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
It was a happy accident of sorts
February 23 2016
I was in graduate school studying animal behavior in the University of Wisconsin’s Zoology Department. I had already gotten my Master’s degree studying a nesting association between two species of tropical social wasps that live together. My PhD work was on the defensive behavior of tropical social wasps. These topics may seem very different than my work with dogs, but they are actually not as different as it may seem at first glance. The wasp projects I designed came from my interest in social behavior in general and from particularly strong interests in species that live together and in aggressive and defensive behavior.
Dogs and humans are two species that live together and have done so for thousands of years. Despite the generally good relationship between our two species, there certainly exists some aggression. My interest in dogs, besides coming from a tremendous love for them, stems from my broader scientific interests in species living together and in aggression. It is amazing to me that individuals living together rarely, on the whole, physically hurt one another. Sure, it does happen, but considering how many interactions occur, only a tiny percentage of them are aggressive in nature. The inhibition exhibited the vast majority of the time is quite remarkable, and even more so when this inhibition functions in situations involving more than one species.
In graduate school, I was assigned to be the teaching assistant for a class called “Human/Animal Relationships: Biological and Philosophical Issues” taught by the well-known Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell. Of all the fascinating topics in the class, there was one that captivated my scientific curiosity the most. That was the biological miracle of the complex relationships between humans and domestic animals, including the dog. Here was the sort of relationship between species that I was always interested in, and lo and behold it involved my own species!
I began to volunteer at the local dog training classes run by Patricia McConnell with her business, Dog’s Best Friend. I spent one evening each week assisting trainers as they trained people to train their dogs using a combination of ethology, learning theory and great coaching skills. I learned so much about how people and dogs interact and how best to teach both species new skills.
About a year later, I moved to New Hampshire with my fiancé (now husband) because he was starting his PhD at Dartmouth College. I investigated ways to work with dogs to continue to expand my skills in that area, and found that my options were limited. I spent the year learning about dogs in the most unexpected of ways—by grooming them! I am not a natural at grooming in any species, but I learned so very, very much about dogs. I encourage anyone interested in dog behavior to find some way to get hands-on experience with dogs to complement whatever knowledge they are getting from reading or course work. Volunteering at a local shelter or with a veterinarian are other options besides grooming. Toward the end of my first year in New Hampshire, I began to teach my own classes, which were called Play Training and emphasized the use of play when interacting with our dogs, motivating them, and reinforcing them.
After a year in New Hampshire, I accepted a job offer as a behavioral intern back in Wisconsin at Patricia McConnell’s Dog’s Best Friend. It was a tough decision to take this dream job because it meant that I would live 1300 miles away from my husband for four years. I literally flew home from my Alaskan honeymoon to New Hampshire, packed up to move to Wisconsin, and said good-bye to my husband of three weeks. Opportunities to intern in the field of applied animal behavior are so rare that it was worth the sacrifice, hard as it was. I love the work I do and would not have been able to do it without the proper training and education.
Sometimes people assume that I must be thrilled to have gotten out of the world of stinging insects. The fact of the matter is that I love wasps and miss my social insect days. Still, I also love dogs, and I can’t help but enjoy the switch from wasps to dogs because dogs are less aggressive and much easier to work with.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Act like this dog, or at least watch him
February 20 2016
Continuing to play into adulthood is a rare trait across the animal kingdom, but humans share this oddity with dogs. Being playful throughout our lives makes us unusual, but it bonds us together. It’s hard to imagine the relationships with our dogs being as strong without sharing play.
Whether we play together or watch each other play, we can relate to one another’s fun and find that it inspires playfulness in each of us. That might be what happened with this dog who went sledding after taking inspiration from the boy who was originally on the sled.
