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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.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Great Furniture Debate
Where is your dog allowed to go?

People who say that money is the biggest source of conflict in most marriages are clearly unfamiliar with the clashes over whether or not to let the dogs up on the furniture. These epic battles regularly find their way into my private consultations, where I am repeatedly asked who is right—the person who says dogs should stay on the floor or the one who wants them up on the couch and on the bed. I always handle these mediations with the same four basic steps.

1) I take a deep breath to calm myself for the coming storm. 2) I wish for the umpteenth time that I had a business partner specializing in marital counseling. 3) I explain the factors to consider when making this important decision. 4) I open a discussion with my clients about how these factors relate to their particular situation. So, you might ask, what are those factors?

The main one is personal preference. That is, the answer to the dogs-on-the-furniture question is not absolute and cannot be answered definitively by someone outside of the household. Some people are appalled by the idea of fur and potentially muddy paws making contact with their furniture, and others don’t care at all. Just like with politics, religion and money, there are no right answers that apply to everyone, but life is a little easier and a lot less conflicted if the members of a family agree.

The dog’s needs are also a factor. Dogs who are old, get cold easily, or who have really short coats are often less comfortable on a hard floor, so they may be more persistent about being on the furniture, and it may provide a real benefit to them. Of course, a cozy dog bed, soft blankets or even some towels on the floor may accomplish the same thing. I do feel that it is a great kindness to provide dogs, especially dogs like the ones described above, with a soft, cozy place to relax, and that may or may not involve the furniture. Dogs who are fearful may also be helped by being up on the furniture because that lets them be in close physical contact with you when you are lounging on the couch or drifting off to sleep. It’s true that many people who want their dogs up on the furniture are doing it for themselves at least as much as for the dogs, but dogs’ needs are worthy of consideration.

The dog’s behavior is the piece of this puzzle that allows me the best opportunity to make a meaningful contribution. I don’t buy into the old-fashioned arguments about dogs needing to be on the floor because otherwise they will try to dominate their guardians, causing all sort of horrendous social patterns to ensue. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, that does not mean that dogs’ behavior and manners are irrelevant to the questions of whether or not they should be up on the furniture. Dogs who are pushy can benefit from being required to earn the right to be on the furniture. Those who lack impulse control can learn better self-control by following rules such as staying on the floor despite the temptation of the furniture. Resource-guarding dogs who will defend the bed as they do food, bones or toys are not good candidates for furniture privileges. For dogs with no training who will not move over on the bed when asked to do so or won’t get down off the sofa upon request, it may not be worth the hassle of allowing them on the furniture.

Another avenue I like to pursue with any of my clients who are in the middle of a Great Furniture Negotiation is the possibility of a compromise. Sometimes families decide to let dogs onto only some of the furniture—perhaps just one old couch or chair, or maybe a beanbag. Another option is to cover the furniture so the dogs can enjoy it without ruining it. One common compromise is to allow the dogs up on the furniture only if they are invited, and to require them to get off if you tell them to. This can be combined effectively with the use of covers—invite dogs up whenever the covers are on but not when they have been removed.

When there is conflict, one solution is that the dogs are allowed up on the furniture, but the person who wants them up there is responsible for cleaning the furniture often. Some families have decided to let the dogs up on all the furniture except for the favorite chair of the person opposed. That way, there is always a clean place available for the person who objects to having the dogs up on the furniture. There are families who allow some dogs up on the bed or couch, but not others. Usually the dog with access is older, has better manners or sheds less. Some people are uncomfortable having different rules for different dogs and feel that it is unfair, but the couples who have saved their marriage with this strategy feel that it is worth it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to dogs’ access to the furniture, and sometimes a little negotiating leads to a compromise that makes both members of a couple happy.

There is no right answer and though many people ask me what is “normal” when it comes to dogs being up on the furniture, there is no clear answer to that question. What’s considered normal in this regard is a moving target. Years ago, it was far more common to forbid dogs from being on the couch or the bed than it is now. Then again, it wasn’t so very long ago that it was common to prevent dogs from coming inside the house at all. It was a big change when having indoor dogs became normal. Maybe we are on that same path when it comes to our furniture.

What are your rules (if any) about having dogs on the furniture?

