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.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do dogs prevent anxiety?
December 4 2015
Kids who are asking their parents for a puppy this season have a convincing new argument to try. A recent study ("Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention?”) reports that kids who live with a dog are less likely to be anxious than their peers living in homes without dogs. Researchers evaluated 643 children for signs of anxiety. They found that only 12 percent of kids who have dogs met the clinical criteria that would prompt health care professionals to further screen for anxiety. This was in contrast to 21 percent of kids without dogs who met those criteria.
Despite the way this study has been reported in the media, the authors of this study do not claim that there is a causal relationship between having a dog and lower levels of anxiety in children. Sure, if you are reading this, you are all but certainly a dog lover and inclined to see the benefits of being with dogs. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to back you up if this where you stand. Being with dogs can lower levels of cortisol (which is associated with stress), decrease blood pressure and heart rate, and increase levels of oxytocin (which is associated with social bonding.)
The study highlights the correlation between living with a dog and a lower likelihood of anxiety in children, but makes no claims about why the association exists. It is entirely possible, for example, that people who are less anxious by nature are more likely to have dogs, and their children just happen to share a lower likelihood of anxiety. Or perhaps people with children tend to get dogs only when their lives are not too stressful, which means that the people with and without dogs vary in their anxiety levels for reasons that are not related to having dogs.
It seems highly possible that living with a dog lowers the risk of anxiety in children, perhaps by alleviating loneliness and separation anxiety or by facilitating social interactions. Still, it’s important to understand that the links found in this study do not show the presence of the dog to be the key factor.
While I would not recommend that anyone rush out to acquire a dog for the sole purpose of lowering their children’s chances of developing anxiety, kids might try to convince you to do exactly that. They may have a point.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It explains the behavior of Costa Rican dogs
December 2 2015
During a recent field trip to Costa Rica, I was as interested as my students in Ceiba trees, toucans, sloths and tree frogs, along with so many other organisms we were able to see in the tropical rain forest. When I was in town, though, my focus shifted to the local dogs.
One aspect of their behavior repeatedly caught my attention. Over and over, I saw dogs waiting just outside the doors of local businesses. Whether it was a bakery, restaurant, butcher’s shop or hair salon, dogs did not go inside. These were all stray dogs, many in need of food, but they did not charge through the doorway no matter what tempting goodies were inside. They exhibited impressively polite behavior, which is easy enough to explain.
The reason that these dogs never went inside businesses is that the behavior of the people in those businesses has consistently been favorable when the dogs stay outside and not so favorable if they attempt to enter. As soon as these dogs are old enough to wander through town, they have multiple experiences with people shooing them out of stores if they enter, and also have repeated experiences with receiving food if they wait outside. The dogs learn that waiting outside is a good strategy and that barging into a store is a bad strategy. Because the culture so strongly opposes having stray dogs enter stores, the dogs get consistent messages about what to do. The dogs are so well trained, if you want to look at it that way, because of the consistency of the responses to their behavior. There are no mixed messages.
There’s a lesson here for all of us about being consistent with our training. This sounds obvious and is well known, but even a rare departure from consistency can mess up an otherwise excellent training program. There is a huge difference between never permitting your dog to jump up on you, beg at the table or join you on the couch and almost never allowing these behaviors to happen. The difference lets your dog question whether each occasion is one of the exceptions and keeps hope alive. It can make them seem quite pushy when they are really only unsure about what the rules are.
When we are completely consistent with our dogs, training goes more smoothly and there are fewer problems. The Costa Rican people I observed simply never allow dogs to enter their stores, and the dogs learn that the only way to get food from the people is to wait patiently at the door. It’s a successful system for members of both species.
In what ways are you completely consistent with your dog, to the benefit of your training?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Frustration? Vocalizing? Sad face?
November 26 2015
When we train our dogs, we are teaching them something new, whether it’s a new behavior, a new cue for that behavior, or how to perform it in a different situation. It’s bound to be frustrating from time to time, just as learning can be for us. People rarely get through the process of learning how to drive, learning a new piece on the trumpet, or learning the many methods involved in mastering calculus without some frustration. We all have different reactions to the frustrations of learning, and dogs show a variety of responses as well.
Some dogs may bark when a training session has made them feel a little lost. Others may shut down and refuse to do anything. A small percentage of dogs may become aggressive. Some become very affectionate and affiliative as if seeking comfort in this tough situation. I’ve seen dogs refuse to pay any attention to a trainer in these situations, and I’ve seen dogs looking searchingly at the trainer as though hoping to find the missing information in her face.
