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: Studies & Research
A study investigating this question is problematic
October 13 2016
Dogs are inclined to follow our lead in many ways, but they don’t go overboard if it does not serve their interests, say the authors of a new study. If people give dogs bad advice, they figure out that it is worth ignoring, according to a new study in the journal Developmental Science. Let’s look into how they arrived at this claim, which I don’t think is supported by the data.
The researchers were investigating whether dogs (and dingoes) would imitate the way people showed them how to get food out of a puzzle box even when there was an easier way to do it. Only one step was required to reach the food, and that was lifting the lid to a box. As part of the experiment, humans added an extra, unnecessary action to the process by pulling a lever that did nothing, and then lifting the lid of the box.
Both the dogs and the dingoes quickly learned to skip the step with the useless lever and just open the box to get to the treat inside. In other words, it looked like they ignored the useless instructions from the humans. This behavior differs from human children, who tend to perform all the steps they have been shown even when some of them are unnecessary. That behavior is called “overimitation” and the uncritical copying of the behavior they observe may allow kids to minimize the amount of trial-and-error learning they must do.
The dogs and the dingoes observed humans opening the box, and were then repeatedly given the opportunity to open the puzzle box. Over time, as they gained experience with it, they were less likely to use the lever. The experimenters consider this evidence that both species learned that pulling the lever was an unnecessary step for opening the box, even though they saw humans doing it. I agree that the data support the idea that they learned that the lever is irrelevant. I just don’t think that observing the humans pull the lever made any difference, and that’s because this study does not find any evidence that dogs imitated the humans at all.
In addition to the experiment in which subjects observed humans pulling the irrelevant lever, there were also a series of trials (with a different set of dogs and dingoes) in which they were presented with the puzzle box without any opportunity to observe a human opening it. In that experiment, the dogs and dingoes were solving the puzzle without having seen anyone else open it, so they were doing it completely on their own. The authors write that, “dogs were equally likely to use the irrelevant lever, regardless of whether they witnessed a demonstration (in Experiment 1) or not (in Experiment 2).
They point out that there was no evidence that dogs were more likely to copy the humans’ actions than the dingoes were, but what’s just as important is that there was no evidence that the dogs were copying humans at all. Therefore, I don’t think that their conclusions about dogs and overimitation hold water. They would first need to show that dogs copy any human behavior, which they do not do, in order to then test whether dogs copy irrelevant human behavior.
There was one interesting conclusion from this study, though it has nothing to do with imitation, social learning, or human influence on dogs’ actions. Evidence from this study, as well as previous research, indicate that dingoes solve problems more quickly and with greater success than dogs. In Experiment 3 in this research paper, a different puzzle box was used. Pulling the lever was an essential step in opening this particular puzzle box. In this experiment, both dogs and dingoes did pull the lever in order to access the treat inside. When compared to the rates of pulling the lever when it was pointless, dingoes showed a greater change in their behavior. That is, they were more likely than dogs to pull the lever only when it was relevant, unlike dogs, who pulled it quite often even when it was not an essential part of the box-opening task.
Questions about the possibility of overimitation in dogs are extremely interesting, and I want very much to know more about this behavior, which I don’t think was adequately addressed by this study.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog resource guarding is a common— and fixable—behavior.
October 13 2016
Does your dog growl and show his teeth if you come near him while he’s chewing on a bone? Does he stiffen if you try to take a toy from him? If you walk near him while he’s eating, does he eat faster? Would you be nervous if a child approached while he had a rawhide? If you can answer no to all of these questions, take a moment to appreciate your good fortune: you have what most dog people want. If you answered any in the affirmative, your dog is exhibiting behavior that canine professionals call “resource guarding.”
Resource guarding refers to any behavior that a dog displays to convince others to stay away from something he considers valuable. Among these behaviors are the growling, tooth displaying, stiffening and frantic eating already mentioned. To that list, add glaring, snapping, barking, leaning over the resource to shield it and biting. Dogs commonly guard food, toys, treats, bones, rawhide, beds and even another dog or a person.
In most cases, resource guarding is subtle. A dog with a pig’s ear, for example, may turn his body to shield his precious treasure from anyone approaching, or he may pick it up and carry it to another room. He might put his paw on it or even give you a look that means something along the lines of “Don’t even think about it,” or “Please don’t take it away. I want it.” Few people are troubled by such mild forms of resource guarding.
