Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
How do you keep carpets in shape?
July 20 2012
There’s a carpet in the back room of my house that is shockingly dirty. Between kids and pets, it has taken a lot of abuse, and it wasn’t in great shape when we bought the house, either. As soon as we moved in, my husband and I both said, “That has GOT to be replaced!” When our 19-month old son threw up on it later that day, we decided we should wait until the kids were a little older. That son is now nearly 9 years old, we still have the carpet, and it is appalling. Between dog hair, muddy paw prints, and various substances that come out of Kongs, dogs have done as much damage as the kids have done with popsicles and paint.
I want to know what people are doing in their homes to prevent and treat this sort of issue. We try to keep the mess largely confined to that one room, which is a combination art studio and play room, so at least the whole house is not as gross. We vacuum most days and we clean the carpet ourselves every couple of months. If I’m honest, though, that carpet is just not pretty, and the time is clearly at hand to replace it, probably with a totally different type of flooring, such as wood or tile.
Having failed at maintaining a carpet myself, I’m so curious how other people with little mess-makers in their homes manage to keep their carpets from looking the way mine does. What are your secrets?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s another way to be together
July 17 2012
I love hammocks and I love dogs. Over the years, there have been many happy moments enjoying each of these pleasures in life. Naturally, I have also spent considerable amounts of time enjoying the two simultaneously.
If you want your dog to enjoy being in a hammock with you, start slowly. Lift the dog or help him step in while the hammock is not moving. Keep it still, and don’t force him to stay in. He may do best with a bunch of short visits (seconds, or a few minutes at most depending on how he’s doing) over a period of time. For most dogs, the key is not to move the hammock until he is comfortable being in it while it’s stationery. To help many dogs like the hammock instead of just tolerating it, give him tasty treats while he’s in it, and then stop the delivery of the goodies when he’s out of it.
Once your dog has learned to settle in and feel comfortable in the hammock, you can add in gentle motion, but just briefly, and certainly don’t swing it far. To keep it safe, make sure your dog’s nails are trimmed so they don’t catch on the hammock. Low hammocks are best for dogs just in case anybody leaves it unexpectedly. Fabric hammocks are safer for dogs than rope ones because dogs’ little legs so easily go through the openings in the fabric, which can be scary and cause injury.
In the video below, Marley and I are having fun, but it was not particularly relaxing. He needs a watchful eye and a guiding hand.
Just so that nobody is too worried about Marley’s safety, we were only about a foot off the ground, he loves being in hammocks, and I was holding up the edges to minimize the chances of a mishap.
He is pretty well balanced actually, and is a natural in hammocks. He first jumped into the hammock uninvited. Luckily, he made it in on that occasion and did not fly out the other side or get part of his body caught in the hammock.
Nobody should force a dog into a hammock, as not all dogs enjoy the feeling on being in one. Some find the movement really scary while others become motion sick. Many dogs don’t suffer in them, but just vaguely seem to prefer to be on more solid ground.
It sounds overly obvious and simple, but there are few more pleasant ways to pass a lazy afternoon than to spend it swaying gently in the breeze in a hammock with your dog buddy. Do you "swing" with your pup?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Advice for those who aspire to such work
July 10 2012
One of the questions I receive most often is how to become a canine behaviorist or trainer. Neither is a career with a typical path made up of a standard educational program followed by an exam or an approved internship. All of us in the field have carved our own way, which is why there are so many variations on the story we each tell about how we came to do what we do. While there are many paths to a career in this field, some basic advice applies to all of them.
The most important advice I like to give to anyone with an interest in this type of work is that there are two equally important aspects of preparing for such careers. I feel strongly that the best trainers and behaviorists have pursued both avenues as part of their education.
One is acquiring the knowledge you’ll need in this field, and that involves learning a lot about a variety of areas: canine ethology, learning theory, coaching skills, proper equipment, and business. To educate yourself in these areas requires a lot of reading of books and blogs, supplemented by seminars, online or in-person courses, webinars, and workshops.
The second, and equally important area is practical experience and hands-on work with animals. All the book learning in the world will not take you very far as a behaviorist and trainer if you don’t have the skills to actually work with a dog. The best ways to acquire these practical skills are with a combination of workshops, training your own and friends’ dogs, and volunteering at a place with a lot of animals, such as a shelter or humane organization, a rescue group, a veterinary clinic, or a dog-training business.
