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
The same genomic regions affect human social behavior
January 7 2017
The remarkable social abilities of dogs include the many ways that they are able to interact with humans. Dogs seek out humans for food, companionship, assistance and information. They have evolved these social skills throughout their recent evolutionary past because of the advantages of communicating and cooperating with people. Genetic changes in the domestic dog over thousands of years are the source of these behavioral changes, but there remains a lot of variation in both canine genetics and canine social behavior.
A recent study (Genomic Regions Associated With Interspecies Communication in Dogs Contain Genes Related to Human Social Disorders) investigated behavioral and genetic variation in hundreds of Beagles with similar upbringing and similar previous experiences with humans. Researchers studied the dogs’ social behavior by presenting them with an impossible task. Dogs were given a container that held three treats, but only two of them were accessible to the dog. The third treat was impossible for the dog to obtain. Using video, researchers quantified the time dogs spent looking at the people in the room with them, approaching them, and being in physical contact with them. Different dogs showed different tendencies to seek human interaction when they faced an unsolvable problem.
To investigate possible genetic sources of this behavioral variation, the scientists used a process called GWAS (Genome-Wide Association Study). Basically, this means that a large number of parts of the entire DNA of each dog were examined to discover potential genetic variants that were associated with the social behavior. This study shows a strong genetic aspect to differences in human-directed social behavior by dogs. Researchers found multiple sections of DNA that were associated with differences in social behavior. In some cases, specific alleles (gene variants) were strongly associated with the tendency to seek out humans for physical contact.
Interestingly, the genes associated with variation in dog behavior in this study have been found to be related to various behavioral issues and social behavior complexes in humans. Specifically, autism, bipolar disorder and aggression in adolescents with ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) are all variations in human behavior whose genetic contributions come at least in part from the same areas of DNA that influence human-directed social behavior in dogs. This suggests that dogs may be an appropriate and valuable model for studying these aspects of social behavior in people.
News: Guest Posts
How many different situations does your dog understand?
January 5 2017
Dogs respond to our behavior when we are preparing to leave the house. Reactions are different depending on where we are going. Each type of excursion is associated with a distinct set of (human) behaviors that occur prior to the departure. Dogs pay attention to these different behaviors because they carry a lot of information that matters to them.
The going-to-work behaviors that dogs observe their guardians perform mean that the person is leaving for much of the day. Those behaviors can include packing a lunch, blow drying hair, putting on dress shoes, carrying a specific bag or backpack and possibly being rushed and impatient. Dogs typically respond by sighing, going to lie down, and perhaps acting bored or disinterested. Their reaction reflects their understanding that they will not get to come along.
The actions that take place before a run may be putting on running shoes, grabbing a water bottle, stretching or eating something specific like toast or a banana. It’s easy for dogs who are running buddies to figure out that they get to come along and become excited in anticipation. Many will jump, spin, bark or do some other behavior associated with their enthusiasm or happiness. Some will bring the leash to their guardian, and others will stick very close, as if making sure that they are not accidentally left behind.
The behavior that is often most distressing to dogs involves the actions associated with travel. When many dogs see people filling suitcases, gathering items for a trip or anything else they connect to a long departure, their reactions reflect their displeasure. It’s as though they are thinking, “Uh-oh. I don’t like the looks of this at all.” Some dogs whine, some look sulky and others try to get in the way of our packing efforts.
Some departures are so brief that most dogs don’t make too much fuss over them. If you look outside, slip on your flip-flops and go outside suddenly, a dog who has seen this many times before likely connects those actions to your daily visit to the mailbox. Dogs may watch you from the window the whole time you are gone just to make sure they’ve read the signals correctly, but few experience much distress.
There are so many cues that tell dogs whether or not they are going when you leave, and give details about what’s to come. A bike helmet often means they stay behind (though in some families, it means just the opposite). Picking up the leash is a clear sign that they get to go with you. Shopping bags mean they are staying behind, as does a stuffed Kong being prepared. Grabbing poop bags is a good sign from the dog’s point of view, but grabbing your tablet is not. Dogs pay attention to what we do before we leave because information about their immediate future resides in our actions.
I’ve generalized about the reactions by dogs to various pre-departure behaviors. Obviously, a dog who is too new to the household to know the various patterns will not react predictably to your actions. Dogs who struggle when left alone, especially those with separation anxiety, are often too emotionally overwhelmed and panicky at any sign that you are leaving without them to cope with details distinguishing various situations. (Such dogs are often the most astute at figuring out whether they will be coming with you or being left behind, though.) Most dogs become quite attentive if they’re unsure about what is happening and can’t tell what your actions mean. If the cues that tell them what kind of departure is impending are mixed up or don’t match your usual pattern, most dogs focus closely on what you are doing to try to figure it out.
