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
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
What interests your dog—revealed!
January 15 2013
How many times have we said, “What I wouldn’t give to know what my dog is smelling that is so captivating?” I think it each time I walk a dog. On every outing, dogs suddenly become wildly enthusiastic about a shrub or patch of ground that looks pretty much like every other shrub or patch of ground. What’s so special about this spot? And there are lots of other areas that they sniff, but don’t get excited about, quickly moving on. What makes some spots thrilling and others merely interesting?
This weekend when I was walking Marley, some of the mystery was revealed to me thanks to the conditions. We had snow three days ago and it has not been above 25˚F since then. That makes the snow hard and crunchy, which preserves tracks or other disturbances to it. In other words, there were visual clues in the snow that told me more than usual about what Marley found interesting. Here’s what caused him to put his nose to the ground to investigate:
1. Urine. Okay, that’s no surprise, but it was still cool to see evidence of what he was sniffing. Every time we saw yellow snow, Marley was interested, and quite likely to mark the spot. Not once did he pass a spot where another dog had obviously peed without taking at least a moment to sniff the area.
2. Signs of squirrels. In areas under pine trees where tufts of needles had been chewed off by squirrels and stuck in the snow, or where squirrel tracks were visible, Marley became extremely excitable. He sniffed in a rapid pattern, turning around, zigzagging, and becoming quite agitated.
3. Bird tracks. Whether it was ravens, doves, juncos, or sparrows, Marley sniffed areas with bird tracks. He was calm while he did so as opposed to exhibiting the borderline frantic behavior associated with the presence of squirrels.
4. Poop. I wish that all of my neighbors were fastidious about cleaning up after their dogs, but at least a couple of families are not diligent about it. I see quite a few piles of poop on almost every walk, and they were even more obvious in the snow. Marley sniffed at each one, though in a calm way, and rather briefly.
5. Trash. Every place with the indentation of a trash can that had been left for pick-up the previous day was a source of interest. Marley smelled at each such spot methodically, but without great excitement.
There were things that I thought Marley might want to sniff, but that he didn’t seem to care about. I saw cat tracks in a few places, but Marley paid them no attention at all. He didn’t sniff at tracks made by people, either. Similarly, he showed no interest in any marks from tires, whether from cars, bicycles, snow blowers, or snow plows. He did not investigate birdseed, gravel, salt, or kitty litter, all of which are commonly used to make sidewalks less slick.
What have you learned about your dog’s sniffing behavior from walks in the snow?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Could this study be improved?
January 10 2013
In the recent study “Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food?”, researchers investigated whether dogs have the ability to locate hidden food based on the emotions shown by people’s facial expressions. It’s a fascinating question, and I was eager to learn what the experiment revealed.
Unfortunately, I had concerns related to the methods, and the result was that I found that the experiment lacked the strength it could otherwise have had. When I read scientific papers, I pay careful attention to the methods because unless I fully grasp the details of the experimental design, it is impossible to draw conclusions about the meaning of the study. Often, flaws in the methodology result in studies whose conclusions should not be accepted without further evidence from better experiments.
In the study I just read, people picked up two boxes, one at a time, and made facial expressions of happiness or disgust or they kept their expression neutral. Then, the dog was given a choice about which box to go to. (The dogs had been trained to understand that these boxes could contain food.) The idea was to see if the dogs would choose the box that was associated with happiness rather than the box associated with disgust or with a neutral expression. Overall, there was an effect of the human expression on the choices made, though many individual dogs made choices throughout the trials that were no better than chance.
The location of the testing was not always the same. Some of the dogs were tested indoors, and some were tested outdoors. Four breeds of dogs (Labs, Goldens, Border Collies, and German Shepherds) were pet dogs who lived with families in homes, and were tested indoors, but the Huskies lived in a facility for racing dogs and were tested outdoors. The investigators did in fact find a difference between dogs tested in these two conditions, but there is no way to tell if this is because of the breed, because they were tested outdoors, or because of their different social situation, which the experimenters acknowledge. With more than one variable present, determining which variable matters is a challenge.
