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: Studies & Research
Q&A with Nancy Dreschel, DVM
November 14 2012
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
I liked acting like a dog
November 13 2012
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
Fun and craziness for all
November 9 2012
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
Handling daily drips
November 5 2012
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
Violations of trust by caregivers
November 1 2012
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
Is this a problem?
October 28 2012
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?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Be aware of your dog’s struggles
October 23 2012
Gray Dog was adorable dressed as a shark, and he was definitely the unofficial winner of the costume contest at a recent early Halloween party. (He was the only dog there, which may have given him an edge, but he was deserving of the triumph.)
Gray Dog is a well-adjusted, social, go-with-the-flow dog who accepted his party clothes without incident. He seemed to welcome the extra attention from people and generally ignored the costume as far as I could tell.
The only difficulty he had was minor—it was a touch more challenging to fit through his doggy door with his costume on. The stuffed shark, complete with dorsal fin, on his back added significantly to his height. He made it through okay the first time, although perhaps more slowly than usual and with the costume rubbing the top of the frame. After that, he negotiated the doggy door as easily as usual, apparently adjusting to his temporary size increase. It did not seem to bother him, but many dogs might have found this new experience upsetting.
This was my first Halloween party of the year, and it reminded me of the importance of assuring that dogs are not limited in any significant way by their costumes. Many costumes inhibit walking, running or play, impair vision or hearing, or prevent dogs from fitting through tight spaces. Others interfere with their ability to eat, drink or eliminate.
It’s no fun for a dog to be in a costume that seriously gets in the way of basic functions. For some dogs, no costume, no matter how minimal, is fun in any situation. Whether to dress dogs up for the holiday is an individual decision.
I think if the dog enjoys it, then it’s fine, but if the dog is distressed at all, it’s unkind and not worth it. Part of making sure that a dog is okay with being in a costume is making sure that the costume does not limit what the dog can do. So, if Gray Dog had struggled with the doggy door, I would have been in favor of removing his costume. Since he was able to roll with it, I was charmed to see him continue to be a shark.
I know people who love to dress their dogs in costumes for Halloween, and others who are opposed to it for their dog and every dog. What do you think? Will you be dressing your dog up for Halloween this year?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
New kitchen appliance on the market
October 22 2012
Anything that makes cooking and baking easier is welcome in my world, and that applies to products and ideas that help in preparing food for dogs as well as for people. So, I was pleased to see a new appliance for making dog treats.
The Nostalgia Electrics DBM200 Dog Biscuit Treat Maker Kit allows canine chefs to create dog treats quickly and easily. This countertop appliance bakes up treats in five minutes, and using the cookie cutters that are included, those treats can be shaped like a small bone, a large bone, a cat, a dog house, a fire hydrant or a dog. It comes with a decorating kit and a recipe booklet. I especially like the storage container that comes with the set, as it is stylish enough to stay on the counter all the time.
I know that many people choose to have only those kitchen gadgets that do more than one thing, so let me point out that this item allows you to save time, make charming homemade treats, make your dog happy AND add something chic to your home décor.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Renowned Veterinary Behaviorist has died
October 20 2012
The name R.K. Anderson may not be universally known among dog lovers, but his ideas and innovations are. Anderson, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90, has promoted kindness with pets for decades, long before it was fashionable. Mocked as a “cookie pusher” a half century ago for his interest in using food instead of force to train dogs, he continued to work towards gentle treatment of companion animals throughout his career.
Perhaps the best known of his contributions is as co-inventor of the Gentle Leader® head collar, which was meant to be a replacement for choke collars and prong collars. He also helped design the Easy WalkTM harness, which similarly aims to provide people a humane way to control their dogs.
Anderson is also one of the founders of Animal Behavior Resources Institute, which provides education and resources about animal behavior in order to further its goal of improving human-animal relationships and the quality of life for people and animals. His idea to share videos on the internet for educational purposes predates YouTube.
