one of the dog world’s most sought-after speakers. The webinar is called entitled Helping Adopted Dogs Adjust to New Homes.

It’s well known that the first few days, weeks, and months are critical for the success of the new relationships between adopted dogs and their adopters. Anyone who has ever adopted a new dog knows that the beginning can be both wonderful and challenging beyond imagination. Yet, most of the information available is aimed at people who are bringing a puppy into their life, which can be quite a different experience than adopting an adolescent or adult dog.

McConnell will offer practical advice about what to do on the first day, the best way to introduce the new dog to other dogs and people, and how to handle common behavioral problems. These are among the most common issues with new adoptions, and receiving support that includes answers to their questions can make a huge difference for people and dogs whose goal is a forever home. She will also discuss resources that are available for people who have just adopted an adult or adolescent dog.

Helping Adopted Dogs Adjust to New Homes is open to those involved in rescue or shelter work in some way whether as an animal welfare professional, a volunteer, or as a foster parent. Anyone can listen to the recorded version a few days later. For more information and to register, go the ASPCA website.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Festive Canine Decorations
Bo Obama at Christmas

When First Lady Michelle Obama guided visitors through the White House to see the Christmas decorations, it was easy to see that First Dog Bo Obama had a starring role. He accompanied the first group to see a preview of the holiday décor wearing jingle bells, but his presence extends far beyond that.

There is a large statue of Bo next to the 300-pound gingerbread White House in the State Dining Room. In the East Garden Room, there’s life-size model of him holding a string of lights in his mouth. Dozens of cut out pictures of Bo are on display throughout the house in what are referred to as Bo-flakes. Visitors can go on a scavenger hunt to search for the Bo ornaments that are in eight rooms. The guide to the scavenger hunt is on a Bo bookmark.

If you decorate for the holidays, do you use images of your dog in any way?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The American Gut Project
Seeking samples from you and your pets

The gut microbiome is a factor in a range of diseases such as cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and cancer, all of which are more common in Westernized populations of both pets and people. A new study called the American Gut Project is seeking to investigate how diet affects the gastrointestinal microbiome.

Previous work studying microbiomes of typical healthy adult humans raised questions about how their results apply to the entire population and to other species. Scientists with this project hope to collect samples from individuals with a full range of diets and lifestyles.

So far, research projects on this subject in dogs and cats include just a few small studies of lab animals or those that were ill. The fact that the American Gut Project will address the microbiomes in the intestinal tracts of large numbers of dogs (and cats) living in a variety of settings means that the results could yield useful information about the effects of diet, genetics, and lifestyle on the gut microbiomes of our pets. Such information may help us make informed decisions about how to feed and care for our dogs (and cats) in the future.

It is a goal of the project to collect samples from multiple individuals in the same household. If you want to participate in the study, along with your family members of the canine and feline variety, or if you want to learn more about the American Gut Project, click here.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The Value of Crates
Great benefits if used judiciously

There are so many ways in which crates can make life better for people and for dogs. They keep dogs safer in cars, offer many dogs a quiet refuge, are a great help during house training, and play a role in preventing bad habits such as destructive chewing and counter surfing. Dogs who are comfortable in crates are more easily able to handle travel in hotels and staying overnight at the vet. The policy statement by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT)  about crates makes these points and also asserts that it is imperative to use crates thoughtfully and to introduce them to dogs correctly. I agree.

I love crates and use them, though I do have a few concerns about them. They must not be overused. I prefer that dogs not be confined in them for more than a few hours at a time on a regular basis over the long term. Many dogs choose to go into their crates and to stay there, especially at night, and I have no problem with that, even though the dog is in the crate for more than a few hours.

Dogs who find them upsetting should not be in them. A dog should enter the crate willingly, even happily. Dogs who panic in and around them should not be crated, and no dog should ever be forced into a crate. Many dogs can be taught to enjoy a crate even if they are currently hesitant around them. However, attempts to teach dogs to like them if they have a really strong negative reaction to crates is not always successful.

There are ways to introduce a dog of any age to a crate that make success more likely. Introductions should be gradual and involve a lot of good stuff such as treats and toys that the dog can associate with the crate. The APDT Guide to Crate Training is a useful reference about many aspects of crates and crate training.

What do you think about crates?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
New Treatment for Paralysis
Dogs walk again after spinal injury

In an exciting development in the treatment of spinal cord injuries, researchers at Cambridge University were able to restore some movement to the legs of dogs who had been paralyzed. (All 34 dogs in the study had become paralyzed by injuries or accidents. No dog was purposely injured for the research.)

