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
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Some dogs prefer recently acquired skills
September 15 2017
“The new action is always her favorite!” one of my clients told me. And it’s true—whenever Stella is taught something new, she’s so excited about it.
Stella knows a lot of skills already—sit, down, stay, wait, come, heel, touch, take it, leave it. She needs those skills because she is a service-dog-in-training. Most of these skills she knows really well and can do even in hectic situations. That’s important, because at times, she has lived in a house with up to nine people ranging in age from 6 months old to upwards of 90 years, two other dogs and four cats. Not every dog can hold a stay when a three-year old is running around, cats are zipping by her, and a few adults are talking at the same time in order to work out the day’s complicated logistics, but Stella can!
During the course of her training, Stella has also learned some tricks such as bow, crawl and sit pretty—and it’s about the cutest sit pretty you will ever see. She modified it on her own to grasp her handler’s hand. It always looks to me like she is praying reverently.
One of the reasons Stella has learned these tricks is that she loves to learn new things, so we’ve introduced them along the way. In some training visits to her home, we work on something new just because it makes her happy. She likes to work and enjoys all of her training exercises, but whatever she has learned most recently provides her with a little extra joy.
It’s not clear why that is, but there are a number of possibilities. Some dogs enjoy the puzzle of figuring out what they are supposed to do. Some dogs become bored of any routine and get very excited when something unexpected is happening. Others seem to relish learning something new because of the satisfaction of getting it right. Other dogs love the new trick because many trainers use the best food or especially high rates of reinforcement with new skills to help dogs learn them faster.
Does your dog get excited about learning a new trick or other skill?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
My favorite sight in Mérida, Spain
September 12 2017
Mérida, Spain is famous for its World Heritage Site—an extensive set of archaeological ruins that include a well-preserved 2000-year old Roman theater. One might expect that it is these ancient treasures that my memory would lock onto most fiercely, but that is not the case. The lasting mental image I took away from my visit to this beautiful city was that of an elderly man sitting on a park bench with his dog lying next to him. Happily, I thought to take a photograph so that I also have a permanent digital image to go along with my memory.
There is simply nothing more endearing than the companionship of a person and a dog, and I find that especially true of the elderly of either species. When I see an old dog accompanied by an unhurried and endlessly patient person, my heart swells. I have the same response when a kind and gentle dog shares a peaceful moment with an older human.
It is especially inspiring to see people and dogs spending time together when they take a leisurely approach to enjoying life that allows a full appreciation of each moment. This man and his dog seem completely content to sit outside together taking in their surroundings. I do not know this man’s story, but I like to imagine that he, like many people, considers all to be right with the world as long as he has his dog for company.
There is no doubt that I will remember this man and his dog long after my memories of the extraordinary Roman relics in Mérida have faded away.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Study suggests surprising reason
September 9 2017
There are lots of programs that allow children to be with a dog when reading. The goal is to help children read better and to feel more comfortable doing so. There’s a general understanding that the presence of a dog is beneficial to children who are learning to read, but not much data about how dogs help. A new study, “Minor Immediate Effects of a Dog on Children’s Reading Performance and Physiology" tested the effects of dogs on kids who are learning to read. The project found that (surprise, surprise) dogs have a positive impact, and that it is largely due to the effect of dogs on psychological factors.
Austrian children who were 9-10 years old and reading at below average levels participated in this study. Each child was involved in two videotaped reading sessions—one with a dog and one without. (It was randomly determined for each child whether the dog was present in the first or in the second session.) All of the dogs were previously certified as school visitation dogs and regularly interacted with kids in the school setting.
The children’s heart rates and heart rate variability were measured as an assessment of stress and excitement and levels of salivary cortisol were measured multiple times during each session. The quantity of various actions by the children were measured with videotape analysis. Behaviors of interest were those indicating nervousness such as coughing, throat clearing, jiggling the foot or leg, and playing with or fumbling with objects. The amount of time children spent talking or engaged in self-manipulation (such as scratching) was also recorded.
In the comprehension tests, reading performance was similar for children regardless of whether a dog was present. However, in a repeated reading (RR) test, the dog was a factor. For this test, children read a passage of text with the instruction to read as fast as they could while making as few errors as possible. They then had an opportunity to review words that gave them trouble and practice those words before reading the passage again. When children had a dog present in their first session, they did better on the repeated reading test. There was no such effect without a dog present or when the dog was present in the second session, suggesting that in the new situation of an experimental reading test, the dog’s presence offered some benefit. The advantage of a dog’s presence may be due to an increase in arousal and motivation that positively impacted children’s reading performance.
