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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
Human Point of View
Dogs’ behavior suggests they understand it

Dogs take the human perspective into account when deciding whether to take food that they have been told not to take. This is the conclusion of a recent series of experiments by Juliane Kaminski, Andrea Pitsch and Michael Tomasello described in a research paper called Dogs Steal in the Dark.

The experiments all had a similar set up, in which a dog was in a room with a food item on the floor. Dogs were pre-tested to ensure that they understood the cue not to take the food. They were told not to take the food and then the experimenters recorded whether the dog took the food or not and if so, how long it took for them to do so. In the first experiment, a human was present in the room and there were four conditions: 1) the food and the human were both in darkness, 2) the food was illuminated but the human was in the dark, 3) the food was in the dark but the human was illuminated, and 4) the food and the human were both illuminated.

The dogs took the food most often when both the food and the human were in darkness, and least often when they were both illuminated. The dogs took the food faster when it was not illuminated, but whether or not the human was illuminated had no effect on the time until the food was taken. These results suggest that the level of light in the room had an influence on the dogs’ behavior.

In the second experiment, the food was either illuminated or in the dark, but the human left the room after giving the cue not to take the food. The goal of this experiment was to determine if dogs were avoiding food when it was lit. The results were that the dogs almost always took the food no matter what light situation it was in, but they took it faster when it was illuminated than when it was in the dark. This indicates that the dogs are not simply avoiding food that is illuminated.

In the third experiment, the researchers investigated whether the overall amount of light in the room was important to dogs or whether they were responding to the specific location of the illumination. There were two different situations tested. For one group of dogs, the human in the room was always illuminated. Half the time, the food was illuminated, and half the time the light was directed at another spot in the room. For the other group of dogs, the human in the room was always in the dark and half the time, the food was illuminated, and half the time the light was directed at another spot in the room.

In this study, whether or not the human or the food was illuminated had no influence on the likelihood that the dogs took the food, but they waited longer to take the food when it was illuminated. This suggests that the location of the lit area matters, as opposed to dogs just reacting to the overall amount of illumination in the room. This shows that the visibility of the human is not the factor that causes the difference in behavior.

Overall, the conclusions drawn from these studies are that dogs do take into account illumination when taking food that they have been told not to take. Dogs were more likely to take the food when it was dark compared to when it was light. They took the food faster when the food was in darkness when a human was present, but took the food faster when it was illuminated when they were alone. Whether or not a human in the room was illuminated did not affect their behavior.

This research supports the idea that dogs are aware of and consider the human point of view when deciding whether to take food or not. To put that into a larger context, this relates to the ever-increasing body of evidence that dogs have a theory of mind, meaning they have an understanding that other individuals have different perspectives, knowledge and emotions.

This is very well done research that teases apart a number of variables to add to what we know about the canine mind. Unfortunately, most of the articles in the popular press only say, “Dogs steal more food in a dark room than in a light room,” which is a huge oversimplification of the complexity of this interesting work.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
He Can Do Stairs?
He was polite, not unskilled

While dog sitting a big Chocolate Lab, I noticed that when we humans went upstairs, he stayed at the bottom of the steps. He had that, “What about poor me?” look about him, and I assumed he was not comfortable with stairs. Perhaps he had no experience with them, or a bad experience had made him nervous about them. There are a lot of dogs who don’t like stairs, and I assumed Bear was one of them.

Except for running up to get something, we mainly use the upstairs for sleeping. As his giant crate was downstairs (it’s too big for our bedrooms!) I didn’t consider it a problem. He was not going to be left out of our activities because of it, and he would be sleeping in his crate anyway, so I didn’t give it much thought.

My main interest in the situation was that he looked so dear standing at the bottom of the staircase looking at us longingly that I wanted to take some pictures of him. I took one, and then he wandered away from the spot. Hoping to encourage him to come back so I could continue with the photo session, I quietly smooched.

His response was to run up the stairs immediately and greet me with enthusiasm. (When I say “enthusiasm” I’m sure everybody can picture what I mean, because who among us has not been on the receiving end of such a canine greeting?) It was just as effortless for him to go down the stairs as to go up. This is not a dog who has any issues with stairs.

