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Karen B. London

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

News: Guest Posts
True Love: The Bond with Our Dogs
We know it when we see it

The way we love our dogs varies. For some people, a dog is the proverbial best friend. To others, dogs are simply a family member, whether that means the dog is like a brother, a sister, a child or need not be defined beyond being a dog who is adored. No matter how we identify the complex relationship between ourselves and our dogs, nobody who has shared such a connection can deny that it is True Love.

True Love is hard to explain, but it’s easy to see in pictures. In the above picture, our friend Greg and his dog Espave (pronounced ESS-paw-vay) gaze at one another in a way that conveys that sentiment. In fact, I refer to this picture, which I took while visiting an ecological reserve in Panama that Greg manages, as “The True Love Photo”. Greg frequently travels internationally as well as in Panama for his work, and when I asked him what he misses most when he is away, he immediately answered, “Espave”. It is clear from the dog’s behavior that she is every bit as attached to Greg as he is to her.

Though it might be hard to explain how deeply one can care for a dog, the concept is completely straightforward to many of us. We love our dogs, and they love us. Dogs make our lives complete with the joy and companionship they add to every shared moment. It pains us to be away from them, and it’s always a pleasure to be reunited, whether at the end of each day or after a long trip. Our love for dogs reminds us that the strength of our emotions and connections to others cannot be contained within the boundary of our own species.

I know you and your dog share a bond of love that all dog people understand, but do you have a picture that you think shows it?

News: Guest Posts
Is There a Puppy There?
A man’s baby talk heard through the fence

I was hanging my laundry near our backyard fence, which borders the sidewalk, when I heard the dog tags. Soon after, I could make out the shape of a Boxer through the small gaps between the slats. The dog was clearly aware of my presence, based on his level of excitement and his intense sniffing of the fence. The man walking him spoke with that baby voice so commonly used to address dogs, saying, “Do you hear a new friend? Is there a puppy in there?”

“No, just a person,” I replied, and I could feel the mortification across the fence. The man laughed sheepishly, said, “Hello,” and hurried on by with his dog. As he walked away, he spoke in what I think was a purposely deep voice, saying, “Let’s go, Bailey. We’ve got more walking to do.”

I felt terrible about making him feel awkward or foolish. What he doesn’t know is that rather than think less of him for using such sweet talk with his dog, it makes me respect him more. I find it charming when a man loves his dog, and there is nothing wrong with a little baby talk between a fella and his dog. Still, I can understand how he might have felt embarrassed. He got caught in what he thought was a private (no other humans around) moment until I spoke up. In retrospect, I should have kept silent. For one thing, I would have avoided making this kind man feel silly, and I also might have had the opportunity to observe more of his interaction with his dog.

Have you been caught in what you thought was a private moment between you and your dog?

News: Guest Posts
If I Judged Canine Charm Contests
Winners would have one ear up and one ear down

There are as many ways to be adorable as there are dogs in the world, but for my money, the dogs with one ear up and one ear down are the crème de la crème of cuteness. There is something so charming—and disarming—about a dog who is asymmetrical in this way, especially if it is combined with a head cock to further the effect. The ears-askew look can make even the roughest, toughest, most intimidating-looking dog appear totally harmless, and for dogs who already appear to pose no threat, it makes them even more lovable.

So, why do so many dogs have one ear up and one ear down? In some cases, it is a young dog whose ears are part of the way through the process of growing into an erect posture. They have not done it evenly so one ear is further along than the other. The cartilage in the ears is soft, but usually grows strong enough to support the ear as the puppy develops. Some dogs permanently remain in the one-ear-up, one-ear-down phase of life.

Many dogs only have one ear up and one ear down temporarily. It may just happen briefly when the dog has moved the ears in different ways. There are dogs who only have one ear up and one ear down when they are in certain emotional states. Other, naturally flop-eared dogs, show this look only when they are actively pricking their ears because they are especially alert, but only one ear fully extends. Some dogs only do it when they are tired, especially at the end of the day.

Many people worry about dogs whose ears are not a matched set, and it is certainly reasonable to discuss it with your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues. That’s especially true if both of your dog’s ears are typically erect and one suddenly changes positions. Sometimes, a hematoma or an infection can add weight to the ear and cause it to flop, for example. People who are showing their dogs in conformation consider it a problem because many breed standards require a dog to have erect ears. For the rest of us, there are no requirements about what dogs look like, and many consider this particular look a bonus in the cuteness department

Do you have a dog whose good looks are made even more endearing by asymmetrical ears?