How many different situations involving your departures can your dog distinguish, and how nuanced are his reactions to each one?
News: Guest Posts
December 31 2016
Like other holiday articles, dreidels are not part of daily life. These once-a-year items can cause a variety of responses in dogs, depending on the individual. For some dogs, they pose challenges, eliciting fear, arousal, caution or even panic. The dog in the following video is clearly not enjoying his dreidel experience at first, although he seems to become more comfortable with it as time goes on.
Other dogs always have a lot of fun with the dreidel, which means that their guardians can share this part of Chanukah with them. This dog apparently understands that it is a game.
The next dreidel-experiencing dog is particularly playful and probably enjoys any object that moves on the floor with or without his help.
There are plenty of dogs who fall in between these extremes. Like the dog below, they may find the dreidel riveting, but not really enjoy seeing it spin.
In my house, dogs don’t participate in the game of dreidel. I have never had a dog who was interested in doing anything but attacking them or running away from them. Just like fireworks on the Fourth of July, or trick-or-treaters at Halloween, a spinning dreidel is a part of my holiday celebrations from which I protect dogs.
If dreidels are part of your festivities, how does your dog react to them?
News: Guest Posts
Has it happened to you?
December 29 2016
A couple of times a decade, a fall of a truly spectacular nature occurs in my life because of dog-related forces. This morning, for example, an unlikely combination of bad luck and bad timing led to this score: Laws of Physics—1, Karen—0. I was walking Saylor, a sweet, cuddly adolescent dog with more power than you’d think based on her medium size and willowy build. Her strength is most obvious when she sees another dog, but usually I can distract her with treats and (reasonably) calmly walk by another dog without revealing her reactivity to anyone. That’s not how life unfolded today.
We had received more than a foot of snow this weekend. It’s still deep in places but has turned slick in others. (You can probably see where this is going.) On a sidewalk that had not been shoveled, I spotted a sled that resembled a boogie board. Detecting a potential issue, I actually said out loud to Saylor, “Don’t step on that sled. You’ll go flying,” without expecting her to understand. It was just my way of getting her attention so we could veer around it. Saylor noticed the dog before I did, and moved in his direction before I could make an adjustment or give her treats. The dog leapt up on the fence in front of the house so that his head and forelegs were over the fence. He remained there, threatening to make it all the way over, and barked aggressively.
Saylor had charged in his direction with such speed and power that my next step was right on the sled. It traveled in the way that children everywhere want sleds to move—fast and with no friction—resulting in an immediate slam to the ground with my entire backside hitting at the same time. I still had a firm hold on the leash, but that just meant that in addition to my undignified position in a pile of snow, my arm was thrashing about as she lunged at the dog attempting to climb the fence.
“I’m okay!” I said immediately to my husband, who was walking Marley—a dog much older and more calm than Saylor. I assumed (correctly) that my husband would be concerned that such a fall might have caused serious damage. I feel a bit stiff, but I’m grateful to have avoided the usual worries—broken wrist, concussion, bruised tailbone. My pride was far more damaged than my body. I got up laughing, headed away from the debacle of the sled, snow and barking dog on the fence, and worked on calming Saylor down.
I would love to have the incident on video because I’m sure it was hilarious, if not the sort of footage I would use to promote my dog skills. It’s all just part of life with dogs! If you’ve taken a similar spill, please share your story. (And I hope you were also unhurt.)
News: Guest Posts
Did he obey or copy the people around him?
December 23 2016
Pilota, a Brazilian mutt, did not abandon his peeps during a drug raid. This photo of him lying down with members of his gang when the police ordered everyone to do so shows how he responded to the situation. Pilota (Portuguese for pilot) initially barked when police officers showed up at his home in southern Brazil, but when officers ordered everybody to lie down, he ran over and joined the people already on the ground.
Many have speculated that he was either following police orders or that he was just copying what everybody else around him was doing. Either way, becoming quiet and lying down on his back in apparent surrender along with everybody else was a wise move. Pilota’s actions may have saved his life because Brazilian police often shoot dogs immediately during a raid.
In the picture, Pilota appears to be giving appeasement signals, which are the signals social animals use to communicate that they are not going to challenge other individuals. His belly is exposed, his ears are back, his tail may be tucked and he has turned his gaze to the side. All of his visual signals suggest that he is actively communicating his intention of full surrender. This dog is doing everything he can to let the police officers know that he will not charge at them or fight them.