Of course, training our dogs methodically and little by little so that we can minimize frustration makes sense. We want them to enjoy their training experiences, and that’s not going to happen if frustration is the primary emotion involved. On the other hand, sometimes pushing things a bit can really accelerate the learning process, and that may be worth a bit of frustration or the risk of it. Those dogs who can handle frustration without it tipping them over the edge may even be better off for having worked through the frustration and emerged successfully on the other side of it. Some dogs really relish the sense of accomplishment that comes from finally getting it. Other dogs are harmed enough by the confusion that it’s best not to go there.
Of course, sometimes during the course of training, we try really hard not to frustrate our dogs and do it anyway. It may be because of circumstances beyond our control. For example, a dog may have learned a cue from a previous guardian, but then you try to use that same cue for a different behavior. Alternatively, we may just blow it by failing to notice that our dog is struggling, and push on.
How does your dog react if he becomes frustrated during a training session?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Grief fades and a new puppy is welcomed
November 24 2015
In the 10 years that we have lived in the same neighborhood, I have seen one woman and her dog out walking so many times we began to joke that we were on the same treadmill. I saw the progression of this dog through youth and middle age to becoming an older, yet still active dog, to a dog who shuffled up the block and back, and no longer had that glow of good health about him. This was followed by a period of a week or so during which I didn’t see the pair at all. Then, one day, I saw the woman out walking alone, and I knew that the dog was gone.
Offering my sympathy, though I had never formally met this woman, I learned that she had lost her dog to cancer. We talked at length about how hard it is to lose a dog, how empty the house can seem, and how people’s well-intentioned advice to “get a new dog” can really hurt. She needed time to grieve, and for months afterwards, I would see her out for her own walk and feel the heaviness in her heart whether we just exchanged hellos or chatted for a long time.
Today while out running, I saw her with a new dog—a puppy who shows all the signs of a lovely temperament. She’s friendly, energetic and clearly adores her new guardian. The feeling is mutual, and I was delighted to see this woman happier than she had been in some time. I offered her my congratulations, and felt a close bond with her and the new dog. There’s so much love already growing between them!
Please share your experience of feeling great happiness with a new dog once you were ready to take that step.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do canine sayings decorate your house?
November 20 2015
“Home is where the DOG is.” That’s the first plaque my husband and I hung on the wall after we bought our house. Quite a few have been added since. My artist mother-in-law painted two that I asked her for over the years. One says, “Love grows best in little houses,” and the other says, “Thank you for not stressing in our home.” Other than those two, the signs that I’m drawn to are about dogs. They capture my attention in stores and often the temptation to buy them is too strong to resist.
Today, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, I saw an oldie but a goodie. It said, “Husband, fishing pole & dog missing. Reward for dog.” The high regard for the dog is appealing, but the disdain for the husband doesn’t make it a good fit for me, though it did make me laugh. I’m more drawn to other whimsical sayings such as:
My dog winks at me sometimes, and I always wink back in case it’s some kind of code
Life is short, play with your dog
Beware of dog poop
The best part of the day is coming home to a wagging tail
Please remove your shoes. The dog needs something to chew on.
In dog beers, I’ve only had one
Perhaps the all-time champion for causing me to engage in an awkward public fit of laughter is:
Home is where the dog hair sticks to everything but the dog.
What dog sayings adorn your walls?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Links between canine lateralization, behavior and emotion
November 19 2015
A few years ago, dog trainers and behaviorists renewed their love affair with tail-wagging, constantly checking to see whether dogs were wagging their tails higher to the right or to the left. Our awkward attempts at positioning ourselves to observe this behavior were surely entertaining to others. Why were we so eager for the information conveyed by these asymmetrical tail wags? Because they indicate dogs’ differential use of the left and right hemispheres of their brains and are, therefore, a window into their emotions.
The study of asymmetrical tail wagging that prompted our collective interest (Quaranta et al. 2007) found that differences depended on what inspired the wags in the first place. Dogs wagged higher to the right when greeting their guardians. The same right-side bias was seen in response to unfamiliar people, although the wags were lower overall. In response to cats, there was little wagging, but it was still higher to the right. In the tests, the only stimulus to which dogs’ wags had a left-side bias was an unfamiliar, confident dog.
