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
What non-essential dog items do you love?
June 1 2016
As I get older I value my comfort just a little more. I appreciate cup holders, soft cozy blankets, and chairs whose designers were inspired by the human body rather than thoughts of fitting 100 chairs in a storage closet. When it comes to dogs, little luxuries mean more to me, too. Just today I walked dogs with leashes that have soft padding in the handle, and I realized that these are the leashes for me. It’s a little thing, that extra padding, but I just love the feel of it my hand. Even with dogs who have lovely leash manners (but especially if they are still working on them) that extra cushion protects my hands from any harshness, and I love it!
I felt the same way years ago when I first discovered the Chuck It. Okay, a little dog slobber never hurt anybody, but a quart of it on a tennis ball is not what I’m looking for in hand moisturizer, either. I’m also a big fan of the folding dog water bowl. To be able to hike with dogs and easily help them hydrate without having a big, clunky water bowl digging into my back through a backpack adds much joy to the outing.
While I am a huge fan of the stuffed Kong, sometimes it feels like a lot of work to stuff one. (I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth.) When such an every day task seems hard, I’m grateful for Kong’s Marathon toys. They can keep a dog occupied for a long time but just take a moment for me to lock the compatible treat into the fitted slot.
Microfiber towels that absorb water and mud from a dog’s underbelly and paws are indispensable to me now. Sure, any basic towel works, but they don’t necessarily work as well as the microfiber ones. Even easier to use (and therefore better) are the microfiber mitts that dry dogs without slipping, which means that your hands don’t get wet and muddy.
There are so many items that I appreciate just because they make life a tiny bit easier and more convenient. Non-stick mats that go under food and water bowl keep bowls from sliding all over the floor are a huge plus—no scratches in the floor, easy clean-up of spills, and no racket from clanking bowls. Travel food bags that only take up as much room as the food you have left are a huge improvement over bulky plastic containers. Poop bag holders that attach to a belt loop or the leash free up my hands and pockets, and therefore belong on my list of non-essential dog items that make me happy.
What little luxuries in dog gear make your life just a little better?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
May 26 2016
An adrenaline rush at the movies or on a roller coaster is fun, but not when the cause is seeing a dog dodging traffic. Yesterday, a dog raced across a busy road, right in front of our car, and then perilously close to oncoming traffic. He was running in a zigzag pattern and was clearly not experienced at crossing the street. I honked a few times, hoping to put all other drivers on alert so they could take evasive action to avoid this dog.
Fortunately, the dog made it safely across many lanes of traffic to the other side, but unfortunately, he immediately headed back across the road. There was more honking and braking, some skilled swerving and another blast of adrenaline all around. The dog survived his second crossing with help from a lot of drivers and a bit of luck thrown in. He was then in the grocery store parking that was the scene of his escape, where a woman grabbed his collar and held onto him.
I pulled into this parking lot just in case a spare leash would be helpful.(I usually have one in my car.) I arrived just as the dog’s guardian did, looking incredibly relieved and full of gratitude for the woman who had caught her dog. Thanks to a modern convenience, the dog had been released from the guardian’s car when she accidentally hit the release button for the back hatch instead of the one to unlock the doors. She was just exiting the store when it happened, so she was close enough to the car to activate it, but too far away to stop her dog from leaping out and going on his brief, but dangerous, escapade.
With this technology so commonplace, precautions against the dangers it presents to our dogs are in order. Securing our dogs with crates or barriers is an obvious option for avoiding this kind of trouble. There are so many arguments in favor of having our dogs in crates when they are in the car, and this is just another one.
The guardian of this dog was horrified about his near disaster, and will certainly have nightmares. (I probably will, too!) Even though her dog rides in the crate, she had let him out for a little more freedom while shopping, not considering the potential risk her new car posed.
Has an accidental hatch opening ever given your dog an unplanned adventure?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A stressful situation for dogs
May 23 2016
A canine whodunit is the set-up for this video. It’s not a murder mystery and there’s no butler, but still the crime must be solved. When two dogs are asked who took the cookie off the counter, one dog reaches out and puts his paw on the other dog. The gesture clearly says, “She did it.” I do like the use of a single behavior as the basis for an elaborate joke, and the idea is unquestionably adorable. Though it’s easy to have a little chuckle about it, it’s also easy to feel concern because both of these dogs show signs of stress.
