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
This Dog is Not Photogenic
I’m not sure why I care

I am dogsitting again for Schultzie, an incredibly lovely dog about whom I have expressed my great love. There are so many wonderful qualities in this dog, but being photogenic is not among them. She is incredibly adorable in person, but her charm simply does not come across in pictures. This bums me out, but it’s hard to explain why it matters to me at all.

As a behaviorist, I know very well the value of a dog whose behavior makes her a joy to be around. What a dog looks like is not what’s most important to me. In fact, I’m a huge champion of choosing a dog whose behavior you like and then learning to love what that dog looks like. (This would probably not be a bad idea in our relationships with people either, but that’s a whole different can of worms.)

With Schultzie’s appearance not translating well to pictures, I’ve given a lot of thought to why I care. I think that the fact that Schultzie is not photogenic bothers me because I adore this dog and I want others to see her in the best possible light, and pictures that don’t do her justice fail in that attempt.

Do you have a dog who is not photogenic, and if so, how do you feel about that?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Contagious yawning in dogs
Empathy may cause it

It’s been known for a long time that yawning is contagious in various species of primates, including humans. (It’s actually highly contagious. If it were as easy to catch a cold or malaria, it would be all but impossible to stay healthy.) In recent years, the contagious nature of yawns between dogs and people has been a research subject of considerable interest.

Studies have demonstrated that dogs can “catch” yawns from people, which is fascinating enough given that we are two different species. Now, a new study called “Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): first evidence for social modulation” suggests that human yawns are contagious to dogs by auditory means. (Translation: Dogs will yawn in response to just hearing a human yawn.)

The study was an attempt to demonstrate that contagious yawning in dogs is different than that same phenomenon in primates, but the data say otherwise. In primates, yawn contagion indicates that the observer has empathy for the yawner. It was thought that in dogs, yawns were induced by a hard-wired behavioral pattern that was exhibited in response to a releasing stimulus. However, the observation that dogs yawned more in response the sound of familiar yawns than to the sounds of unfamiliar yawns suggests that empathy may play a role in the contagion.

Reading and writing about this subject has given me a case of the yawns, along with the dog right next to me. Did you yawn while reading this, and if so, did your dog follow suit?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Encountering Dogs While Running
Strategies for safety

Where I live (in Flagstaff, Ariz.) we have the same problems with off-leash dogs that most communities face. There are some people who think, for whatever reason, that leash laws don’t apply to them and their dogs. All runners, including me, have faced dogs charging at us on the trails and on the roads. It’s a risky situation when you are faced with a dog who is, at best, overly enthusiastic, and at worst, aggressive. Sometimes there’s a guardian around, but not always. Even when they are present, the situation can be alarming, either because the person seems frantic to get the dog back. (“Come! Get over here! No bite! NO BITE! NO BITE!!!”) or because there is no concern as a dog leaps at innocent passersby. (“Don’t worry, he’s friendly!”)

Flagstaff is a running mecca where many of the best runners in the world come to train in order to take advantage of the 7000-foot altitude and the endless miles of trails. My worst nightmare is that some Olympian or Olympic hopeful will be bitten and that the injury will ruin someone’s lifetime dream. Even without such dire consequences, derailed workouts and being truly afraid are not cool, whether it happens to an elite athlete or to any of the rest of us regular runners.

I am often asked what to do when a dog charges at someone or chases them on a run. There are so many variables in these situations that it’s difficult to make blanket statements or provide all the possibilities, but there are general guidelines for minimizing the chance that a scary situation turns injurious. Here are a few of my top tips for dealing with off-leash dogs while running.

Here are a few “dos”

Staying calm is a wise idea. Adding any sort of excitement to the situation is counterproductive.

Slow down, walk or stop. Speed is intoxicating to many dogs, who give chase to anything that’s moving such as squirrels, cats, dogs and runners. The fastest runners—the elites—are more likely to be chased, which I think is due in part to their graceful, gazelle-like build and gait. Some dogs try to herd runners, which may account for a lot of the bites to the back of the legs and ankles. It’s annoying to interrupt your run, but it beats being bitten.

If you are wearing sunglasses or a hat, take them off. Many dogs are scared of people wearing such accessories and charge or chase out of fear. If you remove them, some dogs realize you are just a person, not a monster, and ease off.

