Home
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
The American Gut Project
Seeking samples from you and your pets

The gut microbiome is a factor in a range of diseases such as cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and cancer, all of which are more common in Westernized populations of both pets and people. A new study called the American Gut Project is seeking to investigate how diet affects the gastrointestinal microbiome.

Previous work studying microbiomes of typical healthy adult humans raised questions about how their results apply to the entire population and to other species. Scientists with this project hope to collect samples from individuals with a full range of diets and lifestyles.

So far, research projects on this subject in dogs and cats include just a few small studies of lab animals or those that were ill. The fact that the American Gut Project will address the microbiomes in the intestinal tracts of large numbers of dogs (and cats) living in a variety of settings means that the results could yield useful information about the effects of diet, genetics, and lifestyle on the gut microbiomes of our pets. Such information may help us make informed decisions about how to feed and care for our dogs (and cats) in the future.

It is a goal of the project to collect samples from multiple individuals in the same household. If you want to participate in the study, along with your family members of the canine and feline variety, or if you want to learn more about the American Gut Project, click here.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The Value of Crates
Great benefits if used judiciously

There are so many ways in which crates can make life better for people and for dogs. They keep dogs safer in cars, offer many dogs a quiet refuge, are a great help during house training, and play a role in preventing bad habits such as destructive chewing and counter surfing. Dogs who are comfortable in crates are more easily able to handle travel in hotels and staying overnight at the vet. The policy statement by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT)  about crates makes these points and also asserts that it is imperative to use crates thoughtfully and to introduce them to dogs correctly. I agree.

I love crates and use them, though I do have a few concerns about them. They must not be overused. I prefer that dogs not be confined in them for more than a few hours at a time on a regular basis over the long term. Many dogs choose to go into their crates and to stay there, especially at night, and I have no problem with that, even though the dog is in the crate for more than a few hours.

Dogs who find them upsetting should not be in them. A dog should enter the crate willingly, even happily. Dogs who panic in and around them should not be crated, and no dog should ever be forced into a crate. Many dogs can be taught to enjoy a crate even if they are currently hesitant around them. However, attempts to teach dogs to like them if they have a really strong negative reaction to crates is not always successful.

There are ways to introduce a dog of any age to a crate that make success more likely. Introductions should be gradual and involve a lot of good stuff such as treats and toys that the dog can associate with the crate. The APDT Guide to Crate Training is a useful reference about many aspects of crates and crate training.

What do you think about crates?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
New Treatment for Paralysis
Dogs walk again after spinal injury

In an exciting development in the treatment of spinal cord injuries, researchers at Cambridge University were able to restore some movement to the legs of dogs who had been paralyzed. (All 34 dogs in the study had become paralyzed by injuries or accidents. No dog was purposely injured for the research.)

The breaks in the spinal cord were at least partially fixed with the use of cells from the dogs’ own noses. The specific type of cells that they used, olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs), are involved in the growth of nerve fibers that are necessary for communication between the brain and the nose.

Dogs who were treated with OECs showed significant improvement in the movement of their back legs compared with the control group, which did not receive OECs. Being able to walk again obviously has considerable quality-of-life benefits. Researchers point out that this procedure will probably be most effective if combined with other therapies, such as drugs and physical therapy.

Though it is likely a long way off, similar therapies may eventually be effective in treating people with paralysis because of spinal cord injuries.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Optimization of Fetching
Do dogs know calculus?

Mathematician Tim Pennings watched his dog Elvis fetch balls thrown in the water and noticed that the dog consistently chose the quickest route. Running is faster than swimming, so the overall time the dog spends heading to the ball depends on how the dog decides to split his path into running and swimming parts.

Elvis could run directly into the water and swim a long way to the ball, which would mean traveling the shortest distance, but not getting there as fast as possible. Another possibility is to run on the sand until he is even with the ball, and then swim to it. A third option is to run part of the way along the shore and then finish traveling to the ball by swimming in the water. Elvis always chose this last option, which resulted in reaching the ball the fastest. Mathematicians describe his actions by saying that Elvis optimized his travel time.