Left or Right?
The left hemisphere is activated when the brain is processing positive experiences associated with emotions such as happiness, affection and excitement, as well as anything familiar. The right hemisphere takes precedence when processing sadness, fear, other negative emotions and novel things.
This link between emotions and sides of the brain came to light in studies of humans. Ahern and Schwartz (1979) found that people who were asked questions that elicited either positive or negative emotions responded in accordance with this principle. They looked to their right (showing left brain hemisphere involvement) in response to questions that elicited positive emotions, but looked to their left (showing right brain hemisphere involvement) in response to questions that evoked negative emotions.
Individuals—canine or human—who favor the left paw or hand more often use the right hemisphere of their brain, while right-pawed and right-handed individuals have a more active left-brain hemisphere. Studies have shown differences between right-pawed and left-pawed dogs. They have also revealed that dogs who are ambilateral—who don’t have a paw preference—are different in predictable ways from dogs who strongly prefer one paw over the other.
Lateralization research, an active area of study, informs our understanding of emotions and behavior. Though dogs and people are common study subjects, similar patterns have been found in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and primates and other mammals.
Determining Paw Preference
Strength of Lateralization
Batt et al. (2009) showed that dogs with stronger paw preferences were bolder and less cautious than dogs with weaker paw preferences. They were more confident, less prone to arousal and anxiety, quicker to relax or become playful in new environments, and exhibited calmer responses to novel stimuli and strangers. It turns out that we humans are similar to our best friends in this regard: People with weak hand preferences are more likely to suffer high anxiety levels and are more susceptible to both PTSD and psychosis than those with a strong handedness.
Just as being right-pawed predicted guide-dog training success, dogs with a strong lateralization (either left or right) and a low rate of using both paws in the Kong test fared better in these programs (Batt et al. 2008). The authors hypothesize that this may be because strongly lateralized and right-pawed dogs are less likely to experience high reactivity and distress responses, which are detrimental to success as a guide dog.
Dogs also turned left in response to images of cats and snakes but not to images of dogs. With repeated presentations, there was a change toward right-turning behavior, indicating that the left side of the brain and its associated positive emotions were involved. This suggests that novelty may be a factor in fear and other intense negative emotions that tend to be processed by the right side of the brain.
To understand the role of lateralization in processing olfactory stimuli, it is essential to know that each side of the brain processes the information received on the same side: the right nostril goes to the right hemisphere, the left nostril goes to the left hemisphere. Dogs started to sniff novel but non-aversive stimuli (food, lemon, dog secretions) with their right nostril and then shifted with repetition to using their left nostril, showing a change from negative to positive emotions. When presented with adrenaline and sweat from their vets (really!), dogs demonstrated a consistent bias toward the right nostril, suggesting that their emotions started, and remained, negative in response to these odors (Siniscalchi et al. 2011).
* * * * * * *
Love and understanding compound one another with our dogs, and lateralization is a case in point. A dear dog friend of mine is strongly right-pawed; it was pitiful to watch him attempt to learn to give a left high-five, or use his left paw to hold his Kong when he briefly had a bandage on his right paw. I used to find how hard it was for him to do anything with his left paw somewhat comical. Now I understand that this trait is part of the package that makes him the unflappable, happy, don’t-care-about-the-power-tools-running-all-day-during-the-kitchen-remodel, playful and exploratory, nothing-fazes-him kind of dog I love so much. I’m honored and overjoyed that when he greets me, his tail wags are as one-sided to the right as the rest of him.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Max Domi relies on Orion every day
November 15 2015
“He’s made me a better person and a better hockey player.” That’s what rookie sensation Max Domi says about his two-year old diabetic-alert dog, Orion. Diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 12, Domi’s first question was, “Can I still play hockey?” The answer was yes but that doesn’t mean it was easy. It’s still a challenge, but Orion has made it easier and safer.
Like many diabetic-alert dogs, Orion is a Labrador Retriever who has been trained at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Orion was trained by Canine Hope for Diabetics to do his job, which is to detect odor changes that indicate a low blood sugar level and alert Domi. When Domi is awake, Orion alerts him by pulling at the bringsel (which looks like a small foam roller) that Domi wears at his waist. That’s the cue to Domi that he should check his blood sugar, which he does 15-20 times most days, but around a dozen times before, during, and after each game in addition to the rest of that day’s tests. When he is asleep and his blood sugar drops, Orion wakes him up by barking and jumping on him. If that doesn’t rouse Domi, then the dog will use his paws to wake him up with some well-placed contact to the face. Low sugar levels in his blood can be especially likely after a late-night game, so Orion’s tenacity about waking him up is especially critical at those times.