I like this dog. In 17 seconds, I see evidence of a great many admirable characteristics. He is a problem solver who takes initiative. It’s likely that he knows what the sled is for from prior experience, so he’s pretty smart. He’s obviously physically coordinated since he stays balanced on the sled, leaps on it at high speed, and uses it like a scooter by pushing with his feet. He’s fast enough to chase down a sled, and he is certainly very playful. It’s hard to watch this video without imagining what a glorious time he is having.
All I know about this dog is what I see in this short clip, but his playfulness is endearing enough to serve as a reminder to have more fun in life. If he had a motto, I suspect it would be “Carpe diem—Seize the day” (unless he is very literal in which case he might choose “Seize the sled.”) Either way, message received, little buddy. Message received.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Boredom Be Gone!
February 19 2016
If you feel guilty about leaving your dogs home by themselves while you go to work, join the club. Most of us dislike it, though, truth be told, the majority of dogs do just fine. Many of them simply relax and sleep for a good part of the day while we stress out at work.
I say “many of them” because I’m absolutely not including dogs who are too young to handle a lot of time alone, or those who are struggling with separation anxiety or some other condition that makes being at home without you truly traumatic, somewhat upsetting or even just unpleasant. I’m talking about typical, behaviorally healthy dogs who really don’t mind the daily rhythm that includes your regular workday absence (though obviously, they would rather you stayed home).
Along with making sure that their basic needs are met, what do we owe the dogs who hold down the fort while we’re gone? Some dogs are fine with a cozy place to snooze, and some may be satisfied with a compatible dog buddy or some toys. Others need a little help in finding interesting ways to stay occupied while we go out and earn the money to support them in the style to which they have become accustomed. A great way to help these dogs is to provide them with multiple activity stations around the house.
Activity stations are just what they sound like: places for dogs to engage in activities that can be done alone. Setting up different activity stations in distinct areas of the house allows dogs to make good choices and to have fun even when they’re on their own.
This kind of enrichment won’t cure separation anxiety or help a dog overcome a fear of traffic, airplanes, passersby or the sound of sirens, and it’s not a cure for excessive barking or destructive chewing. What it can do, however, is make being alone more fun.
Deciding what sorts of activity stations will work best for your dog requires you to give some thought to your home’s layout and your dog’s interests and abilities. But basically, they are really only limited by safety concerns and your creativity.
Some stations are extremely simple, involving nothing more than a tug toy attached to the wall with a carabiner and a sturdy hook. Dogs who love to tug often do best if the toy is a little stretchy to compensate for the fact that nobody is on the other end giving it life and motion. The toy must be safe—no chance of the dog choking on it, becoming entangled in it or shredding it. A tug station is not suitable for dogs who would either become obsessive about it or frustrated by it. To interest your dog in it, shake the toy a little to make it move; once your dog has hold of it, let him tug on his own. Putting peanut butter on the toy makes it more enticing and helps many dogs engage.
A related activity station is for dogs who like to bat at toys rather than tug them. As long as the dog won’t become entangled in the toy or attempt to ingest it, this sort of station can occupy those who love to use their paws in play. Toys with multiple hanging parts often appeal to dogs who like to play this way.
Another activity station with simplicity in its favor consists of providing your dog with something safe to chew or eat. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to buy hundreds of new items. Rotating your dog’s durable favorites, supplemented by an occasional new treat, keeps this from costing a fortune. You can also use stuffable toys such as Kongs, or toys that the dog has to chase around or otherwise manipulate for the food to be dispensed —for example, the PetMate Wobbling Treatball, Kong Wobbler, West Paw Design Toppl or Buster Cube.
Make sure you are not giving your dog anything that poses a choking hazard or other dangers. Avoid rawhides and rope toys, and check with your vet about what else may be dangerous for an unsupervised dog. All dogs need to learn to enjoy an activity station is that it provides good things. For safety and convenience, site the station away from areas that are off limits to the dog, such as the counter or where kids store their toys.
