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: Humane
Academia and humane interests converge at University of Denver
Frank Ascione, PhD, is the first professor to serve as the new American Humane Endowed Chair and executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver (DU). This position is significant because it is a collaboration between a major academic institution and a major animal welfare agency—the American Humane Association—made possible through donor and university support. And it’s rare in that it is not in a veterinary school, a psychology department or a child-development program, but rather, in a graduate school of social work, where PhDs as well as clinicians are trained. During our interview, I was delighted, but not surprised, to learn that Dr. Ascione combines rigorous scientific inquiry with a passion for people and animals, which makes for the best sort of caring: the informed kind. He is a positive, energetic person with a lot of gratitude to go around. One of his first comments during our interview was, “I have high enthusiasm for this change in my career and great appreciation for those who made it possible.” He is sincerely interested in learning about domestic violence, animal cruelty and the links between them so that he can use that information to develop effective prevention and intervention programs. Expect more great work from Professor Ascione and his collaborators in the near future.
Bark: Why did you decide to accept the offer to occupy the new endowed chair?
Frank Ascione: I didn’t want to leave Utah at the time the position first opened, but I spent half a semester at DU and they effectively romanced me. It’s a great place with so much respect for students and for scholarly activity. The university is vibrant and Denver is a fantastic city. The faculty, students and staff at DU were so affirming of my work.
B: What are your primary goals in your new position?
FA: I’m a child psychologist by training, but I am moving to a graduate school of social work. My interests are in animal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence and elder abuse, and those all involve social work. I expect to have a great deal in common with my new colleagues. The potential is there for an amazing amount of collaboration, and my goal is to foster collaboration between those interested in animal welfare and groups working with and studying family violence, child abuse and elders.
B: What initially made you investigate the links between domestic violence, child abuse and animal abuse?
FA: I was developing an assessment instrument for measuring abuse by children to animals or positive interactions with animals. When I began to interview children who abuse animals, about 5 percent in the community reported abusing animals and about 10 to 15 percent of kids with mental health issues reported it, so it was not a common behavior. I decided to look at areas where there was a higher frequency of violence. I interviewed women in domestic violence shelters and found that 54 percent of women in shelters reported that their abusers hurt or killed one or more of their pets. In a control group with no violence in the home, 5 percent of the partners hurt or killed a pet.
B: How do you label yourself professionally? Professor? Author? Social Worker?
FA: I’m a child psychologist, though I’m not a clinician. I’ve never conducted therapy nor am I trained or qualified to do so. I realized mid-career that my profession had ignored the role of animals in the lives of children. I worked on the role of animals in children’s lives, then into issues of who abuses.
B: What ways have you seen academia change in recent years in terms of attitudes towards the practical issues of interest to you?
FA: One of the hopes I’ve had in my work is I want to focus on the kind of research that has some socially valuable component to it. There’s a term, “urgent knowing,” which means that there is a need in society and not enough information about it. For example, there was this idea that people in situations of domestic violence delay leaving because they are afraid to leave their pets behind, but until you put a number on it, information that was needed to deal with it or to pass legislation about it was not available.
B: What countries do you consider role models for the sort of programs you’d like to see established in this country?
FA: Both the UK and Australia are a bit ahead of us with animal welfare programs and respect for the human-animal bond. The UK, which originated these programs, has one national animal protection agency (the RSPCA), so they have a commonality of laws across the whole country. We have 50 different laws.
B: Are you generally encouraged or discouraged with the state of the human-animal bond?
FA: I am encouraged partly because we have programs developing where this is being taken seriously academically and we’re also seeing people seriously evaluating programs in which people are engaged. There are many programs that incorporate interactions with animals, but they are not routinely being evaluated. It is essential that we sift good from bad, and we need studies of what’s working and what’s not so we can focus on the most effective programs.
B: How has the economic recession affected the relationship between people and their pets?
FA: I’m not an economist, but I’m aware of the issues. Foreclosures lead to pet abandonment in increased numbers. Financial trouble means that we tend to see more problems with child abuse and domestic violence. In the aftermath of disasters, we do see an increase in violence.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Having fun is serious business
As members of the dog-loving community, we should all be proud of our emphasis on play as an important aspect of our dogs’ lives. We have long understood that for most of our pups, playing with other dogs and playing with humans enhances their quality of life and improves their overall comportment.
During the past few years, scientific research into play has emerged from a long period during which play was not considered a proper topic for serious inquiry. Luckily, the flurry of research on this subject has included canine studies, many of which have practical applications for those of us who both love playing with our dogs and place a high value on play.
