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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.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Interested in My Expertise
Boy, did I misread the situation!

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be really wrong about something. I’m not someone who always needs to be right, which is lucky, because I was amusingly off the mark this time.

We have several different mail carriers for the route on which I live, including some regular substitutes. I recognize them all, though our interactions are limited to the hello, how-are-you, and thank you sort of exchanges. Then, a little while back, I noticed that one of the mailmen was acting a bit odd around me. He hesitated when he saw me, sometimes looked down avoiding eye contact, and generally seemed a bit uncomfortable. He sometimes seemed embarrassed, but he also seemed to be staring at me in his mirror if I came out to get the mail after he passed.

I tried to convince myself that I was imagining it, but that didn’t work. I’m a trained behaviorist as well as a very social member of society, and something just wasn’t quite right. He seemed more interested in me than was appropriate, and he certainly knew where I lived. It was making me feel very uncomfortable.

Finally, one day when I was outside cooling down after a run, he pulled the mail truck over by where I was, looked right at me, and said, “Karen, I have a question for you.” I waited, feeling sure that this would not be good.

Then, he said, “Do you work with dogs?” When I said that I was a behaviorist and trainer, he asked if I would mind if he asked me a question, to which I agreed. The question was about a dog in his family who was very friendly, but who jumped up a lot during greetings, especially when anybody came through the front door. We talked for a bit about what he could do to change the dog’s behavior, and in the next week or two, we checked in about the dog’s progress, which was rapid.

From the day he asked me about the dog, our interactions returned to being normal—friendly and relaxed. Here I thought something sinister was going on, when he simply wanted to ask me about his dog, but clearly felt unsure about whether he should. (It’s surely the case that because they see the sort of mail we receive, all of our mail carriers know way more about us than we know about them!)

He knew he needed help, but seemed unsure about asking for it from someone on his route. I love that he wanted to improve his dog’s behavior and I love that his dog is doing so well. Most of all, I love that I was so spectacularly wrong.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Understanding Dogs
Unexpected help with cultural adjustment

I am so grateful for the help a couple of dogs recently gave me in the middle of a period of cultural adjustment. This week, my family traveled to Costa Rica, where we will spend the next four months. I love this country, having spent close to a year here over the course of five previous trips. I speak Spanish, but it does not feel at all like using my native language of English, which is effortless and easy. (Hopefully no editors who have ever worked with me will be surprised to read that I consider myself so proficient in English, but that’s a whole different issue.) After 36 hours of speaking Spanish and translating for my husband and kids who are learning Spanish but remain less comfortable with the language, I was exhausted.

We were outside speaking with our neighbor Eduardo when I realized my bilingual brain needed a break. Just then, a couple of dogs from the neighborhood started to play together, and we all paused to watch them. They are small dogs of about 15 pounds, very peppy and extremely playful. They were leaping on one another, playing chase, taking turns in their roles, pausing frequently, performing plenty of play bows and using other play signals, all while maintaining a low and constant level of arousal. It was the kind of beautifully appropriate play session that anyone who has ever taught a puppy class would be ecstatic to observe.

When the dogs came over to me, I was able to interact with them just as I do with dogs anywhere. They responded to the way my body leaned, the tone of my voice, my posture, my energy level, and the direction I moved. The familiarity and lack of uncertainty were exhilarating. I always enjoy meeting friendly new dogs, but in this case, there was an extra perk. I understood what was going on and it was easy to observe and react appropriately. My brain was not translating, and I was not guessing or using context to fill in gaps. I was simply interacting with some new friends.

I’m fond of saying that I understand dogs, but that “canine” is definitely not my first language, which simply means that I’m aware that only dogs can understand dogs as native speakers. And yet, in that moment, I felt more comfortable with the ease of communication with canines than with people in a language other than English. It was such a joy to be with dogs, with whom I am so comfortable and so familiar. It was a surprising gift that these dogs gave to me as I adjust to life in a foreign country. I often find that when I am tired, I am only truly able to converse with ease in my native language, but dog “language” is apparently an exception. Hallelujah for that!

Sometimes we know when dogs will help us feel better and we even expect it: When we are heartbroken but we know that they still love us. When we have a bad day at work and we get to come home to them. When we head out to walk them because it’s the right thing to do, but being out does us every bit as much good. Yet the unexpected times that dogs give us a little lift are some of the best simply because they blindside us. How have dogs unexpectedly helped make you feel better?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Early to Rise
Many dogs love the morning

It’s typical to suffer some sleep deprivation when living with a puppy, but it’s not only young dogs who encourage people to start the day earlier than we might like. A lot of dogs wake up early, ready to begin the day’s adventures at first light.