Even though resource guarding can become far more serious, it’s one of my favorite behavioral problems, for several reasons. One, there are ways to prevent it in most dogs. Two, behavior-modification plans are easy to implement, clients usually buy into them and they are effective at improving the dog’s behavior. Three, many people choose to simply live with it, managing it as best they can. That may not sound very inspiring, but I consider any solution that keeps a dog at home and people safe while allowing a loving relationship between the two to flourish and grow to be a success.
Prevent Resource Guarding
Dogs are often nervous about losing what they value. With that in mind, a key aspect of preventing resource guarding, including its most common form—food bowl aggression—is to teach dogs to be happy when someone approaches or reaches for their treasure, or for the bowl while they’re eating. Dogs who are happy in a particular context are a whole lot less likely to act aggressively.
Creating this positive emotional reaction is simple: teach the dog to associate the approach of a person with treats. I advise people to walk toward their dog and toss a really good treat into the bowl or near their treasure. Once the dog is used to this, the next step is to walk over, pick up the bowl or the treasure, deliver a treat (in the bowl is fine) and then return the bowl or the treasure. It’s important to do this quickly—within a few seconds at most—so the dog doesn’t feel like he’s being teased.
I suggest doing this only once or twice per session; even though the dog receives a treat, the interruption can still be irritating. (I imagine dogs in that situation feel like I do when a restaurant server refills my water glass every time I take a sip: mildly harassed.)
Many people have been advised to put their hand in the dog’s food bowl, or to pick up the bowl and hold it. Unfortunately, this strategy is far more likely to lead to food-bowl aggression than to prevent it. Such actions are irksome, so it’s no surprise that many dogs will lose their temper eventually. While some dogs will never become resourceguarders, even when provoked, others can be taught to be aggressive around their food. Some of the worst resourceguarders I’ve ever seen were taught to be that way by their well-intentioned guardians.
People accidentally teach dogs to guard their resources in other ways as well. If a dog has a bone (or food or a shoe or the remote control) and it is taken from him, he learns that he loses treasures unless he takes action. To avoid that, instead of taking something from a dog, trade him for it. Hold a treat or other desirable object right by his nose, and if he drops the contraband, give him the offered item. This teaches him that he gets paid for letting go of things rather than that he will be mugged whenever he has something valuable.
It’s very important to help dogs feel happy about releasing items and to actively avoid making it a negative experience. Trading is far better than a battle, and is very effective, especially if he’s “trading up”—getting something better than what he surrenders.
Another strategy is to have the dog drop the object, give him a treat and then give him back the item. This helps him learn that it’s worthwhile to release things. I like to teach the cue “drop it” so that if a dog gets something he shouldn’t have, I can ask him to release it before he damages it, or damages himself.
Modify Resource Guarding Behavior
Giving extra treats when a dog has something of value is a useful technique for prevention of resource guarding, but it can also be used to stop an existing behavior. (If the dog has previously bitten or threatened anyone, I advise having a behaviorist supervise this interaction.)
Start by standing outside the dog’s reaction zone and tossing high-quality treats to him. The goal is to make him happy that a person is present when he has a treasure. This change in his emotional response is what will lead to a change in his behavior. The closer you get, the more intense the situation becomes. Intensity also goes up if the dog has a more highly valued item, or if you approach, reach for or pick up the resource.
Work at each level of intensity until the dog is comfortable, and only then progress to something harder. The highest-intensity context is to approach a dog and take something that he values highly. Success can only be achieved by gradually working toward that goal and requires many steps and many repetitions over a period of weeks and months.
Live with It
Despite the challenges of sharing a home with a dog who guards resources, it’s common for people to choose to live with it. People who have a dog with this predilection know when to expect the behavior, and they simply avoid going near their dog when he has a valued item. This predictability may account for the lack of concern many have about resource guarding. Of course, predictability varies depending on the household. A single person who rarely entertains is in a very different situation than a family with five small kids who have additional children over to play nearly every day.
Years ago, the standard view was that a dog shouldn’t be approached at mealtimes or when he was chewing a bone or playing with a favorite toy, and there’s a lot of good sense in that. If people don’t bother their dogs while they are eating, and they purposely avoid going near them when they have a bone or other treasure, trouble can be averted.