The dogs appear to have quite a bit of training, and are probably on stays. The dog on our left is presumably responding to a visual cue to bop the other dog with his paw, though it is supposed to look like he is answering the speaker’s question about who is the cookie-taking culprit.
Neither of the dogs looks comfortable as both exhibit signs of anxiety. There are a lot of tongue flicks, constant worried expressions, multiple stress yawns, slightly cowering postures, and the closed-mouth look of dogs who are not relaxed. It may be that the dogs are stressed by the anticipation of the bop by one dog to the other. Neither dog seems too happy about it. The dog who paws at the other dog tongue flicks before or during every repetition of this action, and the dog on the receiving end often does the same afterwards.
Another possibility is that the camera is stressing them out, which is really common in dogs. Either way, although both dogs are obedient and the basic idea behind the skit is amusing, the emotional state of the dogs ruins it a bit for me.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Technology facilitates communication
May 20 2016
What if dogs could talk? Specifically, what if service dogs and bomb-sniffing dogs could talk? Associate Professor Melody Moore Jackson at Georgia Tech, and a team that includes Professor Thad Starner, Research Scientist Clint Zeagler, and Jackson’s Border Collie Sky, are developing technology that allows dogs to say anything we give them the capability of saying. They’ve called their project FIDO, which is short for “Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations.”
They developed a vest with sensors on it that dogs can activate to communicate. The vest can play a message or send a text to a smart phone. From a training perspective, it’s a basic system—dogs are trained to hit specific sensors in response to certain cues. So, if asked which toy a person is holding, the dog can hit a sensor that plays a message that says, “That is the Frisbee®” or “That is the ball.” That is a cool trick, but the real genius of this vest is the variety of messages dogs can send.
For example, a service dog for a hearing-impaired person might hit a sensor in response to an alarm that sends a text saying, “I heard the alarm,” and a different sensor in response to the doorbell so that the message reads, “I heard the doorbell.” Many hearing impaired dogs lead their person to the source of a sound, such as a crying baby. This vest adds to the benefits of a service dog because it would also allow a person to be notified of a sound that is not reachable, such as a tornado siren. Just like distinguishing between the ball and the Frisbee®, telling these sounds apart is a type of discrimination task, and is the basis for many of the ways that this vest can be used.
For example, detection dogs are usually trained to bark if they find what they are looking for, perhaps a drug or an explosive. Although dogs are often trained to search for multiple types of drugs or explosives, they are limited in their ability to communicate the details of their finds to their handlers. It can make a big difference to everyone’s safety if the dog can let a handler know that the bomb is a stable type or an unstable one that needs careful handling. This vest can allow a dog to share more specific information.
This group developed a vest that allows a dog who has found anyone trapped after a natural disaster to activate a sensor with a message for that person to hear. The message lets the trapped individual know that help is on the way. Work is underway to develop a vest that allows a dog to activate a sensor that sends GPS coordinates to a handler. This allows the handler to join the dog, who does not have to leave the person who has been found. That could be lifesaving for a child who is hiding or for a person who is unable to move for whatever reason.
Similar technology could benefit people with any number of health problems. Imagine that a person with epilepsy has a seizure and the service dog has been trained to activate a sensor in response to that situation. The activation of the sensor would result in a call to 911 and also send a message to a family member. The message would include GPS coordinates and say, “My person had a seizure and 911 has been contacted.”
The possibilities of this technology are limitless. A dog could be trained to hit a sensor in response to someone saying, “Get help.” When that sensor is hit, a recording plays so anyone nearby hears, “My owner needs your attention. Please follow me.” This technology is very exciting because it allows dogs to communicate specific helpful information to people. The beauty of the design is that it is relatively easy to teach dogs with a solid base of training to activate sensors in response to specific cues. These vests represent a wonderful blending of solid dog training with new technology to increase the ability of dogs and people to accomplish a variety of tasks together.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Skateboarding must be taught step-by-step
May 17 2016
Nobody has entered my house this week without being told, “Hey, come take a look at this!” I have then showed them this video of Bamboo the skateboarding dog.