With information about the position of the ball and the dog, and the dog’s running and swimming speeds, it is possible to use calculus to determine the exact place at which the dog should switch from running to swimming in order to minimize his travel time. Pennings has suggested that dogs do in fact know calculus, because their paths match what the mathematics of calculus predict.

I think it’s more accurate to say that dogs act as though they know calculus rather than to say that they actually know calculus. It’s a small, but important distinction. I agree that dogs act to optimize their travel time when fetching in the water—I’ve observed dogs doing this—but that does not mean they are making complex mathematical calculations. It’s more likely that their experience allows them to make choices that result in getting to the ball faster.

Watching dogs fetch in an optimal way is no less remarkable to me than if they were using calculus. Have you seen dogs performing the kind of behavior that led Pennings to suggest they know calculus?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Why Dogs Fear Thunderstorms
Q&A with Nancy Dreschel, DVM

Nancy Dreschel has long been interested in the ways people and animals interact. She got her degree in veterinary medicine from Cornell University, but her lifelong interest in behavior led her to return to graduate school five years ago to pursue a PhD in biobehavioral health at Penn State University. She, her husband and their two sons share their home with one dog, two cats, four fish and a mouse.

In her recent study, "Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers,"* Dr. Dreschel investigated stress responses—pacing, salivating, panting, trembling, whining, hiding, increased salivary cortisol levels—of dogs with thunderstorm phobia and their human caregivers when both were exposed to simulated thunderstorms. Listening to a simulated storm elicited behavioral and physiological responses in nearly all the dogs, but not in their human caregivers. The way the dogs responded was not influenced by their caregivers’ reactions, or by how close the relationship was between person and dog. But dogs who lived with other dogs had less change in salivary cortisol levels and a more complete return to baseline levels by 40 minutes after the simulated thunderstorm than did dogs in single-dog households. Dogs in multidog households had slightly higher baseline levels of salivary cortisol. (For more, see “Is a Dog a Dog’s Best Friend?,” Jan/Feb 06.) The Bark recently interviewed Dr. Dreschel about her work.

Bark: How did you get interested in this subject?

Nancy Dreschel: My colleague Dr. Doug Granger, and the Behavioral Endocrinology Laboratory at Penn State are well known for their research on salivary hormone measurement, particularly in children. I was struck by the ease of saliva collection and thought that it would be a nice, noninvasive way to measure stress in dogs as well as in people. Thunderstorm phobia seems to be particularly frustrating for people and particularly stressful for dogs. I feel strongly about the humane use of animals and am interested in developing tools to measure stress in welfare situations.

B: How do you define stress?

ND: In order to define stress, I think you first have to understand that all aspects of living systems are [intended to be] in balance. Things constantly affect our physiological and psychological states, and our bodies respond to keep everything in homeostasis, or equilibrium. I define stress as being anything that knocks this off, including immune stressors (being exposed to a virulent disease), environmental stressors (being wet and standing outside on a 20-degrees-below-zero day) or mental stressors (enduring a thunderstorm if you are terrified of them).

B: Could baseline cortisol levels be affected by the difficulty that some people had in collecting the samples—wouldn’t the “phobic” dog demonstrate stress simply as a result of the collection process itself?

ND: Specimens collected on the control day did not show any increase in cortisol, which is what would be expected if the collection method itself caused stress. [On the control day, there was no simulated thunderstorm.] It should be noted that these dogs were behaviorally quite normal, other than their very specific fear of storms.

B: Are you familiar with any other studies that have measured the cortisol levels in multidog households?

ND: No—this was the first (and only) study I know of to measure cortisol in a home situation. Salivary cortisol has been measured in shelters and research facilities, however.

B: What sorts of clinical applications do you imagine could result from your research on dogs with thunderstorm phobia?

ND: Collecting saliva from dogs is a minimally invasive procedure that can be done by regular people in a number of different settings. I could see this procedure being used in studies of dogs with anxiety, in stressful situations and in welfare applications. I also think it could possibly be used to determine if dogs on medication for anxiety or fear are responding physiologically as well as behaviorally.