Additional evidence for an increase in arousal comes from the physiological measures taken during the study. Children had higher cortisol levels in the second session when a dog was present than when there was no dog, and kids had higher heart rates in the presence of a dog than when no dog was there. However, increased arousal in the children when a dog was present was not seen across the board. For example, children with a dog present in the first session showed fewer nervous movements than children whose first session did not have a dog present.
Most ideas about dogs helping young readers assume that the mechanism is a calming effect of the dogs on kids, including a decrease in their anxiety. This study suggests that increased arousal, which may add to children’s motivation to read, may be at play. The subjects of this study were children who had problems with reading, but most studies have used children whose reading skills were average, so that could be a factor in the findings. As the authors note, studying children over additional sessions would be more likely to reveal long term differences in reading progress.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s good for them, as it is for many species
September 6 2017
It’s easy to feel sorry for this Bulldog when it looks like he falls and rolls down a grassy hill. Within 30 seconds, though, he has twice gone back up the hill and rolled down again. Clearly, he is playing, and having a great time at it.
Many animals engage in play seemingly just for fun, and dogs are arguably the champions, spending huge amounts of time engaged in play. The playful activities that dogs do for the sake of a good time include wrestling, chasing, fetching, tugging, rolling, leaping and pouncing.
To do something “just for fun”, scientifically speaking, is a bit weird because it takes away from the limited time and energy animals have for essential activities such as acquiring food, finding and courting mates, drinking, growing bigger than their rivals and fighting them. Play is costly in other ways, too. Injury is an inherent risk due to the physical, thrill-seeking nature of play. There’s also the danger of being attacked by predators while too absorbed in play to be on the lookout. Play must be highly valuable to offset its considerable costs, and in fact, it is. Generally speaking, playful behavior makes animals more competitive in the game of life. It increases their success by helping them to survive and reproduce more than less playful individuals.
Scientists have discovered a number of highly specific benefits of play in different animal species. Ground squirrels who engage in play frequently are more coordinated and rear more young than those who play less. The most playful feral horses are more likely to live until their first birthday than their less playful peers. More playful bears have a greater chance of surviving until they are independent of their moms than less playful cubs. Rats who are deprived of opportunities to play lack social skills as adults. Compared to rats who are able to play, they are more likely to behave badly in tough social situations, either running away and shaking, or having the equivalent of a rat temper tantrum. One study found that the more rats played, the bigger their brains grew.
Though canine survival and reproduction is heavily influenced by humans in many areas of the word, that does not mean that dogs are free of the evolutionary influences that made play such a valuable activity. Play still helps them develop a variety of social and cognitive as well as physical skills. Dogs who lack opportunities to play as puppies often have impulse control issues, poor bite inhibition and lack the social skills to interact properly with other dogs as adults.
Although scientists agree that play is valuable, there is still significant debate about the specific purpose of play, which may vary among species. Perhaps it allows animals a safe way to practice important behavior, such as predation or combat with members of their own species. The purpose of play may be to get physical exercise or to improve dexterity, agility, reaction time, or cognitive skills. Developing creativity or problem-solving skills could make play beneficial. Perhaps the opportunity to practice handling the unexpected is important, so that during life-or-death-situations, animals are capable of responding effectively to the danger. Socialization or relieving anxiety may also be important factors that favor play in animals.
Whether it is swans surfing on ocean waves, dogs treating a river bank like a luge course, dolphins playing underwater catch with seaweed, either by themselves or with other dolphins, many animals love to have fun by playing. Though playful fun is costly in terms of time and energy and imposes serious risks, it is worth it. The fun is just nature’s way of making sure that animals engage in the highly valuable activity of play. That is good news for dog guardians, many of whom view canine play as nothing more and nothing less than one of the great joys in life.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Removing them makes play safer
September 1 2017
It was one of the worst moments of my professional career. During a supervised play session in a group class, the buckles on two dogs’ collars got stuck together. Being attached at the neck caused both of these sweet social dogs to freak out. (That’s a better description than any technical term.) It’s hard to say what they thought was happening, but both of them were receiving a lot of pressure on the neck and the more they struggled, the more panicky they got. Neither was choking, but it was not a safe situation. After a quick attempt to release both collars while several guardians tried to steady the dogs, I ran to the supply closet to grab a pair of blunt-edged scissors, and ran back to the dogs to cut off one of the dog’s collars.
The dogs were safe, and we could then attend to their emotional condition, which wasn’t great. One was whining and the other was shaking. Luckily, neither dog appeared to hold a grudge against the other, and they remained friends. I did encourage the guardians to take their dogs to their veterinarians to make sure that they did not have any injuries requiring medical care. (The dogs were a little bruised but fortunately neither of them suffered any serious damage.)
