Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Experience with relevant objects has no effect
April 11 2016
Anyone whose dog loves to get into the garbage for a trash party or is better than Houdini at escaping from a crate knows that dogs are problem solvers. In fact, their ability to solve problems is an active area of research, and the results are not always intuitively obvious. (That’s the way that scientists express what other people might say as, “Whoa! That’s not what I expected!”)
In the study, “Inhibitory Control, but Not Prolonged Object-Related Experience Appears to Affect Physical Problem-Solving Performance of Pet Dogs”, researchers studied how two factors relate to how well dogs solve problems presented as physical tasks. Specifically, they wanted to know whether the ability to inhibit themselves was correlated with increased problem solving ability and whether experience with objects relevant to the problems made a difference. These two variables were chosen for investigation because there is evidence that they are both important in problem solving ability across a range of species, including humans.
In order to address these questions, they recruited 63 Border Collie puppies in pet homes and studied them over a period of three years. Each dog was randomly assigned to one of three groups that differed in their experiences with physical tasks.
The first group (enrichment group) received toys that gave them the opportunity to learn about the physical effects of gravity, attachment, and support and also a set of toys that required attending to a size differential between objects to access a treat. The second group (manipulative group) received toys that gave them the same opportunity as the first group to manipulate toys, to push and pull on handles and other parts of the toys, but which did not teach them about the effects of such actions or the importance of relative size. The third group (control group) had only the typical toys used by guardians for stimulation, such as ropes, balls and various rubber toys. The dogs in the experimental and manipulative groups (but not in the control group) took part in a string-pulling study that provided an additional educational experience about the physical effects of their actions.
All dogs, no matter which experience group they were in, were taught three inhibitory tasks. One was being required to wait for permission before taking a treat on the floor in front of them. (This task is often called “Leave It” though some people using this cue never allow the dog to take the treat he was told to leave.)
The second involved the opportunity to obtain a treat from underneath each of two transparent cups turned upside down. The catch was that there were three cups and the dog would only be permitted to knock over two of them. He had to avoid knocking over the empty cup, as the final cup was made unavailable after the dog had knocked over two cups. This is very hard for dogs, especially if the empty cup is in the middle between the cups with treats.
The third task involved the dog being caught by his leash on something like a tree or a lamp post. The guardian would call the dog, but the dog had to first move away from the person in order to untangle himself.
To assess dogs’ level of inhibitory control, they were tested on each of the tasks after a month of practice and scored on a scale of 0 to 2, which 2 representing the highest level of inhibition. This study did not distinguish between learned and inherent levels of inhibition, but simply looked a dog’s ability when tested to control himself in the various tasks.
To sum up, dogs were given one of three levels of experience with objects and their levels of inhibitory control were assessed. They were then tested with four problem-solving tasks. The problems were all designed to be difficult in order to detect potential improvement based on experience. (If the tasks were too easy, researchers would be unlikely to detect any role of experience in dogs’ ability to solve the problem.)
One main result of the study is that there was no difference found in the problem-solving abilities between the three groups of dogs. That is, success at solving the problems was not related to whether a dog was in the enriched, manipulation or control group. Another result of the study was that dogs’ inhibition scores were related to their performance in two of the problem-solving tasks, but not the other two. Of the two tasks in which performance was related to inhibition, one task was positively associated with success (high inhibition predicted success at solving the problem) and the other was negatively associated with success (a low level of inhibition predicted success at performing the task correctly).
The dogs in this study did not exhibit the ability to transfer knowledge about physical rules learned in one situation to another, similar situation. The researchers conclude that dogs do not generalize from one problem-solving task to another. They hypothesize that dogs approach each problem as a novel task unrelated to others that they have already solved.
