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
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s counterproductive and unfair
August 5 2013
When I tell people that I work with dogs with serious behavior problems including aggression, the response is often something like, “Isn’t it the people’s fault? I mean, don’t you find that the dogs are acting that way because the people haven’t trained or raised them right?”
I always disagree, saying as gently as I can, “No, most of the dogs I see are really challenging dogs who would have problematic behavior in any situation. And most of the families I work with have had other dogs with perfectly lovely behavior.” It’s true—the dogs are the ones with the problem in my experience, not the guardians.
Many clients blame themselves, too, probably because the idea that anyone can make any dog behave in any way they desire is so prevalent in our culture. This can lead to guilt and shame that prevents people from seeking help as well as making them feel terrible. Most of the clients I see have dogs with aggression, and the vast majority of the people have had many dogs over the years without such problems. It makes no sense to assume that the dog has gone bad because of mistakes by the people or their inadequacies when they have raised other dogs who did not turn out the same way. People are seeking help and accusing them of being at fault is both unfair and counterproductive.
Many dogs who are aggressive or have other equally serious behavioral problems are naturally wired to struggle with social issues. Some are ill or in pain, while others have a past that is unknown but may involve limited exposure to the world (inadequate socialization) or some ordeal in the past that affected them and their behavior profoundly.
I find myself explaining over and over to clients and people I meet socially that I object to blaming guardians for the serious behavior problems of their dogs. Sure, the behavior of some rowdy dogs may be a result of inadequate training or inconsistencies by the guardians, but slightly rude or out of control dogs are very different than dogs with much deeper issues. When it comes to dogs whose behavior problems represent abnormal (as opposed to just boisterous) behavior, it’s important to realize that the people didn’t cause the problem.
Do you find that people are being blamed for dogs’ serious behavior problems? What’s your take on this?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
They are treasures
August 3 2013
The elderly woman was taking each step ever so carefully, with one hand gripping her cane and the other hand gently holding a leash. At the other end of that leash was a terrier mix who was taking baby steps and clearly making an effort to avoid tripping his guardian. He was going more slowly than most dogs ever do, and he kept glancing up at her in such a way that I couldn’t help but think that he was checking on her. (“Yep, we’re still moving. I just wanted to be sure!”)
The dog was going at a pace I associate with arthritic or injured dogs and those who are older than most dogs ever become, but this was a young adult rather than a geriatric dog. I watched them walk laboriously halfway down the block and then turn around. The dog never put a bit of pressure on the leash and remained at a slight distance from the woman, which meant that he was never an impediment to her balance or movement. I was impressed with this dog’s behavior.
Part of the reason I was so impressed is that I knew this dog was not always calm and slow. I had just seen how he acted when out on a walk with a man in his 20s and it was hilarious. He jumped and bounced and spun and generally acted like joy was exploding out of him. He twisted his leash around the man, pulled towards a tree that he then put his front paws on and barked at. When they moved past the tree, the dog danced along, going very fast and showing suitable canine enthusiasm for the outing. It was all quite endearing, and though the dog was energetic, he was never completely out of control.
However, the control he displayed when his leash was handed over to the elderly woman was extraordinary. He acted like he understood her frailty. It reminded me of service dogs I have seen who romp and frolic like any dog when allowed, but go into a steady, calm work mode when that is what is required. I sat on my park bench completely entranced by the entire sequence of events with this terrier mix. I was so interested that I went over to ask the young man about it.
He told me that his grandmother is the dog’s guardian. For almost a year, the grandson has come over each day to exercise the dog, who is 4 years old. His grandmother insists on walking him daily herself even though her health has declined to the point where she spends 10 minutes just walking past a few houses before making the return trip. Sometimes she takes her walk before the dog has had his exercise with the grandson and sometimes after. Either way, he goes at her pace, never pulling, never leaping, and never paying attention to the squirrels, cats or other dogs that are usually so arresting.
When I asked if they had trained the dog specifically to be gentle with his elderly guardian, he said no. This is just one of those dogs who is socially astute enough to respond beautifully to the specific needs of the lady in his life. The grandson’s behavior—coming over daily to help his grandmother—is also commendable.
Have you known a dog who was similarly lovely around an older person and was just as much a treasure as the dog I observed?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Conflict among scientists who study it
July 29 2013
Research about canine genetics and the domestication of dogs is an exciting area of study with many players, so it should surprise nobody that there is disagreement within the field. Multiple groups of researchers from around the world have compared the genomes of dogs and wolves. While they generally agree about the genetic changes that have produced differences between dogs and wolves, their conclusions about the domestication of dogs vary wildly.