Most of the viewers asked, “How do you train your dog to ride a skateboard?” Doing it step-by-step is the key to success, as it is with all training tasks. Here are the steps I would suggest for teaching a dog to ride a skateboard.
1. Help your dog to be comfortable on the board. This step is critical and I recommend doing it slowly. Rushing it will slow down your eventual success. Start by reinforcing the dog for putting one paw and then two on the board while it is secured with a piece of wood or with your foot acting as a brake. If the board is adjustable, start with the board tightened so it can’t rock back and forth.
2. Get your dog used to being on the board while it is moving, starting with just a few inches and then a little bit more at a time. Only allow the board to move slowly. Ideally, you should take advantage of opportunities to reinforce the dog for having all four paws on the skateboard and for letting it move with one paw hopping along behind.
3. Reinforce your dog for pushing the board with one or both back paws. These pushes are a critical piece of having a dog propel the skateboard for any distance rather than just passively riding a board you have set in motion.
4. Gradually increase the speed and the distance that the dog covers before reinforcing him. Some dogs may not enjoy the increased speed or riding it for a longer period of time. Stay within your dog’s comfort zone.
5. Loosen the skateboard in stages so that it rocks back and forth (necessary for steering) and go through the entire process with the board at each one of these settings. You can then reinforce the dog for steering, which is accomplished by shifting his weight to one side or the other as he rides.
The dog in this video is very experienced and highly skilled, but few dogs will attain that level of success at skateboarding. Always keep in mind what your dog can comfortably do so that you don’t put him in a situation that is over his head. Stick to smooth surfaces, keep him away from roads and other dangers, and don’t send him down a hill of any kind, no matter how mild, until he is ready.
Just as in people, some dogs are athletic, fearless and adventurous enough that skateboarding comes fairly naturally to them. Other dogs may never reach true proficiency at it, but might enjoy doing it very slowly for brief periods. There are also dogs who are clearly not suited to this activity, and if that’s the case for your dog, there’s no need to even consider attempting to teach him to ride.
Do you have any interest in teaching your dog to ride a skateboard?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Modern fun for a boy and his dog
May 12 2016
I’m not old enough to remember when the only toy a boy and his dog had was a stick, but I’m sure old enough to be impressed by a remote control car that carries both of them around! In this video of a toddler and a dog in a car, it appears as though the dog is fully in control of the vehicle. At first viewing, I found that a bit unsettling, even with a trustworthy dog. I realized later that the mom (offscreen) controls the acceleration and braking as well as the right turns. The dog is turning the car to the left, though, with some remarkable paw control.
Besides being entertaining, this video has some nice qualities to it. I like how calm the dog is throughout the video and the sweet, gentle way that the boy pets his dog at about 20 seconds. I couldn’t help but smile at the way the dog looks around like he is watching the road. Responsible drivers of any species deserve a pat on the back, or in this case, a belly rub! I also like the way the mom responds instantly when the boy wants to stop. The moment he requests it, the car comes to a halt. She’s wise to avoid a situation in which either the dog or the child is unhappy.
Not every dog has the ability to be comfortable or calm enough to keep this activity safe and fun. Would your dog be able to handle it?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs react to magic
May 10 2016
Magician Jose Ahonen made treats disappear right in front of dogs’ noses. When I watched videos of his work, I saw dogs who understood that a treat had been there and that it MUST still be nearby. Their reactions made it clear that they knew the treat had gone missing.
One common response was for the dogs to look down at the ground as though the treat had fallen. A fallen treat is probably a familiar experience for most dogs, so they were using a search strategy that had worked in the past. Many of the dogs began to sniff and investigate the immediate area. Another frequent reaction was to look at Jose or in the direction of the camera, where perhaps the guardian and a camera operator were. Many dogs look to people for information or for help when they are confused. I see this in training or when a toy has rolled somewhere inaccessible, so it was not surprising that dogs who were puzzled about the location of the treat did this. A number of dogs pawed at Jose’s hands, which is such a common response to a closed fist around a treat that I’ve used it many times as part of training a dog to “Shake” or “High-5”.
