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
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
January 30 2013
Question: My pup was responding well to our recall training at the park, getting reinforced with high-value treats like meatballs and behaving in a way that made us so proud. That all changed when a sweet elderly man at the park starting giving all the dogs Milk-Bones. Not only did our dog fail to come when called while he was feeding her, for the next couple of weeks, she rarely came when we called her in other contexts. My question is about how dogs learn and what makes their training seem to fall apart? What can I do to prevent such setbacks in the future, and how can I know when our dog has really “gotten it” so that I can be sure she will come, no matter what?
Answer: Most people have experienced some variant of what you describe, and these setbacks can be very disheartening. The situation at the park was not so much one in which a dog’s training fell apart as it was one in which a dog was asked to do something that she had not yet been trained to do. Responding appropriately to the cue to come to you when there is nothing particularly new or interesting to distract her is totally different than returning to you when someone else is feeding her treats.
What you learned courtesy of the treat man at the park is that your dog does not know how to come when called while she was getting treats from somebody else. Furthermore, she seems to have learned that even when called, she doesn’t have to come, which may explain why her recall got worse (let’s not say “fell apart”!) and why she did not come when called even in other situations.
The real secret to dog training is that there are 100 steps involved in teaching a dog something so that she can do it in any situation. Step one for teaching recall may be calling your dog to come from five feet away in your living room, with nothing else going on but you and your meatballs, and step 100 is calling your dog to come when she is 500 feet away, chasing a deer. Many people charge from step five to step 95 without realizing what a challenge this is for a dog. This is the equivalent of asking a student to go from addition and subtraction to reinventing calculus, figuring that the student already knows how to do math, so what’s the problem?
Teaching a dog what a cue means is often the easiest part. Proofing the dog to that cue, or getting the dog to respond to that cue in all situations, is the challenge. Just because your dog knows how to come when called when nothing else has captivated her attention doesn’t mean that she can do it when she is really enthralled by the smell of a rabbit, the food she is eating or her best play buddy. Training your dog to come away from these distractions requires that you train her to do so in a series of steps of gradually increasing difficulty.
Avoiding setbacks by not skipping steps is a challenge that requires great discipline on your part. The key is that throughout your training work with her, you must not call your dog unless you are confident that she will respond. For example, if you had never trained her to come when called away from someone giving her food, most trainers would tell you that the odds of success were not in your favor. A wiser course of action would have been to simply go get your dog. Of course, this is not convenient and requires only letting your dog off-leash in areas where you can go get her if she doesn’t come, but it is only temporary.
When you call a dog to come and she doesn’t respond, how you handle the situation is important for your future success with this cue. If you do nothing, or if you keep calling her over and over, you are teaching her not to respond unless she feels like it. Either she learns that she doesn’t have to come because there is no consequence for not coming, or she learns to tune out the “come” cue; it becomes background noise and loses its meaning to her.
One possible response is to go up to her, show her the meatball treat she could have had, and then walk away. Another is to take her out of the park so she learns that if she does not respond, she does not get to stay at the park.
A third possibility is to immediately set up a similar situation as a training opportunity. Put the meatball right up to her nose, move a few feet away and call her to come. Lure her with the treat if necessary—anything to get her to come away from the food the man is giving her, and then reinforce her for doing so. Then, allow her to go back to the treat man to get whatever he has. Allowing your dog to get both reinforcement from you and what she gave up in order to come to you makes responding to your cue a winning situation all around. Setting up winning situations for your dog over and over again in all sorts of contexts is what proofing a dog for a cue is all about.
During training, have something better than what she gave up so she learns that coming to you is always worthwhile. This means that if someone is giving her liver biscotti, you give her chicken. If they are giving her a lot of nice petting attention, you give her a belly rub. If they are luring her with an ordinary ball, you reinforce her with a super bouncy ball.
In terms of your question about dogs really “getting it”—it’s hard to know for sure that your dog is proofed to respond to a cue in any situation if you have not explicitly practiced and trained her to handle a variety of environments. That said, the more situations and types of distractions in which your dog has learned to respond to the cue, the more likely it is she will respond appropriately in a novel context. Eventually, all situations are sufficiently similar that she can be said to be “fully proofed” for a particular cue. Some dogs get there faster than others, but for virtually every dog, it takes a lot of practice in a wide range of situations involving different places, with different distractions and from different distances.
For more information about canine learning, the best book on the subject is Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them by Pamela J. Reid, PhD. For specific advice on teaching a reliable recall to your dog, the best resource is the video Lassie Come! by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
She’s happy and deeply loved
January 29 2013
An amusing video of Loca, the pug from Ireland who can’t run properly, has been making the rounds online among both runners and dog lovers. Many runners have made comments about this video along the lines of, “Even after all the miles I’ve run. I still feel this way sometimes!” In the dog world, the comments have ranged from being charmed by the video to being appalled that people are laughing at a dog with a medical problem.
The first time I saw the video, I felt uncomfortable about having fun at Loca’s expense. I could see that she clearly has some sort of medical condition that was affecting her movement and balance, but I can’t deny that I still enjoyed the funny song and some of the footage. Then, when the note came up at the end of the video explaining that Loca has a mild brain disorder, that her family has decided it’s too risky to operate on, that the vet feels she is happy and will live to old age in good health, I was fully on board.
Loca has a full and happy life, and it’s easy to see that she is absolutely adored by her two-legged and four-legged family members alike. It seems the video is not making fun of her, but sharing the joy that her family gets from her to those of us in the wider world. With that straight in my mind and heart, I am a fan of Loca and love to watch her.