The disagreement concerns fundamental aspects of the evolution of dogs such as where, when and why dogs evolved from wolves. So, the location, the timing, and the reason for domestication that various groups propose are not even close.
One group suggests domestication occurred around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East and that it was the development of agriculture around that time that was the catalyst for domestication. Another group claims that it happened around 32,000 years ago in the south of China and related to scavenging alongside the people living there. A third group narrows the time frame for domestication to between 16,000 and 11,000 years ago, and believes that the wolf population from which dogs arose is extinct, making it hard to determine the location of domestication. This third group believes that dogs became domesticated near hunter-gatherers rather than in the presence of an agrarian society.
Much has been made about the discord among scientists studying the domestication of dogs, but it’s hardly surprising. The cutting edge of science is always marked by strongly held opposing views. In the best situations, the intense disagreement among people working in the same field is a crucial part of making progress. Competing hypotheses are critical for the advancement of science. As people challenge each other’s views, all are spurred to study the subject more deeply and design experiments to investigate that which has been called into question. From the ongoing work, the conflicts are eventually resolved as some ideas fall by the wayside and others gain increased support from new data and discoveries.
Sometimes the conflict is cordial and in other cases, it can be very bitter. At this point, the scientists studying dog domestication say that though there is a certain amount of rivalry, they get along and enjoy talking with each other. That may be harder to maintain as people move to the next phase of research into dog domestication and seek to sequence DNA samples from ancient dogs and wolves. The availability of archaeological bone samples is extremely limited so there will be a lot of competition among scientists for both funding to conduct the research and access to the material necessary to do so.
In other words, we can expect a lot of fights over bones in the near future.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs who adore their water frozen
July 24 2013
When an extra piece of ice fell from the freezer and onto the floor, the dog acted like I had just dropped a steak. He startled, gazed at it longingly, and looked up at me as if asking for permission. He was wagging from the shoulders back and drooling a little. It was news to me, but it could not have been more obvious that he liked ice.
A lot of dogs love ice and seem to consider it a high quality treat. There are a lot of great things about ice for dogs. It provides hydration without any gulping, it’s fun for the dog, it’s relatively easy to clean up (at least compared to gooey treats like pig’s ears and peanut butter), it’s a no calorie way for a dog to engage in chewing and that can be important for dogs who are watching their figures, and it can help cool a dog down.
Of course, ice has its down side, too. There is a choking risk, and dogs can damage their teeth on ice. Though it doesn’t likely leave as big a mess as the water bowl can, it’s portable, so there’s no telling where a puddle may form if the dog leaves it unfinished and lying around.
What do you consider the positives and negatives about having an ice-loving dog?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Unfavorable behavior compared to other puppies
July 22 2013
In a study of over 6000 puppies, researchers found that the behavior of puppies purchased from pet stores was less desirable than the behavior of puppies obtained form noncommercial breeders. Specifically, there were 12 areas in which pet store puppies’ behavior was unfavorable compared with puppies from noncommercial breeders and two areas in which their behavior was similar. There were no behavioral areas in which the pet store puppies’ behavior was preferable to the comparison group.
In a recent study called “Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommerical breeders" used guardian observations of their dogs to compare the behavior between the two study populations. Observations were quantified using the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire, which uses ordinal scales to rate either the intensity or frequency of the dogs’ behavior
The biggest differences between the two groups of dogs related to aggression with dogs from pet stores being far more likely to be aggressive towards their guardians, to other dogs in the household, to strangers, and to unfamiliar dogs. Among their other unfavorable comparisons with dogs from noncommercial breeders were that they were more likely to have house soiling issues, to be fearful, to have touch sensitivity problems, to be harder to train, and to have issues with excitability.
As a person who has long opposed the selling of puppies in pet stores for humane reasons as well as behavioral, it is with open arms that I welcome this objective study about the undesirability of this practice. It’s heartbreaking for me to think of all the people I have seen professionally over the years who have been emotionally devastated by the serious behavioral issues they have faced with a dog from a pet store. Of course, there are people who have lucked out and obtained a wonderful dog from a pet store, and I am very happy for such dogs and their people. However, it’s important to remember that overall, buying a dog from a pet store does not put the odds in your favor.
The authors of this study sum their research up with this important point: “Obtaining dogs from pet stores versus noncommercial breeders represented a significant risk factor for the development of a wide range of undesirable behavioral characteristics. Until the causes of the unfavorable differences detected in this group of dogs can be specifically identified and remedied, the authors cannot recommend that puppies be obtained from pet stores."
