Home
Karen B. London

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pet Food Claims Allowed to Be Deceptive
Normal advertising laws don’t apply.

The Federal Trade Commission requires that advertising can’t be deceptive and that it must be truthful. It’s not clear why this does not apply to pet foods, but apparently it doesn’t. In fact, according to the American Association of Feed Control Officials, the labels on pet foods can have qualified or unqualified claims, and these may be direct or indirect. In other words, pet food labels can say things, such as “balanced nutrition for a long life,” or “natural complete nutrition,” or “helps maintain healthy body weight” whether these statements are true or not.

This seems odd given the regulations on advertising in other areas, including human food. What if candy wrappers had claims, such as “balanced nutrition for healthy body weight” or “it’s just like eating spinach.” Surely this sort of misleading and deceptive advertising should not be allowed on pet food labels either.

Obviously, avoiding commercial pet food in favor of raw food or other diets more closely related to what dogs ate several decades ago is one way to avoid the problem of misleading advertising altogether. Still, for people who use prepared dog or cat food regularly or even occasionally, truth in advertising could help keep pets healthier.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs in Elementary School?
What makes a dog a service dog?

[Editor's Note: A few days after Karen posted this blog about parents fighting against dogs in schools, the Star-Telegram reported on the big success of therapy dogs at a Fort Worth elementary school. The reporter's timing was perfect.]

The family of an autistic boy wants their dog to accompany him to school to ease the transition to a new place and to help keep him safe from traffic and other dangers. Service dogs are allowed in his school. However, opponents claim that this dog is just a source of comfort rather than a true service dog. A trial is scheduled for November 2009 to determine if the dog can accompany the boy, but thanks to a judge’s order in July, when the boy starts school, his dog will go with him.

What constitutes a service dog? Is it the old-fashioned definition of being a guide dog for a blind person or are we as a society ready to wholeheartedly expand our definition to dogs who alert people with diabetes or epilepsy to impending problems, dogs who provide people with emotional stability that they cannot achieve on their own, dogs who support people physically in case of loss of balance, dogs who protect impulsive children from running towards the road or other perilous situations and dogs who allow children to handle school when they might otherwise be incapable of doing so?

How do we distinguish between service dogs and dogs who are merely helpful but not in any official capacity?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
To Pee or Not to Pee
What your puppy’s urination patterns reveal.

Submissive urination is a common problem among sweet young puppies. A lot of people’s evening routines involve getting off work, driving home, coming inside the house and then getting down on their hands and knees to clean up the lines and droplets of urine that their puppy made while wiggling her body and wagging her tail with great enthusiasm. Some dogs who are otherwise completely housetrained release at least some of the contents of their bladder during greetings. This is not a housetraining problem. It’s a social issue.

There is good news if you have a puppy who does this. First, most dogs outgrow this behavior by the time they are a year old, so at least it tends to be temporary. Second, dogs with this issue almost always have lovely sweet temperaments, so while the urination can be irritating and a pain to clean up, the fact that dogs greet in this manner actually speaks well of them. Ironically, this urination during greetings is showing respect for the other dog or person, and a dog who is behaving respectfully is a dog who tends to be polite and biddable. In other words, when people tell me they have a puppy who does this, I am torn between expressing sympathy to them for the inconvenience they are dealing with now and saying “Congratulations!” with a hearty smile because I think they are likely to have many years ahead of them with a dog who brings them nothing but joy.

In contrast to feeling hopeful about dogs who are submissive urinators, a little red flag goes off in my mind when I hear people say that their dog was so easy to house train that there were only one or two accidents ever and she totally got it by 8-10 weeks old. It’s just an observation that many dogs who later go on to have issues with aggression were housetrained early and easily. This is just an impression I have based on my own experience with clients and their dogs, though it is shared by several other trainers and behaviorists with whom I have discussed it. There are no solid data on the subject. Also, this does not apply to people who prevented accidents with top-notch housetraining methods. Many dogs have very few accidents because the people are on top of the situation. This is commendable, but does not mean the dog really gets it yet—just that she is not being allowed to make mistakes. I’m only referring to dogs who really are housetrained at an early age and no longer require the constant vigilance of the people in the household to prevent mistakes.

What’s your experience? Did you have a dog who urinated submissively that fit the pattern I observed of being a sweet biddable dog, or did you have an exception? Do you know of a dog who was housetrained with far less than the usual effort who later had aggression issues, or did you know an exception to that, too? As a scientist, I love the patterns, and I love the exceptions, too.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Michael Vick Joins the NFL Again
Does he deserve this second chance?

Michael Vick has returned to the NFL to play football after serving 18-months in prison following his conviction. Many people are upset that the Philadelphia Eagles have signed him, and are shocked that he has been reinstated in the league.

As a dog lover in my private life and a dog behaviorist in my professional life, I’m disgusted by what he did. I had trouble reading about the specifics of his case because it was so upsetting it led me to tears and nausea. Yet, I find myself in the minority in the dog world, including, I believe, here at The Bark) because I’m in favor of giving him the opportunity to play football again. Although his prison sentence was much shorter than I would have liked, that was not my call to make. He has paid his debt to society as determined by the justice system and I believe he deserves the chance to return to his former career.

