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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.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Unlikely Dog Sitters
People who come through for others

As a positive methods dog trainer, it’s natural for me to look for behavior that I like and reinforce it, and I don’t just do that for dogs.  The species that I personally spend the most time with is people, and lately I’ve noticed similar commendable behavior in many of them. The commonality is a willingness to take care of other people’s dogs no matter how inconvenient or challenging that may be. I applaud and admire all those who watch other people’s dogs in times of need, especially the following two who have done so when it was far from easy.

A week ago, I saw a neighbor pushing a double jog stroller and walking three dogs. After rushing over to see her 11-day old baby for the first time and offer congratulations to the new 22-month old big sister, I realized that her daughter wasn’t the only new addition.

“Did you get a new dog?” I asked, secretly thinking that of all the bad times to get a new dog, the first week or so after having a baby has got to top the list.

“No,” she replied, “It’s my sister’s dog. My mom was supposed to watch her while she’s in Hawaii, but at the last minute, she couldn’t, so she asked me.”

When I expressed surprise at the timing of this dog sitting request and offered to walk any or all of her dogs at any time, she just smiled and said, “Oh, I don’t mind. She’d do the same thing for me.”

That may well be true, but I am still impressed that she so cheerfully took on the responsibility of a third dog when she clearly had her hands full with two children under the age of two and a pair of dogs of her own.

I have a distant cousin who also deserves praise for taking on the responsibility of dogs even though her health issues and age would make a refusal completely reasonable. She is well into her 80s with a range of health issues that cause her a lot of pain and also limit her mobility. Despite that, she regularly watches the dogs of her human children, all of whom require more care than her own dog does.

In the last few months, she has taken care of four different dogs at her children’s request. She has watched a rambunctious puppy, a 15-year old dog with arthritis and a serious neurological issue who needs to be lifted in and out of the car, and two untrained 4-year old dogs who constantly make those around them feel like they are in some sort of circus fun house.

She is very caring to attend to these dogs despite the strain on her physically, and presumably emotionally, especially since she is often asked to do so on short notice. In one case, her son dropped off the 15-year old dog while she was not home, left no explanation, and my cousin only knew how long she would have the dog because of how many cans of food were left. Obviously, their family dynamics and boundaries might make an easy target for criticism, but I prefer to focus on the kindness involved in this woman taking care of the dogs. It’s easy to see that they are very happy when they are with her and that there is much adoration all around.

I’m still grateful to my neighbor Stephanie and my fellow dog trainer Shannon who took care of our dog Bugsy when I was in the hospital giving birth to my first son. It was such a relief not to have to worry about him and or about having to call before the sun came up since we had been given permission to call them “at any time of day or night.”

Is there someone who has taken care of your dogs who deserves a special thank you for extra effort?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs Are Like Children To Us
Science supports what we’ve long believed

Our dogs are our kids. It’s not rocket science—we love them, they love us. They look to us for comfort and care. We call them our fur kids or our four-legged children. So, even though it’s not news to us, it’s validating to see science confirm what we already thought was true: Our dogs are like children to us.

Children have been shown to explore the world most confidently if they have a strong attachment to their caregiver (usually a parent.) They use the parent as a secure base from which to explore their environment if they have learned that the parent is dependable and reliable, and this phenomenon is called the secure base effect.

In the recent study, The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs—Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task, researchers conclude that dogs are bonded to their guardians in the same way that infants are bonded to their parents. They found that dogs use their guardians as a secure base, just as children do.

In the study, dogs were tested in each of two experiments and their behavior was quantified. In the first experiment, dogs were given the opportunity to obtain food from interactive dog toys, and the amount of time the dogs spent attempting to extract the food was recorded. The dogs were tested in three different experimental situations: 1) with their guardian absent, 2) with their guardian present and encouraging them, and 3) with their guardian present but silent and unresponsive. Researchers also recorded how much time the dogs spent in close proximity to their guardians as well as to the experimenter, who was present in all conditions.

The results of this experiment showed that the different situations had an impact on how long the dog manipulated the interactive toy in an attempt to extract the food. The dog manipulated it longer when the guardian was present than absent, but there was no difference in response to whether the guardian was encouraging the dog or remaining silent. The dogs spent an equal amount of time close to their guardian regardless of whether they were receiving encouragement or not. They spent more time close to the experimenter when their guardians were absent than when they were present, suggesting that the experimenter offered some security, social support or comfort in the experimental context.