The most interesting aspect of the video is that dogs in it appear to show object permanence, which is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed. Object permanence is considered a major milestone in human development. Many children have been tested—an experimenter hides a toy while the child is watching and then observes whether the child can find it. Most children show object permanence by the age of one year. A lot of dogs have shown object permanence in scientific studies, but it is not universal in the species.
The magic tricks with dogs in these videos were for entertainment and are not controlled experiments. The smell of treats was still present, so that could have tipped the dogs off that the treats still existed. Their actions are certainly not conclusive evidence that dogs are cognitively capable of object permanence, but they are still suggestive of it.
I wish I could see a longer clip of each dog because I’m curious how much time they spent searching and whether they showed increasing frustration. It was a relief to realize that each dog was given a treat before and after the disappearing trick, which I would imagine lessened any distress about the missing treat. For some of the dogs, the most distressing part may have been the laughter of the people observing. I think dogs can tell when they are being laughed at, and it bothers me. Still, it's really hard not to laugh when you watch this (I know I did!), so I can hardly blame people for that.
How do you think your dog would react to a magician making a treat disappear?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Feel the weight, feel the love
May 6 2016
Sometimes people acquire a lap dog on purpose, choosing with great care a dog who is small, cuddly and loves to sit with people. Other times, an unintended lap dog, particularly a large one, brings to mind that famous comment referring to software: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” That is, you can consider it a problem or you can accept that it is just part of the system.
There are a lot of perks of living with a lap dog. You always feel loved, you certainly feel warm, and there is no possibility of being lonely. Many dogs love lap sitting, happily taking advantage of any opportunity to sit on people as they enjoy a cup of coffee, do a little yoga or attempt to watch a movie. There are many reasons why dogs choose to be so physically close to us that they are literally on top of us.
Some are social and friendly without boundaries, while others are a bit clingy because they are insecure. Some are fearful and seek comfort in physical contact but others simply don’t want to miss out and seem to be in a constant state of asking, “What’s up guys? What are we going to do now?” I believe there are dogs who are heat-seeking missiles and love to share body heat regardless of the weather. We could argue that all lap sitting stems from loving us and feeling comfortable and happy when they are with us. Whatever the reason, it’s a very cozy feeling to have a dog in your lap, especially when the dog is clearly so content to be there.
On the other hand, having a dog in your lap can be problematic, especially if the dog is bigger than your lap. It can be hard to work at your computer, eat your breakfast, repair your glasses or perform any number of tasks when the movement of your arms is impaired and all you see is fur. It may also mean that you remain in place when you really should get up. I have personally continued to sit with a dog in my lap because it made me so happy even though both legs had fallen asleep or I had to use the bathroom so urgently that I was really pressing my luck.
The term “lap dog” may imply that a dog is small, but I’ve had dogs ranging from six pounds to well over 100 pounds consider my lap the perfect seat. Size has less to do with being a lap dog than a dog’s inclination to be snuggly and affectionate in this particular way. A small gentle lap dog can make me happy because it’s so endearing to have one settle in with me. The humorous joy of having a dog who is nearly my size choose my lap as a resting place can make me just as happy. There is something vaguely ridiculous, but no less loving, about such a large dog considering my lap to be the best spot in the house, even when there is clearly not enough room for their entire body.
It’s not always convenient or completely comfortable, but the warm, cozy weight of a loving dog in your lap is one of life’s great joys. Do you have a lap dog?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The short answer is that it depends
May 2 2016
Behaviorists, including myself, have cautioned people for years about hugging dogs because dogs don’t like it. One of the most easy-to-find types of photos shows a jubilant person hugging a dog who is miserable to some degree or another. It is very common for dogs to dislike being hugged, but for people to love hugging them. It should come as no surprise that members of two different species have different preferences.