Domi had to go through a huge process to be considered for a service dog, and that included writing essays about why he was worthy of receiving such a dog, why he wanted one and what would do with him. He also had to meet several dogs so that the trainers could choose the dog they thought was the best match for Domi. For example, of the dogs under consideration, one was eliminated for not being as good in crowds, which is obviously not ideal for a professional athlete. I really enjoyed a recent video on ESPN that discusses what Orion does for Domi, and includes good footage of this adorable and hard-working dog.
Orion travels with Domi to all their games so he must be able to handle the air travel, the huge crowds, hotels, the ice rinks and the generally complex and crazy life of a professional hockey player. One challenge for anyone with a service dog is preventing other people from petting him or otherwise distracting him while he is working. All the other players along with coaches and other staff of the Arizona Coyotes know that they cannot interact with Orion when he is working. When he is off duty, though, he is just as friendly and loving as you might expect, and everybody cherishes the time they get to spend with Orion when he is not working.
Domi treasures all his time with Orion and is grateful for how much easier it makes it to concentrate on hockey. At only 20 years old, he’s arguably the best rookie in the NHL, so any fan of Domi or his team should appreciate that, too.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Many reasons for this behavior
November 13 2015
Dogs often hold onto their own leashes with their mouths, and sometimes even take the leash of another dog. It’s generally pretty adorable, perhaps, in part because we relate to any example of dogs acting like us. If you watch any dogs hanging on to the leash of another dog, you may be able to make guesses about why the dog is doing it.
In some cases, as in the video below, it looks to me as though the dog is simply playing with the leash. The leash is an object in the environment that has caught the dog’s attention and interest, and the fact that it is attached to the collar of another dog does not seem to be important or highly relevant.
In other situations, such as in the following video, one dog appears to be walking the other dog around, much as humans do. It’s not a very forceful situation and no malice is apparent, but the dog with the leash in his mouth is using it to lead the other dog around. The dog on leash seems untroubled at first, but later appears to dislike the limitations imposed by the leash. Then, he starts to pull on the leash, just as dogs so often do when it’s a person holding it.
In this last clip, the more confident dog in the video appears to be using the leash to encourage (pull!) the more timid dog to go down the slide. Again, this is something that a person might do. Some dogs benefit from being forced in this way because they find the slide fun but might not have tried it on their own. Other dogs were scared to go down the slide before they did it and very scared while they do it, so it can be traumatic for them. It’s definitely a risk, but it sometimes works out well. I’ve seen a lot of people make their dogs go down a slide with this technique, but I’ve not seen a dog participate in this way before.
After watching the last two videos, it’s natural to wonder if dogs have learned how to guide dogs around by their leashes from watching humans do it. With so much recent research on social learning in dogs, I find myself watching dogs do things that humans have done and wondering if the dogs learned it by observing people.
Do you have a dog who leads another dog around with the leash?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Just ask skier Lindsey Vonn
November 10 2015
Lindsey Vonn has had many injuries over the years from skiing, but this past weekend, she joined the dog bite club. She was hospitalized after being bitten when she tried to separate her own dogs during a fight. True to form, she is back on the slopes and plans to race later this month even though the bite to her thumb required stitches and looked ghastly.
Vonn’s two dogs, Leo and Bear, got into it over a toy, and she tried to break it up. The gash on her thumb is both bad luck and a warning about the dangers of trying to break up a dog fight. Of course, when you see dogs at risk of hurting one another, it’s natural (and commendable) to want to step in and halt the madness as soon as possible, especially when they are both your dogs.
There is no surefire way to break up a fight between dogs, and there is no guarantee that it can be done safely. There are always risks, but some techniques are better bets than others, and depending on the seriousness of the fight, you may be willing to take a big risk. If you ever have the misfortune to see dogs fighting with each other, consider your options and choose what you think is the best way to handle the situation.
Some low risk options for breaking up a dog fight are not always that effective, but they aren’t likely to cause a problem, either. These include making a loud sound such banging any loud meal objects together, blowing an air horn or a sudden yelled, “Hey!” Often dogs ignore these attempts, but for dogs who are not that committed to the fight or who actually want to stop fighting, but can’t seem to break it off themselves, loud startling sounds can work.