On a related note, you can also keep your dog occupied by making the whole house (or at least a room or two) a place for food-searching activity. Hide treats while your dog is in another room, say “find your treats” and then head out for the day. (If your dog is sure to follow you, tell him/her to stay, or close a gate or door while you hide the treats.) Teaching your dog to search for food in response to the cue “find your treats” is not hard, but it’s critical to start by making it easy and gradually working up to greater challenges. Start with the food in full view and point to it or tap your toe by each treat until your dog gets the hang of it. You can also hide treats in canine puzzle toys that are specifically designed for this purpose.
A basket of toys is a great activity station, but for most dogs, it’s only appealing if the contents change frequently. To maintain your dog’s interest, rotate toys in and out and add new ones regularly. That way, your dog will never know which toys will be available on a given day. If your dog has a couple of favorites, make sure they’re always on hand. The purpose of rotating toys is to prevent your dog from becoming bored, not to take away toys just for the sake of removing them periodically.
For dogs who like to fetch, independent play may seem harder to provide. However, some dogs can be taught to fetch on their own using a ball and a ramp or an iFetch. There needs to be enough space for them to chase after the ball without injury to themselves or to your furnishings. It takes practice and patience, but once dogs get it, they are able to play on their own.
To teach dogs to use a ramp at a fetching station, start by placing the ball on the ramp and letting it roll away. This accustoms dogs to fetching a ball that has been “thrown” by the ramp. Then, teach them to drop the ball at the top of the ramp themselves. Once dogs realize that they can make the ramp work for them, many really enjoy the activity, though I’ve yet to meet a dog who didn’t prefer fetch played as a social game outdoors. (Caution: this activity station is not suitable for dogs who are so obsessive about fetch that they would play all day and drive themselves mad.)
Again, the safety of the stations and their elements is critical. Don’t use anything that could in any way strangle or trap a dog. Only use toys that can handle serious chewing, the level of which varies from dog to dog. Avoid rawhide or rope toys that a dog can choke on. If in doubt, put the toy away before you leave.
Don’t expect dogs to automatically be interested in activity stations just because you’ve set them up, however lovingly. The statement “If you build it, they will come” rarely applies. Dogs have to be taught what to do and to understand that the stations have entertainment value before they will engage on their own.
Activity stations can be antidotes to the boredom dogs may experience when left home alone. Providing them with something constructive to do can improve their quality of life, even though they may be fine with being alone. The stations can also help us fulfill our responsibility to make sure our dogs are happy, stimulated and entertained (not to mention relieve our guilt!) when we leave the house without our dogs, as most of us must do daily. Above all, they’re a wonderful way to change our dogs’ daily alone time from “fine” to “fun”!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs who excel often do so in many tasks
February 18 2016
Are dogs smart like people are smart? That is the question posed by researchers at the London School of Economics. They weren’t looking into whether dogs are as smart as people, but rather if they are smart in a variety of ways like people are.
When people take IQ tests, they tend to perform at a similar level across various tasks. If they do well in one area, they typically also shine in others. Are dogs the same way, showing a similar structure to their intelligence? By creating a dog IQ test of sorts with several components, the authors of, A general intelligence factor in dogs sought an answer to this question. They study was done with 68 working Border Collies to eliminate breed differences and to minimize differences in upbringing.
The tests performed on the dogs investigated their abilities to navigate barriers to get to food, to determine differences in quantities of food, and to follow a human gesture indicating the location of food. The combined tests took about an hour for each dog.
The general conclusions of the study suggest similarities between the structure of human and canine intelligence. Specifically, just like in people, there was individual variation and dogs who did well on one test were more likely to succeed at other tasks. Dogs who were quick at solving problems were also more accurate.
I think it is very interesting that we have moved away from the idea of “intelligence” as a single factor in humans, but researchers are searching for such a unified concept in dogs. Years ago, people spoke of general intelligence in humans as a separate thing than talents such as social skills, emotional connectedness and athletic or musical or artistic abilities. Now, we are more inclined to discuss people’s emotional or social intelligence or musical IQ, and more likely to discuss factors that are included in intelligence (like problem-solving ability) by being specific about them.