Of course, there are exceptions, which I’ll get to later, but the general pattern is that the majority of dogs are not as crazy about hugs as people are. It’s a subject that deserves more research, which is why I was so pleased to read a recent post by Stanley Coren, Ph.D, called The Data Says “Don’t Hug the Dog!”
Coren viewed 250 random photos on the internet of people hugging dogs. For each photo, he determined whether the dog fit one of three categories: 1) the dog appeared stressed or anxious, 2) the dog appeared relaxed and at ease, and 3) the dog appeared neutral or ambiguous.
Signs of stress can be tongue-flicking, ears down, face averted, eyes showing “half-moons” of white, furrowed brows, tightly closed mouth, rigid facial muscles, and furrowed brows. Dogs who are relaxed and happy tend to have open mouths, relaxed facial muscles, and no signs of stress. Coren only included photos in which the dog’s face was visible and in which no other obvious stressor was present. (Other obvious causes of stress included things such as being picked up while being hugged.)
Coren found that of the 250 dogs, 204 (81.6%) of the dogs showed one or more signs of stress, discomfort or anxiety, 27 (10.8%) of the dogs showed either neutral of ambiguous reactions to being hugged and 19 (7.6%) seemed comfortable with being hugged. From these data, Coren concluded that it makes sense to recommend that humans refrain from hugging dogs, but instead save their hugs for other humans.
His results don't surprise me at all. I’m inclined to agree with his suggestion that these pictures might even underestimate dogs' dislike for hugging (at 80%) because pictures posted are selected by people who are presumably posting photos to show their love for and bond with their dogs. Coren points out that hey are not overly likely to choose photos with the most blatant signs of distress in the dogs, at least not if they recognize those signs.
Coren’s suggestion that it is not a good idea to hug dogs has many professionals nodding their heads in agreement, but many people have also objected to it. Most of the objections take the form of people saying that their dogs love being hugged. This is to be expected by anyone who has spent time discussing this contentious subject, which includes me. It comes up in my work because of the large number of dog bites that happen when a person is hugging a dog. It’s a very common context for bites to people, especially to children.
Over the years, I have had countless clients—in private consultations and in classes—as well as friends, neighbors, cousins etc. who swear that their dogs do like being hugged. However, whenever they hug their dogs to show me, I see dogs who show no signs that they like it. Most show anxiety and discomfort. Some tolerate it, but I would at best call their reactions neutral. With a few, I can't tell if they don't mind or if they have just learned that this is their lot in life and have stopped reacting. Either way, I do not see dogs who are convincingly happy about it. So, my personal experience is generally in line with what Coren found in his research, though he did see more dogs who were comfortable with hugging than I have.
His finding that there are a minority of dogs who were comfortable with hugs will be reassuring to many people who are confident that their dogs do love being hugged. I would encourage anyone who feels that their dogs fit into this category to make an effort to be sure. Observe your dog carefully during a hug to check for signs of anxiety, stress of discomfort. Sadly, I’m convinced that not everyone who is certain that the dog they love to hug also loves being hugged is corrrect. We have a situation here that is comparable to the well-known fact that most people think that they are above-average drivers. Similarly, almost all parents think that they are in that rare minority of people who do not regularly embarrass their teenagers. Obviously, in these examples, some people are right, but just as obviously, some people are wrong. The math just doesn’t allow any alternative conclusion.
That said, there are exceptions, as I mentioned before. There are people who I respect very much who are dog experts and who have told me that they have dogs who enjoy hugs. I also know of a few people who have consciously worked to condition their dogs to hugs, sometimes with the goal of being able to take a charming photo of themselves hugging the dog. If you hug a behaviorally healthy, non-aggressive dog and then offer him a piece of chicken, and do that repeatedly (by which I mean hundreds of times) you are likely to teach him to be happy about hugs. If one of my great-aunts, who shall remain nameless, had given me a brownie (or five dollars) every time she pinched my cheeks, I probably would have felt more cheerful about it, too.