Since the whole point of the experiment is to test the effect of human facial expressions, then the facial expression should be the only variable in the experiment. Unfortunately, in this study, other variables besides the ones already mentioned were not held constant. The “happy” box contained sausage, the “neutral” box contained wood shavings, and the “disgust” box had garlic in it. The neutral expression had no accompanying vocalization, but both the happy and the disgusted expression did. If the dogs did respond differently to any of these conditions, it’s hard to know whether or not the contents of the box, the presence or absence of a vocalization, or the people’s expressions (or some combination) was the cause.
In a better-designed experiment, all the boxes would contain exactly the same item, and the other differences not being tested would be eliminated as well. The researchers did a series of tests to determine if the dogs were choosing boxes based on smell alone, but only in the outdoor condition with the Huskies. (They found that these dogs were not using smell.)
To be fair, the researchers spend quite a bit of space in their discussion explaining how this experiment could have been done better in a cleaner way, scientifically speaking. I agree with their analysis that improvements could be made to the design that would add strength to their conclusions. I would have preferred for them to conduct their experiments with the improved designs before publishing, though I understand that it is immensely challenging to explore cleanly the role of human emotion in influencing dog behavior.
There are so many variables with pet dogs because of the different amounts and types of experience they have in their lives, and not only are they impossible to control for. Even if you could control many factors by raising dogs in labs and controlling their environment, then you introduce the problem of dogs who are not in the “pet dog” environment. I’m not saying that an experiment into these issues can ever be perfect, but I do think that this study could be improved upon.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
January 9 2013
Question: My 1 1/2-year-old neutered male English Shepherd developed a fascination with light and shadows about nine months ago. He chases any reflections he sees, and on cloudy days even does the chasing behavior in places where shadows usually appear. He will stand outside under a tree and watch shadows of leaves blowing for 20 minutes at a stretch. He is an inside/outside dog and gets at least an hour walk each day. The behavior is not destructive, but I worry about the total attention he gives to it and I certainly don’t want it to become worse. What should I do?
Answer: Fascination with lights and shadows is most common in high-energy, high-drive dogs, and most of the cases I’ve seen have been in herding or hunting breeds who have come from working lines. As in your dog’s case, it often shows up in adolescence. It is wise to be concerned, because this problem seems to escalate if left to its own devices, and I worry that it may already be affecting your dog’s quality of life. Many dogs who start with a little chasing of shadows can degenerate into cases of full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. If that happens, additional compulsive behaviors may develop. Because of the potentially serious nature of this problem, it is worth having your dog evaluated by a veterinary behaviorist in your area who understands anxiety disorders. Also, a change in diet sometimes helps dramatically and is worth a try.
Prevention is a critical part of helping to extinguish the behavior, so whenever possible, keep your dog out of situations that elicit it. Obviously, you cannot eliminate lights and shadows from your dog’s life, but even simple steps such as hanging dark curtains, spending time with your dog in the rooms with the fewest lights and shadows and temporarily storing particularly reflective items can help.
Your response when he begins to chase or fixate on shadows and light will have a big impact on his behavior. Let your motto be “Interrupt and redirect, but never punish.” Interrupt the behavior and try to redirect him to some other sort of behavior. Try to distract him with a favorite toy or use a new squeaky toy to get his attention. Consider rattling his leash and heading out for a walk if that works to distracts him. (Don’t do this last one too often or he may learn to chase shadows in order to get you to take him out.) The interruption should distract your dog, but should never scare him. Good options for redirection include tug, fetch, the ever-popular Kong®, a chew toy, outdoor exercise or a training session. It can be tempting to respond in a negative way to this behavior, but any punishment carries the risk of making the behavior worse.
