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
Fun and craziness for all
November 9 2012
The puppy friskies, the evening zippies, the canine crazies—No matter what you call them, those furious bursts of energy are common enough that most dog guardians experience them regularly. It’s hard to nail down the cause of them, but the result is dogs flying back and forth across the yard or the house, leaping onto the furniture, pushing off the walls, trampling the garden, twisting and turning in mid-air, and perhaps simultaneously playing with toys or chasing other dogs. Wheeeeee!
Though it can be hazardous for house and limb, I adore these moments. Sure, the dog in such a state has gone a little loopy, but the joyfulness of these brief periods of reckless abandon more than make up for that.
The precursors of these bouts are not always clear. Some dogs act this way at certain times of the day. Others seem to respond to environmental factors such as excited kids, a visitor that is especially adored, or multiple squeaks from a toy. Food puts some dogs in the mood to express themselves in this canine version of the happy dance. Still other dogs seem to respond to cues that they alone recognize.
What makes your dog race around in one of these displays of genuine athleticism and fun?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Handling daily drips
November 5 2012
While Hansel and Gretel are famous for leaving a trail of bread crumbs, most dogs would never waste food like that. There are many, however, who do track water in every direction from their water bowls. Some dogs seem to hold the water in their mouths and purposely transport it before expelling it from their mouths. Others simply seem to collect it on their furry faces and inadvertently drip it around the house.
A few well-placed towels and the willingness to sop up the water regularly is all that most of us need to cope with this minor inconvenience of having dogs. I try to be cheerful about it, but there are moments when the puddles seem problematic instead of just comical.
Is there some reason that I always step in the water without shoes on when I haven’t done laundry in ages and I’m getting low on running socks that aren’t weird as it is? Can it possibly be coincidence that my kids slip on the water only when holding something like blueberry pie or a container of water that they have been using to clean their paintbrushes? And why do the puddles seem to be at their biggest and most treacherous when an elderly neighbor stops over?
Have you had an “exciting” moment related to the water that your dog has drooled about the house?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Violations of trust by caregivers
November 1 2012
Our dreams tend to show what’s on our mind. Case in point: Last week we were dog sitting for our good buddy Marley. Another big thing in our life was planning our son’s dragon-themed birthday party.
We had been joking that it would be easier if we could just have a REAL dragon at the party since we’d had such fun with real snakes at last year’s snake party. Clearly, I couldn’t let this thought go as I slept because in my dream, I used magic to turn Marley into a dragon for the party, which all the kids loved.
The dream continued with a little glitch. I was unable to turn Marley back into a dog completely. His face was a dragon-dog mix, though still very attractive. He had spikes on his back, a forked tail and was over twice his normal size. He was also burping fire, which I suspect would have been a hit with the kids at the party, though I will acknowledge that this trait has drawbacks.
His guardian came to pick him up and was distressed to find Marley in this state. (Go figure.) In real life, I am incredibly conscientious about keeping dogs in my care safe and well. However, in my dream, I failed to see why she was upset and felt as though she were being completely unreasonable. I kept telling her how cool he was now, and was totally flummoxed by her negative reaction to this turn of events. I explained the advantages of his new form and also tried to convince her that they were really inconsequential. I kept saying, “He’s still Marley, after all!” yet she continued to act as though this was a big deal for some reason. She was still trying to convince me that I needed to complete his transformation when I awoke.
Hopefully, it goes without saying that once I was fully conscious, I agreed with Marley’s guardian completely about this imaginary situation. Apparently, I am the one who is unreasonable in my dreams.
I’m assuming that nobody has ever turned your dog into a dragon, but have you ever left your dog in someone’s care and had them do something that you objected to such as cutting nails, trimming hair, feeding them food you object to etc.?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is this a problem?
October 28 2012
He didn’t notice that his dog had picked up a plastic bag during their walk together. The dog began to gag slightly and a little kid on a skateboard said, “Is he supposed to eat that?” Only then did the man, who was talking on his cell phone, look down at his dog, and react quickly, pulling the bag, and the food inside it, out of his dog’s mouth. It could have been a very bad situation, but turned into just a little blip in the day’s walk.
Rarely do our dogs get into potentially dangerous situations while out on leash walks with us, so this was exceptional. It sure made me think, though. Does it make a difference to our dogs if we walk them while we talk on our cell phones or not? I think it does, because it prevents us from being truly present throughout the walk.