The second experiment was designed to determine if the effects seen in the first experiment could be explained simply by the fact that in the situations in which the guardians were present, there were two people in the room, whereas in the guardian-absent condition, there was only one person. In other words, what if dogs are not affected by having their guardian as a secure base, but simply react to the presence of more than one person in the room? So, in experiment two, the first experiment was modified to include a fourth condition in which an unfamiliar person (rather than the guardian) was present along with the experimenter.

The results of the second experiment were that dogs manipulated the interactive toy longer in the presence than in the absence of their guardians, regardless of whether an additional unfamiliar person was in the room. The dogs spent more time near their silent, unresponsive guardians than to the unfamiliar person, who also refrained from interacting with the dog. The addition of the unfamiliar person condition allowed the researchers to determine that the guardian had a specific effect on the dog’s performance that cannot be explained by the presence of just any person.

Prior to participating in this experiment, all dogs were tested for their willingness to eat food in the absence of their guardians. They were also scored for their tendency to exhibit separation distress when kept away from their guardians. Interestingly, there was no relationship between the time spent manipulating the toys in the absence of their guardians and the amount of separation distress they showed, which means that the results of the experiments cannot be explained by a tendency of the dogs to manipulate the toy less because of the distress of separation.

This is the first study to demonstrate that the relationship between dogs and guardians is similar to the relationship between children and their parents in that both involve the secure base effect. This raises concerns about experiments into cognitive abilities that involve problem solving that is far more complex than in this study because the absence of guardians could significantly lower performance by the dogs.

It also confirms the view that most of us have about the canine members of our family—they are like kids to us!

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Biggest Distractions for Dogs
Squirrels, bicycles, deer, runners

You are enjoying a pleasant walk with your dog when you are suddenly faced with a distraction. The severity of the situation depends on your dog’s natural excitability and level of training along with the specific distraction that has appeared. The situation might be no big deal, a chance to proof your dog’s training, a bit of a hassle or a serious problem verging on a catastrophe.

The iconic distraction is the squirrel. It’s no coincidence that when people are pointing out that their dog is distracted by something, they just say, “Squirrel!” in an excited way. It’s true that squirrels cause incredible challenges for many dogs and their guardians. Many dogs will alert, tense up and chase a squirrel if given the opportunity. Others will bark, whine or spin in circles. There are dogs who will lie down silently before bolting towards the squirrel, as though they have been stalking it. And yet, there are plenty of dogs who aren’t overly interested in squirrels and don’t react at all. Perhaps those dogs are just not easily distracted, but some of them just find other things distracting instead.

Among the animals that can be distraction nightmares for guardians are sheep, chickens or other birds, cats, other dogs, horses, deer, and elk. Any sort of person can be problematic as a distraction, but top honors usually go to shrieking children, bicyclists, skateboards, roller bladders, and runners. Distractions can even be inanimate objects such as plastic bags blowing by, trash cans, trucks, cars, motorcycles, and balloons.

What’s your dog’s biggest distraction—the one thing you really hope you never see on a walk?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Protecting Dogs During Parties
Should they stay or should they go?

We were heading to a neighborhood party where the majority of the guests were most excited about the beer pong and the glorious buffet. As for me, the main draw was an opportunity to see Schultzie, whose guardians were hosting. I have already written about Schultzie, who I love. We have had the joy of dogsitting for her several times, and I couldn’t wait to see her.

You can imagine my distress when I arrived and was told that Schultzie was at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for the night. Yes, I was disappointed, but I was also relieved that Schultzie would be safe and free from the angst that affects so many dogs at parties. Most dogs can handle a few guests, but bigger events pose significant issues for many of them.

There are the physical risks: being stepped on, going outside through a door that is inadvertently left open and ending up in the road, being hit by errant throws in ladder ball, disc golf or any other garden games so common at summer gatherings, consuming something unhealthy that drops on the floor or that a well-intentioned guest offers—including alcohol.

There are also psychological risks: it may be too loud, the dog may be unable to locate the guardians, the amount of activity may be overwhelming, unusual behavior by guests may cause stress in the dog, and staying up later than usual may be problematic.

There are many solutions for making sure that dogs do not suffer because of a party at their house. They can visit friends or family members and avoid the party altogether, as Schultzie did. They can be taken to a professional boarding facility. If they are comfortable with it, they can spend the party cozy in a crate in a closed room, or just be put in a closed room without the crate.