1. Response to Signals. Rooney, Bradshaw and Robinson (2001) investigated dogs’ responses to human play signals. They found that humans do communicate playful intent to their dogs, and that their various behaviors when doing so can be considered interspecific play signals. Additionally, they found that the success of signals used by humans to instigate play was unrelated to the frequency of use. For example, patting the floor as well as whispering were both often used by people attempting to initiate play with their dogs, but dogs showed a low rate of playful response to these signals.
In contrast, when people ran toward the dog, ran away from the dog or tapped their own chests, the signals were highly effective at communicating an intent to play and thus, at initiating play with dogs; none of these was used frequently by human study participants, however. Human play signals were more successful at eliciting play when accompanied by play vocalizations. This study indicates that we should pay attention to whether or not the ways we try to entice our dogs to play with us are actually effective at getting them to do so. It also suggests that we should consider adding vocalizations to our play-signal repertoire to make them more effective. [See: Do dogs respond to play signals given by humans? Animal Behaviour, 61:715– 722.]
2. Effects on Relationships. Rooney and Bradshaw (2002) found that dogs scored higher in “obedient attentiveness” after play sessions with people than before the sessions; this suggests that there is good evidence for the common belief that training after a play session can be highly effective. In the same study, the researchers found that the relative status of a human-dog pair was unaffected by whether or not dogs were allowed to “win” at games by, for example, retaining possession of the toy after playing tug. There is a caveat, though; the most playful dogs in the study exhibited significantly higher amounts of playful attention- seeking when they were allowed to win. These findings indicate that while there is no problem from a status point of view in allowing a dog to “win” at games, it may be better not to allow it with those dogs who become relentlessly pushy about seeking more play time. [See: An experimental study of the effects of play upon the dog-human relationship. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 75:161–176.]
3. Influence on Attachment. Rooney and Bradshaw (2003) found a correlation between games with a lot of physical contact and decreased amounts of low level separation-related behavior, such as staying by the door through which the owner had just left or vocalizing in the absence of the owner. It is worth considering that certain types of play may influence our dogs’ attachment to us, and also exploring the many ways that increased physical contact, including that which takes place during play, may shape our relationship. [See: Links between play and dominance and attachment dimensions of dog-human relationships. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 6:67–94.]
4. Appropriate Play. Bauer and Smuts (2007) conducted a comprehensive study of play between pairs of dogs and found that contrary to popular belief, dogs can maintain a playful atmosphere even if they are not equalizing their behavior according to the 50:50 rule so commonly considered to be essential for appropriate play. They observed significant departures from symmetrical behavior between dogs who differed greatly in either status or age. They found that role reversals were common during chasing and tackling, but that they never occurred during mounts, muzzle bites or muzzle licks. Their results suggest that when assessing play between pairs of dogs, both the specific dogs and the specific behaviors being observed need to be taken into account when determining whether any play asymmetries are potential problems. [See: Cooperation and competition during dyadic play in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behaviour, 73:489–499.] The most profound insight into play that scientists can offer dog lovers isn’t necessarily new at all. There has long been ample evidence that playful behavior is associated with good relationships (see, for example, Fagen’s Animal Play Behavior, 1981). This is especially true of parents and their relationships with their children, among other close relationships. Across a variety of species, parents who are the most playful with their offspring enjoy the best relationships with them. Given the loving and fulfilling emotional connections many of us have with those of our family members who happen to be dogs, it’s no wonder that play is so vital a part of the miraculous phenomenon of dogs and people joyfully sharing their lives.
For more studies on animal play, see Marc Bekoff and John A. Byers, eds. Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Good Dog: Studies & Research
An investigation into the genetics of canine anxiety, phobias and fears
“This is the job that Solo got me,” says Melanie Lee Chang, PhD, a biologist who got her doctorate in evolutionary biology and physical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working in canine molecular genetics. Solo is her eight-year-old Border Collie. The job is as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) conducting research on the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project—commonly referred to as the Dog Project. The project’s primary purpose is to explore the relationship between genes and behavior, both normal and abnormal, in domestic dogs. The secondary purpose is to assess the amount and nature of genetic diversity in domestic dogs, both within and between breeds.