Though there were some arrests made after police found guns, ammunition, marijuana and cocaine in the raid, Pilota was among those who went free.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s the quickest way to present a “well-trained” dog
December 20 2016
If your dog knows a trick, people are more likely to consider him well-trained than if he doesn’t. It doesn’t matter that it is far easier and faster to teach a dog to crawl, rollover or high-5 than it is to teach a dog to stay, come or heel. Performing the trick is often more impressive to people. There’s an erroneous assumption that dogs naturally do the standard dog obedience behaviors, but tricks seem like out-of-reach behavior that is above and beyond what typical dogs can do. It’s not true at all, but the perception of that truth is why there is great value in training your dog to do a trick.
I’ve had a few clients over the years who have needed for various reasons to convince someone that a dog is very well trained with short notice. One needed to introduce his dog to a landlord before being allowed to rent an apartment. A second was visiting her boyfriend’s parents and wanted to make a good impression. A third situation involved a family who were scheduled for a home visit as part of their adoption process and had concerns that their dog’s behavior might detract from their appeal. In each case, along with a crash course in the basics, I advised them to teach their dog a trick that they could show off. The potential renter taught his dog to beg, the girlfriend taught her dog to wave, and the couple seeking to adopt trained their dog to bow. All of them reported what I had suspected, which is that the trick did more to convince people that the dog was well-trained than the less flashy “normal” behavior.
Asking your dog to perform tricks always offers an opportunity to show him in the best light, but it’s especially useful if you don’t have enough time to make his training basics rock solid. One key time-saving strategy is to choose the trick that is most natural for your dog so he can learn it quickly. Many behaviors that are already in your dog’s normal repertoire can be turned into tricks. If your dog stretches a lot, consider “bow” as a possible trick. If he bats at things with his paw, he may be good at “high-5”. If your dog backs away from things, teach him to “back up”. Many dogs are naturals at “roll over”, “get your toy” or “spin”. If your dog already does a certain behavior, it is often possible to teach him to do it on cue in just a few quick sessions, and that is what turns it into a trick.
Teaching tricks gives you an edge when you have to get some training done in a hurry because you can choose to teach your dog whatever is easiest for him, and skip anything that poses a challenge. That’s not possible with basic obedience skills because you can hardly skip heel or stay because it doesn’t suit your dog’s natural behavior. Whether your dog naturally likes to come when called, people expect your dog to do it. Tricks are often unexpected and suggest that your dog will do whatever you ask of him. In other words, they offer evidence that your dog is well-trained.
Has your dog had the opportunity to look good by performing a trick?
Dog's Life: Humane
Partnership between shelter and local business benefits shelter dogs
December 16 2016
“Why run alone when you could have a running buddy? Love dogs? Like to run? Lace up your shoes and join Run Flagstaff as we partner with Second Chance Center for Animals to help exercise and promote shelter pets through a weekly run. You run and Second Chance provides your running buddy! Enjoy a neighborhood jaunt with nine to twelve shelter dogs.”
This announcement in the monthly newsletter from our local running store was proof that life is good. Any combination of my two favorite interests—dogs and running—is sure to make me happy. This program is designed to promote shelter dogs to the community as the dogs gain social experience and get some exercise. Each dog wears a glow-in-the-dark collar and a reflective vest that says “ADOPT ME: SECOND CHANCE”.
Second Chance Center for Animals is eager to help their dogs short term with a great outing, and long term by increasing their chances of adoption. In addition to their training work at the shelter, the Running Buddy program offers the dogs new experiences to meet people in the outside world. Run Flagstaff is owned by a couple who are serious dog lovers. They are guardians to three dogs and are likely at any time to add to their family by adopting another one. I love the collaboration between a local business and a shelter for the good of the dogs.
My sons and I were running buddies last week and had such fun that we signed up to attend again this week. The best news was that so many dogs had been adopted during the past week that they were not able to bring as many dogs as planned to the run. Dogs going to loving homes is always good news, even if it means that we had to take turns running dogs since there was not a dog for everyone despite that being the original plan.
Each of us in my family had a dog who charmed us, but made the event a bit of an adventure. My younger son ran with Boomer who must have some sort of sight hound in him. He was Fast with a capital F. My son got some good sprinting work in, and their love of speed made them a great match. My older son had a dog named Deuce who was extremely strong. He was presumably part freight train, but just as sweet as could be. I ran with Oreo, a very loving mix with black on either side of her face and white in between. Though she prefers her space around other dogs, she is gentle and kind around people, no matter how close they are to her.