An hour walk each day is enough for many dogs, but additional exercise for a young, active dog so interested in light and shadows is really important. Off-leash running for an hour or more a day (or better yet, twice a day) can really make a big difference, as can tiring activities such as fetch and swimming. I realize that finding safe places to do this is often the biggest challenge. Physical exercise can greatly help this problem, but so can additional mental exercise. Giving your dog’s mind more to do may help as much as the physical exercise. Give him toys that tax his brain, teach him tricks daily, or attend classes.
If you feel that his obsession is worsening or is more noticeably affecting the quality of his life (or yours!), consider talking to a qualified veterinarian about medicine for obsessive-compulsive behavior and working with adjunctive medical therapy such as Chinese medicine or homeopathy.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Author offers a character in next book
January 7 2013
When author Dennis Lehane’s dog disappeared late last month in Massachusetts, he offered a highly unusual reward for her safe return: He will name a character in his next book after the person who finds Tessa, a rescue beagle. Lehane writes mystery novels, and his works include “Gone, Baby Gone”, “A Drink Before the War”, “Mystic River”, and “Shutter Island.” Ironically, his current project is a script for a movie, which is based on his short story “Animal Rescue.”
Tessa apparently wandered out of the yard when a gate was not latched properly. She was not wearing tags at the time, but has a microchip.
Lehane has been busy searching for Tessa and publicizing her disappearance via Twitter, Facebook, and with fliers near his home. Her return can be a no-questions-asked situation. Lehane is interested in getting Tessa back and cares only about her safety. Lehane has also offered a monetary reward.
What kind of reward, beyond money, would you be willing to offer for the safe return of your dog?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Is the pairing obvious or unexpected?
January 3 2013
Sometimes a dog finds another dog who is the best play buddy ever, and no other dog will ever measure up. When it’s love at first sight—when the two dogs meet and hit it off immediately—it’s sometimes a challenge to understand what makes them the best of friends so quickly. I’ve seen it happen with dogs who seem like a good match and with dogs who nobody in a million years would ever think to pair up.
In the category of an obvious match, I remember two dogs of the same rare breed who met at dog camp and became inseparable. Both sets of guardians were really excited. (“You have a Pharoah Hound? I have a Pharoah Hound!”) Watching the two dogs play was really fascinating because they played so differently than most other dogs with a lot of intense running and chasing. They did some tug, but their play was predominantly high speed running and chasing. They were so fast they were blurry, and none of the other dogs at camp had even the slightest chance of keeping up. Neither of the Pharoah Hounds had previously experienced chase games with another dog who could keep up, which of course is part of what makes it so fun. It was amazing to see these dogs together because they were just so perfect for each other. It was beautiful to watch them play and to see the happiness of having such a well-matched play partner.
Another pair of dogs I know who became inseparable play buddies was definitely an odd couple. One was some kind of very large shepherd mix and the other was probably mostly Beagle and barely bigger than the other dog’s head. They were both playful dogs with large social circles, but if they were together, they paid no attention to any other dogs. Most of their play involved holding onto opposite ends of the same toy or stick and trotting around with it. They also followed each other, leaping around and sometimes sniffing at the same spots while they wagged their tails furiously, and then trotting off to a new place to sniff some more. They remained great friends throughout their lives, and our whole neighborhood was amused by what appeared to be an unlikely friendship.
Watching play buddies who adore each other, whether it’s dogs who are similar or those who are compatible for some other reason, is an incredible joy. If you’ve had a dog who found the perfect playmate, were they an obvious match or was their compatibility unexpected?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Oh, how I love them!
January 1 2013
Whatever part of the brain is supposed to make you see a baby and long to have another one of your own seems to have died when I turned 40. Yes, my heart melted at the sight of my own babies, and continues to do so when I see pictures of them back when they were small. I still like babies and enjoy holding them or making faces to make them smile, but I do not long for another anymore.
Puppies, on the other hand, must trigger a slightly different, still living part of my brain, because I recently held a puppy during a local adoption event, and I felt that deep love that the very young can inspire in us.