In my experience, most people are stronger in one area or the other. Either they are really on top of the knowledge and information side of things but a bit weak on dog handling skills or they highly skilled with dogs but could benefit from having more information at their disposal. The people who really excel as dog trainers and behaviorists are balanced—very knowledgeable and highly skilled.
When I started doing this kind of work full time, I was far more advanced in my book learning than my dog handling skills. I had completed my Ph.D. in zoology with an emphasis in ethology, and I was in good shape in terms of what I knew. (To clarify, I think it’s critical not ever to be done learning, so I follow my own advice and continue to learn, especially with a lot of reading and also with webinars and conferences when I can). Though I had good practical skills for working with large colonies of stinging wasps, as was required for my dissertation work, I lacked enough experience with dogs, and that’s what I set out to correct.
I worked as a dog groomer for a year just to get to know my new species of choice, while I worked as an assistant trainer and then as a trainer. I remember after that year when I began my internship with behaviorist Patricia McConnell, she once said to me, “I’m as proud of my dog training skills as I am of my Ph. D. They were equally hard to acquire.” That comment has always stayed with me, reminding me of the importance of excelling in both knowledge and practical skills. These skills must be practiced regularly to be maintained.
If you haven’t yet worked a lot with dogs, you may wonder what sorts of skills I’m talking about. The things that people who work with dogs need to be able to do take practice to be able to do with dogs of every temperament, size, and learning style. They include:
If you are interested in a career as a behaviorist or trainer, know that you will be working with people as much as with dogs. If you want to work with animals because you love them and aren’t so fond of people, this is not the right field for you. People and dogs are two of my very favorite species, which is lucky since I spend so much time with members of both of them.
Best of luck to all of you who want to be in this field. I love my work and I would recommend it to anyone who loves dogs (and people!) as much as I do!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Does your dog spread cheer?
July 9 2012
A friend of mine was telling me that her parents had recently lost their old dog and were really suffering with the grief and the quiet house. To help her parents, my friend and her husband loaned them their dog for a week of “dog therapy”, which really helped them out during part of the time between when their dog passed away and they adopted a new dog.
Now, I must assure you that my friends' dog is very comfortable at the parents’ house, which is a two-hour drive away from them. They take care of the dog when my friends travel for work, and the dog also spends a lot of time there during weekend visits and holidays, too
My friends said they really missed their dog, but that it felt good, too, to help out because they felt like her parents needed to have a dog present more they did at that point. Obviously, if this visit would have been stressful to the dog, I would have been opposed, but since the dog loves to be there, I think it was a lovely gesture. “Loaning out love” is such a kind and giving act.
Has your dog every gone visiting just to cheer people up?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do the dogs think they’re in water?
July 6 2012
Much of the country has been gripped by stifling heat. Trying to stay cool is what it’s all about, and dogs benefit just as much from air conditioning as humans do. The thing is, though, dogs and people seem to react differently to having cool air blowing on them. People tend to sit still and enjoy the breeze, but many dogs move a lot in the same conditions.
In these two videos of different dogs being held in front of an air conditioner, it’s impossible to say what’s really going on, but the dogs look as though they are making swimming motions.
Are they really trying to swim in the current of air? What do you think is going on? How does your dog react to air conditioning?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I’m not sure why I care
July 3 2012
I am dogsitting again for Schultzie, an incredibly lovely dog about whom I have expressed my great love. There are so many wonderful qualities in this dog, but being photogenic is not among them. She is incredibly adorable in person, but her charm simply does not come across in pictures. This bums me out, but it’s hard to explain why it matters to me at all.
As a behaviorist, I know very well the value of a dog whose behavior makes her a joy to be around. What a dog looks like is not what’s most important to me. In fact, I’m a huge champion of choosing a dog whose behavior you like and then learning to love what that dog looks like. (This would probably not be a bad idea in our relationships with people either, but that’s a whole different can of worms.)
With Schultzie’s appearance not translating well to pictures, I’ve given a lot of thought to why I care. I think that the fact that Schultzie is not photogenic bothers me because I adore this dog and I want others to see her in the best possible light, and pictures that don’t do her justice fail in that attempt.