Why did we have blunt-edged scissors in our supply cabinet? Because one of our trainers had once had a similar situation that was even worse than the one I faced. If a person in that class had not had a Swiss Army Knife and used it to free the dogs, it could have been disastrous. After that, we were always prepared for such worst-case scenarios, and it is now my preference to remove all collars before playtime.
Collars are helpful to dogs in many ways, but also pose dangers. On the up side, collars hold tags that have been responsible for the safe return of countless dogs. They allow people a way to prevent a dog from running into the street or getting into less serious but still dangerous trouble—with a leash or as something to hold onto directly in a pinch. They are stylish, in the opinion of many.
On the down side, they are attached around a dog’s neck and therefore pose a danger. Dogs have been injured, even fatally, when collars have caught in things as random as heating vents, fences, crates, branches and other collars. The most common accident that I have heard about involves another dog’s lower jaw getting stuck in the collar during play and causing strangulation.
I prefer to see dogs play without collars because I know that serious collar accidents can happen. If dogs with collars must play together, I advise having something sharp on hand to cut the collars, such as a pair of blunt-edges scissors. (Pocket knives can also be used, but they are more likely to cause an injury during the attempt to help the dogs.) I don’t like metal collars because of the various risks they pose, and they are especially problematic in the case of an accident during play because they can’t be cut off.
Playing without collars is safer because of the risk of collar accidents, but breakaway (also called quick release) collars are also an option. They have a safety buckle that releases when significant pressure is applied to them. The safety buckle has a D-ring on either side of it so the breakaway section can be bypassed for leash walks by attaching a leash to both D-rings.
Have you ever witnessed an accident involving collars when dogs were playing?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Research about dogs should account for that
August 29 2017
The scientific interest in studying canine cognition has led to the development of a slew of test protocols—some uniquely designed for dogs and others modified from the field of comparative psychology. Many of them employ visual tasks to test dogs’ capabilities. In order to succeed with touch screens, at discriminating fine details in tests of their abilities to follow gazes or gestures, to understand object permanence, to identify faces or facial expressions, their visual perception is part of the equation. However, most of the studies are designed based on human, rather than canine, visual perception.
Canine vision differs from humans in a number of ways. Their ability to perceive a range of color hues is not as good as people’s ability, nor is their ability to distinguish levels of brightness or their visual acuity. Dogs are sensitive to higher flicker rates than people are, which can affect any studies that use moving items on computers or on televisions. There is evidence that dog vision is even more sensitive to movement than human vision.
Since visual perception abilities are not consistently accounted for in many studies with dogs, it is hard to know whether the test protocols are accurately assessing canine cognition. The results may be affected by visual capabilities instead. Researchers recently tested the hypothesis that visual perceptual differences between dogs and people could affect the performance in visually-based tasks using a free online tool (http://dog-vision.com) that converts images to settings that match what humans or dogs can see best. They report their results in the study “Do you see what I see? The difference between dog and human visual perception may affect the outcome of experiments”.
The test subjects in the study were humans, and they were asked to decide which side was indicated by a person in a series of photos. The photos showed a woman indicating a direction (right or left) by either pointing that way with her arm extended, by turning her head or by moving the gaze of her eyes in that direction without moving her head. People were tested with photos in their original form (set for human vision) and in a form altered for canine vision.
Participants in the study could correctly choose the direction of all three sorts of cues in the unaltered (human vision setting) photos. In the photos that were altered to the dog-vision setting, they could identify the cues in the pointing with extended arm and with the head turn quite well. However, their performance dropped considerably when asked the direction indicated by the gaze of the woman’s eyes in the dog-vision setting.
The results of this study suggest that differing visual capabilities may affect performance in visual tasks. The researchers acknowledge that this study only shows that human performance is influenced when visual tasks are designed for the other species, but it is likely that dogs are similarly affected. Though many experiments that do not account for vision differences between dogs and humans have still revealed intriguing canine capabilities, future research could benefit from doing so. It is likely that researchers could increase the number of unambiguous results and also eliminate the hassle of a large drop-out rate of subjects who do not meet preliminary criteria for inclusion in the study. Potentially challenging visual presentations are a problem in canine studies, and avoiding them will help scientists conduct better research.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Sex differences in people’s affiliative behavior
August 26 2017
Investigating sex differences in the role of stress and hormones on affiliative behavior by people was the goal of a recent study. For anyone interested in the influence of hormones on behavior, the results are exciting, but it’s the dog angle that’s most noteworthy to me.