 

News: Guest Posts
Oh, the Things Dogs Eat!
Clients share stories of ridiculous consumption

My appointments with clients tend to follow themes, some of which are predictable. I receive many calls about housetraining after the first big snow of the year, and there’s the digging under the fence problems when the ground thaws in the spring. The start of monsoon season corresponds with the Fourth of July, so that time of year typically brings large numbers of dogs who are afraid of thunder, fireworks and other loud noises.

Sometimes, the trends are less expected. There have been times when my week is full of dogs who are aggressive to other dogs on leash or when a surprising number of appointments involve dogs who fear men with beards. (The past few years with big bushy beards being so fashionable have been a tough time for dogs and for canine behaviorists alike.) I’m not sure why I’ll occasionally work with a cluster of dogs who jump on visitors followed by a series of dogs who guard their toys from other dogs in the house.

The last few weeks have involved a larger-than-usual proportion of dogs who have eaten ridiculous things. In each case, I was working with the dog because of an unrelated behavioral problem, but in the course of talking about the dog’s background, the clients shared a story about something that the dog had eaten. (All of the dogs were fine whether veterinary care was needed or not.)

One dog helped herself to a tube of lipstick. She ate most of it, but still managed to use a significant portion of it to decorate the walls, rugs and floor of the house. Rather than become upset, the people actually decided that the light pink color was just the right shade for their new nursery, and they had already gotten paint samples to match.

Another dog had gone into the yard and dug up the family’s recently departed pet hamster. The members of this family were similarly good sports, remembering to be grateful that it had happened while their kids were at preschool so that they were not traumatized by one of their pets exhuming and eating another one.

The most surprising story of what a dog had eaten was not told to me on purpose, but came up when a client and I were walking his dog to help her learn to be calm when she saw other dogs. When I saw that her poop was neon yellow, it begged an explanation. The man sheepishly told me that she had eaten a large number of paintballs. Concerned about the toxicity of paintballs, I urged him to call his veterinarian immediately, which he did. After treatment, the dog was fine, and (in case you were wondering) I have recovered from the shock of the highlighter-colored poop.

Over the years, clients have shared many stories of what their dogs have consumed. There are the usual suspects—tampons, an entire stick of butter, socks, rocks, golf balls, forks, spoons, remote controls, cell phones. And, of course, I really do know many dogs who have eaten the kids’ homework.

Has your dog eaten anything bordering on the ridiculous?

Culture: Reviews
The Education of Will by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.
A breathtakingly honest memoir

The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog is everything you expect from well-known canine behaviorist and best-selling/award-winning author Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D., but it is also so much more. What you presume would be included is indeed there—insights about dogs from science as well as from her own experiences, research into the physiology of behavior and personal stories. If you love learning about dogs through McConnell’s combination of science and tales from real life, you will love this book, and yet this is more than a book about dogs.

It’s a breathtakingly honest memoir from a woman whose upbeat personality, intelligence, success and sense of humor have largely hidden the pain and darkness in her life from others. It takes bravery to share such deeply personal and traumatic details from her life. Readers, even those who know McConnell’s work well, will be struck by how vulnerable she makes herself and how personal this book is. They will learn how much she had to overcome to become the successful person she has long been and to find the happiness that is a far more recent accomplishment.

It’s artfully written, showing her maturity as an author, and true to form, it shows how intricately her life and well-being are intertwined with the dogs in her life. The fear and anxiety she has struggled with for much of her life actually became worse when her Border Collie Will entered her life. His fear and reactivity created all sorts of problems, including exacerbating her own struggles to overcome multiple traumas. She was forced to deal with not just his issues, but her own as well, and the book is the story of how they both moved forward towards happiness, joy and love. Their journey together has had many setbacks, has required a seemingly endless reservoir of hard work and patience, and will never truly be over.

The beauty and power of the book come from the way McConnell weaves her own narrative into that of dogs in general and her dog Will in particular. It is a compelling story that’s both hopeful and sad, as well as gut-wrenching and inspiring. The Education of Will offers insight and understanding into struggles with true terror, guilt, shame and fear, allowing readers to empathize with such experiences and to understand them better. Though it is a serious book about a serious topic, the warmth and humor in McConnell’s writing make it as enjoyable to read as it is riveting.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pawternity and Mutternity Leave
BrewDog offers a week off—fully paid
BrewDog.com

A beer company based in the UK wants to be the best company to work for, ever, and a new policy gives them a legitimate claim to success. BrewDog just announced that all 1000 of their employees are eligible for a full week of paid leave when a new dog joins the family. They recognize the importance for everyone in the family of spending time with a new dog to adjust to the change. They want to make the transition easier for everyone.