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It matters more than brightness
July 19 2013
One of the most persistent errors about dogs is the claim that they are colorblind. It has been known for decades that dogs can see colors, but research into the details of how they use their color vision can still reveal new information. In a recent study called “Colour cues proved to be more informative for dogs than brightness”, researchers asked the simple question, “Do dogs attend to color or brightness when learning the cues that indicate the presence of food?
In the experiment, researchers trained dogs to make a choice between boxes concealing food. The boxes were each marked with a colored paper, and the dog had to learn which one indicated a piece of meat was inside. Dogs were trained to discriminate between either light yellow and dark blue or between dark yellow and light blue. Then the dogs were tested to see if the cue they used to make correct choices was the color of the paper or the brightness of the paper.
For example, a dog who had learned to choose the box marked by a dark yellow piece of paper was tested with a choice between a box marked by light yellow or a box marked by dark blue. The experimenters were asking whether the dog had learned that “dark” indicates the presence of meat or whether “yellow” does. They found that dogs were making choices based on color, not brightness, in the majority of cases. It was a small sample size of only 8 dogs, but it suggests that dogs not only see color, which has long been known, but that they pay attention to it more than to the depth of color.
It is not surprising that if dogs have the ability to see color that they would use that color functionally in various situations. Asking whether dogs distinguish dark from light when the opportunity to distinguish by color is also present may be an important preliminary step in understanding what dogs attend to. However, I would be even more interested to know whether dogs favor color over shape, color over size or even color over various sounds to make their choices, as all of these seem more biologically relevant to dogs seeking food than brightness does.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Jim Buck preferred dogs to office work
July 15 2013
Best known for his dog walking business that cared for up to 150 dogs a day, Jim Buck is considered the first professional dog walker in New York City. (In New York, they often refer to him as the first professional dog walker, but as a person who lives elsewhere, I can’t help but notice how often “first” and “first in New York” are used synonymously. For example, his obituary says, “Mr. Buck . . . is widely described as the first person to professionalize dog walking in New York City and, by extension, the United States.”)
Buck came from a wealthy family, but chose a path different than most. He dropped out of college and chose to walk dogs rather than work at an electronics company, as he did for a while. He said he preferred walking his own dogs and other people’s dogs to suiting up and going to the office.
He was a tall, thin man, often described with a comparison to slender breeds of dogs such as the sight hounds. He was also an original thinker, realizing that there was a business opportunity in providing dog walking services to people working long days in the city. His business, Jim Buck’s School for Dogs, employed dozens of people to help him walk client’s dogs. When he started, his was the only such business in New York City, though now there are huge numbers of them.
Among the stories about Buck and his business is the tale that he used to test potential employees by having them walk an Otterhound nicknamed both Oliver the Artful and Oliver the Awful. Oliver regularly entered phone booths and refused to come out. Buck wanted people who would solve the problem by gently coaxing him out rather than attempting to use force. He claims to have preferred to hire women because he thought they were generally more compassionate to dogs who misbehaved.
It was a different era, and Buck dressed well, as was typical at that time. He wore through his fancy shoes every two weeks, employing the services of a cobbler to repair his shoes regularly. He could easily afford his expensive clothes and shoes because his income as a dog walker was around five times that of the average American and he made more through his business than he ever did at his office job.
Jim Buck retired about 10 years ago and died at the age of 81 on July 4, 2013.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The silverware question
July 12 2013
A friend stopped by while I was preparing a Kong to put in the freezer for later. After stuffing in some treats, some kibble, a biscuit and the canned food to hold it all together once it was frozen, I cued Super Bee to wave. When she lifted her paw properly in response, I held out the spoon I had used to scoop the wet food in and she began licking it. She looked so dear to me as she daintily (there’s no other word for it!) used her tongue to remove what was stuck to the spoon.
Still smiling at the sight of her lovely face, I looked up at my friend, whose face looked significantly less lovely at that moment. It had a look that combined horror and disgust. She asked me, “Is that a spoon you plan to use to eat?”
“Yes, after it goes through the dishwasher,” I answered. She still looked aghast, so I added, “We wash all of our silverware after anybody uses it. Then it’s clean so we can use it again.” This made such sense to me that I felt silly saying it, but obviously my friend found it troubling.
She went on to tell me that most people with dogs or cats would never share their spoons with each other. She said she didn’t mean to make me feel bad, but that what I was doing seemed really gross and didn’t I agree? I did not agree so her speech didn’t make me feel bad, but it did surprise me.
I don’t want to use a spoon after my kids (or any other humans) have used it without washing it first, but then I treat it as clean and ready to go, and I feel the same way about spoons that dogs have used.