Maybe this sort of compassion comes easily to me because over the years, I have worked with many dogs who have bite histories and serious aggression issues and whose owners came to me hoping to find some way other than euthanasia to keep their families and other people safe from their dog. Whenever I believe that it is possible for a dog to be safe with a combination of treatment and management, I want that dog to have a second chance, but with reasonable limits and expectation to insure the dog’s success. A lot of my career working to help animals with serious aggression issues is based on a fervent belief in second chances. Defining an individual of any species based solely on their mistakes isn’t in my nature. While the comparison should not be taken too far, the same sort of compassion that makes me believe that aggressive dogs deserve a second chance leads to me to extend that same courtesy to Michael Vick, as long as certain limits are in place. Yes, I think it’s right that he not ever be allowed to own another dog, but yes, I think it’s right that he be allowed to play football again.

He has a chance to be a role model for kids about how you can mess up big and go on to live your life. He may be uniquely able to reach people from the same upbringing he had in a culture of violence who are at risk of lawless behavior and show them that what he did was wrong and that he’s changed. Maybe his interest in humane societies and speaking to youth are just a way to improve his image so he can get some of what he lost back and he’s on the path to ruining his life for good, and my support of his second chance will be a waste. Not all second chances in this world prove worthwhile. Or maybe, he’s sincere enough to make a difference in the lives of both animals and people and he may prevent future cases of abuse and violence. The “maybes” just mean that we don’t know now. That’s how second chances are—the outcome varies case by case and there’s some unpredictability.

Some comments I’ve read on a previous blog suggest that Vick’s punishment should be to receive the sort of abuse that he inflicted on those innocent dogs. It seems many people’s anger fuels a desire to torture Vick. I don’t understand that perspective. The abuse that Vick inflicted on those dogs was so horrendous that it was a crime. I don’t see how committing additional crimes of abuse will improve anything. It won’t bring back the dogs he killed or erase the tremendous suffering he caused. It won’t make Vick more likely to become a kind and caring man who does some good in this world. It won’t increase the chance of him being an upstanding citizen from this point forward. Abuse begets more abuse, while compassion breeds more of the same.

I know a lot of dog professionals and dog lovers think otherwise, but I believe that Michael Vick deserves a second chance. What do you think?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
He Walked His Dogs All the Time
That’s enough for me to like my neighbor

Years ago, when I lived in New Hampshire, I had an unpopular neighbor. Most of the people who lived near this man disliked him, and my own husband said that he made him uncomfortable. True, he wasn’t the friendliest man and was more likely to grunt at greetings than reply kindly. He was by no means the quietest one in the area, seeming to feel that 6 AM on a Saturday was a perfectly reasonable time to mow his lawn or use his chainsaw to cut wood. He parked his cars in places that inconvenienced us all, and was quick to file an official complaint if anyone hadn’t shoveled their walk after a snowfall. Generally speaking, he was a bad neighbor by most measures.

In spite of his faults, I never felt ill feelings towards him because he walked his dog several times a day, every day, no matter what the weather. For those of you who have not braved a New England winter, the weather can be foul for many months. (When it’s 20 below, my thoughts run more along the lines of “If it were 50 degrees warmer, it would STILL be freezing” than in the direction of “Let’s go walk the dog.”) But this man never missed a walk, and his happy, polite dog was the beneficiary of that wonderful habit. I was completely unable to dislike a person who was so good to his dog.

Have you noticed someone who is so good in some aspect of dog guardianship that you can look past all other transgressions? What does it take to earn a forgiveness pass from you?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do Dogs Turn on Their Guardians?
Is aggression predictable?

[Editor’s note: This post was inspired by a comment from a reader identified as Lou to a post about a seizure of dogs in dog-fighting bust. Read the original post and the comment here.]

 

Everyone who has experienced aggression from their own dog deserves lots of sympathy and the sympathy I personally have for them is deeply felt. It's horrific to be hurt by an animal you love and even more devastating to see that animal hurt somebody else in your family.  It’s even worse when people feel blindsided by the incident. As a professional behaviorist and trainer, I’m aware that we need to do a better job of educating people about the red flags of potential aggression. Red flags exist but are not always picked up on. In 10 years as an aggression specialist, I've yet to see an animal truly “turn on” someone without at least a hint that trouble was brewing. However, there's no doubt that is how it feels to many people who are involved when it’s their own dog who injures them.

Naturally dogs with a bite history towards dogs or people have given a warning, especially if it was an attack that was prolonged and hard to stop. Such relentless aggression is a serious red flag that the animal has trouble with inhibition. Other typical warning signs include growling, barking, lunging, tooth displaying (especially with an offensive pucker), a tendency to get frustrated, difficulty calming down after getting revved up, going stiff, tongue flicking, charging at anything of interest, hard stares directed at another individual, facial expressions indicating nervousness or discomfort, becoming mouthy when in an aroused state, excessive sniffing of the ground in social situations, guarding food or toys and being fearful of people, animals, or any other object.