With a name like BrewDog, their new Paw-ternity and Mutt-ernity benefit (officially called Puppy Parental Leave) should come as no surprise. The company has been dog friendly since it began 10 years ago, when their official mascot, Labrador Retriever Bracken, watched the two human founders begin their first batch of beer. Now, employees’ dogs are welcomed at all of their offices and in their 50 breweries and bars worldwide. (Their headquarters in Aberdeen, Scotland regularly has 50 dogs at the office.) Customers’ dogs are also always welcome.

Most people have to take vacation time in order to spend sufficient time with a new dog, which means that many are not able to manage it. For years, I’ve advised people to bring home a new dog over the weekend and to take Friday or Monday off to make it a long weekend if possible. Now, I can just advise them to get a job at BrewDog!

I’m sure many people would love to work for this company because of their generous treatment of employees by the management. Treating the people who work for you well is a good investment that pays dividends in loyalty, and also expands the pool of potential hires. Giving people the freedom to adjust to a new dog also lessens the likelihood of future problems that result in missed work days and low morale.

The company founders say that they understand that their employees care about two things above all else—their beer and their dogs. That might be an oversimplification, but then, again, it might not be.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Resource Guarding Toward Different Species
How does your dog react to people, cats and dogs?

Recently, I had a client whose resource-guarding dog reacted very differently depending on who in the household approached him when he had a toy. His responses varied with the species of the individual.

The other dogs in the house are watched closely if they come near the dog in question when he has a toy. He will go still except for his eyes, which track their every move. If they try to pick up one of his toys, he will growl and charge at them. He will take toys from them and hoard them even if they all started out with matching toys given to them by the guardians. If you only saw him around other dogs, he presents as a classic high-level resource guarder—what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine. However, he reacts very differently to the other two species sharing his home.

The human adults and the child in the household can do whatever they want with this dog’s toys. They can pick them up, remove them from the dog’s mouth, walk by them or even step on them. The dog is completely relaxed no matter what happens to his toys at the hands (or the feet) of the people in his family.

The cat can walk by toys, approach the dog while he is playing with a toy or even cuddle up with him when he has one without eliciting any reaction. If she picks up a toy up or lies down on top of one, the dog rushes over and takes it.

This dog lets people do anything related to toys, and lets the other dogs in his house do nothing related to them, but takes an intermediate stance with the cat. He is unwilling to tolerate the cat taking possession a toy, but as long as she does not attempt to do that, he does not object. It’s difficult to know exactly why this dog behaves as he does, though I think it’s safe to assume that he does not regard the dog as a human/dog cross. It’s possible that the dog’s actions are based on species, but the differences may simply reflect his response to each of the individuals in his multi-species household.

Do you have a dog who reacts differently to the various species in your home when they approach his toys?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dogs Notice When People Aren’t Helpful
They show a bias against them

In a study called “Third-party social evaluations of humans by monkeys and dogs” scientists evaluated capuchin monkeys and domestic dogs to investigate their responses to people after watching them interact with other people. Specifically, researchers studied their evaluations of people who were either helpful or who refused to help another person. There’s an entire behavioral area of research involving what are called “third-party social evaluations” which simply means the study of how individuals respond to people after watching them interact with others.

In the experiment with dogs, the person pretending (for the sake of science) to be in need of help was the dog’s guardian. The dog watched as the guardian spent about 10 seconds attempting to open a clear container holding a roll of tape. In the “helper” situation, the guardian then turned to one of the people on either side of him/her and held out the container. The helper held the container so that the guardian could open it. The guardian removed the roll of tape, showed it the dog, put in back in and replaced the lid. In the “non-helper” condition, the person who the guardian turned to for help responded to the non-verbal request for assistance by turning away, at which point the guardian continued with the unsuccessful attempts to open it. In both cases, there was a person on the guardian’s other side, who was not asked for help.