Another option is for the dog to be under the watchful eye of a person who is constantly watching them and running interference to make sure that the dog is protected from any party dangers. This is a big job, similar to watching a toddler. It is not enough for the person to casually attend to the dog. That can lead to a situation in which someone asks where the dog is and the answer is something like, “Hmm, she’s around here somewhere,” which indicates inadequate supervision.

How do you protect your dog from the risks when you are entertaining large groups of people?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Community Care
Supporting guardians of dogs with medical issues

My facebook news feed is full of dog jokes, stories, news, and pictures. Lately, it has also had an unfortunate number of medical scares on the canine health front. I’ve seen everything from joyous “It’s benign!” posts to “It’s broken, but at least she won’t need surgery,” to the more somber, “We appreciate your prayers and thoughts now that we know how serious her condition is.”

Anyone who has received bad news about a dog’s health is suddenly faced with many issues at once. There are obviously medical decisions and financial issues, both of which are beyond my areas of expertise. But people faced with serious medical problems in their dogs need other kinds of support and help that anyone can offer.

Sometimes the biggest help is just acknowledging that a friend is facing real heartache because of an ill family member. It’s also useful to bring in food (for the people!) because it can be so hard to care for yourself when you are busy attending to a sick dog, and sometimes people feel too upset to eat unless food is literally put in front of them. Caring for other members of the family—walking other dogs, picking kids up from school or bringing them to a play date at your house, filling in for a shift at work—frees up time and energy for a caregiver who may be overwhelmed both physically and emotionally.

Visiting for a strictly social call or just to listen to the latest on treatment and prognosis is often appreciated. This is especially true if the appointments and various care requirements mean that the guardian’s social life has been affected by having an ill dog. Offering to run errands may be just what a friend needs to ease the burden. Many people also appreciate help around the house such as yard work, cleaning, or even laundry, especially if the care has resulted in round-the-clock duties that have them seriously sleep-deprived and facing the challenge of attending to basic tasks.

If you have dealt with a serious health crisis with your dog, what have your friends and family done that was the most helpful to you?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog and Human Compulsive Disorders
Similar brain abnormalities in both species

A new study has found that Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder (CCD) have abnormalities in brain structure that are much like the ones in humans who have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  The study, conducted by eleven researchers, is called “Brain structural abnormalities in Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder” and was published in the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry.

The research suggests that more research about anxiety disorders in dogs may be a promising avenue for developing new ways to treat them in people. It also stands to reason that more research about anxiety in people may prove fruitful in finding new ways to alleviate suffering for dogs with similar problems.

Canines with CCD and humans with OCD typically perform repetitive behaviors. In humans, excessive hand-washing and endless checking that appliances are off or that doors are locked are common. In dogs, common behaviors are flank-sucking, blanket-sucking, licking and tail chasing. In both species, anxiety disorders can interfere with quality of life and daily routines, and can also cause injury as skin is chafed and rubbed raw by licking, washing, or sucking.

It’s no big surprise that the brains of affected individuals have similarities. After all, it has been known for a long time that members of both species exhibit related symptoms and respond to the same medications, and that there’s a genetic basis for these disorders in dogs as well as in humans. Still, the discovery that brain abnormalities are also alike adds to our understanding of the parallel nature of anxiety disorders in us and in our best friends.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Sewage Sniffing Dog
Well-suited for fighting pollution

If ever there was a situation of a working dog doing what comes naturally, it’s Sable sniffing out sewage leaks. A dog whose job is to smell poop is about as natural a fit as a teenager whose job is to play video games.

Sable is a 7-year old rescue dog who is helping the people of Beckley, W. Va. by finding the source of sewage leaks that are polluting local waterways. She was hired through a state Department of Environmental Protection grant to the Piney Creel Watershed Association. Sable works for a group called Environmental Canine Services in Michigan.

The sewage system in the area where Sable has been sniffing out leaks is old and needs repairs in a lot of places. Because much of the system is buried, it is difficult for people to figure out where to put their efforts. When Sable catches a whiff of human waste, she barks to let her handlers know. By pointing out the areas of actual leaks, she is saving the community a lot of time and money so that they can focus on those areas that need immediate repair.

I’ve had several jobs that I truly loved and that really suited me, but I don’t think I’ll ever be quite as well matched to my work as Sable is to hers.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs Who Don’t Look Their Age
Surprises among the old and young

The other day at a park, I saw what I thought was a Pomeranian puppy. At just over three pounds, she was pretty small and had that fluffy look of those who are new to the planet. Additionally, she was leaping around with more enthusiasm than knowledge of where her body parts were. I didn’t just THINK she was a puppy. I was sure of it. Yet I was wrong—it turns out she was four years old.