News: Guest Posts
Dogs Chasing Laser Pointers
Oh, how I hate this habit!
dogs playing with laser pointers

Check out YouTube and you can find an alarming number of videos of dogs chasing the light from a laser pointer, often while people laugh in the background. The reason I use the word “alarming” is that laser pointer chasing can lead to serious behavioral issues. Watching people laugh at a situation that is often distressing to dogs is distressing to me.

Though it’s common for people to be amused by the behavior of a frantic dog pouncing on a moving dot of light, it’s not funny for dogs. Their experience in that situation is often seriously unpleasant and very tense. The movement of the light stimulates dogs to chase, but there is nothing to catch, and that is why the game is bad for dogs. The constant chasing without ever being successful at catching the moving object can frustrate dogs beyond anything they should have to tolerate.

Working dogs who are trained to find things like explosive or drugs become upset if they never have a “find”. These dogs need regular successes, but their work may not provide them. That’s why it is standard practice to set up simulated missions in which working dogs are guaranteed to discover what they have been taught to find. Successful searches keep their skills sharp and prevent psychological problems.

A lot of dogs become obsessive about the light from laser pointers, and there are many cases of dogs who were diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder after (and perhaps partly as a result of) this activity. Dogs become preoccupied with the light, then transfer that interest to similar stimuli, sometimes developing a behavior problem in which they chase lights and shadows. It may look fun and entertaining to people, but it’s usually anything but fun for dogs.

No matter how much dogs respond to them, I recommend against the use of laser pointers. It’s just too likely that the game will negatively affect the dog. If someone is unable to follow this advice, there is a way to minimize the risk of a dog developing behavioral problems and of experiencing psychological damage. The laser light can be used as a decoy that allows the dog to find treats or a new toy. Though the dog does not ever succeed at catching the light, there is the success of discovering other items. Using the light in this way lowers the risk of trouble slightly, but it does not eliminate the danger. I only recommend this as a last resort for clients who are unwilling to stop engaging their dog with the laser light.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Teach Your Dog to Feel at Home Anywhere
Have Blanket, Will Travel
Stella, a service dog in training, on her blanket during her first visit to the mall

Security blankets have great value—just ask Linus Van Pelt of Peanuts cartoon fame. His blanket gave him enough confidence to handle whatever life threw at him, especially out in the great big, wide world.

A blanket can help your dog handle adventures away from home, too. If your dog learns that a certain blanket is his, and often lies on it no matter where it is placed around the house, he will likely be more comfortable away from home if the blanket goes, too. It provides many of the advantages of bringing his crate with you wherever you go, but it is more portable. Blankets are lighter, easier to carry and can be taken lots of places that a crate can’t go.

If your dog is used to a particular blanket, it is so much easier to help him feel comfortable in a new place. You can bring it with you to friends’ houses, when you travel, to the park, to the vet, or anywhere else your dog goes. Just place it on the floor where you want your dog to lie down, and it will let your dog know that he has a spot to call his own. That helps your dog relax, and also indicates to him where you want him to go.

Blankets are commonly used in this way with service dogs. Service dogs are regularly asked to lie down and stay in a particular spot, both at home and when out and about. Blankets provide an easy way to show a service dog where you want him to lie down, whether it’s at a restaurant, in an airplane, in a meeting at work, at a conference, on a bus or at any social gathering.

Blanket Training Tips

The first step in training a dog to happily lie down and stay on a blanket no matter where you put it is to teach the dog to associate good things with the blanket. Put the blanket on the floor at home, put treats on it and encourage your dog to go get the treats. (Most dogs will need no encouragement.) Move the blanket around to new places in your house and repeat. Once your dog happily goes to the blanket, start asking him to sit and then to lie down on it, frequently moving it to new places in your home and giving lots of treats when he does what you want him to do.

The next step is to ask your dog to do some stays on the blanket, and reinforce that behavior with treats. Again, make sure to move the blanket around to various places so that your dog is learning to stay on the blanket rather than on one particular spot on the floor.