No picture of Feather could possibly convey how dear she looked to me, and how much I longed to hold her forever. She was warm and soft, friendly, sleepy and snuggly. In other words, she was an idealized, imaginary puppy who would never chew, pee on the floor, bark or be any trouble—ever.
Feather was there with two littermates, and they were all spoken for already, which is probably a good thing. (When you tell your husband you are headed out to buy milk, yogurt, and pears, it’s bad form to come home with a puppy, too.) I really wanted this dog, but I reluctantly handed her back to the woman in charge. Once I began to drive home, the spell was broken. Yes, I still adored her and fondly remember our brief time together, but I was able to think clearly enough to remind myself that my to do list for the day did not include a spontaneous puppy adoption.
I’m amused that babies no longer make me lose my mind but that puppies still do. I guess that just makes me a dog person! Have you had a “puppy moment” like this?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Then, now, always
December 31 2012
As a child, I loved dogs. I wanted to play with any dogs I encountered—those in the neighborhood, the ones at the park, dogs of friends. They always had my attention, even when perhaps I should have been focusing on something or someone else. If I could pet a dog, happiness was assured.
I wrote about dogs for school assignments during the day and dreamed about them at night. I thought about the kinds of dogs I loved best and what I would name my dogs when I was a grown-up. I drew pictures of dogs and fretted over my attempts to make their faces look “dog enough”.
Hearing stories of dogs who were mistreated or suffered in any way was unbearable to me. (Still is, in fact.) My world of compassion and caring extended to many species when I said “them” but when I spoke of “us”, I was including dogs.
I have loved dogs for as long as I can remember. I literally have no memories before knowing that these creatures mattered to me and that they touched my heart.
When did your love affair with dogs begin? Was it before you can even remember, triggered by a specific event, or did it come upon you gradually?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tips for healthy social development
December 23 2012
For dogs, like many other species, early experiences are critical for normal social development, and it is pretty well known that puppies have the best chance for normal social development if they are allowed to be with their littermates for 7-8weeks at least.
It is really the exception for puppies not to have littermates or not to get to be with them for at least these few weeks. However, singleton puppies do happen, and they do tend to have issues. If you ever meet a dog named Solo, Uno, or Only, the first question to ask is whether the dog was the only puppy in its litter, because if so, there is a suite of problems that may exist. Of course, you can be wrong about these names. I once wrote about a dog named Solo who had some serious behavior issues, and I thought at first he must have been a singleton. However, in researching the story, I learned that the dog came from a litter of several puppies and was named after the Solo River in Indonesia where fossils of Homo erectus were first found.
In a typical litter of three to twelve puppies, there is constant physical contact. The puppies crawl all over each other, and they are used to the warmth, the contact, the interruptions, and the movement that result from being in a pile of dogs.
The problems that singleton puppies are prone to having are the result of not being raised in this standard puppy environment. Typical problems in singletons are lack of bite inhibition, being unable to get out of trouble calmly and graciously, an inability to diffuse social tension, inability to handle frustration, lack of social skills, lack of impulse control, and touch sensitivity.
If you find out about a singleton puppy early—anytime before the puppy heads to its new home particularly, there are things that can be done. Be sure to work on teaching bite inhibition early and often, and handle the puppy a lot to avoid issues with touch sensitivity. Any gentle, regular handling is likely to help. Push the puppy off the nipple once or twice a feeding to get the puppy used to interruptions and handling the resulting frustration. Have the puppy spend time with puppies of the same age a lot and as early as possible. If at all possible, consider raising the puppy with another litter.
Getting to spend a lot of time with another litter lets a singleton puppy have a more typical or normal experience as a young puppy. The play time that puppies spend with each other goes a long way towards teaching puppies many of their social skills, including bite inhibition, frustration tolerance, impulse control, self control, and the ability to be flexible in all sorts of social interactions. The adorable play between puppies, which is so enjoyable to watch, is anything but light-hearted frivolous behavior—it provides puppies the foundation for normal, healthy social behavior as adults in many contexts and is a critical part of a puppy’s development and education.
