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: Studies & Research
June 2 2017
“Calming signals” is a term coined by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas to group a large number of behavior patterns that she says dogs use to avoid conflict, to prevent aggression, to calm other dogs down and to communicate information to other dogs and to people. Since the publication of Rugaas’ 2006 book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, it has been a popular idea that actions such as lip-licking, sniffing the ground, yawning, scratching, looking away, play bowing, sitting down, lying down, softening the eyes, blinking and even sneezing (along with many others) are social signals that help calm down those around them.
Rugaas’ observations are compelling, and many dog trainers and behaviorists, including me, have learned a lot from her work. However, the term “calming signals” entered the lexicon without much analysis, which is problematic. Using a term that ascribes functionality to behavior patterns prior to scientifically testing whether or not that’s true creates challenges, and is a big no-no in ethology. One problem is that claiming that certain behaviors are “calming signals” creates a bias such that people tend to accept that this is, in fact, what they do. The idea that these signals are functioning in this way is an intriguing hypothesis. However, in the years since Rugaas shared her ideas with the dog community, there have yet to be adequate tests of their function, or substantial efforts to determine if the various behaviors have different functions. Rather, the idea that they were calming signals was broadly accepted without being subject to rigorous scientific study.
There is, however, a recent pilot study investigating the function of the behavior patterns that have all been placed into the category of calming signals. The purpose of the study “Analysis of the intraspecific visual communication in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris): A pilot study on the case of calming signals” was to assess if the behaviors that have been called calming signals are used to communicate, and if they de-escalate potentially aggressive situations between dogs. In the study, 24 dogs were observed interacting two at a time. Dogs interacted with familiar and unfamiliar dogs of both sexes.
Throughout the course of the study, 2130 calming signals were observed, with the most common being head turning, nose licking, freezing and turning away. Dogs were more likely to display calming signals when they were interacting with the other dog compared with when they were not interacting, which does suggest a communicative role. It does not prove it, though, as it is possible that these behaviors indicate stress and that they are performed during social interactions more often than they are performed outside of that context because such interactions are stressful. In fact, most of the signals that Rugaas has called “calming signals” are also considered indicators of stress.
More calming signals were displayed when dogs were interacting closely (within 1.5 body lengths of the dog displaying) than when interacting at a greater distance. Overall, more calming signals were exhibited during interactions with unfamiliar dogs than with familiar dogs, but licking the other dog’s mouth was more frequently observed when the other dog was familiar.
During the interactions in the study, there were 109 instances of aggressive behavior. A calming signal never came right before the aggressive behavior, but 67% of the time, at least one calming signal followed the aggressive behavior. In over 79% of the instances in which a calming signal followed the start of the aggression, there was a de-escalation in the aggressive behavior. These data are consistent with the idea that these behaviors function to calm other dogs down and lessen their aggression, but the work is too preliminary to conclude this for certain. More research is needed to explore other possibilities, such as the role of stress in these behaviors and their effects, and the potentially different functions of each of the dozens of behaviors that have been lumped under the term “calming signals”.
This is a pilot (or preliminary) study, and though the results are intriguing, they are in no way a definitive test of the function of “calming signals” in dogs, which the authors correctly point out in their paper. Though this research makes an attempt to test the often-accepted hypothesis that many behavior patterns function as calming signals that de-escalate aggression, its biggest flaw is that it lacks a very important control. De-escalation of aggression is quite common, and in this study, the authors report the frequency of de-escalation after a calming signal, but do not report on the rate of de-escalation in the absence of a calming signal. Part of the problem is that with so many possible calming signals, it is quite likely that one will be exhibited as a response to aggression. (Dogs are unlikely to have no reaction to such behavior.)
To evaluate the function of the behaviors, it is necessary to know the frequency with which the aggression de-escalates in the absence of any calming signals. We know that there was often de-escalation in the absence of calming signals because the authors report that in quite a few cases, the dog on the receiving end of the aggression walked or ran away, increasing the distance between the two dogs, which was often associated with a de-escalation in aggression. Fleeing is not considered a calming signal, and yet when the distance increased between the two dogs, there was also usually a de-escalation of the aggression. Future research should explore the differences in behavior in cases in which there was de-escalation and in which there was not.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Enhancing the neighborhood one house at a time
May 30 2017
I love my neighborhood because it is unpretentious, the wide streets have sidewalks and it’s full of dog lovers. Besides the large number of dogs out on walks, the most obvious sign of that is the popularity of dog-themed welcome mats. My favorite is the one that says, “We’re so excited to see you we don’t know whether to pee on the floor or tear up the couch,” though the classic “Wipe Your Paws” is a close second.