Even though I know that teacup and tiny toy Pomeranians are full grown around the size of this dog, she still seemed like a puppy to me. It was not just her diminutive size that was misleading. Her coat and her behavior fooled me, too. She moved like a young dog and her fluffy coat was the result of having been shaved in the past. She was not the first dog whose age has been a surprise to me.

Several times, I’ve seen Golden Retrievers with full spectacles of white and thought they were probably at least six or seven only to find out they are actually just about to turn four or even barely three. Sometimes dogs who are naturally very calm seem older to me than they are, but some dogs, especially those who have been bred for high energy and high drive, seem young even when they are already a decade old.

I enjoy the variation in dogs, and that applies to their behavior, their temperaments, their athletic abilities, and even how they age. Some dogs behave as though they are puppies until the very end of their lives at which point they suddenly enter a brief geriatric phase. Other dogs lose the puppy sillies in adolescence and proceed to act like wise, respected elders for many years.

Most of the time, I really do correctly guess dogs’ ages within a reasonable margin of error. When I’m wrong, it interests me because it is usually a combination of appearance and behavior that throws me off.

If you’ve been wrong about a dog’s age, what was it about the dog that deceived you?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Close Encounters in Dog Parks
How to handle trouble at dog parks.

The dog gave her a bad feeling even before he charged at her. Later she would say that she felt the fear in her body before it reached her mind. That can happen when a dog stiffens, stares intensely or runs right at you, and this dog did all three. Once he picked up speed, a low growl in his throat, her “bad feeling” became definable as fear. She was worried for her own safety and even more scared for her dog. The out-of-control dog’s guardian was either not paying attention or was utterly unconcerned with the terror her dog was causing. She did not react at all when she was politely implored to call her dog (“Will you please call your dog?”), and continued to do nothing when the terrified woman finally screamed, “Stop your dog and put him on a leash, PLEASE!” As the dog got closer, and with no idea what to do to prevent an attack, the frightened woman’s only thought was, I have to keep my dog safe!

Whether you consider the dog park to be an indispensable part of your daily routine or no better than a gladiator pit, chances are that if you’ve spent much time in one, you’ve had an encounter in which a dog scared or injured you or your dog. So what do you do when you find yourself in one of those potentially dangerous situations?

Answering that is a little bit like giving advice on how to respond to a mugging. Should you stand your ground? Should you fight? Should you run? Should you just hand over your wallet and jewelry? Similarly, in the case of threatening dogs, there’s no right answer for every situation, but there are guidelines that can potentially minimize the chances of physical harm.

In the case of charging dogs, understand that you may have to be the one to take action if the dog’s guardian doesn’t. Some people don’t consider their dog’s behavior to be a problem (no matter how egregious it may appear to everyone else). Others know they can’t call their dogs away from trouble and they can’t catch them, so they simply do nothing. I wish it weren’t so, but counting on the misbehaving dog’s guardian to be part of the solution will often get you nowhere. However, saying, “Will you please call your dog?” is unlikely to make the situation any worse.

Not making the situation worse is an important factor when considering what to do. When choosing among the possible ways to respond to a charging dog, it’s critical to consider both the likelihood of being effective and the risk of escalating the tension and increasing the dog’s potential for behaving aggressively.

One key strategy is to try to change the dog’s emotions from a negative state to a positive one. The easiest and fastest option is to talk to the dog in an enthusiastic, happy voice: “Oh, who’s so good, what a good boy, aren’t you a love, are you a sweet boy, what a good dog, good dog, good dog.” I know it can feel irksome to say such things to a dog who is scaring the daylights out of you, but this is not about honesty or even sincerity—it’s about trying to prevent serious trouble.

Besides gushing praise, you can say other things that may shift the dog into a better mood. This usually seems ridiculous to people unless they’ve seen it work, but dogs’ emotional states often change in response to phrases such as “Time for dinner!” “Do you want a treat?” and “Where’s your ball?” Many dogs are conditioned to react happily to one or more of these phrases, which means they have the power to diffuse a tense situation.

Similarly, most dogs have been conditioned to feel happy when they see a leash, since a leash means a walk. So, holding up a leash and saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” may change a dog who is charging in a menacing way into a dog who is just enthusiastically approaching you. None of these “happy talk” strategies carry a significant risk of making the situation any more dangerous for you or your dog. (Holding up a leash does, of course, encourage the dog to continue heading toward you, which could add some risk.)