The main result of this study—that certain abilities in dogs such as negotiating detours, assessing quantities of food, responding to human gestures and solving problems quickly tend to be linked—is very interesting. I wish the authors would have focused on the links between the specific tasks they studied instead of generalizing to the point of putting every ability into one category called intelligence. What is going to happen if future studies suggest that a particular trait or ability is found to have no correlation to the others? Will it be considered irrelevant to intelligence, in its own special category or will it pose a problem to the concept of a general intelligence?
That said, I consider this an excellent study. It clearly shows that some individual dogs consistently have better success when asked to solve problems to accomplish various tasks. Very few studies have looked at how dogs differ from each other in this way. More studies on individual differences in cognitive ability are needed and I look forward to learning more about how dogs’ minds work as researchers continue to pursue studies comparing individuals’ abilities.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Putting a canine spin on anything
February 11 2016
No matter what the theme of an event is, there’s a high probability that it will end up being about dogs for me. That was true recently at a going away and good luck party for 15 local runners competing in the US Olympic Marathon Trials this Saturday. Our mountain town—Flagstaff, Arizona—is understandably proud of being the home of some of the world’s best runners, and this night, the focus was on that. We were wishing an elite group of athletes good luck and letting them know that we support them.
For me, though, from the moment a dog was first mentioned, my mind was split between running and canines. Though I was still listening to the runners introduce themselves, offer one random fact we don’t know about them and answer the crowd’s questions, I was also thinking about dog names. That’s because runner Nick Hilton’s random fact was about his dog. His Chocolate Labrador Retriever is named Rad, which is (naturally!) short for a wizard, Radagast the Brown, from Lord of the Rings.
Many other dogs clearly have guardians who are Lord of the Rings fans. Arwen, Bilbo and Gandalf were all popular names at one time. I’ve also met an Aragorn, several Sams inspired by Lord of the Rings, a Frodo, a Pippin, a Tolkien, a Lorien, and a few Shires. I’ve only met the one Rad, though.
Do you know of a dog whose name is Tolkien-inspired? Has your mind ever gone to the dogs when something totally different was going on?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs always rule!
February 8 2016
Well, the Super Bowl was nearly ruined for me this year. No, I’m not a Carolina Panthers fan, so the fact that they lost is not my issue (although I do feel for them.) The real problem is that there were no Budweiser puppies this year in the commercials. Those ads are always my favorites, and I missed them.
Perhaps I should consider myself lucky, though, because there were some dog commercials that I really loved. I think my favorite was the one featuring Dachshunds. The “Wiener Stampede” shows dogs dressed in hot dog costumes running towards Heinz condiments as we hear the lyric, “I can’t live if living is without you.”
I know it has been criticized for implying that we are going to eat dogs, but I didn’t take it that way. I loved seeing the dogs running, especially because they looked so healthy and energetic. The puppy was beyond adorable, and when one of the dogs runs by looking straight at us, it’s hard to resist. The reunion with the people and the dogs showed real love and joy. In other words, this commercial had a lot of what I look for in canine Super Bowl ads.
I also liked the commercial with dogs trying to outsmart the manager at a grocery store to get themselves some Doritos in “Doritos Dogs.” Though the dogs were tongue flicking and seemed a little anxious, which was unfortunate, I did like the theme of very different dogs working as a team to accomplish their goal.
I’m including in my canine commercial picks Honda’s ad, “A New Truck to Love” even though the sheep are arguably the true stars, singing Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” Since the Border Collie makes several appearances and does some great voice work, I still consider it a dog commercial, and a charming one at that.
Did you have a favorite canine Super Bowl commercial this year, even without an appearance by the Budweiser puppies?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How much do pets matter to voters?