My assumption about his ability to negotiate stairs was completely off the mark. It turns out that his reticence to climb them was rooted in good manners rather than a lack of skill. He had not been invited to go upstairs, so he did not go upstairs. When he heard me smooch, he took it as an invitation and he considered himself welcome upstairs. He has since been my shadow every time I go up or down.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Extendable Leash Accident
Dog slightly hurt and very afraid

The dog was running away as fast as he could from what scared him, but unfortunately, he couldn’t get away from it. That’s because he was running away from his extendable leash, and it was still attached to him. The dog had hit the end of the leash and pulled hard enough to jerk the handle from his guardian’s hand. The handle had come flying towards him as the leash fed back into it at top speed and the internal mechanism broke. He became more and more terrified as the “monster” first charged him and then continued to come after him. Despite his speed, he was unable to escape.

His guardian was eventually able to catch him, and remove the leash. He did have a cut where the handle had hit him hard, but that healed quickly, thankfully. Though the dog calmed down considerably once he was no longer being “attacked” by his own leash, the dog’s serious fright would have lasting consequences. Like most dogs, he used to associate the leash with the happiness and fun of going on a walk or a run, but now he associated it with being afraid.

To help a dog in this situation, I recommend switching to a standard 6-foot leash and a new collar, and associating them with treats, toys, and walks from the first time the dog sees them and they are put on. The goal is to avoid transferring any of the negative feelings associated with the old leash and collar, and make a complete switch to another system that only ever has happy feelings associated with it.

I’ve seen quite a few dogs who have had a bad experience when an extendable leash was pulled out of the hand of the person holding it, and I also know that some dogs enjoy the freedom of them. What do you think about extendable leashes based on your experiences with them?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine Clean-Up Crew
Dogs help tidy up

Between the muddy paws, the dog hair, the gooey toys and the drool, it’s easy to argue that dogs create a certain challenge to cleanliness. I know of only a few dog guardians whose homes are in the kind of shape that makes them look like magazine spreads on decorating. At some point, most of us just throw up our hands and decide that this is how we live. Except for special occasions, we are okay with that, and proceed peacefully with our lives.

Yet to blame our dogs for the messes in our homes is to miss part of what’s actually going on. Many dogs do a lot of cleaning up for us, but we don’t tend to notice that until we are away from them for a while. A friend recently told me that he dropped a piece of chicken on the ground at his parent’s house and his mom was appalled when he made no move to pick it up.

He apologized and took care of it, but did explain that at home, if he’s making chicken salad and a bit hits the ground, one of his dogs will eat it up. Problem solved. The same goes for most foods—steak, cheese, green beans—as well as crushed ice, which regularly drops from their broken ice dispenser. It doesn’t melt and make a puddle on the floor because his dogs are way too quick to let that happen. If something falls to the floor that the dogs can’t have such as the entire steak they plan to eat that night or something bad for them like chocolate or onions, a calm “leave it” tells the dogs that even though it’s on the floor, it is not fair game.

What does your dog clean up off the floor, saving you the trouble?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Photographs For Remembering
Don’t wait until it’s too late

It makes me tremendously happy to look at photos of dogs from my past. As I get older, I make more of an effort to capture expressions, behavior and moments that I know I’ll want to see even after the dog is gone. It’s easy to assume that I could never forget certain images that seem seared into my brain, but experience has taught me that to rely completely on my memory is a gamble.

I have many photos of my dog Bugsy and I cherish each one. I love the photos of him playing with his best buddies, holding a toy, cocking his head at me in the way that he did so often, lying down next to my young son as a baby, running with both my husband and with me, waiting at the door, looking longingly out the front window, tugging with me, heeling with my husband, and jumping straight up in the air with all four paws several feet off the ground.

The one picture I really wish that I had of him is with his lip stuck and curled up on the side of his teeth—not in an aggressive way, but just in a disorganization-of-the-face kind of way. Many dogs have their lip assume that undignified position from time to time, but it happened to Bugsy so often that I think of him every time I see a dog whose lip is stuck to his teeth in a random spot. It’s not the most attractive expression, but I find it especially endearing because of Bugsy. The closest I have is a photo of Bugsy chewing on a greenie in which his upper lip is puffed out. It’s a photo I like because it shows how shiny his coat always was, but it fails to capture the expression I remember so well.

I encourage everyone to be sure to take photos of their dogs doing all those day-to-day things—eating, playing with a toy, sleeping, standing at the door eager to go out—as well as those visual images unique to your dog. In my case, I missed that opportunity with Bugsy in one way, and I regret it. If your dog puts his head on the bed in the morning, holds three toys in her mouth at once, stretches in a particular way, waves with a front paw or sleeps in a position that defies description, that’s what you should be sure to capture in photos. It’s pictures of dogs being uniquely themselves that are most precious to me than the ones in which they look the most beautiful.