The breaks in the spinal cord were at least partially fixed with the use of cells from the dogs’ own noses. The specific type of cells that they used, olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs), are involved in the growth of nerve fibers that are necessary for communication between the brain and the nose.

Dogs who were treated with OECs showed significant improvement in the movement of their back legs compared with the control group, which did not receive OECs. Being able to walk again obviously has considerable quality-of-life benefits. Researchers point out that this procedure will probably be most effective if combined with other therapies, such as drugs and physical therapy.

Though it is likely a long way off, similar therapies may eventually be effective in treating people with paralysis because of spinal cord injuries.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Optimization of Fetching
Do dogs know calculus?

Mathematician Tim Pennings watched his dog Elvis fetch balls thrown in the water and noticed that the dog consistently chose the quickest route. Running is faster than swimming, so the overall time the dog spends heading to the ball depends on how the dog decides to split his path into running and swimming parts.

Elvis could run directly into the water and swim a long way to the ball, which would mean traveling the shortest distance, but not getting there as fast as possible. Another possibility is to run on the sand until he is even with the ball, and then swim to it. A third option is to run part of the way along the shore and then finish traveling to the ball by swimming in the water. Elvis always chose this last option, which resulted in reaching the ball the fastest. Mathematicians describe his actions by saying that Elvis optimized his travel time.

With information about the position of the ball and the dog, and the dog’s running and swimming speeds, it is possible to use calculus to determine the exact place at which the dog should switch from running to swimming in order to minimize his travel time. Pennings has suggested that dogs do in fact know calculus, because their paths match what the mathematics of calculus predict.

I think it’s more accurate to say that dogs act as though they know calculus rather than to say that they actually know calculus. It’s a small, but important distinction. I agree that dogs act to optimize their travel time when fetching in the water—I’ve observed dogs doing this—but that does not mean they are making complex mathematical calculations. It’s more likely that their experience allows them to make choices that result in getting to the ball faster.

Watching dogs fetch in an optimal way is no less remarkable to me than if they were using calculus. Have you seen dogs performing the kind of behavior that led Pennings to suggest they know calculus?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Why Dogs Fear Thunderstorms
Q&A with Nancy Dreschel, DVM

Nancy Dreschel has long been interested in the ways people and animals interact. She got her degree in veterinary medicine from Cornell University, but her lifelong interest in behavior led her to return to graduate school five years ago to pursue a PhD in biobehavioral health at Penn State University. She, her husband and their two sons share their home with one dog, two cats, four fish and a mouse.

In her recent study, "Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers,"* Dr. Dreschel investigated stress responses—pacing, salivating, panting, trembling, whining, hiding, increased salivary cortisol levels—of dogs with thunderstorm phobia and their human caregivers when both were exposed to simulated thunderstorms. Listening to a simulated storm elicited behavioral and physiological responses in nearly all the dogs, but not in their human caregivers. The way the dogs responded was not influenced by their caregivers’ reactions, or by how close the relationship was between person and dog. But dogs who lived with other dogs had less change in salivary cortisol levels and a more complete return to baseline levels by 40 minutes after the simulated thunderstorm than did dogs in single-dog households. Dogs in multidog households had slightly higher baseline levels of salivary cortisol. (For more, see “Is a Dog a Dog’s Best Friend?,” Jan/Feb 06.) The Bark recently interviewed Dr. Dreschel about her work.

Bark: How did you get interested in this subject?

Nancy Dreschel: My colleague Dr. Doug Granger, and the Behavioral Endocrinology Laboratory at Penn State are well known for their research on salivary hormone measurement, particularly in children. I was struck by the ease of saliva collection and thought that it would be a nice, noninvasive way to measure stress in dogs as well as in people. Thunderstorm phobia seems to be particularly frustrating for people and particularly stressful for dogs. I feel strongly about the humane use of animals and am interested in developing tools to measure stress in welfare situations.

B: How do you define stress?

ND: In order to define stress, I think you first have to understand that all aspects of living systems are [intended to be] in balance. Things constantly affect our physiological and psychological states, and our bodies respond to keep everything in homeostasis, or equilibrium. I define stress as being anything that knocks this off, including immune stressors (being exposed to a virulent disease), environmental stressors (being wet and standing outside on a 20-degrees-below-zero day) or mental stressors (enduring a thunderstorm if you are terrified of them).

B: Could baseline cortisol levels be affected by the difficulty that some people had in collecting the samples—wouldn’t the “phobic” dog demonstrate stress simply as a result of the collection process itself?