Swing wide to create more distance between you and the dog. A lot of dogs are chasing or charging to keep you away from their property, so if you act in accordance with these dogs’ wishes, you minimize the chances of trouble.

Say things that may put the dog in a good mood, using a cheerful voice. This seems ridiculous to many people, but I swear that changing the dog’s emotional state can work wonders. The phrases that are most likely to have an effect are “Wanna go for a walk?”, “Dinnertime!”, “Where’s your ball?”, and “Good dog, good dog, good dog.” So many dogs are conditioned to react happily to one or more of these phrases, and that means they have the power to diffuse a tense situation. Speaking in a happy voice, even though you have to fake it, makes this strategy more effective.

Similarly, a few dogs will respond if you give them a cue, telling them to sit, go home, or stay. Many dogs are too worked up to react, but it does work sometimes. And giving a cue or using a happy phrase is exceedingly unlikely to make things worse, so both are worth a try.

Another option is to turn and head the other way. Yes, it’s frustrating to have to change your route because of a misbehaving off-leash dog, but safety first! Many dogs are trying to get you to go away, and if you do, they will leave you alone. It’s best to head the other way slowly so you don’t incite the dog to chase you.

Here are a few “don’ts”

Don’t yell at the dog. Many dogs are afraid and this will only make their fear, and therefore their undesirable behavior, worse.

Don’t stare at the dog. Though this is often suggested, staring is an overtly threatening behavior and will cause many dogs to react even more aggressively to you. It will rarely cause a dog who is going after you to back off.

Don’t scream. This agitates many dogs, and makes them even more unpredictable.

Don’t throw anything at dog. Doing so can be perceived as threatening, which may make the situation escalate rather than make it better.

Don’t pick up a stick and try to use it as a weapon. This is far too likely to frighten a fearful dog or to be taken as an escalation of any confrontation by dogs who are on the offensive.

No technique is foolproof, but the general rule is to try to get out of the situation calmly and quickly without making the dog any more upset. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong or whether the dog is legally allowed to be off leash where you are running. It’s just about avoiding a serious issue so that you can not only keep running today, but in the future.

There are many ways to make this happen, and this list of dos and don’ts includes some of my top picks. What techniques have you found most helpful to prevent an issue with an off-leash dog while you are running?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
My Dream Dog Video
Racing against a greyhound

I know I am preaching to the choir when I proclaim that dogs are incredible animals with amazing abilities. So I’m pretty sure I’m in good company when I say that I have a list of dogs’ traits that are so extraordinary that it’s worth finding ways to demonstrate them to the world. I even have a wish list for videos I’d love to have that show dogs off a bit. Sometimes I acquire the videos I desire, but the list just keeps on growing.

Currently at the top of my wish list is a pair of videos illustrating how quickly dogs can run. The first of the two videos would show a race between my husband, who is a sprinter, and me. I’m a runner, too, but not one blessed with any real speed. He would easily dust me in a race of any distance. The second of the two videos would show a race between my husband and a greyhound, which would be such a rout by the dog that it would make that first race with me look close.

What do you think is so amazing about dogs that you have an urge to show everyone?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Prey Drive: Fact or Fiction?
Correct terminology or jargon?
Prey Drive

If you have an urge to create discord and angst, here’s one way to do it: Go to a dog behavior conference or seminar and boldly state, “I think we should discuss the meaning of the term ‘prey drive,’ and decide whether or not we should continue to use it.” Then, make a dash for the exit before it gets ugly.

To most people in the dog world, the term “prey drive” refers to a dog’s eagerness or desire to work hard, especially if the work involves anything related to chasing and capturing prey. It’s a trait that makes many dogs successful in the world of canine sports. The term is often used by people whose dogs participate in agility or f ly ball as well as by those whose dogs work in search and rescue or law enforcement.

Additionally, it has become increasingly popular when discussing dogs with various behavioral issues, typically issues related to chasing (cars, squirrels, runners, bikes, children) and the resulting difficulty in teaching them to come or to pay attention in general around any of these distractions.

Sometimes “prey drive” is used in a positive sense, as in, “She’s excited about working because she has a high prey drive. I love her enthusiasm and motivation, and the prey drive gives her such great endurance too.” It can also be used in a negative way, as in, “I can never let her off-leash in areas that aren’t fenced in. She has such high prey drive that she’ll chase anything. I can’t trust her to come back or stay out of trouble.”