While we ran on the path along the main road in Flagstaff, Ariz. (Route 66), many people walking or driving by smiled and asked us questions about the dogs. Seeing polite, well-behaved dogs out in the community is perhaps the best way to remind people that shelters are great places to find great dogs.
News: Guest Posts
Happily, she is back with her guardian now
December 14 2016
The dog was outside our house one night when my husband and son pulled into the driveway. She approached the car, and when they got out of it, she came right up to them, wagging her whole body. It was raining and the dog was cold and wet, so they invited her in to our house where she happily greeted me and drank some water. After exploring our downstairs and being gently dried with some towels, she settled down by the fire.
She was not wearing a collar, but the gently pressed down fur around her neck showed that she had recently been wearing one. She was on the older side, but other than having very bad cataracts, she seemed perfectly healthy. Though she bumped into things and was clearly blind or almost blind, we thought she was in good shape. In addition, this dog was friendly, affiliative and obviously comfortable inside a home. There was no doubt that this dog had a family, but she was not one of the many dogs we regularly see in our neighborhood.
We went outside to see if anyone was looking for a lost dog, asked a few neighbors if they recognized her and pondered what to do. We even took her outside to see if she would try to head in a particular direction that indicated home. No luck. She was ours until we could sort it out. There was no way we were going to put any dog, much less an old blind one, out in the rain when she had so clearly sought out our company.
We posted a description and a picture on Facebook and on a local lost dog site. We guessed she was about 8-10 years old and a Lab mix, and we mentioned the area of town where she found us and noted that she couldn’t see. We were hopeful that such a distinctive dog would quickly be recognized and could be returned to those who love her, even though the best picture we could get of her was not very good.
The next morning, we called our local Humane Association with information about her, but they said nobody had called looking for such a dog. I took her to a vet to check to see if she was microchipped, but unfortunately, she was not. We felt stuck, but waited. We certainly didn’t want to turn her in as a stray, because as lovely as she was, we feared that an older blind dog might not be a top priority at a shelter with limited space.
Later that afternoon, we got a call from her guardian who answered my “Hello,” with, “I think you have my dog! Her name is Dallas.” He lives just down the street from us, but it was a mutual Facebook friend living thousands of miles away in Pennsylvania who saw the post and then contacted him to tell him I had his dog. You can say whatever negative things you want to about social media, but there’s no denying the good that comes from it in cases like this. Dallas and her guardian were reunited just a few minutes after the phone call. They were thrilled and relieved to see each other.
If you’ve taken in a lost dog, how did you locate the family and how long did that take?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is your dog ready for the holidays?
December 11 2016
Shortly after we were married, my husband and I spent the holidays with my in-laws, and we brought our young dog, Bugsy. He was social; had an excellent stay; came when called; had no history of food thievery; and would not lift his leg indoors, even on a tree, so my confidence in his visiting skills was high.
On arrival, as he occupied himself with a stuffed Kong so we could unpack the car, a possible problem occurred to me. Bugsy often tossed his Kong into the air and ate any treats that flew out of it. In our poor students’ apartment, it was endearing, entertaining behavior. But my in-laws’ decor included crystal, collectible figurines and an array of china teacups. Racing into the house in a panic, I caught the Kong in midair as it flew toward a set of porcelain miniatures. As I breathed a sigh of relief, it occurred to me that perhaps I had been a bit smug in thinking the trip would be stress-free.
This time of year generates tales of woe associated with bringing dogs to visit friends and relatives, and I get a lot of questions about this issue. Whether or not people fully anticipate the trouble that awaits them, taking a dog into someone else’s home for the holidays can cause stress. The best approach for assuaging this seasonal angst is two-pronged: Prepare your dog as much as you can ahead of time with the skills he’ll need to succeed during the visit, and make every effort to avoid other situations for which he hasn’t been prepared.
The preliminary step, of course, is to request permission to bring him along. Not everyone wants a visiting dog. Even dog lovers appreciate the advance warning that allows them to, for example, put away the Ming vase on display at the precise height of the perpetually swinging tail of your cheerful Great Dane. If your dog is not welcome, don’t bring him, or find somewhere else to stay. The strain of a visit with an unwelcome dog can permanently damage relationships. Plus, it’s hard on the dog to be Undesirable Number One in an otherwise festive home.