The Dog Project is a collaborative effort. Steve Hamilton, MD, PhD, is a psychiatrist and geneticist who has long been interested in the question of how genetics influences susceptibility to mental disorders in humans. Certified Veterinary Behaviorist Karen Overall, PhD, DACVB, a research associate in the Department of Psychiatry and Center for Neurobiology & Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, emailed him about a paper he wrote on anxiety in humans. They soon realized they had a number of parallel interests. Dogs and humans have irrational fears and phobias that are similar biologically, in terms of treatment, and in their clinical manifestations. Dogs and children can both suffer from separation anxiety, and dogs exhibit obsessive-compulsive behavior similar to that seen in humans.
Hamilton hopes to be able to apply what is learned in this study to humans, but long before the research has an impact on people, the dog community will feel its effects. Among them, they could include influencing dog breeding and changing how dogs with behavioral issues are evaluated. A further understanding of the genetics of anxiety could even lead to insights about the very domestication of dogs.
A Hot Topic
In contrast, Hamilton believes that while “using such information may be crucial in cases where behavior disorders appear to cause intense suffering in dogs within a pedigree or breed, such information can be used prophylactically to signal which dogs warrant early intervention and treatment.” And Chang is concerned about the possibility of unwarranted oversimplification of the complexity of the links between genetics and behavior leading to inadvertent selection against behaviors that are desirable in certain breeds.
The Canine Behavioral Genetics Project does not breed dogs with behavioral issues. Rather, these researchers are analyzing the genes of existing dogs, and are recruiting dogs to participate (psych.ucsf.edu/K9BehavioralGenetics). Specifically, the researchers are looking for dogs who suffer from panic, fear, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors or aggression; unaffected close relatives of dogs with these issues; and dogs who do not have any of these behavioral issues or any known relatives who have them, either.
Participation consists of sending DNA acquired from a cheek swab of the dog and filling out a 25-page questionnaire about the dog’s behavior and any available pedigree information. Rather than ask, for example, if dogs bite people, the questionnaire is highly detailed, asking whether the dogs bite, whether the bites have broken the skin, how many bites there have been, and whether the bites are from the back, the front, or occur from any direction. The checklist about the dogs’ behavior after biting includes whether or not the dogs’ pupils are dilated, the dogs appear disoriented, dazed, tremulous, tense, or uneasy, whether they hoard objects, whether they are quick to recover, are light sensitive, their eyes appear glazed, whether they stare or are frozen in one position, whether they always hide in the same location, appear unaware of their own action, whether they react to benign motions such as raising an arm while reading the newspaper, and if there are any other post-bite reactions. The questionnaire is similarly detailed for separation anxiety, noise phobias and a host of aggressive contexts.
Canine Genes Rich in Information
There are two general approaches to finding genes correlating to specific behavioral tendencies, and the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project uses both. The first approach entails looking at purebred dogs, which gives the researchers access to populations of dogs with limited genetic variation because they are all descended from a limited number of individuals. This low genetic variation makes it likely that at least most dogs within a breed with a particular trait are more likely than dogs from different breeds to share the same genetic variation. This fact significantly simplifies the search for genes related to the trait of interest, and reveals why the domestic dog is such a valuable research tool for geneticists. Families of purebred dogs are even more genetically similar. Therefore, if the researchers can find close relatives in which some dogs are affected by a behavioral disorder and other individuals are not affected, it is even easier to pinpoint where the dogs’ genetics differ.
The second approach is to study both behaviorally affected and unaffected dogs that are unrelated either within breeds or across breeds. Because unrelated dogs are not as similar genetically, the areas in which their DNA is similar is particularly interesting if correlations can be found with abnormal behavior. If a group of unrelated dogs with the same behavioral problem all have a particular variation in their genes, then that variation is worth investigating as a possible cause of the disorder.
Solo’s Lucky Day
She had just lost a magical dog—a Pomeranian named Harley whom Chang could take anywhere because she was always good. Chang took her to classes she attended, to classes she taught, to her office, and with her when she went out. She sums up her grief by saying, “When you lose a dog, there’s a huge empty space, and in my case, it followed me around since I took her everywhere.”
After she lost Harley, Chang got connected to an independent rescue group, but something did not seem right to her at the arranged meeting with Solo. The man who brought Solo didn’t ask her much about herself, he didn’t check any references, and he seemed in a huge hurry to hand Solo off. Even though the whole situation seemed wrong, and she felt sure this was not how rescue was supposed to work, she obeyed the voice in her head saying, “Just let this happen.”
Chang realized immediately that Solo was nothing like Harley. She brought Solo to school, partly because it was apparent after just one night with him that he could not tolerate being alone. She left Solo in her office in the company of two female classmates and went to class. Five minutes later, her advisor, Art Dunham, came to get her because Solo was screaming his head off. Not only could her advisor recognize the seriousness of the problem, but he was fortuitously married to veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall. Dunham told her, “Karen can see you Saturday.”