R.K. was always as kind and caring with people as he was with dogs, and everybody loved to be around him for that reason as much as because they could learn from him. Like many other trainers and behaviorists as well as veterinarians, I had some fine conversations with him at conferences and gatherings over the years, and I will miss him.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Watch and learn
October 17 2012
I recently saw this video of a training session focusing on transferring a cue and I was awed by it. It’s easy to read about training in a textbook, but it’s actually rare to see textbook training. This video shows trainer Laura Monaco Torelli training her Rhodesian Ridgeback Santino. She is transferring his visual cue, which tells him to spin in a circle to the right, to the verbal cue “twist.” I thought the training was so beautiful that I want to share it. I must admit in all honesty that Laura is a friend of mine, but it is her training skills and not our friendship that has prompted me to write this post.
The video is not edited, which I like. When videos are edited, often for good reason, it’s hard to know if you are getting the full story of the training session. Watch this video to see excellent training, and see below for more on what I like so much about it.
Laura sets up some good training basics and sticks to them. She is very clear about her goals of transferring the cue and of ending on a good note. She works without a leash, which is always best for training (if it’s safe) since the leash won’t get in the way and because the dog has the freedom to choose where to be. She works in short sessions of one minute. Training takes a lot of mental energy for both dogs and trainers, so short sessions are best. In the breaks between sessions, she gives Santino lots of happy attention and makes it fun for him. She mixes other cues into her training session, which makes it more interesting for her dog and also assures that he is really responding to each cue rather than always doing the same behavior. She uses a high rate of reinforcement for Santino, which is so important when learning something new.
Laura uses a clear visual signal without extraneous movement. This is typical of people who train marine mammals, which is where Laura got her start with training.
Laura begins with high rates of reinforcement for Santino’s attention and his choice to wait for a cue rather than simply offering behavior and hoping that he hits on the right one. It is so critical in training for an animal to be attending to the trainer and to cues rather than just performing random behaviors, but this has to be taught and reinforced just as other actions do. I love that she reinforces him a lot for attending to her, which is the basis of all training.
She links the verbal cue with the visual cue clearly, saying the new cue “twist” before giving the visual cue of her hand motion. They must be paired in this order and linked tightly in time for the transfer to be successful.
Laura’s timing is impeccable. She clicks as Santino starts the behavior she’s looking for, whether it’s for a right spin or any of the other behaviors she cues him for during the session.
Her delivery of the treats is clean, and by that I mean that it is clearly separated in time from the clicks she gives him. It’s important not to pollute the marker (also called a bridge or a secondary reinforcer) with the food by having them overlap in time.
Great training requires great choices, and Laura makes a lot of them. Her decisions about what to reinforce are spot on. It’s easy to see that in the video, but it’s hard to make those choices in real time, many per minute, in a situation where microseconds matter. She also chooses wisely to start by warming Santino up with the original visual cue in the first one-minute session.
Early on in the second session, Laura gets to the cue to spin rather than reinforcing him a lot of times for attention. I like that progression from the previous minute because he is already deeply into training mode.
The steps she takes to fade out the hand signal are methodical and gradual. She moves from following the verbal cue “twist” with a full hand signal to a smaller and smaller one until her last cue is faded to the point of just being a slight movement with her shoulder that doesn’t even involve her hand at all.
She wisely ends at this point when the dog has either responded to the verbal cue or to just that tiniest hint of the original visual cue. Ending on a good note is a goal of all training sessions, but recognizing that moment is an art.
Laura is always thoughtful of her dog, aware of distractions such as his thirst, activity behind her that he can see through the window, and “treat dust” on the ground.
Notable in this video is that Laura obviously enjoys the training and likes being with her dog. I love that she lights up around him, and adores him. She refers to him as “handsome” multiple times. (I prefer to describe him as a “bronzed god”, but her term works, too.)
Seeing training done well, as in this video, is instructive for anyone seeking to improve training skills. Are you like me? By that I mean, does it make you want to have a training session with your dog RIGHT NOW?
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