Training is a critical aspect of preparation. The better trained your dog is, the more welcome you will both be as guests. The key skills are to be able to sit, stay, come, leave it, greet politely, and stop barking on cue. It sounds like a long list, but these are also the basics of polite canine citizenship. I also recommend that you teach your dog at least one “show-off” behavior. This can be waiting at the door until told to proceed (easy to teach but impressive to most people) or a trick such as “roll over” or “high five.” Anything that makes your dog more charming will help ease tensions in case of a social gaffe. For example, I had a client whose dog jumped up on her father-in-law, but was forgiven immediately when she gave the cue “You goofed,” and the dog responded by lying down and covering his face with his paws, as though in embarrassment.
Common host complaints include barking, jumping up on visitors and stealing food. Of course, if he is prone to more serious transgressions such as biting, unmanageable destructive chewing or house-soiling, it is unfair to expect your dog and your hosts to co-exist peacefully, and it may be best not to go a-visiting with him in tow.
Teach your dog the skills he’ll need to be a gracious guest. If he’s a barker, teach him to stop on cue. Say “enough” the instant he starts to bark, and then put treats right by his nose. Do not let him have the treats until he stops barking. Many dogs quickly learn that quieting down when you say “enough” is a way to get treats. If he jumps up on people, teach him that if he does this, the people will leave, but if he sits, he will get treats and attention. Since the majority of jumpers do so out of an urge to be social, they quickly learn that jumping up makes people go away. They choose to sit instead, which results in the opportunity to socialize and get treats as well.
Even if you prepare ahead of time, there’s plenty to do during your visit to make sure that the holiday is remembered as a fun one rather than as the last family holiday to which you were allowed to bring your dog. Exercise, chews, toys and puzzles can minimize behavioral issues such as destructive chewing and counter-surfing, which tend to worsen when dogs are bored or full of pent-up energy. Bring a crate if your dog likes it and your hosts have enough space. Help clean up, especially if the mess involves dog hair or sloppy drinking at the water bowl. Seize the opportunity to put leftovers out of your dog’s reach, and volunteer to take out the trash.
As soon as possible after you arrive, practice the skills your dog already knows so that he can learn to do them in new places, too. One of the things that separates professional trainers from novices is that professionals know that training doesn’t automatically transfer to new locations. For example, just because your dog has a rock-solid stay in your living room doesn’t mean he knows how to respond in the same way in your yard, at the park or at Grandma’s house. Even a couple of five-minute training sessions can significantly improve your dog’s performance and manners.
Obedience skills aren’t the only ones that may drop off away from home. Many dogs who are completely trustworthy when left at home alone are stressed, scared or mischievous when left alone in a new place, all of which can result in house-soiling or the aforementioned destructive chewing or counter-surfing. The change in routine, a new place and additional people may also make dogs more likely to exhibit these unwanted behaviors. Adjust your plans—and expectations—accordingly.
Faux pas may occur, but focusing on prevention will help your dog succeed. Don’t set up your highly food-motivated dog to fail by leaving him alone, even for a minute, while the turkey is on the table. If you know your dog has a tendency to find food or shoes, don’t put temptation in his way. Make some areas of the house off limits, or use a crate so that your dog never gets the opportunity to display anything but his best behavior.
No matter how things go, send a thank-you note to your hosts, perhaps accompanied by flowers, to express your gratitude that you and your dog were welcomed into their home (and, if necessary, to apologize).
Ideally, holidays are fun, not stressful. With thoughtful preparation and prevention, you can insulate yourself, your dog and your hosts from the dark side of this festive season. You will then be free to focus on the joy of togetherness for everyone, whether they sing “Fa la la la la” or “Bow wow wow wow wow.”
News: Guest Posts
Animals take center stage this holiday season
December 9 2016
The upscale UK department store John Lewis has a history of emotional commercials that often feature animals. This year, animals once again take center stage, with Buster the Boxer (played by five-year old Biff) in the starring role.
Buster watches foxes, a squirrel, a badger, and a hedgehog bounce on the trampoline that was set up on Christmas Eve to surprise a little girl the next morning. He appears envious of the wildlife enjoying themselves while all he can do is watch through the window. When the back door is opened the next morning, the little girl runs joyfully toward her new gift, but Buster beats her to it. At last, he can have the bouncy fun he has been craving.
The advertisement cost a millions pounds to make, and the company will spend six million more airing the commercial. Naturally, they hope sales—including of the trampoline, the girl’s pajamas, books featuring woodland animals and plush versions of the animals in the ad—will make the commercial worth it.
For the socially conscious, it’s worth noting that this advertisement marks the first time that John Lewis has cast a black family. Additionally, the company will be donating a percentage of the money from all toy sales to Wildlife Trusts in the UK.
This is my favorite dog commercial so far this season. What’s yours?
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