Puppies, and some of the older dogs, too, simply need to relieve themselves, but others are peppy and ready to go without any such bathroom urgency. Of course, many of these dogs have ample time in their schedules for daily naps, so there are well rested and refreshed when many people would still prefer some extra Zs.

With training, lots of dogs learn that they will not be going outside at dawn and must amuse themselves or simply wait until the humans have arisen on their own, or at least with the help of their alarm clock. A few pester people by jumping on the bed, licking faces, barking, whining, or otherwise failing to allow the people to sleep in.

I’ve only ever had one dog who was not naturally an early riser. When I woke up to go to work or out for a run, he was dragging. As I got ready to take him out, he would yawn, stretch, and look at me pathetically as he lumbered over to the door. It required encouragement to get him going on the days I was up early, but it was delightful on the days I slept in. It was such a pleasure to sleep late knowing that my dog was not waiting eagerly for the day to begin or crossing his paws in desperation as I snoozed. On weekend mornings, we both happily began the day in a leisurely way. He was rare in that way. I appreciated that trait then, and remember it fondly now.

How early does your dog wake up to greet you and greet the day, and what tactics are used to convince you to haul yourself out of bed prematurely?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Animal Behavior Society Conference
Many presentations featured dogs

Last week, the Animal Behavior Society conference was held in Boulder, Colorado and was attended by hundreds of scientists. Besides being the 50th annual meeting, this conference was notable because of the strong representation by people who study dogs or work with them in other ways.

I first attended an Animal Behavior Society conference in 1994 and I remember no talks or posters about our best friends. Most talks were about insects, fish, and birds, all of which have long been subjects of study in the field of animal behavior. Studying dogs was not respected at that time and many people considered that research on the species was not applicable to science in general because dogs didn’t have a natural habitat other than living with people. I hadn’t started working with dogs professionally yet, and my talk on my graduate research was called “Nest Site Selection by a Member of a Wasp-Wasp Nesting Association.” Oh, how times have changed.

At this conference, dozens of people presented work, whether applied or basic, about dogs, including 21 Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, or CAABs. (The certification is available to people with PhDs who work in applied animal behavior and have a number of other qualifications. There are currently about 50 of us CAABs.) This conference had more presentations about dogs than any previous ones. There were a number of interesting talks and posters about dogs including:

Differences in social and cognitive behavior between congenitally deaf and hearing dogs

The black dog syndrome: Factors influencing difficulty of canine adoptions

Social bonds between humans and their “best friends”

Improving enrichment for shelter dogs by changing human behavior

Are dogs exhibiting separation related problems more sensitive to social reinforcement?

Do puzzle toys have long-term benefits on canine cognitive functioning?

Inter-dog aggression in the home environment: A behavior modification case study

A comparison of the cognitive development of adolescent dogs

Successful treatment of canine human-directed resource guarding with multiple triggers

I loved attending talks about a variety of species, but seeing how much change there has been in the scientific community’s views about dogs over the last 20 years made this conference extra special.

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Blaming People For Behavior Problems
It’s counterproductive and unfair

When I tell people that I work with dogs with serious behavior problems including aggression, the response is often something like, “Isn’t it the people’s fault? I mean, don’t you find that the dogs are acting that way because the people haven’t trained or raised them right?”

I always disagree, saying as gently as I can, “No, most of the dogs I see are really challenging dogs who would have problematic behavior in any situation. And most of the families I work with have had other dogs with perfectly lovely behavior.” It’s true—the dogs are the ones with the problem in my experience, not the guardians.

Many clients blame themselves, too, probably because the idea that anyone can make any dog behave in any way they desire is so prevalent in our culture. This can lead to guilt and shame that prevents people from seeking help as well as making them feel terrible. Most of the clients I see have dogs with aggression, and the vast majority of the people have had many dogs over the years without such problems. It makes no sense to assume that the dog has gone bad because of mistakes by the people or their inadequacies when they have raised other dogs who did not turn out the same way. People are seeking help and accusing them of being at fault is both unfair and counterproductive.

Many dogs who are aggressive or have other equally serious behavioral problems are naturally wired to struggle with social issues. Some are ill or in pain, while others have a past that is unknown but may involve limited exposure to the world (inadequate socialization) or some ordeal in the past that affected them and their behavior profoundly.

I find myself explaining over and over to clients and people I meet socially that I object to blaming guardians for the serious behavior problems of their dogs. Sure, the behavior of some rowdy dogs may be a result of inadequate training or inconsistencies by the guardians, but slightly rude or out of control dogs are very different than dogs with much deeper issues. When it comes to dogs whose behavior problems represent abnormal (as opposed to just boisterous) behavior, it’s important to realize that the people didn’t cause the problem.