Life with a dog who allows absolutely anyone to take absolutely anything away from him is pretty easy, but that’s really a lot to ask of even the dearest, sweetest dog on the planet. There are, of course, dogs who are as unlikely to guard resources as they are to calculate Schrödinger’s wave equation. But we shouldn’t assume that dogs who are lovely but perhaps not so nonchalant about being mugged are bad.
With dogs who are at risk of causing injury, it’s obviously critical to have some way to make sure that everyone is safe. People can deal with this problem by preventing situations that trigger problem behavior (particularly aggression) and with behavior modification that alters how the dog behaves when he has something of value. How important it is to train dogs not to resource guard is an individual decision; many people are highly committed to changing their dog’s resource guarding behavior, while others, not so much.
Resource guarding is both common and absolutely normal canine behavior. I’m not excusing it or saying that it’s not a problem, but like barking and chewing, it is accepted by many people as part of living with a dog—although clearly, it’s nobody’s favorite part. As is true of other undesirable behavior, though it can be changed and improved with behavior modification, tons of people choose to accept it, figuring that life is too short to demand perfection of their best friends in all contexts.
News: Guest Posts
When people try to be helpful but aren’t
October 8 2016
Advice is wonderful (really it is!) but only when you want it and are ready for it. It’s certainly nothing close to wonderful when people are condescendingly presenting it to you like a gracious gift with the attitude that they are brilliant and you are ignorant. Dogs are well loved by so many people who are knowledgeable about them, which is a good thing. However, what is NOT a good thing is when that leads to unsolicited advice with the assumption that the receiver knows nothing about dogs.
Over the years, a great many people who don’t even know me have volunteered their opinion on what I should or shouldn’t do regarding the dog I am holding, walking, training or playing with. I’m not sure why it’s so common to feel confident that after observing a dog for 30 seconds, they have all the answers, but that’s often the case. I have been told I needed to be tougher with the dog and show him who’s boss more times than I can count. People have informed me that the breed of the dog I am with is dangerous or vicious. Some unsolicited advice has involved letting me know that the dog will never be properly trained if I use treats to teach him what to do.
Here are some other examples of unsolicited dog advice that has come my way:
I generally respond with a cheerful, “That’s certainly something to think about.” It usually gets the person to leave me alone and it is completely non-committal. Best of all, it leaves me free to think that the advice was unwelcome, unhelpful and wrong without having been dishonest. I know other trainers and behaviorists who refuse to respond to a person giving unsolicited advice or actually say, “Shut up!” but neither of those suit my style.
What unsolicited advice about your dog could you just as well have done without and how did you respond?
Wellness: Health Care
Does yours exclude normal dog behavior?
October 4 2016
Pet insurance, like most forms of insurance, definitely qualifies as a “Buyer Beware” purchase. Jamie Richardson found that out the hard way when her seven-year old dog Muddy tore a ligament in his leg and her insurance company Petsecure refused to cover his veterinary care. One reason for denying the claim was that Muddy was running when he hurt himself. Specifically, he was happily running through the woods, which can also be described as “being a dog”.
Unfortunately for Richardson, “being a dog” is essentially excluded in her accident policy. The fine print states that any injury sustained while the dog is “jumping, running, slipping, tripping or playing” is not covered. Additionally, any accident that the guardian does not witness is not covered. In Muddy’s case, even if he had torn his ligament in full view of Richardson while he was, say, eating his dinner, none of the $4,200 in veterinary costs would have been reimbursed by the insurance company due to a “pre-existing condition” clause that relates to arthritis or degenerative joint issues.
Though X-rays at the time of surgery showed no signs of arthritis, the fact that the presence of bone spurs had been noted in Muddy’s medical records allows the insurance company to deny the claim. That’s true even though the surgeon said that the accident was not caused by arthritis and the veterinarian pointed out that those bones spurs are normal for seven-year old dogs, and minor to boot. Two vets saying no pre-existing conditions are present does not prevent the insurance company from denying the claim based on the “pre-existing condition” clause.
Richardson has cancelled her policy, since it did her no good at all. She borrowed money to pay her bills, and is now saving a little each month just in case Muddy has another accident or an illness that requires expensive veterinary care. She continues to let him be a dog, though, and he still runs through the woods near her home in Yukon.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Dogs who play fetch solo
October 1 2016
The world is filled with dogs who love playing fetch more than life itself, but most of them only get to play when a person is also on board. Sadly, there aren’t many people who want to play fetch every waking minute, as some dogs would prefer. For a few clever dogs, that doesn’t matter because they have figured out how to play fetch all by themselves.