Sure, part of the value of the walk for the dog is the exercise and also being outside sniffing and otherwise having their lives enriched with stimulation beyond what’s available at home. Yet, the social aspect of the walk, attending to the same things and each other—experiencing it together—is lost if one member is lost in cell phone land.
I think there is great value in walking our dogs without talking on our cell phones, but I’m not a purist about it. I think it’s better to walk your dog while you talk on your cell phone than to skip the walk and make the call from home. I’ve certainly walked dogs while I took care of things by phone. Sometimes it’s because I really need to make a call before business hours end, but I want to take a walk before it gets dark. Other times it’s because my day is so busy all around that I multi-task every chance I get. I work hard to make sure my life is not always like that, but it still happens sometimes.
What do you think about walking your dog while talking on your cell phone? Does it make a difference to you or to your dog?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Be aware of your dog’s struggles
October 23 2012
Gray Dog was adorable dressed as a shark, and he was definitely the unofficial winner of the costume contest at a recent early Halloween party. (He was the only dog there, which may have given him an edge, but he was deserving of the triumph.)
Gray Dog is a well-adjusted, social, go-with-the-flow dog who accepted his party clothes without incident. He seemed to welcome the extra attention from people and generally ignored the costume as far as I could tell.
The only difficulty he had was minor—it was a touch more challenging to fit through his doggy door with his costume on. The stuffed shark, complete with dorsal fin, on his back added significantly to his height. He made it through okay the first time, although perhaps more slowly than usual and with the costume rubbing the top of the frame. After that, he negotiated the doggy door as easily as usual, apparently adjusting to his temporary size increase. It did not seem to bother him, but many dogs might have found this new experience upsetting.
This was my first Halloween party of the year, and it reminded me of the importance of assuring that dogs are not limited in any significant way by their costumes. Many costumes inhibit walking, running or play, impair vision or hearing, or prevent dogs from fitting through tight spaces. Others interfere with their ability to eat, drink or eliminate.
It’s no fun for a dog to be in a costume that seriously gets in the way of basic functions. For some dogs, no costume, no matter how minimal, is fun in any situation. Whether to dress dogs up for the holiday is an individual decision.
I think if the dog enjoys it, then it’s fine, but if the dog is distressed at all, it’s unkind and not worth it. Part of making sure that a dog is okay with being in a costume is making sure that the costume does not limit what the dog can do. So, if Gray Dog had struggled with the doggy door, I would have been in favor of removing his costume. Since he was able to roll with it, I was charmed to see him continue to be a shark.
I know people who love to dress their dogs in costumes for Halloween, and others who are opposed to it for their dog and every dog. What do you think? Will you be dressing your dog up for Halloween this year?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
New kitchen appliance on the market
October 22 2012
Anything that makes cooking and baking easier is welcome in my world, and that applies to products and ideas that help in preparing food for dogs as well as for people. So, I was pleased to see a new appliance for making dog treats.
The Nostalgia Electrics DBM200 Dog Biscuit Treat Maker Kit allows canine chefs to create dog treats quickly and easily. This countertop appliance bakes up treats in five minutes, and using the cookie cutters that are included, those treats can be shaped like a small bone, a large bone, a cat, a dog house, a fire hydrant or a dog. It comes with a decorating kit and a recipe booklet. I especially like the storage container that comes with the set, as it is stylish enough to stay on the counter all the time.
I know that many people choose to have only those kitchen gadgets that do more than one thing, so let me point out that this item allows you to save time, make charming homemade treats, make your dog happy AND add something chic to your home décor.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Renowned Veterinary Behaviorist has died
October 20 2012
The name R.K. Anderson may not be universally known among dog lovers, but his ideas and innovations are. Anderson, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90, has promoted kindness with pets for decades, long before it was fashionable. Mocked as a “cookie pusher” a half century ago for his interest in using food instead of force to train dogs, he continued to work towards gentle treatment of companion animals throughout his career.
Perhaps the best known of his contributions is as co-inventor of the Gentle Leader® head collar, which was meant to be a replacement for choke collars and prong collars. He also helped design the Easy WalkTM harness, which similarly aims to provide people a humane way to control their dogs.
Anderson is also one of the founders of Animal Behavior Resources Institute, which provides education and resources about animal behavior in order to further its goal of improving human-animal relationships and the quality of life for people and animals. His idea to share videos on the internet for educational purposes predates YouTube.
R.K. was always as kind and caring with people as he was with dogs, and everybody loved to be around him for that reason as much as because they could learn from him. Like many other trainers and behaviorists as well as veterinarians, I had some fine conversations with him at conferences and gatherings over the years, and I will miss him.
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."
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