The study measured people’s affiliative behavior towards their dogs after victory or defeat in an agility competition. (A qualifying score of 85 or better was considered a victory. Scores below 85 were classified as defeats.) It’s gratifying that the researchers recognized the truly competitive nature of canine agility and its usefulness for studying reactions to victory and defeat. The main finding was that men and women exhibit different patterns of affiliative behavior based on whether they experienced success or failure, but they did not show different amounts of affiliative behavior overall.
One specific finding was that after defeat, women were more affiliative towards their dogs, but that men showed the reverse pattern—more affiliative behavior after victory. Additionally, the higher their cortisol levels (associated with defeat), the more affiliative behavior the women showed, but men responded to higher cortisol levels with lower levels of affiliative behavior. Their conclusion is that affiliative behavior is a sign of shared celebration for men, but of shared consolation for women. (It’s not clear how this impacts people’s relationships with their dogs as that was beyond the scope of this study, but I would LOVE to see further research that explores that question.)
Since the paper is written mainly for scientists concerned with the role of social stressors and hormones on affiliative behavior rather than for people interested in dogs, they had to explain what agility is and make the case that it is truly competitive. They wrote, “As a rule, contestants take these competitions very seriously,”—an obvious understatement.
With their choice to study human affiliative behavior in the context of agility, the authors demonstrated the ever- increasing recognition of the importance of dogs in people’s lives.
News: Guest Posts
It took dog sitting to really get to know her
August 23 2017
I thought I knew Harlow, a young Boxer mix, long before she came to spend the week with us. I had worked with her guardian in over a dozen training sessions, and she had visited our home multiple times so she would be familiar with my house and family. (I always recommend a few visits ahead of time so that dogs are more comfortable when they stay with me.)
From my previous experience with Harlow, I anticipated an enjoyable week while her guardian was out of town. She has always been fun to train, responsive, affiliative and friendly. I thought that I knew her quite well, which is why it caught me a little off guard to learn just how incredibly nice she is.
When I say that a dog is “nice”, it is the highest praise I can offer. I’m not using the term as something vaguely positive in lieu of anything more specific to offer as a compliment. I believe that a truly nice dog is a wonder of the universe, and that such angels are not at the end of every leash. All dogs have their fine qualities, each a little different, but there’s a special place in my heart for dogs who are remarkably nice.
Harlow is such a dog, and it’s odd to me that I didn’t realize it in the many months I worked with her. During our training sessions, I came to like her very much and have always considered her a great dog. Yet, it took living together this week to really understand the depth of her sweetness, which showed itself in a number of little ways. When we entered the house from the yard and arrived simultaneously at the back door, she paused as if to say, “Please, after you.” This is not because she has specifically been trained to do this or because she is particularly deferential. It’s a result of being naturally kind. She’s friendly with all of our guests and welcomes attention from anyone, yet she’s not pushy about it. She takes treats gently no matter how excited she is about them.
Harlow walks and runs beautifully on leash, and though a large part of that is due to the training efforts of her guardian, there’s more to it than that. When we run by a spot on the sidewalk that has plants growing over it, she navigates the narrow part carefully so we can both easily fit through. She looks back as we go through and slows down, apparently aware that the length of the leash requires special care when we must go single file. There’s simply a pleasant agreeableness about her that is hard to explain, but easy to appreciate.
Obviously, I adore this dog, but please don’t think I’m seeing her through rose-colored glasses—I’m not. Delightful as she is, she’s not perfect. Like all dogs, she has her good qualities and her not-so-good ones. She is not above throwing herself the occasional trash party, and she even had one such festivity at our house. I don’t consider that a blot on her character—or on any dog’s character for that matter—but it’s not a plus. The enthusiasm with which she barks out the window at any potential dog buddy is loud enough to be objectionable. (Since she can be called away from the window, the ruckus is brief, but it’s pretty exciting while it lasts.) Her drinking habits are so sloppy that I can only watch in wonder and amusement as she dribbles around the bowl and across the floor.
Most dogs are nice (that’s why we love them so!) but Harlow is especially so. Dogs can learn to have better manners and trained to perform certain behaviors, but being genuinely nice is an intrinsic quality that can’t be taught.
I’m not sure why, but it took living with Harlow for me to see how nice she is. Have you ever hosted a dog you thought you knew, and only then really gotten to know her?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s a skill cat lovers bring to the table
August 19 2017
It sounds trivial to say it, but dogs and cats are very different animals. The experience of living with individuals of these two species is not the same in many ways. I know I am generalizing here and ignoring the many exceptions, but the typical cat is more independent that the typical dog, and usually more aloof. (Again, I know there are dogs who lean towards the standoff-ish, and cats who are clingy and constantly affectionate, but that’s not the most common way for members of those species to be. Think of it this way—it remains true that men are generally taller than women even though there are certainly individual women who are taller than individual men.)