Any of these signs, or even the general feeling that something is amiss warrant a consultation with a person trained to deal with serious behavioral problems in dogs. Such a person may be a certified applied animal behaviorist, a trainer, or a veterinarian who is board certified in behavior.

Stereotyping breeds to predict aggressive behavior is not useful or fair. The predictability of aggression based on a dog’s breed is highly overrated. The idea of breed bans or rejecting certain animals simply because their relatives (members of the same breed) have misbehaved bothers me. Certain breeds are getting more bad press than they deserve, and aggression is a stereotype that seems to stick, even if other generalities are fitting. For example, most people with a Pit Bull will laugh if I say that whenever I meet a lovely Pit Bull, I always want to warn people, “Pity the poor intruder who gets licked to death,” and it’s a common joke that Pits can’t hold their “licker.” And yet, most of what we hear about is Pit Bull aggression, not excessive licking. Rottweilers and Dobermans are also breeds that many people fear on sight without any actual data about the particular animal in question.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that certain lines of dogs that have been bred for aggression do exhibit it. Regrettably, aggression is easy to breed for if that is someone’s intent. However, it is critical to remember that not all members of breeds who have been bred for aggression are from lines with that sort of breeding history.

Over the years, the two most common breeds I have seen for aggression issues are Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. Are these bad dogs? Aggressive breeds? Of course not. They are just common breeds so I see them a lot. I rarely hear of a breed of dog without being able to recall at least one client whose dog of that breed had an aggression issue. Yet, I have met far more dogs from all these breeds with lovely temperaments than I have met individuals with aggression issues.  Have I met aggressive Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and Dobermans? Yes, I have, but I’ve also met aggressive Poodles, Bichons and Greyhounds, just to name a few breeds. In my experience, aggression is far more predictable based on a dog’s previous behavior than on the breed.

I look forward to hearing other people’s perspectives on the predictability of aggression. This topic truly fits the criteria for a can of worms, and I personally consider vigorous debate to be more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Excessive Jingling of Dog Tags
A pet peeve worth stopping

Large numbers of dog tags jingling on a dog’s collar drive me crazy and probably bother most dogs even more. For sound-sensitive dogs in particular, noisy tags may negatively affect their quality of life. Seeing dogs suffer the constant clanging and additional weight of wearing all that metal activates my pet peeve sensors like few other avoidable irritations. I even had a little rant about it recently on another blog.

We can minimize the number of tags by pitching expired ones and by getting a flat ID tag that is directly attached to the collar. That leaves just a city license and a rabies tag for most dogs, which cuts out a lot of the sound. Or, the jingling can be eliminated completely with The Quiet Spot’s Pet Tag Silencer that holds all the tags in one pouch. Less chic than the Pet Tag Silencer but effective and inexpensive is using some electrical tape to secure the tags into a single silent mass.

Dogs make our lives better in a thousand small ways each day. Lessening the irritation of heavy, loud tags on our dogs’ collars is one small way we can repay the favor.

Is your pet peeve quite different from mine? Do you have a remedy that will make all our dogs’ lives better?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pauses in Play
Does your dog take breaks?

If I could just choose one tip to share with people who care about how their dogs play, it would be that in appropriate canine play, there are usually lots of pauses. It’s a topic I recently wrote about in my local newspaper.

Ideally, it would be common knowledge that one of the most important clues for evaluating play between dogs is the presence of regular pauses. The pauses allow dogs to regroup, maintain emotional control and then start playing again with play signals that remind other individuals of the playful intentions behind the play behavior.

Play can quickly change from fun, fun, fun to an out-of-control scary and potentially injurious whirlwind of paws, teeth, and yelps. Play with lots of pauses is far less likely to turn into such a troublesome situation than play without such pauses.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Agility Favorites
What obstacle does your dog prefer?

I had a dog whose favorite part of an agility course was the table. My theory is that it made the most sense to him. It was the first piece of equipment that he learned how to negotiate correctly, and it seemed as though he always knew what to do with it, unlike some other obstacles, which periodically confused him. I loved this dog, but he was, hmm, how best to say it—not the brightest dog I have known. He enjoyed the things in his life that were straightforward, and that’s why I think he liked the table.

Does your dog have a favorite agility obstacle, and if so, what do you think that tells you about your dog?

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Why That Puppy?
Puppy choices and what they mean

I always ask my clients what made them choose a particular dog or a certain puppy. The most common answers I hear about choosing a puppy are:

“I didn’t choose him. He chose me.”
“I felt sorry for her.”
“He was the only one left.”
“The breeder felt that she was the best puppy for our family.”
“He had an adorable spot over his eye, just like my first dog did.”
“She was the only female and we wanted a girl.”

Check out what these answers might mean in a recent entry on dogbehaviorblog.com

Besides the useful information I receive, I just love the stories about how people chose their puppies. My all-time favorite comment was about a dog who never had any serious behavior problems. As the family left the breeder and just before they closed their car door, they heard one of the breeder’s kids say, “There goes psycho.”

Pages