So, though prey drive is commonly used in the dog world, many people dislike it. From an ethological perspective, it doesn’t make sense. If you ask an ethologist (someone who studies the behavior of animals in their natural environments) who doesn’t happen to be involved in that world — and the vast majority of them aren’t — what they think of the term, they will look at you quizzically and then criticize it on the grounds that it’s nonsensical.

To ethologists, the word “drive” refers to an unknown and variable internal state that explains why an animal’s response to a stimulus is not identical every time the animal is exposed to it. For example, at times, a dog may charge after a tennis ball with gleaming eyes and an over-the-top bouncy enthusiasm, while at other times, that same dog may lazily lope after the ball or even ignore it, though the stimulus (the thrown ball) is the same. What’s different is the dog’s interest in or motivation to chase it. “Drive” is the term used to explain that difference, which ethologists consider to be a difference in internal states, perhaps based on neurological or physiological variables over time.

Fluctuation in an animal’s drive doesn’t just affect predatory behavior. It also influences how eager a dog is to eat, drink and engage in sexual behavior, or any other type of behavior for that matter. Yet, we don’t talk about food drive, water drive or potential-mating-partner drive. We say that a dog is hungry or food-motivated (or a chowhound); that the dog is thirsty; or, in the case of females, that she is sexually receptive. To be fair, the term “sex drive” is used to describe the state of having an interest in mating — referring typically (but not always) to males — but we don’t say female drive or male drive.

Even in the way that many people use it, prey drive lacks precision. Does it mean a drive to run, to chase, to catch something, to bite it, to kill it or any combination of these? Is it all related to predatory behavior, and if so, why is the term “prey drive” used, rather than “predatory drive”?

Words and phrases that express precise concepts are indispensable for communication, and the more specific we can be, the better. However, the inexactness of language can make it a challenge to convey precise meanings. For example, because English is short on words that describe emotional nuance, people say things such as, “Do you like him or do you like him?”

Some people feel that the word “drive” doesn’t actually explain an animal’s behavior. In one sense, it’s an oversimplification to say that an animal is behaving a certain way because of an internal state or a change in that internal state. We know that an animal’s motivation changes over time and that different members of the same species behave differently in the presence of identical stimuli, but we don’t often know why. So, the term is more descriptive and less explanatory than it purports to be. A label such as “prey drive” is essentially a shorthand way to describe what we don’t understand since we don’t have complete knowledge of dogs’ internal states and their effect on behavior.

Another problem with prey drive is that it is often used in an attempt to explain a dog’s unwanted behavior toward other dogs and even people,neither of which are normally objects of canine predatory focus. We’ve all heard people dismiss a dog’s inappropriate, undesirable and sometimes even aggressive behavior with the comment that the dog has a high prey drive. It sounds so much nicer than saying that the dog has little impulse control, a far-from-ideal temperament or has not been the beneficiary of sufficient training.

Criticisms of the phrase may be a predictable result of the fact that often, when terms are appropriated from other fields, they are used in a slightly different way. The current meaning of terms in our field may not match their original use, which can cause confusion and thus, a tendency to consider that the way the terms are being used is “wrong.”

Overall, the terminology employed to describe canine behavior is messy, perhaps in part because dog behavior encompasses a number of disciplines, among them ethology, evolution, physiology, neurobiology, sociology, psychology, learning theory and animal husbandry.

For example, the words “operant conditioning” can mean something different to those involved in the dog world than they do to those who study learning theory. Many dog trainers use the phrase with its original meaning in mind: the modification of behavior through the use of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Others use it as a synonym for positive reinforcement alone; when these people say they train using operant conditioning, they mean that they use positive reinforcement. However, in the field of learning theory, positive reinforcement is only one part of operant conditioning. Similarly, the concept of drive, which comes from the academic discipline of ethology, has come to mean something different, though related, in the world of dogs.

It’s wise to acknowledge that terms have to be considered in context. Would it be better if no such confusion ever arose and multiple meanings didn’t exist? Sure, there would be advantages, but the reality is that languages change, as do fields of study and their associated terminology.

Cultures vary in the way they accept and integrate shifting meanings in the language used to describe the world around them. On one extreme, the French are well known for their strong national pride in the stability of their language, and the great importance they place on maintaining le bon usage (the correct usage) and resisting change, particularly Anglicisms. At the other extreme is the surfer culture with its enthusiastic proliferation of new words and phrases such as “tubular,” “hang ten,” “in the soup” and “goofy footed.” Americans generally accept new words and phrases easily, accounting for the rapid spread of “going postal,” “cougar,” “to be plutoed” and, most recently, “Tebowing.”