At the end of this role-playing situation, both the person who was asked for help and the other person next to the guardian offered the dog treats. When the person had helped the guardian open the container, dogs were equally likely to take the treat from either person. However, when there was a refusal to help, dogs were more likely to choose the treat held by the person who was not asked for help. Dogs chose to avoid taking treats from people who were not helpful. This study found similar results in capuchin monkeys, and the same pattern is well known to occur in children.

It is interesting that dogs act as though they assume that people are okay and trust them—until they have evidence to the contrary. In this study, they gave people the benefit of the doubt, reacting just as well to people who were never asked for help as to those who did provide help. Once they observed someone refuse to help their guardian, though, they avoided taking treats from them. This matches the experience many of us have with dogs in that behaviorally healthy, well-socialized dogs seem to like and trust people in general. It as though dogs pursue a “trust unless specific information advises me to do otherwise” strategy regarding social interactions.

 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Old Dogs’ Illnesses Can Go Unnoticed
Behavioral changes may be falsely attributed to age

It’s natural for an older dog to rest more, to play less and to be without the pep so prevalent in earlier years. The aging process changes us all, but that doesn’t mean that every change in an elderly dog is due to aging. Sometimes a dog is feeling unwell, and we make sense of his actions by attributing it to his age. This is especially true when the decline is gradual.

We often don’t realize that the behavior we’ve been seeing is a result of a medical issue until it is resolved. That’s when people say things like, “He hasn’t been this energetic in three years!” or “It’s been so long since I’ve seen him play with our other dog. I thought he just didn’t like to play anymore.”

Recently, I had a friend share with me that her 12-year old dog was diagnosed with cancer. The dog has recovered well from the surgery to remove the tumor, and is currently undergoing additional treatment. The change in him in the six weeks since learning he was ill has been remarkable. He is eager to run at any pace and to go on long hikes, which is in contrast to the indifference he exhibited towards these activities in the last couple of years. He is playing with the other dog in the house, a seven-year old female, which he has barely done for two years. My friend is thrilled to see him doing so well, and appearing so energetic and happy. She is also heartbroken with the realization that his “old man ways” were because he was sick, not because he was getting old. She wishes that she had known to get him into treatment earlier, but nobody could blame her. He went to the vet regularly and had no obvious signs of the illness until recently. The decline in energy as well as losing interest in play happened so gradually, and at the age when it affects most dogs.

I’ve heard many similar stories over the years, because it’s so easy to attribute a general decline in energy and playfulness to getting older, when that may be only one piece (or no part!) of the explanation for the changes. Have you had the experience of realizing that your old dog’s behavior wasn’t just due to the passing years?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Interpreting Facial Expressions of Dogs
Humans’ empathy, personality and experience play a role

People understand and react to the facial expressions of dogs in ways that are similar to their responses to people’s expressions. Dogs can distinguish positive human expressions from negative ones, showing that they perceive the emotional content of human expressions. Our mutual understanding of one another is astounding considering that we’re not all that closely related, and yet few humans are surprised by it. We feel a kinship with our canine companions that goes beyond what we share with members of any other species except our own. The biological miracle of our relationship with dogs deserves the attention of scientists, and happily, that is happening more now than ever.

One recent study investigated the role of empathy, personality and experience on people’s ratings of facial expressions. People were asked to rate the expressions (in pictures) of people and dogs showing neutral, threatening or pleasant expressions with regard to each of the basic emotions of happiness, sadness, anger/aggressiveness, surprise, disgust or fear. They also rated how negative or positive the expression was. The study, “Human Empathy, Personality and Experience Affect the Emotion Ratings of Dog and Human Facial Expressions” found that many factors affect how people perceive the expressions of others.

People’s experience plays a smaller role in interpreting facial expressions of dogs than their personality and ability to be empathetic. This suggests that people have a natural, inherent ability to understand the facial expressions of dogs. Perhaps this is because we have co-evolved with dogs over thousands of years, but it may also simply be a result of the similarity of many facial expressions between humans and dogs. We share many of the same muscles and movements as dogs, as do many other mammals, an idea that was made popular in Charles Darwin’s classic work “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” which was published in 1872. In that book, Darwin made the case that similar behavior in humans and other animals indicated similar internal emotional states, including emotions such as anger, fear, surprise, happiness, disappointment and love. He presented photographic evidence that humans and other animals reveal their emotions through similar facial expressions and behaviors.