Do you find that people are being blamed for dogs’ serious behavior problems? What’s your take on this?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs Who Respect the Elderly
They are treasures

The elderly woman was taking each step ever so carefully, with one hand gripping her cane and the other hand gently holding a leash. At the other end of that leash was a terrier mix who was taking baby steps and clearly making an effort to avoid tripping his guardian. He was going more slowly than most dogs ever do, and he kept glancing up at her in such a way that I couldn’t help but think that he was checking on her. (“Yep, we’re still moving. I just wanted to be sure!”)

The dog was going at a pace I associate with arthritic or injured dogs and those who are older than most dogs ever become, but this was a young adult rather than a geriatric dog. I watched them walk laboriously halfway down the block and then turn around. The dog never put a bit of pressure on the leash and remained at a slight distance from the woman, which meant that he was never an impediment to her balance or movement. I was impressed with this dog’s behavior.

Part of the reason I was so impressed is that I knew this dog was not always calm and slow. I had just seen how he acted when out on a walk with a man in his 20s and it was hilarious. He jumped and bounced and spun and generally acted like joy was exploding out of him. He twisted his leash around the man, pulled towards a tree that he then put his front paws on and barked at. When they moved past the tree, the dog danced along, going very fast and showing suitable canine enthusiasm for the outing. It was all quite endearing, and though the dog was energetic, he was never completely out of control.

However, the control he displayed when his leash was handed over to the elderly woman was extraordinary. He acted like he understood her frailty. It reminded me of service dogs I have seen who romp and frolic like any dog when allowed, but go into a steady, calm work mode when that is what is required. I sat on my park bench completely entranced by the entire sequence of events with this terrier mix. I was so interested that I went over to ask the young man about it.

He told me that his grandmother is the dog’s guardian. For almost a year, the grandson has come over each day to exercise the dog, who is 4 years old. His grandmother insists on walking him daily herself even though her health has declined to the point where she spends 10 minutes just walking past a few houses before making the return trip. Sometimes she takes her walk before the dog has had his exercise with the grandson and sometimes after. Either way, he goes at her pace, never pulling, never leaping, and never paying attention to the squirrels, cats or other dogs that are usually so arresting.

When I asked if they had trained the dog specifically to be gentle with his elderly guardian, he said no. This is just one of those dogs who is socially astute enough to respond beautifully to the specific needs of the lady in his life. The grandson’s behavior—coming over daily to help his grandmother—is also commendable.
 

Have you known a dog who was similarly lovely around an older person and was just as much a treasure as the dog I observed?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Disagreement About Dog Domestication
Conflict among scientists who study it

Research about canine genetics and the domestication of dogs is an exciting area of study with many players, so it should surprise nobody that there is disagreement within the field. Multiple groups of researchers from around the world have compared the genomes of dogs and wolves. While they generally agree about the genetic changes that have produced differences between dogs and wolves, their conclusions about the domestication of dogs vary wildly.

The disagreement concerns fundamental aspects of the evolution of dogs such as where, when and why dogs evolved from wolves. So, the location, the timing, and the reason for domestication that various groups propose are not even close.

One group suggests domestication occurred around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East and that it was the development of agriculture around that time that was the catalyst for domestication. Another group claims that it happened around 32,000 years ago in the south of China and related to scavenging alongside the people living there. A third group narrows the time frame for domestication to between 16,000 and 11,000 years ago, and believes that the wolf population from which dogs arose is extinct, making it hard to determine the location of domestication. This third group believes that dogs became domesticated near hunter-gatherers rather than in the presence of an agrarian society.

Much has been made about the discord among scientists studying the domestication of dogs, but it’s hardly surprising. The cutting edge of science is always marked by strongly held opposing views. In the best situations, the intense disagreement among people working in the same field is a crucial part of making progress. Competing hypotheses are critical for the advancement of science. As people challenge each other’s views, all are spurred to study the subject more deeply and design experiments to investigate that which has been called into question. From the ongoing work, the conflicts are eventually resolved as some ideas fall by the wayside and others gain increased support from new data and discoveries.

Sometimes the conflict is cordial and in other cases, it can be very bitter. At this point, the scientists studying dog domestication say that though there is a certain amount of rivalry, they get along and enjoy talking with each other. That may be harder to maintain as people move to the next phase of research into dog domestication and seek to sequence DNA samples from ancient dogs and wolves. The availability of archaeological bone samples is extremely limited so there will be a lot of competition among scientists for both funding to conduct the research and access to the material necessary to do so.