I’m curious about these conclusions because of my own experiences observing dogs. I don’t have data on canine problem solving, so my surprise about this study’s results only reflects my anecdotal observations. It seems that dogs who understand how to get food from one style of Kong or toy have an easier time figuring out similar puzzles. It also seems that once a dog has solved the mystery of one “secure” trash can, others are quick to be defeated by that same dog. Perhaps experience only matters with highly similar tasks, or when the task is presented in the same location. Another possibility is that if the motivation to solve the problem is high enough, a dog will perform at a higher level. Kongs and trash cans may provide more motivation than a puzzle in a lab setting. All of these variables would be interesting to explore in future studies. Such work is incredibly intensive and time-consuming, and I applaud these researchers for investigating canine problem solving abilities in a long-term, controlled experiment.
Do the conclusions of this study match your expectations?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
We can all enjoy Canada’s favorite sport
April 7 2016
Playing is an important part of being happy, and Crusoe the Dachshund has this part of his daily routine in order. In this video, he is playing hockey (or some variant of the sport) with his friend Oakley, who is also a Dachshund.
So many aspects of this video make it fun to watch. There’s the fact that it has dogs in it, which is of course the most important piece. There’s also the whimsical music, the anatomy-enhancing uniforms and the bouncy behavior of the dogs. The skillful editing is a big part of what makes this video so entertaining. My favorite moment is at about six seconds in when one of the dogs looks to his right as though he really is on the ice monitoring the positions of the other players in order to plan his next move.
Crusoe the Celebrity Dachshund has many other entertaining videos, if you ever feel the need for a little canine cheer.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs may need a break from each other
April 5 2016
“I haven’t been more than 30 feet away from him in almost nine weeks!”
That was my older son’s answer when I asked the kids why they were uncharacteristically cranky with each other. It was a fair answer because it was almost literally true. When we spent all of last summer in Europe, it was a lot of family time. Only my husband, whose work was the reason for our travels there, spent some time away from the rest of us.
I know better than to allow that degree of excessive togetherness between dogs in the same family, and I was a little chagrined to realize I had made such a mistake with my human family. Oops. Even dogs who adore each other and are truly the best of friends benefit from some time apart. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Unless your dogs are the rare exception because they are emotionally incapable of being away from one another, some quality time apart can be advantageous.
It doesn’t have to be a lot of time; I’m not suggesting you adjust your life so that your dogs have hours of separate activities each day. Even one walk or activity a week, or a couple of separate 15-minute play sessions can go a long way. It only takes a short break to prevent small irritations from building up. Those little stresses may not be obvious to us, but dogs can still get on each other’s nerves. Most dogs adjust and there is no problem, but we can help them enjoy life just a bit more with a change of pace involving time away from each other.
Many people swear that their dogs hate to be apart, but in many cases, the issue is not being apart, but being left behind. If more than one person lives in your home, it’s easier to work through this by having each person take one of the dogs to do something at the same time. If you are the only human in the family, then a good plan is to leave something fun and tasty to chew on with one dog while you go somewhere with the other dog.
If this is a challenge for your dogs, it’s a good idea to start with very short separations so that you can teach each dog to be comfortable being left alone. It’s a good skill to have in just case one dog becomes ill or injured and you have a forced separation on your hands.
If you have a multi-dog household, do your dogs have time away from the other dogs in the family?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s now legal to break into cars to rescue pets and people
March 31 2016
The governor of Florida just signed a law making it legal to break into a car to rescue a person or a pet who is “in imminent danger of suffering harm.” It applies to vulnerable people and pets (including cats and dogs), but does not apply to farm animals. Many people and pets die each year because they have been left in overheating cars, so this law could save many lives. It is especially important in a hot southern state like Florida with the summer months approaching.
The law specifies procedures that must be followed in order for a person breaking into a car to be protected from civil liability for damage to the vehicle. If you are trying to help someone in danger, here’s what you should know about the law. It is required that you check that the car is locked before breaking in. If you do break in, the law requires that you do so with the minimum force necessary. You are required to call 911 or law enforcement before or immediately after rescuing the person or pet from the car, and you must stay with the rescued pet or the person until first responders arrive.
I’m delighted to know that Floridians are now protected by this law if they see an individual in danger in a car and choose to act. Many people would rescue the pet or person regardless of the risk to themselves, but it’s far better to give legal protection to such potential heroes.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Accepting them is a lifelong process
March 30 2016
Dogs learn to be comfortable with the world through experience. Some dogs take most novel things in stride while others struggle to deal with anything different. Behaviorally healthy, well-socialized dogs have an easier time handling the unexpected than dogs who had rougher starts in life or are naturally less go-with-the-flow.