Overall diagnosed Solo with generalized anxiety as well as separation anxiety. He was alternately agitated/panicky, pacing, scanning, panting, drooling or catatonic. When he was catatonic, he would lie on the floor with his eyes open, drooling, and he didn’t blink even if a hand was waved in front of his face. When Chang left him alone (even to take out the garbage) he would fly into a blind panic and cry at full volume. Solo immediately began to take anti-anxiety medication, and Chang began behavior modification that incorporated deference, relaxation, and desensitization to arrivals and departures. A combination of medication (Solo is taking Elavil and Prozac and used to take Alprazolam, drugs also used to treat human mood and anxiety disorders) and lots of practice has resulted in an extraordinary change in Solo’s behavior and quality of life.
Solo lives a full and basically normal life—he’s taken part in rally obedience, agility, stock work, and has appeared in instructional videos. While he does not want to be petted by strangers on the street and hates July Fourth, in most circumstances his behavior is completely unremarkable, which Chang considers his greatest accomplishment. Chang gratefully says, “I wouldn’t still have my dog if it weren’t for Karen Overall.” Years after this appointment, when Overall and Hamilton were looking for a biologist who was also knowledgeable about dogs to work on the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project, Chang was a natural choice.
Chang has gotten used to the idea that Solo will be on medication for the rest of his life. “If giving him drugs makes his world look safer and more normal to him, then I think it would be cruel not to give them to him.” Solo’s environment is also hugely influential on his behavior. Like many people whose dogs have behavioral issues, Chang is hyperaware of her environment and protects Solo as much as possible from things that upset him. Sheepherding has been a godsend for both Solo and Chang, who says, “I started working him on sheep because he was weird, and it was the only place where I got to pretend I had a normal dog. The more he sees sheep, the better he is.”
The helpfulness of the dog community has led to DNA samples from more than 3,000 dogs, and matching questionnaires for most of those. Almost 300 dogs are in the study of noise phobia involving Border Collies. Noise phobia is an example of a behavioral issue that occurs more commonly in certain breeds, including the Border Collie. McConnell notes, “It’s not always a problem in that surely, sound sensitivity is why a quiet whistle can get a Border Collie to lie down when he’s 500 yards away. However, the flip side of that can result in a dog who is thunder phobic or terrified on July Fourth.” McConnell’s experience with Border Collies and noise phobia goes beyond her professional life into her personal life. Several of her Border Collies have been uncomfortable during storms, and one, named Pip, was truly thunderstorm phobic. Pip was successfully treated/managed with a combination of counterconditioning, supplements, and body wraps. There’s little question in McConnell’s mind that she came with a genetic predisposition to be especially responsive to loud noises. Several other dogs in her lineage seemed to be particularly sensitive to loud noises.
The scientists working on the Dog Project are also interested in anxiety issues, panic, compulsive behaviors and aggression. They are especially interested in extreme forms of aggression in which dogs respond in a particularly reactive way, and PhD student Jennifer Yokohama is building a project focusing on these behavioral problems. According to Hamilton, “We’re looking for a disproportionate, out-of-the-blue aggressive response to a stimulus to which normal dogs even within the same breed do not react.” They are also looking for more typical, milder forms of aggression that may be a result of some of the same factors causing other, anxiety-based problems.
Not a Quick Fix
Chang hopes that when the results are presented, they will not be subject to that kind of misinterpretation. As far as she knows, there is no behavioral problem that is breed specific, and all breeds can exhibit behavioral problems. Hamilton comments that “The most extreme [misuse of the data] would be to overinterpret influence to ‘cause’ and use that information to make breeding decisions based on that or to make sweeping legislation about breeds or groups of breeds.” The researchers all adamantly oppose breed-specific legislation, and Karen Overall in particular has publicly voiced her opposition to it for years.
Despite people’s innate fascination with what drives their dogs’ behavior, until recently the answers to the questions posed by this project were not within reach. Zawistowski says, “I wanted to do behavior genetics with dogs for my PhD, but the systems were not in place for good, solid research. The dog genome work has changed that. At the same time, we’ve seen so much more interest in the behavior of domestic animals—long ignored by animal behaviorists. So this new work is really the culmination of two developments: better genetic methods, and more interest in dogs.”