Once your dog is comfortable doing stays on the blanket at home and has learned that his blanket is the place to be, work on teaching him to do the same behavior when he is elsewhere. In a new place, start by tossing treats on the blanket, then ask for sits and downs, and finally stays. Some dogs transfer their knowledge of staying on the blanket easily to new places. Other dogs may seem to be starting over in the learning process when you are away from home.

Always help your dog to succeed by not asking him to do more than he is capable of doing. It may seem odd that your dog sees the blanket at home and immediately heads over to it, but becomes utterly confused about what you want him to do with the blanket at someone else’s house. Some dogs are nervous in a new environment, which affects their performance, and other dogs simply don’t understand that the task is the same even though it’s in a new place. It’s common for dogs to progress through the steps of the process faster in each new place than they did at home when they were first learning about the blanket, no matter how confused they seem the first time you take the blanket on the road.

Once a dogs has been to multiple places and happily goes to lie down and stay on his blanket, it’s typical to be able to put that blanket anywhere and have him feel comfortable. Most dogs who are used to lying down on a particular blanket will immediately feel quite relaxed on it no matter where you are and where on the floor you place it. That’s really the great value of a security blanket for dogs—being able to help your dog feel at home anywhere.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Skinny Dogs Elicit Comments
Visible ribs can lead to criticism
Skinny Dogs

Many dogs struggle with their weight, and we have all become accustomed to seeing dogs whose health is negatively affected by extra pounds. The standard of what is normal for dogs has become skewed toward dogs who would have seemed quite heavy a generation ago. Perhaps because overweight dogs are so very common, skinny dogs are not always favorably regarded. I am dog sitting for an exceptionally lean dog this week, and I’m fascinated by how many people comment on her size.

Saylor is around 22 inches tall at the shoulder and weighs about 45 pounds. She is some kind of mix of who-knows-how-many breeds, but I suspect she has some Whippet (or other sight hound) in her, and if she were bigger, I would swear she is part Great Dane. A naturally lean dog, Saylor eats a couple of cups of food a day, along with an assortment of treats. Even if she eats more on occasion, there is no weight gain. She is in perfect health, maintains her weight and her ribs show. That is apparently her natural state.

Nonetheless, I have been asked, “Do you feed her enough?” multiple times and been told on several occasions that she is too thin. For the record, her vet disagrees, and considers her to be just fine. It irritates me to have strangers give medical advice that I neither want nor have asked for. (Perhaps it grates on me more than it does other people, because I have regularly been asked these same questions about my naturally lean children over the years. I usually reply that I want them to join the American obesity epidemic, but they just haven’t been successful at it yet.) With Saylor, I just reply that her veterinarian thinks she is perfectly healthy at this weight.

If you have a healthy, lean, ribs-showing skinny dog, do you receive comments about it that you wish people wouldn’t offer?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
When Dogs Make You Late
Counting the ways dogs have made people late.
Sometimes Dogs Make You Late

Dogs add a lot to our lives, but they may take some of it back each morning when we are trying to get ready to go to work. Often, dogs make it even harder than it would otherwise be to get to work on time. There are oh-so-many ways that dogs regularly interfere with their guardian’s good intentions to be punctual. Do any of the following scenarios seem familiar to you?

He messed with your sleep by hogging the bed and the covers or by bumping into you as he was dreaming. You end up oversleeping.

You take him out for his walk and he just won’t poop, causing you to make the walk longer than your schedule can accommodate.

He won’t take his medication, and you absolutely have to get it in him before your leave.

You have trouble getting your dog into the crate. The resistance means that this is more time consuming than you had figured it would be. (Corollary—the dog is hiding to avoid being put in the crate.)

Your walk with your dog was so enjoyable that you took too much extra time. You enjoyed the early morning peacefulness, but now you’re going to have to rush to stay on schedule.

Your dog is in the yard but instead of coming in when you call, he starts a not-so-fun game of catch-me-if-you-can. By the time he decided to come in, it’s too late for you to make it to work on time.

You had to clean up a huge mess that he made. The two most likely messes are a potty accident or the vestiges of a trash party. Few of us ever add in a safety factor to our morning routine to account for these kinds of events.

Your dog was on the receiving end of a skunk’s spraying, and in order to save your house, you have to clean him up before you can leave him there. (Also, he will likely be a lot happier when he has been de-skunked.)

