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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
An Urban Legend
Beautiful, even though it’s not true

Various forms of the following story have been all over the online world in recent months. As it turns out, it’s yet another urban legend, but that doesn’t take away from its value. Like most fictional stories, its emotional power comes from our recognition of the great truth within it.

This is one version of the tale:

Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog’s owners, Ron, his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle.

I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn’t do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.

As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.

The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker‘s family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.

The little boy seemed to accept Belker’s transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker’s death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives.

Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, ”I know why.”

Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I’d never heard a more comforting explanation. It has changed the way I try and live.

He said, “People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life — like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?” The six-year-old continued,

”Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.”

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Andy Murray’s Dogs Wear Medals
Reactions to the photo vary

The photo of Andy Murray’s Border Terriers on Twitter wearing his Olympic medals has met with different reactions. Some found it quite endearing that Murray wanted his dogs to be a part of the sweetest victories of his life. (Competing in his home country, the tennis star won a gold medal in singles and a silver medal in mixed doubles in the London 2012 Olympics.) My reaction was in this category—kind of an “Aww, look at that” response.

Many other people consider the photo further evidence that tennis players don’t value the Olympics enough since there are other events in their sport that have long been more prestigious. Those with this perspective think that putting them on his dogs degrades the medals or shows that Murray doesn’t care about them. It’s hard to imagine he doesn’t care after seeing his emotional reaction to winning the gold medal, and I just don’t ever think that dogs degrade events, because I think they enhance them. The photo suggests to me that Murray values his dogs, rather than that he doesn’t value his Olympic medals.

Of course, among the worldwide audience are many people who don’t view dogs as favorably as I do, so the difference in perceptions is hardly surprising. What is your response to this photo?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I’m Not Judgmental About Dogs’ Behavior
Do people think I am?

On a day that I had gone for a run, and not yet had a chance to shower I saw the woman who cuts my hair, looking chic and well-styled as always. We said our hellos and then I burst out with, “I swear my hair hardly ever looks like this! The cut you just gave me is great and I’ve been able to make it look really nice, but today I went for a run and then threw it into a ponytail and rushed here!” Always kind, she smiled and was very gracious about my weird behavior. I wondered out loud to my friend whether this poor woman is used to people acting this way when they see her.

My friend said, “I’ll bet people feel the same way when they see you and their dog is not being a saint. I replied, “I’m not judging dogs’ behavior when I see them!” And it’s true. I understand that dogs can get very excited when out and about and that what I see may not be their typical behavior. And my friend asked me, “But do you really think the woman who cuts your hair is going around judging people for not having perfect hair?”

I gave this a lot of thought and realized that people often want to show me what their dog can do—a new trick, not jumping up to greet me, an impressive down-stay or anything else the dog can do well. They are so proud when the dog does just what they want, and I love to applaud these successes with them. I’m well aware that it means a lot to people to show me the best in their dog. I just hadn’t thought about the other side of the coin—when the dog goofs in front of me by jumping up, pulling on the leash, barking or any other imperfect behavior. I tend to focus on celebrating what the dog is doing right rather than becoming worked up about other behavior. After all, it’s not like I’ve ever had a dog whose behavior was consistently perfect.

Have you had the experience of your dog acting up in front of just the person you want them to show off for? Have you had your dog make you proud, too?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Service Dog With One Eye
Disability not a deal breaker

I just finished watching Oscar Pistorius of South Africa qualify for the semifinals in the Olympics 400m race. Nicknamed the Blade Runner because of the shape of the prosthetic legs he wears for racing, Pistorius is the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic Games. He reminds us all that disabilities need not inhibit success and that the joy of having a purpose is not limited to the able-bodied.

Today must be my own personal “disabilities awareness day” because when I took a break from watching the Olympics, I read a story about Pirate the Papillon, a one-eyed dog who is in training to become a service dog. Though one of his eyes failed to open, his guardian recognized that he was special, and looked into the possibility of Pirate becoming a service dog. Pirate is in the initial phases of the process now, learning to be comfortable in all kinds of situations with a wide variety of people and being trained to do basic skills. Within the year, he will receive specific training, perhaps as a hearing dog or as an alert dog for someone with epilepsy or diabetes.