Though many people assert that their dogs love to be hugged, most qualify that by noting that the dogs love hugs from family members and close friends, but not from strangers. There is general agreement that hugging unfamiliar dogs is a risky proposition and I’ve heard no objections to the general advice that this behavior should be avoided. However, there have been many criticisms of the idea that we shouldn’t hug our dogs at all. I think as general advice, it makes sense, but because there are exceptions, perhaps it is wise to state it as, “When in doubt, don’t hug a dog.” Then, we all need to be very careful about how we eliminate the doubt if we choose to hug a dog.
How we hug a dog can make a difference. For example, I see dogs who like to snuggle and seem happy to lean up against a person who then has one arm around them, but that's not what’s usually meant by a hug. Still, I have seen people refer to it as a hug when draping an arm around a dog who leans in closer, enjoying the attention and physical contact. It’s more common for a hug to be putting arms around a dog’s neck and hanging on. Kids are especially likely to hug in this way, and I generally feel sorry for dogs when I see this happen. Many dogs make no attempts to escape, and if you don’t carefully observe the signs of distress, it would be easy to assume that they are okay with it, but often they look miserable. A gentler hug that is not as long, as tight or as high up on the neck may be easier for dogs to accept, though I know of no study that investigates that possibility.
When considering exactly what a hug is, I think of dogs who appear to hug people, because I think there are dogs who like to do so. I've seen some tall dogs such as Leonbergers, Newfoundlands, Great Danes and large Labs or Shepherds who stand on their back legs and put their front paws on the shoulders of a person. They seem quite happy to hug people in this Marmaduke style. Of course, though that looks like a hug, too, it's not at all the same experience as dogs who receive hugs by having a human wrap her arms around them.
I'm really glad that Coren collected these data because this is an issue that we talk about a lot in the canine world but data are sparse. The blog post detailing his findings has led to many responses and conversations about whether or not dogs enjoy being hugged, and that exchange of ideas is valuable.
I'm know that many readers love hugging their dogs and people are always sad about the possibility that not all canines share our human love for hugs. I personally wish that all dogs loved being hugged, and not only because that would mean fewer dog bites and distraught families. I also say that because I love to hug dogs, which is why the dogs in my life have to tolerate it on occasion. I try not to overdo it, and I certainly don’t do it when the dogs are busy with some other activity or not in a good mood, but I do not totally abstain from hugging them either.
The main point is that “It depends” is a fair answer to the question of whether dogs enjoy being hugged or dislike it. Not only does it depend on the individual dog, it also depends on who is doing the hugging, the situation and on what is meant by a hug.
What have you observed about your dog’s response to being hugged?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Insurance against the unexpected
April 29 2016
We all go to great lengths to keep our dogs safe when they are with us, and also when we must be away from one another. Safety measures can be basic, like a leash or a crate. They can also be more complex, such as microchipping or an industrial grade fence. Information is big part of safety, which is why many people have their dogs wear identification tags or have their phone number embroidered on the collar.
I recently learned about a product that is another tool in the safety battle, and it’s one that is all about information. It’s called “Dogs on Board: Open in Emergency” and it stores information about your dog. It’s designed to attach to your dog’s crate or be stored in your car, and you can put any material in there that you need emergency personnel to know in any urgent situation.
Simple information can make a big difference in your dog’s safety in case of an accident or other incident. That’s the beauty of this 15-inch tube made out of 1.5 inch PVC pipe and covered in tough materials that make it resistant to being damaged with time or because of heat. Inside, you can store health records, a picture with the name and age of your pet, your veterinarian’s contact information as well as your own, and some pre-made Lost Dog flyers that just need the details filled in about when and where your dog went missing. There’s even room for a small slip lead.
The tube is brightly colored and easy to spot, with Velcro® straps for attaching it wherever you want it. One end stays securely closed, while the end marked “open here” can be unscrewed to reveal the pull tab that allows you to remove its contents.
We all like to think that our dog will never escape or be lost while traveling, but car accidents happen, and so do every other kind of accident. They happen to cautious people and to reckless ones, people who have prepared for a worst-case scenario and those who haven’t given it a thought. They happen to dogs who are calm in any emergency and those who freak out—perhaps bolting or acting aggressively in a most unexpected manner. These tubes are another way that we can help our dogs stay safe, no matter how life’s curve balls fly by us.
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