My next door neighbors recently purchased the fashionable, “Ask not for whom the dog barks, it barks for thee.” Around the corner I just saw a doormat that reads, “Please remove your shoes. The dog needs something to chew on.” I got a chuckle when I visited a neighbor who was just putting out a new mat that reflects the state of things in her house: “Our dog flunked out of obedience school. He’s back, living here at home.” I laughed a little harder when she told me that she almost bought the one that said, “Ring the doorbell and let me sing you the song of my people. –The Dog”.
We’ve come a long way since the only dog-related expression one saw outside of someone’s door was “Beware of Dog”. Today, you are far more likely to see a welcome mat that says, “We like big mutts and we cannot lie” or “It’s all fun and games until someone ends up in a cone.” It’s quite common to welcome people into a house with a mat that says, “Welcome Diversity” and features a graphic with dogs of different shapes and sizes. Another option I’ve seen multiple times is the one that lets people know the inhabitants value “Peace, Love & Muddy Paws”.
Does your welcome mat pay homage to the canine members of your family?
News: Guest Posts
People on live TV forced to roll with it
May 27 2017
Dogs occasionally end up on the air during live newscasts and the people on screen have to make the best of it. In this Russian broadcast, it does not appear as though the anchorwoman is too thrilled. She sounds alarmed but tries to make the best of it, even petting the dog. However, she looks startled when he jumps up on the news desk and messes with her notes. According to the description of the video, she says, “This is why I like cats.”
The weatherman in the next video acts more like a dog lover, responding in a generally relaxed and dog savvy way to sharing the screen with a canine. This man easily throws the toy with both his left hand and his right, and knows that the fake throw is a good move when the dog fails to see the actual toss. He adjusts well to simultaneously playing fetch with the dog who joined him and continuing with the weather forecast, even making a joke about men not usually being able to multi-task.
In this last video, the weatherman purposely had the dog on air with him, but he definitely should have heeded the common advice to avoid screen time with children or dogs. The risk of them stealing the scene is ever-present! In this case, the dog was a visitor from a local humane society, and a high energy, mouthy adolescent more skilled at play than basic manners. In the first 30 seconds of the clip, the dog chewed through his leash, leapt up on the man four times, and engaged in a vigorous game of tug with what was left of the leash. This poor man was completely distracted, and looked a bit foolish as the dog got the better of him. To be fair, he didn’t let it get him down. He was laughing—apparently enjoying the dog and his antics.
There’s a certain spirit of adventure when it comes to live TV, and these dogs are proof that you never know what is going to happen!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
People are able to interpret these vocalizations
May 23 2017
Research in recent years has shown that our brains can process the emotional content of vocalizations based on acoustic structure, and that various mammalian species share the same brain structures used for such interpretation. That means that we ought to be able to interpret the emotional nature of vocalizations from other species much like we understand those of other people.
Multiple studies of communication across species have found that animals can understand the emotional nature of vocalizations made by members of other species. In a number of studies, experience with the other species enhanced the ability to understand calls from that species.
Cross-species communication is particularly interesting between humans and dogs because of the long history we have of associating with one another, leading to the possibility that we have influenced each other’s vocalizations. In order to investigate people’s ability to understand canine growls, researchers conducted a study in which people listened to recordings of dogs growling and were then asked questions about the emotional state of the dogs.
In the study, “Dog growls express various contextual and affective content for human listeners”, 40 people heard recordings of growling dogs. All of the growls were recording in one of three contexts: guarding food from another dog, playing tug with a person and being approached by a stranger. In the first part of the experiment, the people were asked to rate each growl on a sliding scale for each of the following emotions: fear, aggression, despair, happiness and playfulness.
The emotional profiles based on the 40 ratings of all three contexts were different. Food guarding had the highest aggression rating, followed by the stranger context, and the growls from play had the lowest aggression scores. For the other emotional states, the food guarding and stranger context did not differ from each other, but were rated higher in despair and fear than the playful growls and lower in playfulness and happiness than the growls recorded in play.
In the second test, people were asked in which of those three situations the growl was recorded. Overall, people correctly identified the context of 63% of the growls, which is significantly better than the 33% rate that chance predicts. The play growls were most readily identified, with 81% of them being correctly chosen. The food guarding growls were correctly identified 60% of the time, compared with 50% of the growls directed at strangers. Most of the errors in identifying these two (potentially aggressive) contexts involved confusion between the two of them, rather than with the playful context.
