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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.

News: Karen B. London
Dog With Math Skills
Is it a case of the Clever Hans Effect?

The news is full of stories about dogs with incredible abilities. As a dog lover, I adore hearing about amazing canine skills. As a scientist, I am often skeptical and wonder if the dog in question is really capable of doing what has been claimed. The story of Beau is one such case in which I have been made to wonder.

According to his guardian David Madsen, and to many witnesses, Beau can do math. For example, if Madsen tells Beau that there were six dogs at the park but three of them left, and then asks his dog how many dogs are left, Beau answers, “woof, woof, woof.” He will answer with five barks if asked what two plus three equals.

Madsen says Beau is correct about 85 percent of the time and that he has never had such a smart dog. To prove that he was not signaling the dog, Madsen has allowed others to test Beau when he (Madsen) was absent. Beau’s success when Madsen is not there proves that Madsen is not pulling a fast one on the rest of us, but it does not speak to the possibility that Beau’s skills are the result of the “Clever Hans Effect.”

Hans was a horse who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was owned by Wilhelm von Osten, who claimed to have taught him many skills, including arithmetic. Hans responded to questions, both oral and written, by tapping his foot. Many people observed Hans perform with von Osten at various shows throughout Germany.

In 1904, a panel of 13 people tested Hans to determine whether the horse actually knew the answers to the questions or if von Osten was tricking them all by secretly signaling his horse. They concluded that von Osten was not committing fraud and that the horse did indeed know the answers to the questions.

In 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst evaluated Clever Hans and shed new light on what the horse was able to do. In a series of tests, Pfungst investigated the horse’s success at answering questions under a variety of circumstances. He sometimes kept the horse away from spectators to make sure that the horse was not using any cues from them. He had people other than von Osten question Hans at times. He used blinders so that the horse could not always see the person asking the questions. He varied the distance between the questioner and Hans. Finally, in some cases, he used questioners who did not know the answer.

Pfungst noted that Hans got the answer to questions right even when von Osten was not the person asking the questions, which convinced him that Hans’ performance was not a fraud. He also observed that Hans answered correctly only when he could see the questioner and when the questioner knew the answer. For example, when von Osten knew the correct answer, Hans was correct almost 90 percent of the time, but when von Osten did not know the answer, the horse’s responses were correct only about 6 percent of the time. Hans’ performance suffered to a lesser degree if the questioner was far away from him.

What Pfungst noticed after observing the behavior of questioners was that as the horse tapped his leg, the person would change his expression and posture subtly as the horse approached the correct answer. He observed that when the horse had tapped the right amount of times for a correct answer, the person released that tension. That release in tension was the cue that the horse was using to know when to stop tapping.

Even being aware of this tendency to cue the horse, questioners, including Pfungst, could not stop their faces and bodies from giving information to the horse, as these cues are largely involuntary. Questioners were entirely unaware that they were communicating with the horse in this way. Pfungst showed that while Hans did not know the answers, von Osten was not a fraud. (Von Osten never accepted that Clever Hans was cuing off of people rather than actually solving the problems and continued to show his horse to appreciative crowds throughout Germany.)

The tendency of an observer to influence the behavior of a subject being studied with subtle and unintentional cues is called the “Clever Hans Effect.” Most experiments in psychology are now carefully designed to avoid it.

Hans may not have had the grasp of mathematics that von Osten claimed, but there is no doubt that this horse was a brilliant observer. His ability to cue off subtle cues in people’s posture and facial expressions was remarkable, and as such, this famous and talented horse certainly earned his nickname “Clever Hans.”

It would be interesting to test Beau, the dog who has so recently gained fame for his performances. Beau clearly possesses an extraordinary ability, but I want to know exactly what it is. Is it a great mathematical talent or a highly developed aptitude for observing and responding to people’s subtle, unintentional facial expressions and body language?

News: Karen B. London
Girl Scouts Buy Badges for Police Dogs
Cookie sales fund the project

Girl Scouts in Troop 10470 met officers last year during a safety presentation by the police. The girls were saddened to learn that the canine police dogs did not have their own badges, and they decided to do something about it.