Along the same lines, he found a way to collect every burr on the property in his fur, and you have to remove them before leaving the house for his comfort and safety as well as to prevent a huge mess in your house.

You just don’t want to leave him for the day, and who can blame you? You prolong the inevitable to spend a bit more time together, and then you end up being late for work.

No matter how much we love our dogs, it can be frustrating when they make it extra challenging to get to work on time. How has your dog made you late for work?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Walk Encounters: Give My Dog Space!
When people don’t recognize evasive actions.
Watch our for ignorant pet owners

Out on a walk today with a sweet dog who is a bit fearful, I saw a man with two rambunctious, though also sweet, dogs headed our way. Knowing that the dog with me would be stressed by (and possibly react to) those dogs, I crossed the street. No big deal. Crossing the street while walking dogs to avoid any number of possible triggers—runners, bikers, skateboarders, scary lawn art, plastic window coverings flapping in the wind, children riding in red wagons, other dogs—is second nature to me after two decades of working with dogs with behavioral issues. Most people with dogs realize what I am doing, we pass by one another in peace, and that’s the end of it.

Today, we did not pass by one another in peace, and that was not the end of it. The man crossed the street, as I had, so we were now on the same side. That’s happened before, because occasionally when I am trying to get out of someone’s path, I end up going right where that person was headed. So, I did the obvious thing and crossed back over the side where I had come from, but then he did that, too. At this point, I didn’t know whether to feel annoyed (Is he so unaware that he doesn’t realize I’m trying to avoid his dogs?) or scared (I clearly want to get away, so why doesn’t he want me to get away?)

Here’s how our conversation went, starting with me.

“My dog won’t act well if our dogs greet. I’m trying to give her some space.”

“Oh, don’t worry! My dogs are friendly and love every dog!”

“I’m not worried about your dog. I’m concerned about mine, She’s shy!”

“Oh, they’ll be find! She probably just needs to socialize.”

“No, she needs more distance. I’m going to keep moving away. Please stop following me.”

And then we ran.

Thankfully, the guy with the dogs did not follow us, and we were happy to run for several blocks until he was no longer in sight.

The entire exchange was irritating. I’m trying to increase the distance between the dog with me and other dogs, and I even said so in very direct terms. Why must people insist on trying to close the space? I realize that some people have had the luxury of never knowing a dog who needs some space or tends to react to many aspects of the world, but that is no excuse for ignoring a clear request. I could not have stated my intentions or the needs of the dog any more plainly.

Have you had an issue with someone who refused to give you and your dog the space you wanted and needed?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Can Anybody Care for Your Dog Like You Do?
The challenges of leaving your dog with someone else
Dog Sitters -- Caring for Dogs

It’s hard for almost everybody to leave a dog behind for travel, whether it is business related or purely recreational. We miss our dogs when we go, even if we are headed off on a grand adventure. Beyond the emotional strain of taking off while our best friend stays behind, there are many roadblocks to feeling comfortable about it. No matter how caring the person is who is taking care of your dog, there is often at least one concern about what the people will (or won’t) do.

Here are some common sources of uneasiness.

They will let dogs develop bad habits. It’s common to worry that other people will let them develop bad habits. Perhaps you do not tolerate begging, but you know that the people watching your dog will offer him a tidbit or two from the dinner table. Even though this will not likely cause immediate harm to your dog, you know that you will have to work extra hard to teach your dog that begging is still not going to work in your house, even if the dog sitter gave in to it. The same goes for allowing your dog up on the furniture. It’s a hassle if other people allow your dog to sleep on the bed or rest on the couch and then they try to do this when you are home. Even if your dogs have been forbidden to get on the furniture for years, a few days with a dog sitter can undo a lot of your efforts. (Confession: I have done this as the dog sitter—let a dog up on the furniture at my house when he isn’t allowed to do it at home. What can I say? I was weak and gave in to temptation. I fessed up to the guardian, who was a sport about it.)

They won’t be giving enough. Will they give my dog enough love? Will they give my dog enough exercise? Will they give my dog enough attention? It’s hard for many people to imagine that another person can do enough for their dog. It’s hard to leave your dog for any reason, but especially so if you have doubts that someone else will care enough about them to make sure that they are happy, whether that means lots of time playing fetch, having a variety of things to chew on or going outside enough to let them burn off some energy.