My point here, and I’m sure you’re glad I’m getting to it, is that if someone has experience with cats, they may acquire perspectives and skills that are different from those acquired by people who spend all of their time with dogs. (It should go without saying that I have no problem with anyone spending all of their time with dogs!) Those skills and perspectives can be very useful with certain dogs, though I’m not necessarily referring to dogs who are more cat-like in any way.
The dogs who benefit most from the knowledge of cat-savvy people are those who are shy, fearful or nervous. People who know cats well are completely on board with the fact that you can’t push or force a cat to be social with you. (It’s unwise to push or force a dog, either, by the way, but many dogs are easier to convince to engage with us than cats are.)
With cats, it is always wise to take it slow, let them come to you and ignore them until they show an interest in you. That is also true of fearful dogs, but many people who come into contact with a dog who is afraid try to cajole the dog into approaching, or try to lure the dog with toys or treats. People with cat experience are far less likely to try to take shortcuts like this, to the benefit of the dog in question. Cat-savvy people are used to the idea that you have to accept the animal on his own terms and to be patient. To be fair, many dog lovers also know this really well, but I find that it is almost universal among people who have spent a significant amount of time with their feline friends.
I was recently reminded of the wonderful way that many cat lovers have with shy, nervous or fearful dogs when my friend Betsy came over while I was watching a dog of that description. I told her that the dog was very sweet, though easily scared by new people, and that the best thing to do was to toss her some treats and then ignore her. Betsy did exactly that, and within minutes, I took this picture of a very happy dog (the lean one on the left with a tail wagging fast enough to look blurry) enjoying her new human friend. Throughout their initial interaction, Betsy always let the dog control the pace of their progress. She never pushed too hard to pet the dog or encouraged the dog to approach. She just waited and let the dog do what felt comfortable.
Do you have cat experience that has helped you in your interactions with dogs?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dogs sniff urine for different lengths of time
August 16 2017
The information available in canine urine is astounding. From a proper sniff, dogs can learn about the sex, reproductive status, diet and stress level of dogs who have been there before. Urine is used to communicate about territories, to mask the smell of other dogs, to detect females who are likely to be reproductively receptive and to compete with other individuals. It’s no wonder that our canine friends find urine so compelling that they are irresistibly drawn to it. As anyone who has spent even a little time with dogs knows, urine sniffing is a favorite pastime.
A recent study called “Length of time domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) spend smelling urine of gonadectomised and intact conspecifics” was conducted to investigate whether gonadectomy (being spayed or neutered) affects urine-sniffing behavior. Since gonadectomy has significant impacts on body chemistry, it has long been suggested that it disrupts the flow of information available through urine that dogs have evolved to detect over many generations.
Researchers tested the affects of gonadectomy in urine sniffing by recording how long dogs sniffed urine from intact versus gonadectomized individuals. They found that dogs spent more time sniffing urine from spayed or neutered dogs than from intact ones. One possibility is that the dogs are spending a longer time sniffing such urine because they are trying to figure out the information it contains. Because it may have a combination of chemicals that is different than the range of compounds that the dogs have evolved to understand, it may be harder for them to make sense out of it.
Interestingly, this study contradicts the findings of Lisberg and Snowdon, whose 2009 paper also analyzed the investigation patterns of unfamiliar urine and found that dogs spent more time sniffing urine from intact dogs than from gonadectomized ones. One possible explanation for the difference may be that for the current paper, the dogs were tested indoors, but for the 2009 paper, the study took place outside. (Fewer distractions inside may also explain an average sniff length of nearly 13 seconds in this paper compared with just over 5 seconds in the older study.) Another difference between the results of the two studies is that the recent research found no difference in sniffing time related to what kind of dog was doing the sniffing (male or female, intact or gonadectomized) but Lisberg and Snowdon found that neutered males and intact females both spent more time sniffing urine from intact males than from neutered males.
More research is definitely needed if we want to understand the complicated behavior of urine sniffing, which may involve many interactions between environment and individual traits of the dogs—both those who are the sources of urine and those who sniff if. Research is time intensive and can be costly, which is why I’m so impressed by this particular study. It was conducted in a single home in which the 12 dogs recruited to be sniffers all live, there was no funding source for the study and all of the urine in the study came from out of state to insure that the urine came from unfamiliar dogs. Kudos to the authors for taking the initiative to conduct a cool and clever experiment!
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