What pictures are you so grateful to have of a departed dog and which pictures do you regret never taking?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Hurry Up and Get Busy
Cues to tell dogs to poop

I personally don’t want to be outside saying “Go Poop” out loud to my dogs. I’m not sure why, with all the potty humor I enjoy, that this is embarrassing to me. It makes no sense, especially as I am perfectly comfortable telling them to “Go Pee” in front of anyone, but I require more subtle cues to let dogs know that I am asking them to poop.

It is so useful to have a cue that tells your dog to eliminate. So often, dogs go outside and are occupied with sniffing this and sniffing that or just enjoying the fresh air. Usually, such a leisurely approach to going to the bathroom is not a problem, but occasionally, for whatever reason, we need our dogs to take care of business in a more prompt way. That’s when it’s great to have a specific cue that tells them to urinate or to defecate.

I have used different words to tell dogs to poop, but my two favorites are “Get Busy” and “Hurry Up.” I like these because they allow me to express what I am feeling in the situations in which I am telling my dogs that I want them to eliminate now, before I must go away and leave them for a time. I really DO want them to get busy, and I certainly appreciate it if they can hurry up about it.

Usually, I have had dogs who are quite regular and poop quite predictably morning and evening during walks or runs, or perhaps in the yard before or after such outings. Still, even these dogs sometimes seem a little off, and it helps to have a cue to tell them, essentially, “Go if you can now.”

What cues, if any, do you use for elimination?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Wood Pile Made of Toys
To a dog, it’s all for fun

I went outside with Bear, the super-sized chocolate lab who was staying with us for the weekend, and it was immediately apparent that we had different goals. My plan was to collect some firewood and bring it inside. Bear may not have had any plans ahead of time, but as soon as he saw the stacks and stacks of firewood, he developed an idea based on his response to seeing the wood pile. His response was, “So many toys, so little time,” and his idea was apparently to enjoy as many sticks as possible.

As I pulled my first log off the pile, Bear did the same, choosing a small piece that was intended to be used in starting the fire. I tossed mine in the canvas log carrier, Bear took his over to an undisturbed patch of snow and began to chew on it. I interrupted my wood collecting for a game of fetch with Bear. I tossed his stick over and over, and each time, he dug it out of the powdery snow. Every once in a while, he would deposit the stick by my feet, but instead of waiting for me to throw it, he went to the wood pile to select a new, presumably better, stick. This went on until I decided to go back to my original collecting duties.

Soon I decided that it would be fun to take a picture of Bear removing a stick from the pile, and this is when it became clear that we were working at cross purposes. Bear was busy chewing on a couple of his favorite new sticks, but I was cold and ready to go inside. Rather than wait until the next time he decided to select a new stick, I attempted to hurry things along.

Multiple times, I attempted to chuck a stick of the size he seemed to prefer onto the pile so that he would retrieve it and I could capture that moment with my camera. Each time, he caught the stick in mid-air, which was quite an impressive feat, but no good for my wish to photograph him removing a stick from the wood pile. After the first couple of attempts, I looked around to see my husband standing inside by the nearby sliding glass doors laughing. I joined him in finding it hilarious, and laughed, too. (I rarely fail to recognize when I am caught in the act of being ridiculous.)

I decided to wait until Bear was good and ready to choose a stick according to his own schedule, and that’s when I was able to photograph him with his selection. Have you ever been trying to get something done and found that since your dog thought it was a just a game, it took you far longer to accomplish?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Provides Philosophy Lesson
Living life with greater joy

Nobody illustrates living in the moment better than dogs, and it was immediately apparent that this dog was a role model in this regard. Bear is a chocolate lab who stayed with us over this past weekend while his guardian was out of town. We loved every minute of it, in large part because Bear himself is so happy. This is a dog who is sucking the marrow out of life, so to speak.

On my first walk with Bear around the neighborhood, I was reminded that though I try to carpe diem as much as the next person, I have room for improvement. Within minutes, I saw that this dog with large bones and a big heart to match was living the good life and that if I just followed his lead, my happiness would increase. I took in a few lessons from Bear.

Do everything with enthusiasm. Whatever Bear was doing, he gave it his all. If he was sniffing snow, he was up to his ears in it. When he was running, he was doing it at full speed. When my kids were petting or brushing him, he surrendered completely and relaxed under their skilled hands.