The authors conclude from this study that people can distinguish different types of dog growls, including being able to tell apart growls that are both in potentially aggressive contexts. Previous studies have found that people’s ability to understand canine growls is influenced by the time between growls and the duration of the growls. Based on analysis of the acoustic structure of the growls in this study, the key characters of the growls that make them seem different to people are the rhythm of the series of growls and the length of the individual growls within that sequence. Longer gaps between growls is associated with higher aggression scores. Shorter growls are generally perceived as more positive on emotional scales. In growls recorded in the context of a stranger approaching, the higher the pitch of the growl, the higher the fearfulness score.
Individual people varied in their ability to identify the context of the growls. Overall, women were better at it then men. Also dog guardians outperformed people who do not have dogs. Whether or not a person had ever been bitten by a dog had no effect on whether people were able to determine the context of a growl. This study shows that although people in general can interpret the emotion in canine growls, experience plays a role in how well they are able to do so.
Can tell what your dog’s growls mean?
News: Guest Posts
Husky’s future home to be decided by the courts
May 17 2017
Microchipping dogs is a great tool for reuniting people and dogs, but only if people do the responsible thing and check dogs that they find for the presence of a chip. That didn’t happen in the case of a Husky who is now at the center of a lawsuit to decide who gets to keep the dog.
In 2010, Michael Gehrke bought the dog who he named Mya. She lived on his 10-acre property with his horses and two other dogs. Mya was best buddies with one of them, Rex, and the pair had two litters of puppies together. In 2013, she wandered off and Gehrke’s attempts to find her by posting signs and visiting the local shelter were unsuccessful.
Mya had walked to the local elementary school. Instead of checking her for a microchip or attempting to find her family through any other channels, a staff member at the school passed her on to her son’s friend, Ashlee Anderson. Anderson had just moved from the town where Gehrke and Mya lived to a town 200 miles away, and was in the market for a dog.
In 2017, the dog (who Anderson calls Sitka) wandered off again and was picked up by animal control. Because she wasn’t wearing any tags, the animal control officer checked her for a microchip, which identified her as Gehrke’s dog Mya. Gehrke assumed that since she was traced to him, and he showed all his vet records and photos of Mya as a puppy, that he would get his dog back, but that is not what happened.
Instead, the animal control officer returned the dog to Anderson. Her rationale was that there was no evidence of a crime and that her job is not to act as a judge but to get dogs off the streets and back to a safe home. Gehrke has filed a lawsuit in order to require that Anderson return the dog.
Anderson offered to pay Gehrke $1,200 (his original purchase price for Mya) to keep the dog, but he informed her that he is not interested in the money. So Anderson has responded by hiring attorneys to argue her case so she can keep Sitka.
A judge will hear the case on June 2, 2017. Both people clearly love this dog, so whatever happens, she will end up in a loving home. However, one of the people—Gehrke or Anderson—will be saddened by a legal decision that means they must live without her. All of this mess, including the impending heartbreak for a person who loves this dog, could have been avoided if Mya had been checked for a microchip the first time she wandered off.
Who do you think should end up with the dog?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Does this song describe your life?
May 13 2017
This song captures elements of the experience of dog guardianship, and is striking a cord with women who identify as Dog Moms. The chorus of this new anthem goes like this:
If you’re a dog mom, put your hands up, this song’s for all the ladies who provide for their pup
When you’re a dog mom, it’s just what you do, ‘Cuz they say you’re not my baby, but I know it ain’t true
It’s hard to choose the best lines, but here are my top contenders:
Never leave the house without a lint roller, Hell yeah I got a geriatric pug in this stroller
Fall asleep to the sound of you licking your parts, But you wake us both up ‘cuz you’re scared of your farts
His Instagram is poppin’, I don’t mean maybe, He gets more likes than my sister’s baby
Not everyone is comfortable with the term “Dog Mom” but a lot of women wear it with pride. They consider this video hilarious and hilariously accurate. Do you?
News: Guest Posts
The importance of evaluating the responses
May 13 2017
Kids are taught to ask permission before petting a dog with some variation of “May I please meet your dog?” This simple question has the potential to avoid unpleasant interactions, but only if kids are taught how to interpret the possible answers, especially those that are nuanced. The answer might be a simple, “Yes.” It could also be a straightforward “No” for any number of reasons: it’s not safe to pet the dog, the dog will feel uncomfortable if the child attempts to interact, or even that someone is on a tight schedule and doesn’t have time for a meet-and-greet. The person may also seem hesitant but not actually say no, or give an answer that conveys serious concern.