Pirate is so much more than a one-eyed dog. He is a dog with a lovely temperament who is going to make the life of his lucky human companion so much better and so much easier. I’ll bet that’s true of a great many dogs with a disability. Do you have one whose story you’d like to share?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Training: Teach Your Dog To Fetch
Some fetchers are made, not born!
Beagle Dog Fetching Toy - Learning to Fetch

The game of fetch wins the prize as the ultimate good-for-us, good-for-them activity. It gives dogs exercise without humans having to work up a sweat and is a great way to teach dogs the crucial skill of dropping an object on cue. Since it’s fun and interactive, it enhances the relationship between people and dogs. Fetch provides the basis for some of the most amusing tricks, such as teaching a dog to go get a tissue when he hears someone sneeze or to grab a beer from the cooler when told that someone is thirsty.

Unfortunately, many guardians expect their dogs to play fetch without any training, and they are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. They assume that their dog just isn’t into fetch. That’s a shame because many dogs who aren’t naturals at the game love to fetch once someone has taught them how to play.

When teaching a dog to fetch, do what you can to get off on the right paw by choosing your dog’s favorite toy, whether it’s a ball, a plush squirrel, or something squeaky. Begin inside the house where the distractions are fewer and less intense than outside and it will be easier to keep your dog’s attention.

In the early stages, the farther you throw the ball, the less likely your dog is to go after it, so start with short tosses of 10 feet or less. Use two or three toys so that you can throw one when your dog comes back to you even if he doesn’t want to let go of the one in his mouth.

After throwing the ball, either make rapidly repeated high-pitched noises such as woop-woop-woop (pup-pup-pup is also good) or clap as you run away from your dog to encourage him to run towards you. Change the throwing direction with each toss to keep it unpredictable. It’s the unpredictable that makes much of play so fun. Another way to keep it fun, so that your dog will want to keep playing, is to throw the ball the microsecond he comes back to you. It’s more natural to stand there holding it (your dog thinks you’re hoarding it) as you praise him, but that may bore your dog and cause him to lose interest. Finally, quit before your dog wants to. “Leave’em wanting more” is a great strategy when teaching fetch.

As wonderful as fetch can be, it’s not the right game for every dog. Dogs who become aggressive either because they become too aroused or because they are possessive (defending their toys with threatening or even injurious behavior) should not play fetch.

Any dog who is physically capable of playing the game can learn to fetch, and many dogs from a huge variety of breeds love it. It is true, however, that fetch is often picked up fastest by dogs who have a natural tendency to chase after things or are toy-motivated.

If you teach your dog to play this wonderful game, you will have a dog who is fetching, in every sense of the word.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Sharing Life With Dogs
Little moments bring closeness

It’s the togetherness that makes those who live together and share their lives feel like a family. That’s what’s so great about having a dog in the house. The close proximity makes us realize how much a part of the family the dog is.

When you share the same space, you are literally sharing your lives. The way that we live with our dogs—literally WITH them—means that we have the same sorts of interactions with dogs that we do with other humans in our household. We step on each other’s feet by mistake, bump into each other in the kitchen while getting ready in the morning, share food, open the bathroom door on each other, head out together to bring in the mail or the paper, nap with each other, and share a good stretch in the morning.

None of these little events even touch on the bigger aspects of togetherness: hikes and runs together, attending training classes, playing together, and all the other ways we spend our days in tandem. Sometimes simple things like sharing a water bottle after a run or looking out the window together at the rain make me feel more connected to a dog than other activities do. It’s in these seemingly inconsequential moments that the reality of sharing our lives is most obvious.

What little parts of your day that you share with your dog make you feel especially close?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Reactions to Hugs Between Humans
Dogs vary in their responses

Hugging is very human. Actually, this behavior occurs in our species as well as quite a few other primate species, as we primates seem to seek out and enjoy ventral-ventral contact with one another.