Buying badges costs money, and we all know how Girl Scouts raise money. They sell cookies. It took more than 1,000 boxes to raise enough money to buy badges for the five police dogs, which were presented to them on August 17, 2011. Each badge has the dog’s name on it, rather than an officer ID number, which is what human police officers have on their badges.

It’s telling that the Girl Scouts felt that the dogs, being police officers too, should have their own badges. To them, and to many adults, it just makes sense that dogs as well as people should have badges. They are part of a new generation growing up with the viewpoint that dogs are on equal footing with their human partners, which is why one girl had asked, “Why does your dog not have a badge?”

News: Karen B. London
Favorite Summer Movie Gets a Lot Right
Animal accuracy in Hollywood a rare treat

It’s always fun to scoff at Hollywood’s attempts to be scientifically correct, and the opportunities come up so often that resisting the urge to poke fun is usually futile. That’s why it was such a surprise to catch Disney getting so much right in the animated movie Bolt. If you're looking for a good kid-friendly summer rental that gets a suprising amount of canine behavior right, here's a good choice.

There were three particularly charming scenes that are spot-on. In one scene, the dog Bolt plays with another dog, and the behavior patterns that he exhibits are accurate. He and his playmate both perform play bows at the start of play. This behavior pattern consists of putting their elbows on the ground while leaving their back end up. As is often the case in real life, the dogs look at each other with the classic mammalian play face of an open mouth and a relaxed face. They wag their tails, too, which is also commonly seen when dogs perform play bows. Then, after the first set of play bows, there is a pause before a game of chase begins, then another break in the play before it gets going again. The behavior sequence is a textbook example of play between unfamiliar dogs, especially in regards to the presence of so many play bows.

Another scene shows Bolt as a puppy completely obsessed with a squeaky carrot toy. He squeaks it repeatedly, and also pounces on it, grabs it, and shakes it, just as many real-life toy-motivated dogs do. His behavior reveals the same big-footed, clumsy goofiness so typical in real-life young dogs. This toy remains a favorite of his for years, which is also remarkably common in the real world.

The third refreshingly accurate scene in Bolt involves a street-wise cat named Mittens teaching the sheltered Bolt how to beg for food from people. Mittens is very specific and quite savvy about how to look as dear as possible in order to get humans to relinquish their food. Mittens’ instructions to Bolt include cocking his head, opening his eyes wider as he tilts his head forward, putting one ear up and one ear down, whimpering, and lifting his paw. The visuals of Bolt performing each step according to the cat’s instructions make for a hilarious montage as Bolt’s body postures and facial expressions combine in ever more effective ways for getting people to say, “Awww” and surrendering their food. In another toast to the reality of life, when this scrawny cat attempts the exact same behaviors to beg for food, the people tell her to scram or slam the door on her. Cats are generally less effective at getting people to give them food. It seems no animal can churn up humans’ sympathetic giving natures like the dog.

Bolt is no nature documentary. As in most animated films, the animals talk and plot elaborate schemes, and display all the other human-inspired behavior you’d expect from an action flick. Nonetheless, when the animals were being true to their species, all I could think was, “Kudos to Hollywood for this rare and unexpected accuracy!”

News: Karen B. London
Sound Sensitivity [Video]
Some dogs don’t have it

Last fall, we were dog sitting for a delightful dog called Marley. His breed is best described as “Hmm, hard to say. I’d guess he has some hound in him, but after that I’m mystified.” (Check out the blog Canardly Marley to see what people have guessed about his breed.) Anyway, while spending a lovely four days with Marley, I learned a lot about him. It’s always a process getting to know a new dog, and most things about dogs don’t surprise me.

Marley has one highly unexpected trait. He is not the slightest bit sensitive to sudden loud sounds. He was so unresponsive to loud sounds that I would be worried about his hearing except that he comes running to the kitchen at even the quietest hint of the crinkling of a bag of treats. In a house with two young children, there is ample opportunity to verify that loud sounds don’t upset him, though it was something I did that really showed that loud noises don’t matter to Marley.