There remains considerable resistance to the idea that behavioral problems may be genetically mediated. Zawistowski comments that people are uncomfortable with the idea of genetic predispositions to behavior because of the erroneous idea that genes are destiny. Hamilton points out that “Knowledge of the genetics helps shape the destiny.” A major hope that Chang has for the project is that it will have a positive impact on the way people feel about canine behavioral problems. “There’s often a refusal to believe that this is not the owner’s fault. Owners feel so much guilt. I’d like to change that.” Decades ago, psychiatry struggled with these same issues in the “If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother” view of mental illness, but now affected people and their parents are not generally blamed for anxiety or depression. The field of canine behavior is catching up to this more enlightened viewpoint as evidence mounts in its favor.
A Happy Ending
Now, in addition to describing Solo as her soul mate, Chang has many other things to say about Solo, including, “He’s the canine John Nash … This is a dog who thinks too much … He got me involved in a whole bunch of things. Solo forced me to learn a lot. If you’re willing to put in the effort and work with a dog with behavioral problems, you’ll learn more from him than from a hundred normal dogs … Having Solo has made me more understanding about other dogs … He’s got a very complicated personality. If he could speak, it would be in complete sentences and he’d use big words … Everyone had let this dog down, and I did not want to be the last person to give up on him.”
Perhaps the most insightful comment Chang has about Solo is one that can be applied to so many relationships where love takes over and everything else is just a detail. In a voice rich with emotion, she says, “Solo doesn’t have the greatest temperament, but he has the best personality!”
CAB International, 266 pp., 2007; $70
Rejoice! In this new book, a long-awaited triumph of collaboration has been achieved. The Behavioural Biology of Dogs thoroughly covers canine behavior at all levels: genetic, social, physiological, ecological, evolutionary and physical. This is also a truly international effort—experts from Sweden, Austria, Germany, Italy, Australia, Hungary, the UK, Norway and the U.S. are represented—with each chapter written by a specialist versed in the latest studies and trends in his or her area of expertise. The result is a riveting volume full of up-to-the-minute research, new ideas, theories and observations. Read the book cover to cover, or focus on chapters that match particular interests and use the rest of the book as a reference—either way, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could be disappointed.
The first section (“The Dog in Its Zoological Context”) covers basic evolutionary trends, including explanations of common terms. The authors detail what is known and not known about canine domestication. A variety of evidence is examined and compared, including DNA, morphology and the archaeological record. This section includes a discussion of the ways different sources (e.g., information from mitochondrial DNA versus autosomal DNA) can lead to different conclusions about domestication and breed development, and a thorough explanation of potential problems with conclusions drawn from previous studies.
In the second section (“Biology and Behaviour of Dogs”), the authors explain physiology; brain/body systems; regulatory mechanisms; how behavior is organized within an individual; the role hormones play in a dog’s behavior; and some basic ethological principles, such as reflexes and modal action patterns. Genetic issues discussed include the ways modification of a single gene can produce profound changes in behavior, the almost identical nature of dog and wolf genomes, and the fact that dogs provide a unique opportunity for behaviorally related genetic analyses because they have been bred over several centuries for specific behaviors as well as for physical attributes.
Social behavior is more directly covered in a chapter that illuminates the scientific evidence underlying social rank, dominance, submission and conflict resolution. The treatment of canine learning is a tour de force—clear, thorough, loaded with examples, and relevant for anyone who has ever tried, succeeded or even thought about how to train a dog.
The third section (“The Dog in Its Niche: Among Humans”) compares the natural history and behavior of wild canids, feral dogs and village dogs. The evolutionary aspect of breeding working dogs is placed in context, linking behavior to large-scale ethological theories and tying in biotechnology, the structure of DNA, quantitative genetics and natural selection. There is a discussion of how personality is defined and how behavior, along with other methods, can be used to assess it, as well as descriptions of the primary canine personality traits. Communication between dogs and humans is also covered, with an emphasis on the three possible sources of successful human–dog interaction: our common mammalian heritage, learning, and behavioral evolution that has resulted in both specific signals for use between humans and dogs (barking, for example), as well as dogs’ ability to cue in on human gazes and vocalizations.
In the fourth section (“Behavioural Problems of Dogs”), the need to professionalize the field of canine behavior therapy—which includes people from veterinary, bio-behavioral, and dog training backgrounds—is raised. The authors discuss changes in human lifestyles that have resulted in canine behavioral problems. The final chapter provides an overview of the many ways that physical problems and disease can have an impact on behavior, with particular emphasis on epilepsy, anxiety and pain.
This book is so valuable, so full of information, and so important that I hope every copy goes to a good home—its presence will mark a place where ideas live and grow, and dogs are treasured.
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