The clear “Yes” answers are easy to figure out. It’s common for people to reply to a request to meet a dog with some variant of “Sure, she loves people!” “He would love that!” or “Absolutely, thanks for asking!” In that case, there is a good chance that the person expects a positive interaction between a child and a dog. They might be wrong, but there’s no sense of worry or concern being expressed, which is encouraging, and it makes sense for kids to approach the dog.
Similarly, a definite “No” from the person is also clear. If a person declines the request, kids should respect that and not approach the dog. Common ways that people prevent an interaction are by saying, “I’m sorry, but she doesn’t like kids,” “She’s too shy, it will upset her,” or “I think not because everything scares her.” They might even say, “No, because she’ll try to bite you.” People who answer in this general way know that the dog can’t handle it and that it would be a mistake to let a child meet the dog.
Unfortunately, there are two general categories of answers that can be ambiguous, and too few children have been taught to understand them. The first set of such answers is generally positive with mild reservations. These usually indicate that the people are not concerned about their dog being aggressive, but they feel embarrassed about some aspect of their dog. These replies are along the lines of, “Okay, but she’s very excitable,” or “Yes, but she may jump on you.” Sometimes people just offer a warning that is not behavioral, such as “If you don’t mind getting a lot of fur on you!” In most cases, these responses are not deal breakers for a meeting, but it does depend on the size of the child as well as the size and enthusiasm level of the dog. If the person expresses that their dog is unruly or shedding, it’s okay to answer, “I don’t mind dog hair,” or “I don’t think jumping up will put a dark blot on her character!” as long as the dog is not so powerful or out of control that someone could get knocked over. This requires a judgment call, and the most conservative approach is for kids not to meet dogs after such replies. At the very least, kids should proceed with caution.
Another set of answers can be more worrisome, and kids need to learn that they should not pet a dog if the people say things along the lines of, “That would probably be okay,” or “Well, she’s shy, but we can see how she does,” or “If she’ll let you. I’m not sure because sometimes she can’t handle it.” All of these replies show that a person is in the hope-and-fear zone. (“I hope it will be okay, but I fear that it will not be.”) There is a great risk that the interaction could be troubling for the child or the dog. Kids should be taught that the correct action upon hearing such remarks is not to approach the dog. A simple, “Oh, that’s okay. I wouldn’t want to upset her, but thanks anyway,” is a good phrase to teach kids for such situations.
There are endless possible answers when a child asks, “May I please meet your dog?” The “Yes” and the “No” replies are easy to understand. The former tells you it’s likely to be a positive interaction and the latter lets you know that the person knows the dog can’t handle it and has clearly said so. It’s those intermediate answers that require more careful interpretation. I’m always in favor of avoiding risks and erring on the side of caution when it comes to meeting dogs whose people seem hesitant about having anyone—especially a child—approach. If the answer gives any hint that it might not go well or might distress the dog, it’s best to decline.
Of course, all of this general advice assumes that people have the right read on their dog, and that is not always the case. They may think the dog loves all people, even when the dog’s body language reveals that the dog is terrified and wants a child to go away. That’s why it’s still important for kids to learn how to tell that a dog is behaving in a fearful and/or threatening way. The people’s responses to a request to meet a dog are only one stream of information we can use to decide whether to approach a dog. Still, there’s often a lot of truth in what they say, which is why children should be taught to evaluate those responses and act accordingly.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Diesel the Chihuahua steals everything
May 10 2017
To say that Diesel is one of those dogs who is toy motivated is an understatement, as is saying that he is interested in all sorts of objects around the house. Since he was a puppy, this Chihuahua has been taking things from the other members of the household and stashing them where they can’t find or reach them. His guardians call him a hoarder, and that is one way to describe his behavior, which involves taking toys, soda bottles, holiday decorations, socks and underwear, bills, credit cards, flip flops, towels, plastic bowls and gardening shears.
I’m more fascinated by the people in this video than the dog. Yes, this dog is at the high end of the spectrum for dogs who steal and stash “treasures”, but I’ve met quite a few dogs over the years who are similar in that way, and some of those were also quite aggressive over their possessions. In all cases, the people were exhausted by the endless hassles of living with a dog who constantly took everybody’s stuff and were desperate to change the dog’s behavior.
Neither of Diesel’s guardians believe that anyone could change Diesel, and they are fine with that. His mischievous ways amuse them, and they appreciate the excitement he adds to their lives. Though they both recognize that his stealing is bad behavior, they consider him a wonderful dog. He makes them laugh and they enjoy him. They love Diesel for who he is, and don’t want to change him. That’s pretty remarkable because living with a dog like Diesel can be a real headache.