Our smoke alarm went off one day. In our house, that usually means that I am cooking pancakes. However, on this particular day, the smoke came from our woodstove as we first lit the evening’s fire and failed to get a good draft up our chimney. As the obnoxious but potentially life-saving beeping of our smoke alarm began, Marley looked up, cocked his head, and then went back to his Kong, completely unconcerned with the noise. Meanwhile, the rest of us were running around opening windows, fanning the smoke alarm with a cookie sheet, and grabbing a chair so that we could reach up to make it stop alerting us to the smoke. I make pancakes often, so our system for dealing with the smoke alarm is a well-oiled one.

On another occasion, Marley was playing with a balloon leftover from my son’s birthday party the day before. (By the way, I don’t advocate this as a toy for dogs because many dogs do get scared when they pop and also because dogs who habitually ingest things are too likely to choke if they take pieces of balloon into their mouths.) The balloon popped, and as you can see in the video below, Marley’s reaction was minimal in the extreme.

It’s quite delightful to live with a dog who is not bothered by loud noises, as anyone who has ever had a dog who panics in similar situations knows. Marley is not reactive to any loud noises, including power saws, as you can observe in this video:

Care to share any tales of dogs don’t care at all about loud noises, or about dogs who get alarmed in response to the sound of the proverbial pin dropping?

News: Karen B. London
Service Vest Controversy
EBay listing causes anger

No matter what you want to buy, eBay probably has it. Looking for an 1897 Pocket Kodak camera? What about a gold-plated mango fork? Or perhaps you seek a service dog vest about which the seller says, “Use this for your good puppy and take her shopping with you. May have to play blind or stupid, but you love your puppy.”

This listing, which is no longer up, angered many people. Those with disabilities or whose family members have disablities are offended by the suggestion that people should dishonestly claim that their pets are service dogs, when they are not specifically trained in that way. They are concerned about the harm this causes to people with disabilities. The legitimacy of all service animals comes into question when people try to pass off their dogs as service animals.

It can be difficult to know whether an individual dog is a service animal. There is not some simple way to identify them such as a government-issued identification card. Identification of a service animal or proof that an animal is in fact a service dog is not required in most cases, and a disabled person who is asked for proof of their animal’s qualifications or training does not have to provide it. (An exception is the airlines, which are able to request documentation or ask questions to verify that a dog is a service animal, under the Air Carrier Access Act.) If a person is asked to leave a business or denied service because they brought in a service animal, that person can file a legal complaint against the owner of the business for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act.

What do you think of the wording of the listing on eBay for a service dog vest? How do you feel about the apparently common practice of falsely claiming that a dog is a service dog?

News: Karen B. London
The Floor is Common Ground
How has your use of the floor changed?

Recently, I decided to stretch on my living room floor. Naturally, moments later there was a dog right beside me, sniffing my hair, pawing at my leg and generally expressing enthusiasm about joining in the fun. Maneuvering through a series of stretches is far more entertaining with a companion, and I never mind the company of dogs, but it did make me ponder how I use and share my floor.

In what ways do we give up on total floor access when we live with dogs? It can be tricky to stretch without wanted or unwanted participation. If you are interested in having your dog join in, then doga (yoga for dogs) may be for you. In doga classes, people and dogs work as partners in the practice of yoga, supporting each other in their poses. Many cities do not have doga classes, but the book Barking Buddha: Simple Soul Stretches for Yogi and Dogi can give human and dogs an introduction to it. Doga is a great example of the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach to sharing the floor with your dog.

There are other activities besides stretching that become more challenging due to the presence of dogs. Playing monopoly is easier on the coffee table than on the floor. Bending over to look under the couch for a lost item is no longer a solo activity, and a dog is bound to show up to participate. And, of course, kids are generally better off snacking at the table rather than taking their food with them while they play on the floor.

In what ways has the use of your own floor been changed by the presence of a dog?

News: Karen B. London
Paws to Read
Literacy improves when kids read to dogs

When kids read to dogs, the dogs don’t judge kids who are still learning how to read or those who may feel hesitant about their skills. Dogs don’t laugh or tease, either. That makes the experience of reading to dogs very different than reading when other kids, or even adults, are around. Kids become more confident and are willing to spend time reading when the listener is a dog. Practice results in improved literacy and increased confidence.