Dogs are quite different, as they typically don’t enjoy hugs, no matter how accommodating they are to the humans in their lives who insist on it. To see a dog look displeased, or even disgusted, giving one a hug is often all that’s required.

Of course, I would not recommend hugging a dog for a very important reason that is related to but extends beyond that fact that dogs typically detest it. Many dogs bite when they are hugged. The bites are sometimes motivated by fear, and sometimes a reaction along the lines of, “Don’t you dare do that to me. Again. Ever.”

It’s pretty straightforward to me. Humans like to give and receive hugs. Dogs don’t. When we hug them, most tolerate it in much the same way that children tolerate having their cheeks pinched by aging relatives—grudgingly and with an understanding that the people doing these dreadful things really can’t help themselves.

What’s far less clear to me is what dogs make of observing humans hug each other. I’ve known dogs with a variety of responses to hugs between the human members of my family or our visitors. Some dogs join the hug by jumping up and leaning into the action. Some leap onto the huggers repeatedly and with increasing vigor. Others place themselves between the huggers, causing them to separate. I’ve seen dogs spin in place or circle around the huggers, and I’ve known dogs who bark and growl when two or more humans hug in their presence. It’s unusual to have a dog who runs away, perhaps out of the room when they observe hugging, but I do know of a couple of dogs who did respond in exactly that way.

What does your dog do when you hug someone?

 

 

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cleaning Challenges With Dogs
How do you keep carpets in shape?

There’s a carpet in the back room of my house that is shockingly dirty. Between kids and pets, it has taken a lot of abuse, and it wasn’t in great shape when we bought the house, either. As soon as we moved in, my husband and I both said, “That has GOT to be replaced!” When our 19-month old son threw up on it later that day, we decided we should wait until the kids were a little older. That son is now nearly 9 years old, we still have the carpet, and it is appalling. Between dog hair, muddy paw prints, and various substances that come out of Kongs, dogs have done as much damage as the kids have done with popsicles and paint.

I want to know what people are doing in their homes to prevent and treat this sort of issue. We try to keep the mess largely confined to that one room, which is a combination art studio and play room, so at least the whole house is not as gross. We vacuum most days and we clean the carpet ourselves every couple of months. If I’m honest, though, that carpet is just not pretty, and the time is clearly at hand to replace it, probably with a totally different type of flooring, such as wood or tile.

Having failed at maintaining a carpet myself, I’m so curious how other people with little mess-makers in their homes manage to keep their carpets from looking the way mine does. What are your secrets?

 

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Hammocks and Dogs Create a Balancing Act
It’s another way to be together

I love hammocks and I love dogs. Over the years, there have been many happy moments enjoying each of these pleasures in life. Naturally, I have also spent considerable amounts of time enjoying the two simultaneously.

If you want your dog to enjoy being in a hammock with you, start slowly. Lift the dog or help him step in while the hammock is not moving. Keep it still, and don’t force him to stay in. He may do best with a bunch of short visits (seconds, or a few minutes at most depending on how he’s doing) over a period of time. For most dogs, the key is not to move the hammock until he is comfortable being in it while it’s stationery. To help many dogs like the hammock instead of just tolerating it, give him tasty treats while he’s in it, and then stop the delivery of the goodies when he’s out of it.

Once your dog has learned to settle in and feel comfortable in the hammock, you can add in gentle motion, but just briefly, and certainly don’t swing it far. To keep it safe, make sure your dog’s nails are trimmed so they don’t catch on the hammock. Low hammocks are best for dogs just in case anybody leaves it unexpectedly. Fabric hammocks are safer for dogs than rope ones because dogs’ little legs so easily go through the openings in the fabric, which can be scary and cause injury.

In the video below, Marley and I are having fun, but it was not particularly relaxing. He needs a watchful eye and a guiding hand.

 

 

Just so that nobody is too worried about Marley’s safety, we were only about a foot off the ground, he loves being in hammocks, and I was holding up the edges to minimize the chances of a mishap.