Besides the general irritation of having your stuff regularly go missing (including your towel when you need it after a shower!), there is the concern that Diesel will take something that could harm him. Anything sharp, breakable or toxic could cause serious trouble, and it’s a real worry with dogs who constantly pilfer items that are not theirs. Another cause for worry is the quality of life of the other two dogs in the house. They are mugged by Diesel with such regularity that I imagine they are rarely able to enjoy a toy or something to chew on for more than a few moments.
If you’ve ever lived with a dog who regularly helped himself to whatever he wanted, how accepting of the situation were you compared to Diesel’s family?
News: Guest Posts
Dog related posts account for the most posts
May 6 2017
Our neighborhood uses a social networking service, like NextDoor, that anyone in the community can join to facilitate information sharing. The most common topic is pets, and the majority of pet posts are about dogs. As you might expect, there are messages about summer rentals, firewood for sale, free furniture, garage sales, wildfires, plans for block parties and many other issues, but dogs are the number one topic in our neighborhood.
Unfortunately, there are far more postings of pets who wander away or go visiting friends in the neighborhood than any other issue, but on the bright side, reunions are common and typically swift. Lost dog posts and found dog posts are about equally common, but they rarely concern the same dog. (Generally, dogs are reunited with their families within hours of a post, and private messages rather than matching posts are usually involved.)
Even some of the posts that are not aimed at bringing people and their dogs back together relate to canines. For example, there are offers of free dog crates, or people trying to sell bags of dog food that are not the right kind after all. There have been posts to share that the coyotes are howling so that people make sure to have their pets safely inside and posts asking if any kids want to earn money cleaning up dog poop from yards. (Not many takers on that one!)
My world and my communications—personal and professional, face-to-face and on social media—so often involve dogs. I’ve never assumed that this is true for most people, so it was eye-opening when I joined the neighborhood group to see how many of the messages are about dogs.
Have others of you found a similar pervasiveness of dog-related messages even in groups that are not specifically set up to connect dog lovers?
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A “Dog-torate” in Occupational Therapy
May 3 2017
Niko may very well be more popular than any Big Man on Campus has ever been. He’s not that big, and he’s actually not a man, but this Labrador Retriever spends far more time in college classrooms than most students, and he is adored. Niko is trained as a service dog, and is a key member of the Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. The goal of this program is to help students in the occupational therapy program, healthcare professionals and members of the community learn about service dogs.
The world of service dogs is filled with information that is not common knowledge. Because people are not aware of all the ways that service dogs can, well, be of service, many people are missing out on additional ways to live independently and in fully satisfying ways. More education is part of the solution.
Not very many people know all the ways that service dogs can help people with disabilities, or the proper etiquette to observe around a service dog. Fewer still are familiar with what protections the law offers to service dogs and their people. This lack of knowledge usually means that people may behave in ways that are annoying or unhelpful in the presence of a service dog. For occupational therapists, such gaps in their knowledge could mean doing their jobs less effectively. Service dogs are often underutilized in plans to help a person achieve independence and improve their higher quality of life. The Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa aims to change that. With Niko’s help, professors at OU-Tulsa are able to educate students about service dogs with practical, interactive hands-on experience and demonstrations.
By teaching students and other members of the community about service dogs, Niko helps reduce the barriers faced by people who need and work with service dogs every day, and that means that people’s lives are enhanced by the program. Over 500 people receive education each year through the Professor Paws Project, which was developed by Assistant Professor Mary Isaacson. To honor this contribution to the community, the City of Tulsa has just designated May 9, 2017 as “Professor Paws Day”. On that day, Niko will officially walk in the graduation ceremonies. (Think of it as Niko receiving his “Dog-torate”.)
Niko is not the first service dog to be involved with the education of occupational therapy students at OU-Tulsa. Before Isaacson trained Niko, she trained a service dog named Samson, and began incorporating him into her classroom instruction. Samson regularly attended classes, which allowed her to demonstrate the specific ways that a service dog can have an impact on a person’s daily life. Whether it is opening the fridge, retrieving dropped items, helping remove someone’s socks, or turning lights on and off, students were able to see what a difference such assistance can make to a person with a disability.
After training, Samson was placed with a high school student with cerebral palsy. That was 6 years ago, and now Samson lives on a college campus and continues to assist the same person. Having Samson participate in classes during his training and before his placement was so beneficial to students that people recognized the value of having a dog present on campus permanently.
As a result, the goal all along for Niko has been different than for Samson. Rather than being placed with someone as a service dog or working directly with patients, Niko will remain at OU-Tulsa in order to continue educating people about service dogs. As far as staff at the university know, the Professor Paws Project is the only program of its kind. However, its success suggests that this might not be true for long.
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