February 5 2016
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, “You can criticize, me, my wife and my family, but you can’t criticize my little dog.” His little dog was a Scottish Terrier named Fala, and what came to be known as the “Fala Speech” is thought to have helped him secure re-election for a fourth term. His defense of the dog did wonders for FDR’s image.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s image was also affected by his dogs. Pictures of him holding his Beagles, Him and Her, up by their ears upset many citizens. Though the resulting scandal may not have had major effects on his presidency, many people forever thought his treatment of his pets showed his true character, and not in a good way.
Warren Harding certainly treated his Airedale, Laddie Boy, with high esteem. Harding gave his dog a hand-carved chair to sit on during high-level meetings, like a true member of his cabinet. He also celebrated Laddie Boy’s birthday with a party at the White House that included the neighborhood dogs and a birthday cake made from dog biscuits.
Harry S Truman made a major PR mistake when he regifted a Cocker Spaniel he received for Christmas. He gave the dog, Feller, to the White House physician, though the dog became more popularly known as the Unwanted Dog. It’s ironic that Truman did not accept this gift, as he is considered the source of the quote, “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.”
Early on in our history, presidents may not have been concerned about how their dogs influenced people’s view of them. That could explain how President Washington was able to name his dogs Tipsy and Drunkard, for example. That surely would not fly in today’s political climate.
Today, we scrutinize everything about our politicians, including their dogs, and that extends to candidates as well. It’s important to know not just who will replace Obama, but who will follow in the footsteps of Bo and Sunny.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A new dog can affect the behavior of other dogs
February 2 2016
Maggie’s “Drop It” used to be perfect, making games of fetch effortless from the human side of things. However, today she was hesitant to let go of the tennis ball. Instead of putting it at my feet instantly, it look her anywhere from five to 30 seconds to release it, and sometimes she grabbed for it when she had just put it down. I wasn’t thrilled to see this change in her behavior, but neither was I surprised. A new puppy had just joined the family, and that can have all sorts of effects on other dogs’ behavior.
The decline in Maggie’s “Drop It” skill was the most obvious change. It interested me because the puppy showed no interest in the ball while Maggie was playing with it or at any other time, and Maggie was resistant to “Drop It” whether the puppy was present during the play session or not. I suspect this was not about having to compete with a new puppy for the ball, but rather about Maggie’s emotional reaction to sharing her home with another dog.
Just because the human members of a household are excited about a new addition to the family doesn’t mean that the dogs who already live there are on board. Changes can be upsetting, and dogs are often taken by surprise when a new dog appears . . . and then stays. Unlike people, they are not part of the decision-making process, and don’t have the benefit of knowing a dog is joining them and preparing themselves ahead of time. It can be hard to predict how a new dog will affect other dogs, but it seems there’s always something that changes when the family goes up a canine in number.
When a puppy is added to a family with a middle-aged or older dog, it’s my experience that two results are the most likely. One is that the older dog becomes more playful, lively and generally younger in outlook and behavior. The other result is the exact opposite—that the older dog becomes crankier and more sullen. It seem that sometimes a puppy breathes new life into an older dog, and sometimes a puppy makes an older dog seem a bit more geriatric when he wasn’t like that before.
Even when it isn’t so dramatic, there are often interesting changes in behavior by the dogs already in the household when a new dog joins. Over the years, I’ve observed dogs act a little differently when a new dog comes to stay. Besides becoming more possessive over toys and chews, I’ve seen dogs become more playful with people or less playful with people. I’ve noticed that some dogs bark much more, whether or not the new dog is prone to vocalizing. It’s common for a dog to become much more affectionate, and especially to be extra snuggly in bed or on the couch. Some dogs seem to go on high alert, and others eat much faster. Some become maternal (or paternal) either with the new dog or towards fleece toys. Some adjust their sleep patterns, and others choose different places to rest.