ND: Specimens collected on the control day did not show any increase in cortisol, which is what would be expected if the collection method itself caused stress. [On the control day, there was no simulated thunderstorm.] It should be noted that these dogs were behaviorally quite normal, other than their very specific fear of storms.

B: Are you familiar with any other studies that have measured the cortisol levels in multidog households?

ND: No—this was the first (and only) study I know of to measure cortisol in a home situation. Salivary cortisol has been measured in shelters and research facilities, however.

B: What sorts of clinical applications do you imagine could result from your research on dogs with thunderstorm phobia?

ND: Collecting saliva from dogs is a minimally invasive procedure that can be done by regular people in a number of different settings. I could see this procedure being used in studies of dogs with anxiety, in stressful situations and in welfare applications. I also think it could possibly be used to determine if dogs on medication for anxiety or fear are responding physiologically as well as behaviorally.

B: What kind of treatment program do you advise for people whose dogs have thunderstorm phobia?

ND: I recommend a number of individualized programs for dogs with thunderstorm phobia, including offering a “safe” place to go (covered crate, basement, etc.), behavior modification (counter-conditioning and desensitization), pheromone therapy and anti-anxiety medication. Many dogs require medication in order to calm down enough to be able to learn new behaviors.

B: What do you think is the most significant result of the study?

ND: I think the most significant result is finding the degree of increase in cortisol that these dogs experienced and the fact that it lasted so long. When I think of the number of dogs who experience similar stressors (which might range from a car ride to panic when left alone), I wonder if all these experiences are accompanied by a similar physiological reaction. We know by their behavior that some dogs become upset by certain situations, but these results show that a physiological response that could have adverse health effects is also occurring.

B: Why do you think the presence of other dogs in the household had an effect on cortisol reactivity in dogs with thunderstorm phobia? Is the higher baseline a key factor in the faster return to near-baseline levels?

ND: I’m not sure why living with other dogs had an effect in our subjects. Their baseline cortisol levels were somewhat higher to begin with, which could indicate they were under more stress on a regular basis. I think it is likely that something about living with other dogs mediates how their stress-response works. Maybe the day-to-day interactions better prepare the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis for response to major stressors.

I would emphasize that the dogs that lived with other dogs didn’t “seem” calmer—behaviorally, there was no difference. Because this was a fairly small study, it is hard to draw many conclusions about the multiple-dog findings.

B: Did the other dogs actually do anything to alleviate stress in these dogs?

ND: What struck me was a total lack of “comforting” as we define it in human terms, from the other dogs in the household. We think of comforting as having a shoulder to cry on, a hug, a gentle word or listening ear. Many of the dogs in our study (both those who lived with other dogs and those who were the only dog) sought out this type of comforting from their human companions. However, there was very little, if any, physical contact between the dogs in this study. Many of the non-subject dogs in the household weren’t even present during the procedure—the caregivers had isolated them in other rooms so they only had to deal with the subject dog.

B: Our magazine promotes adoption of shelter/rescue dogs, and likes to think that dogs benefit by living in multidog households (with compatible canines, of course). Is there any scientific basis for this?

ND: I think our research provides some evidence to support this statement. However, I do not recommend that people with storm-phobic dogs run out and obtain another dog, thinking that will make their dog’s problem go away. The dogs who lived in multidog households still had thunderstorm phobia and severe behavioral responses, despite the fact that they lived with other dogs.

*Published with co-author Douglas Granger, PhD, in Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95: 153–168.


Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Head in the Wind
I liked acting like a dog

I stuck my head out and caught the wind on my face and began to enjoy myself. My inspiration was a strong desire to alleviate seasickness during a boat ride between the Indonesian islands of Lombok and Bali, and it worked. My stomach felt good. I felt good. The breeze on my face was refreshing, the smell of the ocean was invigorating and I felt cool for the first time in almost two weeks. The whole experience was better.

A side effect was looking like a dog.

I’ve always known that dogs like to put their heads out of the window on car rides to feel the breeze and smell the smells, but this was the first time I shared that feeling. It really is a fantastic way to experience a journey. I did not expect to feel a kinship with dogs on this particular outing, but I felt just like a dog as I leaned out past the boat’s protective shield and experienced high-speed windy travel.

Of course, I am aware of the dangers to dogs of riding with their heads out. Their eyes are at risk of damage from rocks, dust and any other kind of debris. Their ears can be hurt by flapping in the breeze. Dogs can even fall out of the window, though luckily that’s rare. Dogs who are restrained in the car are safest, and if properly restrained, they can’t reach the window in the first place. So, I am not recommending this mode of travel for either people or dogs, but simply commenting on a new understanding of how enjoyable it can be.