Do you have a dog who is not photogenic, and if so, how do you feel about that?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Empathy may cause it
June 29 2012
It’s been known for a long time that yawning is contagious in various species of primates, including humans. (It’s actually highly contagious. If it were as easy to catch a cold or malaria, it would be all but impossible to stay healthy.) In recent years, the contagious nature of yawns between dogs and people has been a research subject of considerable interest.
Studies have demonstrated that dogs can “catch” yawns from people, which is fascinating enough given that we are two different species. Now, a new study called “Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): first evidence for social modulation” suggests that human yawns are contagious to dogs by auditory means. (Translation: Dogs will yawn in response to just hearing a human yawn.)
The study was an attempt to demonstrate that contagious yawning in dogs is different than that same phenomenon in primates, but the data say otherwise. In primates, yawn contagion indicates that the observer has empathy for the yawner. It was thought that in dogs, yawns were induced by a hard-wired behavioral pattern that was exhibited in response to a releasing stimulus. However, the observation that dogs yawned more in response the sound of familiar yawns than to the sounds of unfamiliar yawns suggests that empathy may play a role in the contagion.
Reading and writing about this subject has given me a case of the yawns, along with the dog right next to me. Did you yawn while reading this, and if so, did your dog follow suit?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Strategies for safety
June 26 2012
Where I live (in Flagstaff, Ariz.) we have the same problems with off-leash dogs that most communities face. There are some people who think, for whatever reason, that leash laws don’t apply to them and their dogs. All runners, including me, have faced dogs charging at us on the trails and on the roads. It’s a risky situation when you are faced with a dog who is, at best, overly enthusiastic, and at worst, aggressive. Sometimes there’s a guardian around, but not always. Even when they are present, the situation can be alarming, either because the person seems frantic to get the dog back. (“Come! Get over here! No bite! NO BITE! NO BITE!!!”) or because there is no concern as a dog leaps at innocent passersby. (“Don’t worry, he’s friendly!”)
Flagstaff is a running mecca where many of the best runners in the world come to train in order to take advantage of the 7000-foot altitude and the endless miles of trails. My worst nightmare is that some Olympian or Olympic hopeful will be bitten and that the injury will ruin someone’s lifetime dream. Even without such dire consequences, derailed workouts and being truly afraid are not cool, whether it happens to an elite athlete or to any of the rest of us regular runners.
I am often asked what to do when a dog charges at someone or chases them on a run. There are so many variables in these situations that it’s difficult to make blanket statements or provide all the possibilities, but there are general guidelines for minimizing the chance that a scary situation turns injurious. Here are a few of my top tips for dealing with off-leash dogs while running.
Here are a few “dos”
Staying calm is a wise idea. Adding any sort of excitement to the situation is counterproductive.
Slow down, walk or stop. Speed is intoxicating to many dogs, who give chase to anything that’s moving such as squirrels, cats, dogs and runners. The fastest runners—the elites—are more likely to be chased, which I think is due in part to their graceful, gazelle-like build and gait. Some dogs try to herd runners, which may account for a lot of the bites to the back of the legs and ankles. It’s annoying to interrupt your run, but it beats being bitten.
If you are wearing sunglasses or a hat, take them off. Many dogs are scared of people wearing such accessories and charge or chase out of fear. If you remove them, some dogs realize you are just a person, not a monster, and ease off.
Swing wide to create more distance between you and the dog. A lot of dogs are chasing or charging to keep you away from their property, so if you act in accordance with these dogs’ wishes, you minimize the chances of trouble.
Say things that may put the dog in a good mood, using a cheerful voice. This seems ridiculous to many people, but I swear that changing the dog’s emotional state can work wonders. The phrases that are most likely to have an effect are “Wanna go for a walk?”, “Dinnertime!”, “Where’s your ball?”, and “Good dog, good dog, good dog.” So many dogs are conditioned to react happily to one or more of these phrases, and that means they have the power to diffuse a tense situation. Speaking in a happy voice, even though you have to fake it, makes this strategy more effective.
Similarly, a few dogs will respond if you give them a cue, telling them to sit, go home, or stay. Many dogs are too worked up to react, but it does work sometimes. And giving a cue or using a happy phrase is exceedingly unlikely to make things worse, so both are worth a try.
Another option is to turn and head the other way. Yes, it’s frustrating to have to change your route because of a misbehaving off-leash dog, but safety first! Many dogs are trying to get you to go away, and if you do, they will leave you alone. It’s best to head the other way slowly so you don’t incite the dog to chase you.