Though the role of experience is minimal, it still has an effect on people’s interpretations of canine facial expression. People who were involved in dog-related hobbies such as agility, obedience or hunting, rated happy faces of dogs as “more happy” than people who lack such experience. Experienced people were also more likely to rate neutral expressions as happy, perhaps indicating the subtly of relaxed, content expressions in dogs, or a more positive views of dogs among people who have a lot of experience with them.

Empathy—the ability to understand the emotions and experiences of others—played an especially strong role in the way that people perceived canine expressions. People who are particularly empathetic interpreted the facial expression of dogs more intensely and more quickly than people who are less empathetic. Researchers point out that it is not known whether empathetic people are any more accurate in their assessments of canine expressions.

Personality traits such as being extroverted or being neurotic influenced people’s interpretation of facial expressions. Extroversion influenced ratings of human expressions, but not canine expressions. Neuroticism scores were correlated with lower rankings of anger/aggression in neutral expressions of both species.

The results of this study show that there are many facets to interpreting the emotional expressions of both dogs and humans, and that psychological factors in the observer have an influence. Reading dogs’ facial expressions is a talent and a skill—both natural ability and experience influence people’s reactions to them.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Kids Feel Closer to Dogs Than to Siblings
More satisfaction, less conflict characterize relationship

Long before people began to consider dogs members of the family, many kids were wishing that instead of brothers and sisters, they could just have more dogs. Dogs (and other pets) fulfill all of the roles that researchers consider important in an attachment figure. Kids find them enjoyable, comforting, they miss them when they are not around and they seek them out when they are upset. That may make them especially important for adolescents, who are learning to rely less on their parents and more on relationships with other individuals. The non-judgmental feeling people experience with their dogs may contribute to enhancing young people’s self-esteem.

We know that pets are important to kids, but scientific studies quantifying the value of their relationships are sparse. The recent study “One of the family? Measuring young adolescents' relationships with pets and siblings” demonstrates the true value that kids place on their pets. The research involved surveys of 77 people who were 12 years old. It made some interesting, if hardly surprising conclusions:

  • Kids with pet dogs had the highest level of satisfaction and received more companionship from their pets compared with kids who had other types of animals.
  • Kids were more satisfied with their pets and had less conflict with them compared to the relationships they had with their brothers and sisters.
  • Girls reported more willingness to share secrets with their pets and felt a closer companionship with them compared to what boys reported, but they also reported more conflict with their pets than boys did.
  • Both boys and girls had more conflict with their siblings than with their pets.

If many adults consider their relationships with dogs to be like those they share with children, it’s no wonder that many kids relate to their dogs much like they relate to their brothers and sisters—only better!

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Food Sharing in Dogs
Familiar dogs prompt generosity more than unknown dogs

Dogs will give food to other dogs. Okay, maybe your dogs don’t show this tendency at home enough for you to believe it, but in laboratory settings, it happens. (It happens in other species, too, especially in various primates and in rats.) A recent study of this behavior found that the details of the experimental situation influence whether dogs choose to give food to other dogs or not. 

“Task Differences and Prosociality; Investigating Pet Dogs’ Prosocial Preferences in a Token Choice Paradigm” investigated prosocial behavior—voluntary behavior that benefits others. In the study, dogs were trained to touch a token with their nose to deliver food to another dog who was in an enclosure, or touch another token that resulted in nothing happening. This is a different experimental design than has previously been used in which a dog could pull a shelf with food on it so that the food reached a dog in another enclosure, or pull an empty shelf.

In the experiment with the tokens, sometimes the dog in the enclosure was one that the “giving” dog lives with, sometimes it was an unfamiliar dog and sometimes the enclosure was empty. In some trials, there was a dog next to them when they were choosing whether to touch the token to give food away. Sometimes they were alone when making their choice.

The study found that 1) Dogs were more likely to give food to dogs who they live with than to dogs who are strangers. 2) Having another dog with them made them more generous, meaning that they were more likely to give food when they were with another dog rather than when they were alone.

To be fair, the dogs were not literally sharing the food out of their own bowl. They were choosing to act so that food would be given to another dog, but they didn’t lose out on any food by giving to the other dog. Still, it’s nice to know that dogs can share food, even if what we most appreciate about them is their ability to share love!

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