I knew a singleton Irish Water Spaniel that I met at age two. He was full of himself, had no frustration tolerance, little self control and almost no impulse control. He did, by the way, show beautifully in the ring! His issues with frustration and control led to leash aggression with other dogs. His amazing owner, who had actually bred him, was able to turn him around, but it was a huge project. The next litter from the same female was also a solo puppy who turned out fine and totally normal, except for being a bit large for the breed, which is not unusual for singleton puppies. The owner did everything right with her second solo puppy. She raised this puppy with a Lab litter that was only a few days different in age than her puppy, and did everything else I advised. She did end up spaying the breeding female, figuring that once could be a fluke, but that since it happened a second time, there was too high a risk of it happening again. This second singleton puppy, benefiting from all the owner did to help her, was in no way behaviorally like most singletons. She turned out completely normal from a behavioral perspective, despite an unusual beginning and this is an amazing accomplishment.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A powerful tool to handle aggression
December 20 2012
A Corgi who barks, spins, leaps and sometimes bites when anyone in her house stands up or moves around. A German Shepherd-Husky cross who barks, lunges and charges at dogs walking by her house. A Poodle who growls at other dogs when on leash. A mixed breed who is terrified of visitors and barks at them nonstop. A Papillon puppy who bites his elderly Labrador Retriever housemate when the older dog doesn’t want to play with him. What do these aggressive dogs have in common? All of them had their behavior improved through the use of play.
About a decade ago, I began to regularly incorporate play into programs for aggressive dogs. Play is a powerful tool when working with such dogs, including those who are behaving badly because of frustration, arousal, lack of impulse control, boredom or fear. It has a positive effect on emotions, which is why play-motivated fearful dogs often respond better to play than to treats, even if they are also highly treat-motivated — fear decreases faster and more thoroughly in response to the former than to the latter. There are many different ways that play can help aggressive dogs to behave better.
Theoretically, you can stop a behavior by teaching an action incompatible with that behavior — for example, counteracting a dog’s habit of jumping on people by teaching him to sit in their presence. But when a dog struggles with high arousal (which many aggressive dogs do), you’re more likely to have success by teaching the dog to perform an active behavior. Trying to teach a dog to lie down, stay or another static, controlled behavior is more challenging and generally less effective.
In the case of the Corgi who was aggressive when people moved around, the more aroused she was, the more reactive and out of control she became. My goal was to transfer that energy; for her, I chose fetch, her favorite game. Now, when people are active, she brings a ball to her guardians, who then play fetch with her. By itself, the act of getting a toy can have an inhibitory effect, but it’s even better to teach the dog to get a toy in order to initiate a game. The anticipation gave the Corgi a happy feeling: “Oh boy! Somebody moved! That means playtime.”
The German Shepherd-Husky cross who reacted to dogs passing by was easily aroused and struggled with impulse control. Her guardians, who had already tried calling her away and using treats to capture her attention, were convinced that she would never be able to focus on anything with another dog in sight. Compounding the problem, she was not just beyond her guardians’ control, but actually beyond her own control.
However, she loved to play tug, and no matter how high her arousal was or what distractions were present, she was captivated by her tug rope. Therefore, this game was the perfect way to redirect her attention. Once she learned that when a dog came into view, she would be given an opportunity to play tug, she stopped going crazy at the sight of a dog and instead, turned immediately and joyfully to her guardians. Tug helped her control herself.
Tug has many advantages when working with an aggressive dog, as long as tug does not incite the aggression. It not only keeps the dog near you and her mouth occupied, it also allows you to direct the dog’s line of sight, which can be especially useful if the dog is visually stimulated. Dogs who tug usually love to play the game, which makes it a compelling option.
The Poodle who was reactive to other dogs when on leash is one of the most playful dogs I have ever known, and also one of the smartest. His training was excellent, and he could perform many behaviors on cue, even in the presence of another dog. But if he saw the dog first, he would bark, lunge and pull so hard on the leash that he had more than once caused his guardian to fall.