Here are a few “don’ts”
Don’t yell at the dog. Many dogs are afraid and this will only make their fear, and therefore their undesirable behavior, worse.
Don’t stare at the dog. Though this is often suggested, staring is an overtly threatening behavior and will cause many dogs to react even more aggressively to you. It will rarely cause a dog who is going after you to back off.
Don’t scream. This agitates many dogs, and makes them even more unpredictable.
Don’t throw anything at dog. Doing so can be perceived as threatening, which may make the situation escalate rather than make it better.
Don’t pick up a stick and try to use it as a weapon. This is far too likely to frighten a fearful dog or to be taken as an escalation of any confrontation by dogs who are on the offensive.
No technique is foolproof, but the general rule is to try to get out of the situation calmly and quickly without making the dog any more upset. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong or whether the dog is legally allowed to be off leash where you are running. It’s just about avoiding a serious issue so that you can not only keep running today, but in the future.
There are many ways to make this happen, and this list of dos and don’ts includes some of my top picks. What techniques have you found most helpful to prevent an issue with an off-leash dog while you are running?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Racing against a greyhound
June 24 2012
I know I am preaching to the choir when I proclaim that dogs are incredible animals with amazing abilities. So I’m pretty sure I’m in good company when I say that I have a list of dogs’ traits that are so extraordinary that it’s worth finding ways to demonstrate them to the world. I even have a wish list for videos I’d love to have that show dogs off a bit. Sometimes I acquire the videos I desire, but the list just keeps on growing.
Currently at the top of my wish list is a pair of videos illustrating how quickly dogs can run. The first of the two videos would show a race between my husband, who is a sprinter, and me. I’m a runner, too, but not one blessed with any real speed. He would easily dust me in a race of any distance. The second of the two videos would show a race between my husband and a greyhound, which would be such a rout by the dog that it would make that first race with me look close.
What do you think is so amazing about dogs that you have an urge to show everyone?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Correct terminology or jargon?
June 21 2012
If you have an urge to create discord and angst, here’s one way to do it: Go to a dog behavior conference or seminar and boldly state, “I think we should discuss the meaning of the term ‘prey drive,’ and decide whether or not we should continue to use it.” Then, make a dash for the exit before it gets ugly.
To most people in the dog world, the term “prey drive” refers to a dog’s eagerness or desire to work hard, especially if the work involves anything related to chasing and capturing prey. It’s a trait that makes many dogs successful in the world of canine sports. The term is often used by people whose dogs participate in agility or f ly ball as well as by those whose dogs work in search and rescue or law enforcement.
Additionally, it has become increasingly popular when discussing dogs with various behavioral issues, typically issues related to chasing (cars, squirrels, runners, bikes, children) and the resulting difficulty in teaching them to come or to pay attention in general around any of these distractions.
Sometimes “prey drive” is used in a positive sense, as in, “She’s excited about working because she has a high prey drive. I love her enthusiasm and motivation, and the prey drive gives her such great endurance too.” It can also be used in a negative way, as in, “I can never let her off-leash in areas that aren’t fenced in. She has such high prey drive that she’ll chase anything. I can’t trust her to come back or stay out of trouble.”
So, though prey drive is commonly used in the dog world, many people dislike it. From an ethological perspective, it doesn’t make sense. If you ask an ethologist (someone who studies the behavior of animals in their natural environments) who doesn’t happen to be involved in that world — and the vast majority of them aren’t — what they think of the term, they will look at you quizzically and then criticize it on the grounds that it’s nonsensical.
To ethologists, the word “drive” refers to an unknown and variable internal state that explains why an animal’s response to a stimulus is not identical every time the animal is exposed to it. For example, at times, a dog may charge after a tennis ball with gleaming eyes and an over-the-top bouncy enthusiasm, while at other times, that same dog may lazily lope after the ball or even ignore it, though the stimulus (the thrown ball) is the same. What’s different is the dog’s interest in or motivation to chase it. “Drive” is the term used to explain that difference, which ethologists consider to be a difference in internal states, perhaps based on neurological or physiological variables over time.