It’s true that spraying dogs with a hose may stop a fight, but dogs so rarely fight within reach of one. Even spraying them with water or dumping a bucket of water over them can work, but many dogs don’t seem to care. I’ve heard of cases in which fighting dogs were pushed in a pool and stopped, but again, there’s not always a pool handy when you need one. Spraying dogs with a citronella spray can have the same effect as water.
Using a barrier to separate dogs is riskier than the above suggestions, but also more likely to work. Inserting a cookie sheet, a piece of plywood or even a thick piece of poster board between two dogs can break up a fight. That said, it’s a major feat of coordination to accomplish this in most cases during a highly active altercation. There is a risk of being bitten but the bigger the barrier, the lower the risk because you can keep your hands further away from the mouths of the dogs.
Separating the dogs with direct physical contact has the best chance of stopping the fight, but also poses the biggest risk of you being bitten. It’s wise to lower that probability any way that you can. If two people are there, an option is for each person to grab the back legs of a dog and pull them away from each other. Yes, it can work, and yes, it’s awkward to time this right. Dogs have almost no power when their back legs are not in contact with the ground, which is why this is not likely to lead to a bite to the people. Of course, a failed attempt in which one dog is being held and the other gets away can put everybody at risk. I’ve seen people separate dogs by grabbing tails instead of hind legs. It’s not very pleasant for the dogs, but is generally better than continuing to fight.
The worst and riskiest ways to separate dogs involve putting your hand near their front ends. That includes grabbing at collars and reaching for an object that is the source of the dispute. This so often leads to dogs turning and biting at people’s hands. That’s how Lindsey Vonn ended up in the hospital, but it’s only fair to point out that reaching into the middle of a dog fight is most people’s natural response to trying to stop it. Like any other guardian, Vonn didn’t want her dogs to get hurt, which means that she didn’t want them fighting. Though reaching in is risky, if a dog’s life appears to be in danger, it may be worth doing anyway. One sobering bit of advice I once got from a brilliant animal control officer was that if you absolutely have to use your hand to separate fighting dogs, use your non-dominant hand. That way, your good hand is not the one that gets injured. It’s fine advice that I hope nobody ever has to take.
Have you broken up a fight and been injured while doing so?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Effects of feeding frequency and age
November 6 2015
When and how much our dogs sleep matters to us because it affects our own sleep. Most people who have ever raised a puppy know the horror of sleep deprivation, and many people caring for elderly dogs or those who are unwell are facing the same problem. Even dogs who don’t need to be taken out in the middle of the night or in the wee hours of the morning often work against the goal of an uninterrupted stretch of eight hours of restorative sleep each night.
I once had a dog who slept in every morning, and I valued that quality in him immensely. Though I made many attempts to figure out how to transfer this quality to all dogs, I suspect he just came into the world that way. True, we did feed him healthy food and give him lots of exercise, but that surely hasn’t worked on a large number of other dogs. Still, I maintain a strong interest in learning about the variables that affect dogs’ sleep patterns, with the eventual hope that dog guardians everywhere can apply it to their own dogs for the benefit of all.
Because I am interested in canine sleep, I was interested in a study that investigated some basic aspects of dogs’ sleep patterns. The research looked into the effects of age and feeding frequency on dogs’ sleep patterns. Dogs were in one of three age ranges (1.5-4.5 years, 7-9 years, 11-14 years) and were fed either once or twice daily.
The researchers found that older and middle aged dogs slept more during the day than young adult dogs, but that was because they took more naps, and not because their naps were longer. Older and middle aged dogs also slept more at night than younger dogs because they had a longer total sleep interval at night (waking up later) and woke up fewer times during the night.
Dogs of all ages were affected in a similar manner by being fed twice daily as opposed to once a day. Dogs who were fed more frequently took fewer naps during the day, but the naps lasted longer. Dogs fed twice a day fell asleep earlier at night, but woke up earlier, too with a decreased total time sleeping at night. (The earlier waking time more than compensated for the earlier bedtime.)
>The take home message to me is that if you want more sleep, just wait until your young dog ages a little. That’s interesting when you compare dogs to humans, because we sleep considerably less as older adults than as young adults.
Have you noticed a change in your dog’s sleep pattern with age or with changes in feeding schedules?
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