Saying “sit” sometimes works because it’s the one cue that the vast majority of dogs know well enough to respond to in just about any context. I’ve never heard of a dog becoming more aggressive when asked to sit in this situation. Cues such as “off” or “down” are less likely to work because so few dogs are reliably responsive to them, especially when they’re highly aroused.

Toys make many dogs happy, so if you can, toss a ball or other toy in the dog’s direction, or squeak a toy if you have one. If a dog can be switched to a playful mood with a toy, the charge will naturally cease. If not, the dog will likely just ignore the toy, and you are no worse off than before you tried to engage the dog playfully.

Despite its simplicity, tossing treats is also an effective strategy. Dogs who are acting aggressively out of fear are most likely to be positively affected by the appearance of treats, but dogs who are highly aroused, frustrated or just behaving like bullies may be distracted by treats and change their behavior. Again, if they ignore the treats, there is likely no harm done. You can throw the treats behind dogs to get them to turn around, or right at them to make sure the treats are noticed. Handfuls are more likely to be effective than single treats. (Caveat: There is some risk of trouble if the worrisome dog, or any dog in the vicinity, is food-aggressive.)

Getting something in the mouth of the charging dog has protective value. Throw any object you happen to have that is not a safety hazard. Balls or other toys are best because they’re most likely to be of interest, but your hat, a scarf or a water bottle that can keep the dog’s mouth occupied may work, too. Throwing something away from you carries a low risk of trouble; if the dog is right by you and you try to place the item directly in the dog’s mouth, the risk is obviously greater.

The goal of any action should be to de-escalate the tension, not to increase it. These suggestions all aim to make the situation better, and carry very little danger of causing harm. Other strategies can also be effective, but carry more risk of intensifying the trouble.

Saying “Hey!” or “No!” abruptly in a deep voice may sometimes be effective, but it can also make some dogs more intense in their charge. Speaking in a firm way may frighten a fearful dog or be taken as confrontational by dogs who are on the offensive. Though I often hear people recommend pepper spray, I don’t. While it may stop a dog from attacking you, it also makes some dogs more aggressive. And, depending on wind direction, it can backfire and affect you or your dog.

Though I’m also not a huge fan of using citronella spray to stop a charging dog, it’s a better option than pepper spray. It will deter some dogs, but it’s far more likely to be ignored by the dogs it doesn’t stop rather than cause them to become more aggressive. Challenging the dog in any way is very risky.

Challenges include staring, yelling, making an angry face, hitting, kicking and picking up a big stick or rock and threatening the dog with it. Though they may work occasionally, all of these confrontational techniques are far too likely to make a dog more tense and more aggressive.

All the woman could think of doing to protect her dog was to get out of the park immediately. She began moving away from the threatening dog toward the nearby gate, encouraging her own dog to move with her by telling him what a good boy he was, saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” and squeaking the toy in her hand. Not only did this affect the emotions of her own dog, it had the same impact on the charging dog, whose body relaxed the tiniest bit as he slowed down. The intense look on his face changed to a slightly calmer one. She and her dog continued to back up toward the exit. When the charging dog was almost to her, she threw the toy just past him and away from her own dog. The dog who had just scared the bejeebers out of her ran after it. As he did so, she and her dog quickly slipped through the gate and went to their car; once there, suffering the aftereffects of the panic she felt, the woman almost threw up. Her dog—who was shaking and whining—was clearly upset by the experience as well. Though the woman’s quick actions prevented physical injury, the emotional impact of their big scare was damage enough.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Cannes Dog Award
Blind dog wins Palm Dog award

This year, a blind poodle has won the Palm Dog award for his performance as Liberace’s dog Baby Boy in the film “Behind the Candelabra.” He did not travel to France to accept his award, which consists of a leather collar that says “PALM DOG” in gold letters. Baby Boy is blind and has cataracts, and his ailing health played a part in the plot of the film. He beat out the Chihuahua who was nominated for playing Paris Hilton’s dog in the film “The Bling Ring.”

Since 2001 the unofficial Palm Dog award has been a part of the Cannes Film festival. It is presented to honor the best canine performance of the festival, and owes its name to a play on words relating to the Palm d’Or, which is the top award at Cannes. Previous winners include Uggie, the Jack Russell Terrier who played Uggie in “The Artist, and Lucy in the film “Wendy and Lucy.”

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