In other words, we can expect a lot of fights over bones in the near future.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Ice Lovers
Dogs who adore their water frozen

When an extra piece of ice fell from the freezer and onto the floor, the dog acted like I had just dropped a steak. He startled, gazed at it longingly, and looked up at me as if asking for permission. He was wagging from the shoulders back and drooling a little. It was news to me, but it could not have been more obvious that he liked ice.

A lot of dogs love ice and seem to consider it a high quality treat. There are a lot of great things about ice for dogs. It provides hydration without any gulping, it’s fun for the dog, it’s relatively easy to clean up (at least compared to gooey treats like pig’s ears and peanut butter), it’s a no calorie way for a dog to engage in chewing and that can be important for dogs who are watching their figures, and it can help cool a dog down.

Of course, ice has its down side, too. There is a choking risk, and dogs can damage their teeth on ice. Though it doesn’t likely leave as big a mess as the water bowl can, it’s portable, so there’s no telling where a puddle may form if the dog leaves it unfinished and lying around.

What do you consider the positives and negatives about having an ice-loving dog?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Disadvantages of Pet Store Puppies
Unfavorable behavior compared to other puppies

In a study of over 6000 puppies, researchers found that the behavior of puppies purchased from pet stores was less desirable than the behavior of puppies obtained form noncommercial breeders. Specifically, there were 12 areas in which pet store puppies’ behavior was unfavorable compared with puppies from noncommercial breeders and two areas in which their behavior was similar. There were no behavioral areas in which the pet store puppies’ behavior was preferable to the comparison group.

In a recent study called “Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommerical breeders" used guardian observations of their dogs to compare the behavior between the two study populations. Observations were quantified using the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire, which uses ordinal scales to rate either the intensity or frequency of the dogs’ behavior

The biggest differences between the two groups of dogs related to aggression with dogs from pet stores being far more likely to be aggressive towards their guardians, to other dogs in the household, to strangers, and to unfamiliar dogs. Among their other unfavorable comparisons with dogs from noncommercial breeders were that they were more likely to have house soiling issues, to be fearful, to have touch sensitivity problems, to be harder to train, and to have issues with excitability.

As a person who has long opposed the selling of puppies in pet stores for humane reasons as well as behavioral, it is with open arms that I welcome this objective study about the undesirability of this practice. It’s heartbreaking for me to think of all the people I have seen professionally over the years who have been emotionally devastated by the serious behavioral issues they have faced with a dog from a pet store. Of course, there are people who have lucked out and obtained a wonderful dog from a pet store, and I am very happy for such dogs and their people. However, it’s important to remember that overall, buying a dog from a pet store does not put the odds in your favor.

The authors of this study sum their research up with this important point: “Obtaining dogs from pet stores versus noncommercial breeders represented a significant risk factor for the development of a wide range of undesirable behavioral characteristics. Until the causes of the unfavorable differences detected in this group of dogs can be specifically identified and remedied, the authors cannot recommend that puppies be obtained from pet stores."

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs Attend to Color
It matters more than brightness

One of the most persistent errors about dogs is the claim that they are colorblind. It has been known for decades that dogs can see colors, but research into the details of how they use their color vision can still reveal new information. In a recent study called “Colour cues proved to be more informative for dogs than brightness”, researchers asked the simple question, “Do dogs attend to color or brightness when learning the cues that indicate the presence of food?

In the experiment, researchers trained dogs to make a choice between boxes concealing food. The boxes were each marked with a colored paper, and the dog had to learn which one indicated a piece of meat was inside. Dogs were trained to discriminate between either light yellow and dark blue or between dark yellow and light blue. Then the dogs were tested to see if the cue they used to make correct choices was the color of the paper or the brightness of the paper.

For example, a dog who had learned to choose the box marked by a dark yellow piece of paper was tested with a choice between a box marked by light yellow or a box marked by dark blue. The experimenters were asking whether the dog had learned that “dark” indicates the presence of meat or whether “yellow” does. They found that dogs were making choices based on color, not brightness, in the majority of cases. It was a small sample size of only 8 dogs, but it suggests that dogs not only see color, which has long been known, but that they pay attention to it more than to the depth of color.

It is not surprising that if dogs have the ability to see color that they would use that color functionally in various situations. Asking whether dogs distinguish dark from light when the opportunity to distinguish by color is also present may be an important preliminary step in understanding what dogs attend to. However, I would be even more interested to know whether dogs favor color over shape, color over size or even color over various sounds to make their choices, as all of these seem more biologically relevant to dogs seeking food than brightness does.

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