Do you have a dog who plays fetch alone? If so, did you teach your dog to do that or was it something he figured out on his own?
News: Guest Posts
Can you do it with a simple phrase?
September 29 2016
Sometimes, people tell me who their dogs are with such concise and clever accuracy that their explanations stay with me forever. Describing complex individuals of any species takes insight and skill, but to capture the essence of someone with just one phrase is particularly challenging. Most of the time, the phrases people use are positive, but a few may seem derogatory. Let me assure that even the ones that aren’t obviously complimentary were expressed with such love that I know the guardians meant them in the nicest possible way. Perhaps you’ve had or met a dog who matches one my favorite explanations of who a dog truly is.
How would you describe the essence of your dog’s personality in a single phrase?
News: Guest Posts
Woman wisely rejects man who reveals his true colors
September 23 2016
Karishma Walia, a woman in New Delhi, has rejected a marriage proposal from a man her mother thought would be a good match because of his finances and his looks. However, the man objected to the fact that she has a dog, and conversations about this issue allowed her to see that he was not the man for her. The man seemed to be surprised by her rejection. He assumed that they could work something out even though he didn’t want a dog, and told Karishma that his mother doesn’t like dogs, either.
It is certainly possible for many couples to overcome serious differences. Even if only one person is a dog lover, substantial compromise on both sides can allow a relationship to flourish. What’s just as alarming in this exchange as the man’s contempt for the dog is the disdainful way he treated Karishma. He belittled her love of dogs, assumed that she would change in order to have the privilege of marrying him, and then became angry and insulting to her, suggesting that she marry the dog.
After she rejected his proposal, he said that while he didn’t used to dislike dogs, he does now. He went on to say that he was still not able to digest the fact that her dog is the top priority in her life and that it’s good to have pets but when they get in the way of your life, it’s good not to have them. Not everyone is a dog person and that’s fine, but contempt for animals and a failure to understand that they matter to others are evidence of a serious character flaw. The way people regard and treat animals can be a warning sign of unacceptable behavior towards people.
This man’s tone throughout was rude and condescending. He clearly expected to have his way, and was quite put out when that did not happen. I pity the woman who does eventually marry this man, with his controlling attitude and lack of respect or manners. Karishma did more than avoid a marriage with someone incompatible. She likely escaped a man who would have disrespected her and made her unhappy even if his attitude towards the dog had not been the deal breaker for her.
Karishma’s dog was an asset in helping her see that marrying this man would be a mistake. It’s easy to admire this woman and her priorities. She has plenty of self-respect, and clearly loves her dog.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The role of age in learning, memory and logical thinking
September 21 2016
Old dogs CAN learn new tricks, but the way that they learn may be different than when they were younger. So concludes a recent study called “Aging effects on discrimination learning, logical reasoning and memory in pet dogs”. The study was conducted on 95 pet Border Collies who ranged in age from 5 months to over 13 years old. Researchers purposely chose dogs of the same breed in order to minimize any differences in performance that were unrelated to age.
Starting out with a spoiler, older dogs did worse than younger dogs on one of the tests, they did better on a second test, and there was no effect of age in the third test.
For the first test, dogs were trained to associate four images on a touch screen with a positive experience—receiving a treat. So, if the dogs touched these images on the screen, they received a treat. Another four images were associated with a time out, meaning that touching any one of them resulted in no opportunities to touch images for a brief period of time. After being taught these associations, dogs were tested with a pair of images that always included one randomly selected “treat” image and one randomly selected “time out” image. Sessions consisted of 30 tests with a pair of images. Dogs were considered to have mastered this task when they chose the right image 20 out of 30 times for four out of five sessions in a row. There was a linear relationship between age and the number of sessions it took dogs to learn this task, meaning that younger dogs learned it faster than older dogs.
In the second test, dogs were again shown a pair of images on the touchscreen, but only one of those images was one that the dog had seen before. In each case, the familiar image was one that the dog had learned had a negative association because it led to a time out if touched. The dogs could therefore make an inference that the unfamiliar image was the correct choice and would lead to a treat if touched. (These trials were interspersed in sessions that included pairs of images just as in the first test in which both images were familiar to the dogs.) In this experiment, the older dogs were, the more likely they were to choose the correct image, meaning that older dogs were better at solving this puzzle than younger dogs.