How did your dog’s behavior change when a new dog joined the family?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It influences adult behavior
January 29 2016
“Tell me about your mother.” This phrases, so common in therapy, all but assumes that whatever is going on with someone can be traced back to the mother. Was she a good mother—attentive, patient, nurturing? Was she less than stellar—harsh, uncaring, neglectful? Whatever she does, you can bet her offspring’s behavior will be considered a result of her actions, and that doesn’t just mean in people. It’s old news that maternal care affects primates and rodents, but a new study investigated the phenomenon in dogs.
The authors of “Levels of maternal care in dogs affect adult offspring temperament” investigated the influence of the mothers on the behavior of adult dogs. Researchers looked at 22 litters of German Shepherd Dogs bred to become Military Working Dogs with the Swedish Armed Forces. The 94 puppies in the study were all continuously videotaped with their mothers during the first three weeks after birth. Videotapes were analyzed for many variables, such as the amount of time that the mother had her paws in the box with her puppies, time that she was in physical contact with at least one puppy, time she spent nursing, time she spent licking puppies, and the number of times she sniffed, poked or moved a puppy around using her nose. (Litter size was accounted for in the statistical analysis.)
When the puppies were 18-months old, they were evaluated with the Swedish Armed Forces’ standard temperament test. Dogs were assessed for their reactions to a number of situations, including social and cooperative ones with humans as well as potentially scary stimuli such as loud noises. Not surprisingly, the main result of the study is that researchers found an association between the mothers’ behavior and the behavior of her adult offspring.
Mothers were consistent over the course of the study regarding the time they spent interacting with their young. The amount of interactions that mothers had with their puppies was a really important factor associated with the behavior of these individuals as adult dogs. Specifically, puppies whose mothers had a large number of interactions with them were more socially engaged with humans as adults, more physically engaged with them, and scored higher on tests for aggression. Based on the paper, it's not clear what is meant by "aggression" or whether the association with maternal care is a positive or a negative one. (It's also not clear whether "aggression" was considered a desirable trait for these working dogs.) Confidence of the adult dogs was the fourth category of behavior measured, but no association was found between confidence and level of maternal care.
There are many factors to consider when choosing which dogs to breed in any situation, including working dog programs. This study suggests that there are benefits to paying attention to maternal care behavior when choosing which females to breed. That is, more attentive mothers are an important piece of successfully breeding dogs with desirable traits, and females who are good mothers should be considered an asset to any breeding program.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Pet safe way to prevent slipping on snow and ice
January 26 2016
As so much of the eastern part of the United States is dealing with near record levels of snowfall, I celebrate for the kids who have snow days and sympathize with the people whose days (and backs) will be ruined by hours of shoveling. I also worry about the dogs who must deal with their playground (and bathroom) being covered in snow and ice. It’s bad enough to have to wade up to the belly or beyond to visit the potty. What’s even worse is the danger posed by many products that people put on their sidewalks to melt the snow or to provide traction in it.
Dogs’ paws can be injured by salt and many de-icing products, and ingesting them can be even more hazardous as so many are toxic. I don’t have a perfect solution, but I can say that there is a product I like because it is pet safe and does prevent slipping for dogs and humans alike. It’s called EcoTraction and may help you and your pet have a better winter experience. It is made out of a non-toxic volcanic material.
At the top of the list of good features of EcoTraction is that it is pet and child safe. Additionally, it does not damage lawns, it can be swept up and used again once the snow and ice melt, and a little of it goes a long way. I also like that it works instantly. The moment you put it on top of snow and ice, those surfaces are far less slippery and you can feel the traction under your shoes.
On the down side, just so you know, it does not actually melt the ice and snow—it just provides traction. If more snow falls and buries the EcoTraction, more of it needs to be applied. Also, if it is stuck to your shoes, it can scratch delicate floors, so shoe removal and a quick toweling of dogs’ paws is in order once you come inside.
I love getting out in the snow, and heaven knows that almost all dogs feel the same way. However, slipping on ice or having paws damaged by salt and snow melting products can ruin all the fun. I hope all the people in the snow zone are able to minimize the hassle and maximize the fun of this storm—for themselves and their dogs!
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