Find your purpose. Everyone should have things that drive them, and in Bear’s case, it’s fetching. Sticks, toys, socks that were tossed in the laundry basket, snowballs and any other flying object were toys to him and his purpose was to retrieve them. He is very thorough in his work, and never, NEVER tires of playing fetch. He knows it’s what he loves best (not counting his guardian!), and he’s eager to play anytime. He often initiates the game with anyone who looks like a willing partner. He has found his passion in life, and that’s a great part of happiness.

Accept things as they come. He was so at ease with whatever the days brought. Staying at a new place with new people? No problem. A long walk with a couple of friends and their dogs? Great. Running around in the backyard catching snowballs? Excellent. Massage time? Perfect. Time for rest and a snooze. Fine. Outside for one last chance to pee and then bedtime? Okay. He is so agreeable, so well adjusted, and comfortable with so many situations. His middle name could definitely be Go-With-The–Flow.

I thought we were making an even trade—the fun of a canine visitor for us, the opportunity to travel without the constraints of a dog for his guardian. It turns out that we came out way ahead because of Bear’s philosophy lesson about enjoying life. I don’t know what my neighbors thought as they saw me running and playing with him as we frolicked near our house, laughing constantly as we went up and down the local streets. I’m hoping they understood that I was just living in the moment, finding joy with a dog who spreads it everywhere.

Of course all dogs tend to bring us joy, but can you share a story about a dog who was absolutely brimming over with contagious enthusiasm for life?

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Genius of Dogs
How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think
The Genius of Dogs

The Genius of Dogs is written in a pleasant, conversational style that is enjoyable to read. Its strength lies in the sections on the history of canine-specific research, which are easy-to-read, informative summaries of the progression of particular lines of study.

Among the well-covered topics are Belyaev’s genetic studies on foxes; the vocal communication of dogs; and Rico and Chaser, the dogs famous for knowing the names of hundreds of objects. Other sections of the book are less successful. More than once, I found myself puzzled by conclusions that didn’t follow logically from the available data. This gave me the impression that the authors already had opinions about how dogs’ minds work and were trying to force the data into supporting those viewpoints.

A notable weakness comes in the discussion of Hare’s own research. Although the authors say they will include work that contradicts Hare’s results, they fail to mention any of the reputable studies disputing his major findings about dogs’ responsiveness to human gestures. Notably absent are the well-known research studies challenging Hare’s conclusion that dogs are better than wolves at following human gestures.

Hare has reason to be proud of both the volume of research into canine cognition his experiments have inspired as well as his trailblazing open-mindedness in using his own pet dog as a subject at a time when such use was discouraged. His innovative work has motivated a new generation of scientists to ask new questions about how dogs think and communicate. I’d love to see him embrace the full range of studies that expand on his original work with dogs, as these are part of his legacy.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Has your Dog Caused Sleepless Nights?
Dogs interrupt slumber in many ways
Doggy Sleepless Nights - Dogs don't let me sleep. Yawning.

I was exhausted, but not too tired to shout, “You’ve got to be kidding!” at my alarm clock when it went off. My dog had woken me up half a dozen times in the middle of the night, and my face had the ugly morning look to prove it. This was a dog who usually slept peacefully through the night and was in no rush to start his day each morning.

On this particular night, though, the poor fellow was suffering from diarrhea, and he was waking me up by uncharacteristically whining and scratching on our screen door to be let out into the yard. Though I was sleep deprived, I was very aware how lucky I was. Better to wake up to noise repeatedly than to a revolting clean-up job in the morning. I was also able to encourage him to drink water and just be there for him. It was only one night of misery for him, and therefore only one night of misery for me.

It’s not the only time I’ve had my sleep schedule disrupted by a dog, though. Of course, there are the puppy times with their expected middle-of-the-night and early morning outings. There are the times when I’ve woken up long before morning because I have been either trapped in the covers by a dog lying on top of me in an awkward way or gradually pushed out from under the covers by a dog taking up more than a fair share of the bed. I’ve been woken up by a dog (who was new to my home) barking at every odd noise, but thankfully that only lasted about a week.

I know of friends who have hardly slept at all in the last few weeks or months of an old dog’s life as around-the-clock care, including carrying them outside to relieve themselves, became part of the routine. Others have dogs who find the wee hours of the morning a delightful time to play with the cat, or whose dog seems to think that it is perfectly acceptable to demand to be served breakfast at 4:30 in the morning. (It’s not!) Canine snoring accounts for a lot of nighttime disturbances, too.

How has your dog prevented you from getting a full night’s sleep?

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