The final test in this experiment looked at long-term memory. Dogs were tested at least 6 months after the other parts of the study were completed to determine how well they retained what they had learned. When presented with pairs of images just as they had been in test one, over 90 percent of the dogs performed better than chance level (at least 22 correct out of 32) and there was no effect of age on the success rate.
This study shows that there are differences in cognitive abilities between older and younger dogs, but not that dogs of certain ages have better abilities than dogs of other ages. The way that age affects performance depends on the specific task dogs are asked to do.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Helping Fido slow down at mealtimes.
September 17 2016
Some dogs eat so fast that a reasonable person would bet good money that they either think their speediness will make a steak appear or they believe that all of their kibble will self-destruct in 60 seconds. Many dogs do this throughout their lives without a serious problem, but they are flirting with disaster.
Eating so quickly doesn’t allow them to chew or even really taste their food. More worrisome is that speed eating can cause choking, gagging, vomiting and an even more serious condition called Gastric Dilation (colloquially known as canine bloat). Canine bloat can result from eating too much or too fast. The stomach expands because gasses build up to the point that it can twist within the dog’s abdomen, preventing the gasses from leaving the stomach. The result is that circulation can be cut off to that organ as well as to others including the heart. Dogs can die within hours of the onset of bloat, so it is a serious condition that requires immediate emergency medical attention if you even suspect it is a possibility. So, eating fast is more than unsightly—it’s potentially dangerous.
I am regularly asked how to train a dog to eat more slowly, and my answer is that it’s easier to make it physically impossible for them to eat that fast than it is to train them to eat slowly. There are a lot of ways to do this, but they all use the same principle, which is to set up a system that doesn’t allow them to eat more than a little bit of food at a time.
Pictured: Slow Feed Dog Bowl
You can place one small bowl upside down inside a big bowl and then pour the food over the small bowl and into the bigger one. That creates a narrow “moat” of food and the dog can’t gulp the entire meal down. He has to work his way around the entire circle of food. Another option is to place toys that are too big to swallow (and that are clean!) in a food bowl so the dog has to move them out of the way or work around them to reach the food. It’s also common for people whose dogs tend to eat a bowl of food in a matter of seconds to scatter the food over a broad area so the dog has to move around for each piece of food. This works very well in houses with a single dog. If more than one dog is around, this option is a poor choice because it promotes competition, stress and can lead to aggression over the food.
Pictured: Wisspet Happy Hunting Bowl
My favorite way to keep dogs from scarfing down their food too quickly is to buy and use a food bowl or food puzzle that is specific to this purpose. I am comfortable with any slow feeder that is easy to clean and sturdy, and there are many options out there. Food puzzles are often loud, but many dogs will work for a long time to roll or push a Buster Cube or a Kong Wobbler around to get the food to fall out. Not only does this slow down their eating, it also provides mental exercise and gives dogs valuable experience being persistent and handling a bit of frustration.
If your dog is a speed eater, have you found a way to slow down mealtimes?
News: Guest Posts
They top her list of family members
September 13 2016
I want to be with family, “Annie, Max, and you know, the rest of our family . . . “ So said Rita, my 84-year old neighbor and very dear friend, a few days before passing away a few weeks ago. All of us who understood Rita were entertained by the order in which she named her most precious loved ones. Annie is her dog and Max is her daughter and son-in-law’s dog.
Since so many human members of Rita’s family are dog lovers, they took no offense at how important the dogs were to her. The feeling was mutual, too. During her final days in hospice care at her daughter and son-in-law’s house, Annie and Max watched over her. They only left her bed for bathroom breaks and meals. Both dogs snuggled with her and slept next to her, offering the comfort of their company in her final days.
It’s impossible to say, of course, whether or not the dogs knew that she was dying. We can only speculate, and it’s certainly a possibility. What is clear is that they loved her and wanted to be with her. It’s also obvious that these dogs were giving her an immeasurable gift of love, and that their loving attention to Rita gave the rest of her family a sense of peace, too. The contentment she experienced because of the constant company of dogs as she declined and died was a blessing to them, too.
Have you observed dogs unwilling to leave the death bed of a loved one?
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