Fluctuation in an animal’s drive doesn’t just affect predatory behavior. It also influences how eager a dog is to eat, drink and engage in sexual behavior, or any other type of behavior for that matter. Yet, we don’t talk about food drive, water drive or potential-mating-partner drive. We say that a dog is hungry or food-motivated (or a chowhound); that the dog is thirsty; or, in the case of females, that she is sexually receptive. To be fair, the term “sex drive” is used to describe the state of having an interest in mating — referring typically (but not always) to males — but we don’t say female drive or male drive.
Even in the way that many people use it, prey drive lacks precision. Does it mean a drive to run, to chase, to catch something, to bite it, to kill it or any combination of these? Is it all related to predatory behavior, and if so, why is the term “prey drive” used, rather than “predatory drive”?
Words and phrases that express precise concepts are indispensable for communication, and the more specific we can be, the better. However, the inexactness of language can make it a challenge to convey precise meanings. For example, because English is short on words that describe emotional nuance, people say things such as, “Do you like him or do you like him?”
Some people feel that the word “drive” doesn’t actually explain an animal’s behavior. In one sense, it’s an oversimplification to say that an animal is behaving a certain way because of an internal state or a change in that internal state. We know that an animal’s motivation changes over time and that different members of the same species behave differently in the presence of identical stimuli, but we don’t often know why. So, the term is more descriptive and less explanatory than it purports to be. A label such as “prey drive” is essentially a shorthand way to describe what we don’t understand since we don’t have complete knowledge of dogs’ internal states and their effect on behavior.
Another problem with prey drive is that it is often used in an attempt to explain a dog’s unwanted behavior toward other dogs and even people,neither of which are normally objects of canine predatory focus. We’ve all heard people dismiss a dog’s inappropriate, undesirable and sometimes even aggressive behavior with the comment that the dog has a high prey drive. It sounds so much nicer than saying that the dog has little impulse control, a far-from-ideal temperament or has not been the beneficiary of sufficient training.
Criticisms of the phrase may be a predictable result of the fact that often, when terms are appropriated from other fields, they are used in a slightly different way. The current meaning of terms in our field may not match their original use, which can cause confusion and thus, a tendency to consider that the way the terms are being used is “wrong.”
Overall, the terminology employed to describe canine behavior is messy, perhaps in part because dog behavior encompasses a number of disciplines, among them ethology, evolution, physiology, neurobiology, sociology, psychology, learning theory and animal husbandry.
For example, the words “operant conditioning” can mean something different to those involved in the dog world than they do to those who study learning theory. Many dog trainers use the phrase with its original meaning in mind: the modification of behavior through the use of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Others use it as a synonym for positive reinforcement alone; when these people say they train using operant conditioning, they mean that they use positive reinforcement. However, in the field of learning theory, positive reinforcement is only one part of operant conditioning. Similarly, the concept of drive, which comes from the academic discipline of ethology, has come to mean something different, though related, in the world of dogs.
It’s wise to acknowledge that terms have to be considered in context. Would it be better if no such confusion ever arose and multiple meanings didn’t exist? Sure, there would be advantages, but the reality is that languages change, as do fields of study and their associated terminology.
Cultures vary in the way they accept and integrate shifting meanings in the language used to describe the world around them. On one extreme, the French are well known for their strong national pride in the stability of their language, and the great importance they place on maintaining le bon usage (the correct usage) and resisting change, particularly Anglicisms. At the other extreme is the surfer culture with its enthusiastic proliferation of new words and phrases such as “tubular,” “hang ten,” “in the soup” and “goofy footed.” Americans generally accept new words and phrases easily, accounting for the rapid spread of “going postal,” “cougar,” “to be plutoed” and, most recently, “Tebowing.”
So where does the dog community stand collectively in our tolerance for changes in language, new terminology and the appropriation of terms from other fields into our own lexicon?
Many people love new terms. They enjoy referring to “predatory drift” and “reactivity” (the term “aggression” used to suffice), and they happily accept “prey drive.” Others would greatly prefer to hear that a dog is enthusiastic about agility or fly ball, or that the dog is motivated to run the course, take the jumps or retrieve a ball.
What’s important is that we understand one another. The reality is that when most people talk about prey drive in dogs, they are referring to the enthusiasm and strong motivation that makes dogs sharp on the course, eager to participate and reliably give their all in competition or in play. I suspect that the term “prey drive” is here to stay, and I sure hope that the joy of dogs who possess a lot of it also remains with us forever.
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