So where does the dog community stand collectively in our tolerance for changes in language, new terminology and the appropriation of terms from other fields into our own lexicon?

Many people love new terms. They enjoy referring to “predatory drift” and “reactivity” (the term “aggression” used to suffice), and they happily accept “prey drive.” Others would greatly prefer to hear that a dog is enthusiastic about agility or fly ball, or that the dog is motivated to run the course, take the jumps or retrieve a ball.

What’s important is that we understand one another. The reality is that when most people talk about prey drive in dogs, they are referring to the enthusiasm and strong motivation that makes dogs sharp on the course, eager to participate and reliably give their all in competition or in play. I suspect that the term “prey drive” is here to stay, and I sure hope that the joy of dogs who possess a lot of it also remains with us forever.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Is That a Dog or a Person?
Hair and fur can look alike

Walking out of the grocery store, I saw a car drive by and I wondered what kind of dog was in the back seat. Its coat was exquisite! I only caught a quick glimpse of it, but I was thinking maybe it was a Briard at first, but then I thought it looked more like a Soft-Coated Wheaton Terrier, or even an Afghan Hound. I was hoping for a better look so I could know for certain, so I walked closer to where the car was now parked and realized immediately that my guesses were a little off. It was not a Briard, a Soft-Coated Wheaton Terrier, or an Afghan Hound. In fact, it was not even a dog.

It was a person with dark blond hair who seemed a bit startled to see me staring intently at her. She looked at me uncertainly, and I stopped myself just in time from saying what was on my mind (“Oops, I thought you were a dog and I was curious what breed you were. My mistake.”) and managed to say instead, “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.” Her hair was so gorgeous that it looked like a beautiful coat of fur, but I thought trying to explain that to someone carried the risk of an awkward misunderstanding.

This is not the first time I’ve mistaken a person for a dog in a car. Whenever I see just a little bit of an individual through the window, I seem prone to this mistake. Recently permed gray or white hair have both had me thinking “Poodle!” at one time or another, and a woman with a rich henna tone to her hair once made me all excited that an Irish Setter might be moving in to the neighborhood only to have that hope dashed 30 seconds later when she got out of the back seat.

I guess I just see dogs everywhere because I want to see dogs everywhere. Have you ever mistaken a person for a dog or vice versa?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Saved From Dangerous Situation
Facebook to the rescue

Communication is critical when an animal or a child is lost or in danger. If more people know to be on the lookout for an individual in trouble, the likelihood of rescue increases. Such was the case for a stray dog with her head stuck inside a jug, a situation that can lead to suffocation, dehydration, hunger and many risks. When a picture of this animal and her predicament was posted on Facebook, a lot of people took notice, including a local TV station in Nashville.

Eventually, one of the volunteers out searching for the dog found her and people were able to remove the jug and take her to a veterinarian. Ecstatic that she survived an ordeal that could have ended less happily, the dog has been named Miracle.

Has Facebook helped a dog in need in your area?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs in the City
New show is worth a look

“Dogs in the City” is a new CBS show based in New York and starring dog trainer Justin Silver. Each episode shows several people or families whose dogs have issues. Silver works with the people to improve the dog’s behavior and quality of life.

Silver really understands people, connects with them, and sees the human social dynamic clearly and fairly. He is direct, like a proper New Yorker, calling it as he sees it, but always in a kind and respectful way. The people chosen to be on the show are quirky enough to be interesting, but not too far out there. They are well within the range of clients that most trainers and behaviorists work with over the years.

The show focuses on how the people featured impact the behavior of their dogs. The show does not emphasize training specifics. There is little actual training in the show, and few specific cues given to the dogs, presumably because this show is not a how-to show on training. That said, Silver sets a good example as a trainer by using healthy treats and by emphasizing the importance of what people DO want their dog to do rather than on what they DON’T want their dog to do.

Some of what Silver says and does may not feel quite right to trainers. He pulls on the leash quite a bit with dogs, including his own, Chiquita and Pacino (who by the way are both adorable and beautifully behaved.) He uses the term “socialization” to mean being social with other dogs rather than using it more technically to refer to early, influential experiences during specific periods of development that in dogs end at around 4 months of age. He talks about being “master” which is not a term so commonly used anymore. He often kisses dogs on the nose, which is not a great example for viewers.