Last week, my oldest son Brian had the opportunity to read to a dog at our local library through Paws to Read, a program in which kids read to dogs. The dogs are all Delta-registered therapy dogs who listen to kids read, along with their handlers. In Flagstaff, Ariz., Paws to Read teams are in public school classrooms as well as at the library during the summer. It creates a positive, non-threatening situation in which kids WANT to read and have fun doing it.

I had not heard of Paws to Read until I saw the library’s list of kids’ summer activities, and I signed up immediately. Like most parents, I appreciate any way to keep my kids engaged academically during the summer. As a canine behaviorist, I love that kids get an opportunity to see dogs with good manners contributing to society.

News: Karen B. London
Dogs Who Love Water
They’ll jump in any puddle

While dog sitting for the adorable Marley, I learned that I share an unexpected trait with him: Marley loves water. I found this endearing and it made me feel close to him because I’m the same way. I grew up in LA within sight of the ocean. (If we leaned a certain way in our driveway and the neighbor’s Magnolia tree blew just right, we could see the ocean. We enjoyed joking that our house had an ocean view.) I've always loved the beach, tidepooling, scuba diving, windsurfing, the pool, lakes, streams, ponds and any other type of water. I even love to splash on puddles in the rain when no other water option is available to me.

It seems Marley is the same way. He’ll jump into any puddle. We took him into the backyard, and after surveying his temporary playground, he headed right for a two-person sled that had fallen from our shed and filled with rainwater in the previous night’s storms. He stood there in the chilly water looking very pleased. I knew at once we were kindred spirits.

On subsequent walks, we both enjoyed sloshing through the water in the gutter and stomping in the few puddles that remained. I suspect that Marley, like me, would gravitate towards any body of water no matter the size or the temperature. While I find this charming, I could also imagine it to be inconvenient at times.

Does anyone else have any tales to tell of a dog who seems drawn to water of all kinds, whether it’s the neighbor’s pool, the sprinkler in the garden, or even an upturned trash bin lid?

News: Karen B. London
Road Trips with Dogs
Was a good time had by all?

Typical advice for happy travels by car with dogs includes some basics such as having your dog up to date on vaccinations and in good health. It also makes sense to have your dog microchipped and to check on any parasites or diseases that may be common at your destination and take the proper preventive measures. For travel safety, it’s wise to have your dog restrained in the car, perhaps riding in a crate in the back of the car.

These simple suggestions belie the true nature of traveling by car with dogs. It’s a lot more exciting with many more unexpected events. In simple terms, taking your dog on a road trip is one of those experiences that never looks quite like it did in the brochure. Everything from fitting the crate into the car to walking your dog at rest stops to cleaning up 20 pounds of kibble from the back seat can lead to tears, laughter, or even tears of laughter.

What experiences—good or bad—have you have on the road with your dog?

News: Karen B. London
Tangled in the Leash
Awkward, embarrassing and dangerous

Watching a neighbor walk a couple of dogs by my house recently, it appeared more as though the group was attempting a complicated macramé pattern than going on a brisk walk. These sweet dogs were weaving in and out, twisting around my neighbor, their leashes, and each other. One word came to mind: chaos.

I’m not picking on the person—just empathizing. I’ve had my share of leash mishaps, and performed the leaping-over-the-leash-and-spin-to-untwist dance. In fact, I’ve acquired enough experience to achieve a high level of skill at it.

Once, my dog and I walked on opposite sides of a tree and when I reversed to go onto his side (because were working on loose leash walking and he’d been doing so well I didn’t want to make him come back), he kept going and followed me around the tree. In the sort of absurd comedy or errors that all friends experience from time to time, we walked around that ill-placed tree, switching directions, several times such that an observer might have thought it was the maypole, not a maple. It was the dog walking equivalent of getting wedged in a doorway like The Three Stooges. Usually, we were quite adept at coming around a pole or tree, but on this one occasion, it was far from smooth.

I’ve never been injured by silly leash antics, but I know not everyone has been so lucky. Many people have been knocked over, jolted enough to hurt their backs, or even broken fingers when they got tangled up and the dog pulled on the leash. The trainer in me cannot help but point out that this is yet another reason to teach dogs to walk nicely on leash without pulling, though I’m well aware that sometimes bad luck is more a factor than a lack of training.

Please share your experience with leash acrobatics.

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