Are your dogs ever allowed to lick your silverware?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The biter's suffering continued
July 10 2013
There was a lot of blood, which is typical for bites to the ears. The little white dog who was bitten was sitting calmly in her guardians lap while her injury was attended to. Despite having been surprised by a totally uncalled for bite as she entered the backyard to join the party, she was doing okay. She was clearly hurt, but this stable dog was accepting the loving comfort of her guardian and didn’t seem as upset as one might expect.
If only the dog who had bitten her had been in such good shape, psychologically speaking, but he was a mess. He had no physical injury, but he was traumatized. He is a fearful dog who had been overwhelmed by the party long before another dog—his biggest fear—had shown up. I had been watching him uneasily for a little while before the incident and had told my kids to stay away from him. I had no way of knowing that he would end up biting, but I could see that he was scared, which put me on red alert because I know that’s the cause of so much aggression.
I didn’t see the bite happen, but I heard a ruckus, and hoped that it was just noise and nothing worse. We were attending an event where we knew almost nobody and in the introductions, I had mentioned that I work with dogs and specialize in aggression. After the bite, the guardian of the dog who had bitten called me over with the plea, “I need you!” Luckily, the dogs had already been separated, which is the only thing that went as I would have advised all day.
The guardian of the dog who had bitten asked me, “What should I do?” and I told her that the kindest thing she could do for her dog was to get him out of this situation. We agreed that he was very afraid, which is why he had bitten, and she told me that he can’t tolerate other dogs at all, but that he had been letting people at the party pet him, which was big progress. The dog may not have behaved aggressively to people petting him, but he was tongue flicking, tucking his tail, trying to move away from them, and his pupils were dilated. He wasn’t just nervous—he was terrified.
The woman did not want to leave the party and said so. I urged her to go home and let her dog escape a situation in which he was clearly miserable, but she didn’t want to go, and stayed there with that poor scared dog for hours. I felt so bad for him and wished that I could have persuaded her to take him home.
I also wish that I could have been more proactive about preventing the bite in the first place. Long before the bite, I thought it would have been a good idea to take the dog home, but if I told people to take their dogs home every time I saw them in situations that seemed beyond what they could handle, I would say it so often I would make the boy who cried wolf seem uncommunicative. It’s not advice that most people want, and I don’t give it in settings when I am not working unless I am asked. And even in this serious case with a bite involved, I was asked and that advice was not followed. The few other times that something bad has happened and I’ve advised people to get the dog out of the situation, they did, so this guardian’s decision to stay was exceptional.
It’s no fun to leave a social event or even to leave your dog behind and attend on your own, but so often these actions are in the best interests of the dog. I feel so bad for both dogs, and I also feel bad that I wasn’t able to lessen the suffering.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Deciding when to euthanize
July 5 2013
Not everybody is at ease with the idea of euthanasia under any circumstances, and I understand that. Many people have moral conflicts with deciding to end the life of a pet, no matter what the reason. My perspective is that this is a highly individual decision but that I personally am comfortable with euthanizing my pets once their quality of life is so compromised or they are in such pain that keeping them alive feels like it’s more for my sake than for theirs. It’s my view that a peaceful death by euthanasia frees them from pain and misery, and is the final gift of love I am able to provide. I know many disagree, and I’m not suggesting that one way or another is right—I’m just describing my own personal take on this issue.
That doesn’t mean that I haven’t cried buckets and been inconsolable when I’ve euthanized a dog. It’s horrible beyond imagination, and I’ve never really recovered from it in any case. I always hope for any dog (or any person for that matter) to surrender peacefully to death while sleeping. When that doesn’t happen in time, facing the tough decision of when to euthanize is a challenge. Sometimes it’s obvious when it’s time because the dog has reached a point of literally being unable to move, being in constant and unmanageable pain, showing no joy at all or no recognition of anything or anyone.
In other cases, it’s not so clear, which is why a new tool that helps guardians and veterinarians decide when that moment has arrived may be useful. Researchers at Michigan State University developed a survey for probing into the specifics of a dog’s quality of life when undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The idea is to develop an objective way to assess quality of life, which is such an important consideration when deciding whether to continue life-prolonging measures or to face the possibility that it is time to say good-bye.
Questions address a range of behavioral issues and observations before treatment, a retrospective on the dog’s behavior six months prior, and continued observations throughout their treatment at regular intervals. The questions address aspects of dog behavior including play, measures of happiness, and signs of disease. Both guardians and veterinarians have questions to answer based on their own observations. A small pilot study of 29 dogs found high levels of agreement from clinicians and guardians. Researchers plan to expand their original work to a study with hundreds of dogs and to other illnesses and medical issues as well.
Do you think an objective tool such as this might help you decide when to euthanize a dog, or do you feel comfortable with just “knowing” when that sad day has come?
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