That said, it’s only fair to state the well-known adage that the only thing two dog trainers can ever agree on is that a third trainer is doing something wrong. I’m never going to agree completely with any other trainer, but there are things to praise about each one, too.

Silver’s deep connection to and love for both dogs and people is obvious, and he clearly cares to about members of both species. I love his emphasis on letting dogs be dogs rather than treating them as four-legged people. In summary, I like Silver, enjoyed the show and plan to watch it again. If you’ve watched it, what do you think of it?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Visiting a Therapy Dog Class
Strangers with a purpose

My family was recently invited to attend a dog therapy class. The goal was to provide the dogs an opportunity to practice being on their best, most friendly behavior when presented with strangers, even if those strangers were behaving in unusual ways. We were particularly welcome visitors because our family includes two boys, ages 7 and 8. Finding parents willing to bring their young kids around dogs to help them practice handling excitement is not easy. (Go figure.)

I trust the trainer, Liz Tallman, and knew that the dogs in class were going to be trustworthy around kids, though of course I reserved the right to take my kids out of any situation that made me uncomfortable. Our first step was to meet each of the dogs outside as a family. My kids were instructed to call out from a distance, “May we pet your dog?” and then we all approached when given permission. Our job was to greet the dogs exuberantly, but politely. So, we talked at high volume and petted the dogs vigorously, but we did not try to hug them, ride them, stare into their eyes or anything else that the dogs were likely to dislike.

Once the dogs had each met us and hopefully learned that we were nice, we had each of the dogs come to visit the whole family one by one in the training room. I sat in a wheelchair to help the dogs learn to be comfortable around wheelchairs and also to pay attention to the “patient” rather than the other people in the room. My kids were instructed to leap around, yell a bit, run, hop, and generally act like kids who have been cooped up for awhile. (They asked for clarification on this: “You mean you WANT us to misbehave around the dogs, and do all the things we’re usually not supposed to? Is this a trick?”)

We adjusted our behavior with each dog. In some cases, if a dog seemed a little hesitant to approach, I fed the dog treats to help develop happy associations with wheelchairs. For other dogs, my kids were asked to tone it down a bit, or even to go more crazy if the dog was ready to practice being in those situations. In all cases, the goal was to work on teaching the dog to approach the patient first and present its body in a way that made petting easy. One small dog was even lifted onto my lap after I was asked if that was okay. Only after the pretend therapy with me (the pretend patient) was the dog invited to greet the rest of my family.

It was a wonderful experience and I highly recommend accepting such an opportunity if it presents itself to you. (Do make sure that the trainer would know if a dog could not handle such a situation.) We had a great time and look forward to participating in future classes.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Sometimes Dogs Aren’t Sad
They’re just resting

It’s common to misinterpret dogs’ signals and think that they mean something that they don’t. Examples of this abound with everything from the common statement by people who are not overly dog savvy that the dog must be friendly because he’s wagging his tail, to the more complex issues related to the meaning of barking and other vocalizations.

Lately, I’ve noticed that many people look at a dog and interpret the dog’s emotional state as “sad” when I don’t think that’s what’s going on. This typically happens when the dog is lying down with his head on his paws. It’s a very endearing look, and while it’s certainly possible that a dog doing this could be sad, that’s not necessarily true.

The dog is often just peacefully resting, and this posture is particularly common when dogs have had the pleasure of a tiring themselves out with plenty of exercise. The captions on some photos I’ve seen of dogs in this posture are along the lines of “A very tired dog” and “Relaxing after a long walk in the snow.”

Typically, a happy, relaxed dog has its mouth open, its eyes looking bright and is a bit bouncy in its movement. That sort of exuberance in both face and body makes it easy to understand that a dog is in an upbeat emotional state. It’s when a dog is calm that it’s harder to tell if the emotional state is sad or content.

A dog who is lying down with its head on its paws will have a closed mouth, which always makes a dog look less happy. The eyebrows often move as the dog looks around, which can make a dog look pensive, and the dog doesn’t look that energetic, which can be confused with sad. However, a dog who is lying down is likely to be pretty comfortable in the situation since dogs rarely lie down if they are scared or otherwise agitated. Most often, dogs who are lying down with their heads resting on their paws are relaxed and quite at ease.