B: What kind of treatment program do you advise for people whose dogs have thunderstorm phobia?

ND: I recommend a number of individualized programs for dogs with thunderstorm phobia, including offering a “safe” place to go (covered crate, basement, etc.), behavior modification (counter-conditioning and desensitization), pheromone therapy and anti-anxiety medication. Many dogs require medication in order to calm down enough to be able to learn new behaviors.

B: What do you think is the most significant result of the study?

ND: I think the most significant result is finding the degree of increase in cortisol that these dogs experienced and the fact that it lasted so long. When I think of the number of dogs who experience similar stressors (which might range from a car ride to panic when left alone), I wonder if all these experiences are accompanied by a similar physiological reaction. We know by their behavior that some dogs become upset by certain situations, but these results show that a physiological response that could have adverse health effects is also occurring.

B: Why do you think the presence of other dogs in the household had an effect on cortisol reactivity in dogs with thunderstorm phobia? Is the higher baseline a key factor in the faster return to near-baseline levels?

ND: I’m not sure why living with other dogs had an effect in our subjects. Their baseline cortisol levels were somewhat higher to begin with, which could indicate they were under more stress on a regular basis. I think it is likely that something about living with other dogs mediates how their stress-response works. Maybe the day-to-day interactions better prepare the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis for response to major stressors.

I would emphasize that the dogs that lived with other dogs didn’t “seem” calmer—behaviorally, there was no difference. Because this was a fairly small study, it is hard to draw many conclusions about the multiple-dog findings.

B: Did the other dogs actually do anything to alleviate stress in these dogs?

ND: What struck me was a total lack of “comforting” as we define it in human terms, from the other dogs in the household. We think of comforting as having a shoulder to cry on, a hug, a gentle word or listening ear. Many of the dogs in our study (both those who lived with other dogs and those who were the only dog) sought out this type of comforting from their human companions. However, there was very little, if any, physical contact between the dogs in this study. Many of the non-subject dogs in the household weren’t even present during the procedure—the caregivers had isolated them in other rooms so they only had to deal with the subject dog.

B: Our magazine promotes adoption of shelter/rescue dogs, and likes to think that dogs benefit by living in multidog households (with compatible canines, of course). Is there any scientific basis for this?

ND: I think our research provides some evidence to support this statement. However, I do not recommend that people with storm-phobic dogs run out and obtain another dog, thinking that will make their dog’s problem go away. The dogs who lived in multidog households still had thunderstorm phobia and severe behavioral responses, despite the fact that they lived with other dogs.

*Published with co-author Douglas Granger, PhD, in Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95: 153–168.

 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Head in the Wind
I liked acting like a dog

I stuck my head out and caught the wind on my face and began to enjoy myself. My inspiration was a strong desire to alleviate seasickness during a boat ride between the Indonesian islands of Lombok and Bali, and it worked. My stomach felt good. I felt good. The breeze on my face was refreshing, the smell of the ocean was invigorating and I felt cool for the first time in almost two weeks. The whole experience was better.

A side effect was looking like a dog.

I’ve always known that dogs like to put their heads out of the window on car rides to feel the breeze and smell the smells, but this was the first time I shared that feeling. It really is a fantastic way to experience a journey. I did not expect to feel a kinship with dogs on this particular outing, but I felt just like a dog as I leaned out past the boat’s protective shield and experienced high-speed windy travel.

Of course, I am aware of the dangers to dogs of riding with their heads out. Their eyes are at risk of damage from rocks, dust and any other kind of debris. Their ears can be hurt by flapping in the breeze. Dogs can even fall out of the window, though luckily that’s rare. Dogs who are restrained in the car are safest, and if properly restrained, they can’t reach the window in the first place. So, I am not recommending this mode of travel for either people or dogs, but simply commenting on a new understanding of how enjoyable it can be.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Sudden Bouts of Playful Energy
Fun and craziness for all

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
Mess Around Water Bowl
Handling daily drips

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
Dog-themed Dreams and Dog Sitting
Violations of trust by caregivers

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
Cell Phone Use During Walks
Is this a problem?

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?

Pages