All of that changed when I started reinforcing him with play. If he controlled himself when he saw another dog — performing any behavior other than reacting — he was allowed to play. He was willing to work for play, but the play had to be the “right” kind: running after his guardian. Once this reinforcement system was established, when he saw another dog, he would look at her as if to say, “Well, don’t you have some running to do?” and then happily give chase.
The mixed breed who was terrified of visitors loved fetch, and she warmed up fast to anyone who would play it with her. To take advantage of this, I used classical counterconditioning to change her emotional response to visitors. Specifically, I taught her to associate them with fetch; I wanted her to feel the same joy when someone unfamiliar to her arrived as she felt when playing fetch. Thus, everyone who entered her home threw a ball for her. Eventually, the appearance of a visitor became the cue that a game of fetch was about to happen. Instead of responding with fear because a stranger had entered, she now responds with enthusiasm.
Frustration and boredom were the root causes in the case of the Papillon puppy who was aggressive to the Labrador Retriever. The older dog was interested in playing with the puppy for no more than two to three minutes at a time, but the puppy wanted to frolic morning, noon and night. When the Lab called a halt, the puppy would growl, leap on the Lab and bite him, sometimes causing injuries.
It was essential to find other ways to engage the Papillon in play, ways that would provide him with enough fun, mental and physical exercise, and other stimulation to keep him happy. The first step was to determine which toys, games and activities appealed to him. Never has my job been easier, because this dog loved everything. I imagined him thinking, Plush toys? I love them, they’re my favorite! Tug toys? I love them, they’re my favorite! Balls? I love them, they’re my favorite!
Every single thing I tried was a success — puzzle toys, squeaky toys, bouncy toys, rope toys, balls, disks, Kongs. He liked them all. Discovering a variety of new games and either learning or inventing ways to play with different toys satisfied his intense need for play. He played fetch, tug, chase and hide-and-seek with people. When people weren’t available, he learned to enjoy throwing objects in the air and catching them, puzzles of all sorts, dribbling a ball around like a soccer star, and rolling balls down ramps and then chasing after them. Between the variety of toys and the multiple “play stations” we set up around his house, he learned to entertain himself for long stretches at a time.
Once I showed his guardians new ways to play with their puppy, they interacted with him much more, which took a lot of pressure off the older dog. Now, the Papillon plays appropriately and brief ly with the Lab a few times a day, and when the Lab is done, the puppy chooses a different way to play. Providing additional options was essential in helping this puppy behave in an acceptable manner around the other dog in his family.
There are many ways to change aggressive behavior, and an important part of my work is deciding which one will work best for a particular dog. While play is not part of the solution for every dog, it can help many of them, and increasingly, I find that I can help people and their dogs succeed by incorporating play into their programs. Yes, play is fun, but when working with aggressive dogs, it can be so much more.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs bring joy to winter weather
December 20 2012
With almost two feet of snow last weekend, many of us in Flagstaff, Ariz. spent oodles of time shoveling our walks and driveways. Being outside in cold, wintery weather guarantees that you will be visited by a number of dogs who are blessed to have guardians willing to take them out for walks in any condition. The ones who stopped by our house were all incredibly jubilant about the snow.
Their enthusiasm was infectious. Before all these dogs graced us with their presence, I was concentrating on all the shoveling that needed to be done and was very aware of the stiffness that would soon affect my back. Our ski area is not yet open, and I kept thinking that if only I could ski, I would be so happy about the snow.
Enter a parade of dogs, and I was back in the moment, as gloriously thrilled about the snow as they were. I am incapable of remaining grumpy while watching dogs gleefully jump around in snow, tossing it in the air, and shoving their noses into it as they act like small four-legged snow plows.
After one German Shepherd and her guardian visited us for awhile, my older son commented that this dog has left the most perfect footprints in the snow. He walked all around photographing different dog prints and was just delighted by them, especially the ones from the shepherd. It was a new way for dogs to help us be happy in winter weather.
Do dogs help you enjoy the snow?
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