He is pretty well balanced actually, and is a natural in hammocks. He first jumped into the hammock uninvited. Luckily, he made it in on that occasion and did not fly out the other side or get part of his body caught in the hammock.

Nobody should force a dog into a hammock, as not all dogs enjoy the feeling on being in one. Some find the movement really scary while others become motion sick. Many dogs don’t suffer in them, but just vaguely seem to prefer to be on more solid ground.

It sounds overly obvious and simple, but there are few more pleasant ways to pass a lazy afternoon than to spend it swaying gently in the breeze in a hammock with your dog buddy. Do you "swing" with your pup?

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Careers in Behavior and Training
Advice for those who aspire to such work

One of the questions I receive most often is how to become a canine behaviorist or trainer. Neither is a career with a typical path made up of a standard educational program followed by an exam or an approved internship. All of us in the field have carved our own way, which is why there are so many variations on the story we each tell about how we came to do what we do. While there are many paths to a career in this field, some basic advice applies to all of them.

The most important advice I like to give to anyone with an interest in this type of work is that there are two equally important aspects of preparing for such careers. I feel strongly that the best trainers and behaviorists have pursued both avenues as part of their education.

One is acquiring the knowledge you’ll need in this field, and that involves learning a lot about a variety of areas: canine ethology, learning theory, coaching skills, proper equipment, and business. To educate yourself in these areas requires a lot of reading of books and blogs, supplemented by seminars, online or in-person courses, webinars, and workshops.

The second, and equally important area is practical experience and hands-on work with animals. All the book learning in the world will not take you very far as a behaviorist and trainer if you don’t have the skills to actually work with a dog. The best ways to acquire these practical skills are with a combination of workshops, training your own and friends’ dogs, and volunteering at a place with a lot of animals, such as a shelter or humane organization, a rescue group, a veterinary clinic, or a dog-training business.

In my experience, most people are stronger in one area or the other. Either they are really on top of the knowledge and information side of things but a bit weak on dog handling skills or they highly skilled with dogs but could benefit from having more information at their disposal. The people who really excel as dog trainers and behaviorists are balanced—very knowledgeable and highly skilled.

When I started doing this kind of work full time, I was far more advanced in my book learning than my dog handling skills. I had completed my Ph.D. in zoology with an emphasis in ethology, and I was in good shape in terms of what I knew. (To clarify, I think it’s critical not ever to be done learning, so I follow my own advice and continue to learn, especially with a lot of reading and also with webinars and conferences when I can). Though I had good practical skills for working with large colonies of stinging wasps, as was required for my dissertation work, I lacked enough experience with dogs, and that’s what I set out to correct.

I worked as a dog groomer for a year just to get to know my new species of choice, while I worked as an assistant trainer and then as a trainer. I remember after that year when I began my internship with behaviorist Patricia McConnell, she once said to me, “I’m as proud of my dog training skills as I am of my Ph. D. They were equally hard to acquire.” That comment has always stayed with me, reminding me of the importance of excelling in both knowledge and practical skills. These skills must be practiced regularly to be maintained.

If you haven’t yet worked a lot with dogs, you may wonder what sorts of skills I’m talking about. The things that people who work with dogs need to be able to do take practice to be able to do with dogs of every temperament, size, and learning style. They include:
 

  • Getting them in and out of kennels and crates
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  • Using your own expressions and postures to set even fearful dogs at ease
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  • Having excellent timing with reinforcement, such as treats and clickers or other markers
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  • Using your voice and modulating its tone and volume
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  • Managing the leash when working with exuberant or even aggressive dogs.
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  • Attaching and fitting all sorts of head collars, harness, and leashes
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  • Body blocking
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  • Moving in space with dogs for turns, stops, accelerations

 

If you are interested in a career as a behaviorist or trainer, know that you will be working with people as much as with dogs. If you want to work with animals because you love them and aren’t so fond of people, this is not the right field for you. People and dogs are two of my very favorite species, which is lucky since I spend so much time with members of both of them.

Best of luck to all of you who want to be in this field. I love my work and I would recommend it to anyone who loves dogs (and people!) as much as I do!

 

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