What do you think of Loca’s video?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
New law would ban this
January 24 2013
If a new bill in Rhode Island becomes law, it will be illegal to drive with a dog on your lap. The purpose is to protect both people and dogs from being injured or killed in accidents. Distracted drivers are a danger while driving, and it’s hard to argue that a dog on your lap isn’t ever distracting.
Representative Peter Palumbo proposed this legislation last year, but it never came up for a vote. He is hopeful that this year will be different and that the bill will pass. He acknowledges that some people consider this bill frivolous, but he contends that it is an important matter of public safety, especially considering how many people drive with dogs on their laps.
The penalty for violating this new ban on driving with a dog on your lap would be a fine: $85 for a first offense, $100 for a second violation, and $125 for all subsequent ones.
The state of Hawaii does not allow drivers to have dogs on their laps. In Maine, Connecticut and Arizona, distracted-driving laws can be used against people driving with dogs in their laps. What are you thoughts on such laws?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Evidence used to solve crime
January 20 2013
A man unintentionally left evidence at the scene of his crime that led the police to link him with a home robbery. DNA in the mouth of the family dog matched that of David Stoddard.
The dog had bitten him in the arm and in the leg after a human member of the dog’s family had been assaulted during the break in. Stoddard or one of his accomplices then shot the dog. Sadly, the dog died from the gunshot.
After learning that he had bitten one of the criminals, the police swabbed the dog’s mouth for human DNA. Around the time the genetic match was found, Stoddard was arrested for shooting and killing a pregnant 16-year old.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
What to do when a dog is part alligator
January 19 2013
Question: My dog takes treats so hard that she’s hurt my hands on occasion. I’ve had the same thing happen to me to varying degrees at the dog park or in classes when I give a treat to another dog. I dread training sessions with my own dog, and I’ve become hesitant to give treats to other dogs. Is there a solution to this problem?
Answer: I sympathize! Your experiences with dogs who chomp enthusiastically are universal among those who spend time with dogs. Many dogs regularly grab treats without taking the care required when dealing with delicate human skin. (On the other hand, some dogs are only “chompy” when revved up, so this can be a good assessment tool; in these cases, the intensity of the alligator-like behavior can indicate a dog’s arousal level.)
Some dogs are naturally gentle with their mouths, but most need lessons to achieve this skill. Dogs should be taught the cue “Gentle,” which simply means to take the treat nicely. Having a dog who takes treats gently can relieve much of the conflict-induced frustration that occurs when you want to reinforce your dog’s good behavior but also want your fingers to remain intact and connected to your body.
Avoid confusion by teaching the cue “Gentle” as its own behavior rather than during a training session for some other behavior. Commit to the idea that your dog needs to take the treats gently or she doesn’t get them at all. In other words, don’t allow the snapping behavior to work for her. Until now, she has been getting the treat no matter what she does, but we want her to only get it when she takes it gently.
To teach your dog what “Gentle” means, hold a treat in your hand, close your fist around it and offer it to your dog. If your dog bites at your hand, keep it closed; this means either toughing it out or wearing gloves, depending on your dog’s behavior and your tolerance. When she stops biting and licks your hand (or even nibbles gently and painlessly), say “Gentle” and open your hand completely to give her the treat.
Keep saying “Gentle” each time you offer her a treat to help her associate the word with the behavior. If she has a relapse and returns to her former finger-gnawing ways, pull your hand away and then offer the treat again, using the cue “Gentle” to remind her of what you want. This will keep you from dropping the treat in response to her snapping.
Until your dog knows how to take treats gently, there are a couple of ways to protect your fingers when giving treats outside of training sessions. At home, put cream cheese or peanut butter on a wooden spoon and offer your dog a chance to lick this food a few times. This is a way to reinforce your dog without putting your hands near her mouth.
In a dog park or class setting, offer the treat on your flat palm. Many dogs who will snap at treats held in the fingertips are able to take them properly when they are presented on an open hand. A final option is to drop the treats on the ground rather than giving them directly to the dog. It takes a lot of repetition for most dogs to learn to take treats gently, and the occasional effort to teach someone else’s dog by, for example, holding them in your closed hand is unlikely to be effective. Unless a dog’s guardian is teaching this at home, save your fingers by either flat-palming the treats or tossing them on the ground. These techniques won’t teach your dog or her dog park friends to take the treats politely, but they do keep your fingers safe!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cold weather can be daunting
January 18 2013
When I opened the back door to let Marley out in the morning, he didn’t move. Normally, he races out gleefully once I give him the okay, but not on that day. In fact, he looked at me reproachfully. He seemed disgusted that I had even suggested he leave the warmth of the house to relieve himself in the minus nine degrees (Fahrenheit!) temperature outdoors.
I changed tactics, and after putting on so many layers of clothes I was practically spherical, I went outside myself and invited him to join me. He complied, did what he needed to do, and bolted back inside to the best spot in the house—in front of the wood stove. Once I had peeled off my winter gear, I joined him there.
Marley, like most dogs, loves snow and usually doesn’t object to the cold. He happily goes out when it’s 20 degrees or above. From five to 20 degrees, he hesitates, but will go out on his own, and below that, he needs serious encouragement and perhaps company to brave the weather.
I can hardly blame Marley for his behavior on the morning he refused to go out at first. It was, after all, more than 40 degrees below the freezing point. I like to call it “not-kidding-around cold” and Marley was not in a laughing mood about it.
How cold is too cold for your dog?
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?
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