They won’t manage potential mischief by removing temptation. A lot of people are completely used to making sure the trash can is covered, out of sight, or otherwise dog-proofed. Likewise, it becomes second nature for many guardians to keep the counters clear of food. If the people watching a dog are not accustomed to these basic habits, there is risk of both trash parties and counter surfing incidents. It’s especially important to make sure that the dog can’t get access to things that are certainly dangerous such as medicines or household cleaning products. Many people are used to managing these situations, but know that their friends who take care of the dog are not.

They won’t be cautious enough about bolting out the door. Perhaps the most serious concern for many guardians when others people watch their dogs is making sure that the dog does not run out the door. This is an extremely important issue because a dog who gets out is a dog who may be in danger. The scariest risk in many areas is that the dog will get hit by a car, but lost dogs or dogs who are taken in as a pet by someone else are often dogs who escaped a house. Many guardians are used to minding the door to keep a dog who likes to make a break for it safely inside. However, sometimes dog sitters are not as vigilant about it, especially if they are not used to dogs who try to sneak out the door.

What’s your biggest worry when other people take care of your dog?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Genetics of Canine Personality Traits
A new approach allows further study

The influence of genes on personality and behavior is of great interest to people who love dogs as well as to scientists studying the genetics of animal behavior. Since dogs’ personalities play a major role in their ability to function as our companions as well as to carry out a variety of tasks as working dogs, it’s important to understand the contribution of genetics on behavior. It is well established that genetics plays a large role, as evidenced by behavioral differences between breeds. Even substantial differences in behavior within breeds can be accounted for by genetic variation.

One of the challenges to studying behavioral genetics is that large sample sizes are required because there are so many factors that influence behavior (e.g. early environment, training methods, various lifestyle factors). To achieve adequately large sample sizes in research is both expensive and time consuming, sometimes prohibitively so. A recent study called “Genetic Characterization of Dog Personality Traits” took a creative approach to meet this challenge.

The scientists were interested in genetic contributions to personality, defined as “individual consistency in behavioral responsiveness to stimuli and situations”. Researchers took advantage of the substantial knowledge people have about their own dogs’ personalities to explore genetic contributions to personality traits. Their work shows that it is possible to detect genetic variation in dog personality traits by using questionnaires to collect large quantities of useful data.

In this recent study, researchers used the C-BARQ (Canine Behavioral Assessment Research and Questionnaire) as well as a separate questionnaire about demographics to study 1975 UK Kennel Club-registered Labrador Retrievers. The C-BARQ allowed each dog to be scored for the following personality traits—Agitated When Ignored, Attention-Seeking, Barking Tendency, Excitability, Fetching, Fear of Humans and Objects, Fear of Noises, Non-Owner Directed Aggression, Owner-Directed Aggression, Separation Anxiety, Trainability and Unusual Behavior.

The additional questionnaire collected data about the dog’s age, coat color, sex, neuter status, housing, health status, exercise, daily exercise and the role of the dog. (The various roles were gun dog, show dog and pet dog.) To gather genetic information, the study took advantage of the dogs’ pedigrees, which involved 29 generations and 28,943 dogs. Further genetic data on the dogs were obtained as part of a different study using standard genomic methods and genetic markers, with 885 dogs from that study also participating in the C-BARQ portion of the research. In the analysis, the researchers estimated heritability of personality traits based on both the pedigree and on the genomic data.

The researchers found that fetching has a higher heritability rating than any other personality trait. Interestingly, some previous studies have lumped trainability with fetching ability, which results in lower heritability scores for both of them. This study also revealed a considerable genetic component to the fear of noises. Aggression directed towards owners showed no genetic component at all, while aggression towards strangers had a moderate genetic component.

Many behavioral traits are polygenic (influenced by a large number of genes, with each one often having a small effect) and also have significant environmental influences, which means that it is difficult to determine genomic associations. Estimates of heritability are likely to increase with technological advances in genetic work.

The importance of this study is that it shows that genetic variance can be detected and studied with the use of questionnaires filled out by owners. It also reveals that grouping responses into behavioral factors may make it harder to detect the genetic influence on various traits.

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