Learning to cope with new experiences is a lifelong process because there are an infinite number of them. For example, few dogs have had to deal with a child doing handstands, but Marley is one of them. He is accepting, though not particularly thrilled, about this activity. Here he is as my son wanders around him while walking on his hands. (Normally I encourage my son to be thoughtful of the dog and do his handstands at a greater distance from Marley, but I needed a video . . . )
Two factors may explain Marley’s lack of reactivity. One is that Marley is generally not reactive to anything. Sure, he gets pepped up when food or a walk are in his immediate future, and when he sees his guardian or any dear friend after a long absence, he is enthusiastic, but that’s about it. He does not react to popping balloons, power tools, crowds of people, bikes, skateboards or children giving him love. The other factor is that he has been around my son doing handstands for a number of years now, and it probably seems reasonably ordinary to him.
It would be extraordinary for any dog to be relaxed when seeing a child doing handstands for the first time. I once observed an extremely well-adjusted dog startle when he experienced this, presumably for the first time. Several years ago, my son was doing a handstand by the baggage claim area in an airport. (Don’t judge. If you’ve never taken an active 8-year old on a 10-hour plane flight, you may struggle to understand why I said yes when he asked if he could do a handstand. Like dogs who have not had a chance to exercise, my son was in desperate need of some activity.)
Regrettably, I failed to notice that a drug-sniffing dog was in the area, and when the dog came near us and saw my son, that dog visibly flinched. Thankfully, my son noticed and came down from his handstand just as I was telling him to do so, AND the dog’s wise handler immediately turned the dog away from us. Once he was at a good distance from us, the handler cued the dog for a sit and a down, which I suspect was a purposeful attempt to calm him down. I can imagine the handler’s despair at thinking his dog had been taught to deal with so much—people with canes or wheelchairs, kids running around and screaming, crowds of people in all manner of dress and carrying every large or awkwardly shaped item—only to have his dog confronted by the sight of a child walking on his hands.
From the dog’s and the handler’s point of view, it’s certainly possible to consider this bad luck. On the other hand, it was an opportunity to be exposed to yet another new experience and learn to accept it. It served as a reminder to me that no dog’s training and exposure to the world is ever complete. Every dog, even a highly trained working dog, still faces new experiences throughout his life.
Has your dog faced something so unexpected that you never thought to expose him to it on purpose?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s not about the breed!
March 25 2016
Not a week goes by that I don’t get asked what I think are the most dangerous kinds of dogs. If what I do for a living comes up, this question often does, too. And when people say “kind” they are typically talking about breed. When I answer that the breed doesn’t have anything to do with it, people are usually skeptical, but there is consensus in the field of canine behavior about this.
Recently, I read a blog post called “The Five Most Dangerous Types of Dogs in the World” that sheds light on what types of dogs are dangerous. It makes clear that we need to pay attention to individual dogs and specific circumstances rather than the dog’s breed. According to this post, the five most dangerous types of dogs are:
Untrained dogs. If a dog has no boundaries, and has never been taught how to behave, he is more likely to injure someone, perhaps by accident.
Fearful dogs. Dogs who are scared or nervous may panic and act aggressively in order to protect themselves. Being afraid is at the root of more canine aggression than any other factor.
Unpredictable dogs. If a dog’s behavior is confusing and does not follow any obvious pattern, it’s easy to be taken off guard by their actions or inadvertently do something that upsets him.
Tired or sick dogs. Just like people, dogs are not at their best when they don’t feel well and most would prefer not to be bothered. Dogs don’t have many ways to let us know they want to be left alone. They sometimes resort to a growl, snap or bite, especially if they’ve already tried to walk away and go off by themselves, and that didn’t get the message across.
Unfamiliar dogs. Not all dogs consider everyone a friend immediately. Lots of dogs need time to warm up to new people and don’t like to be treated as a long lost friend within five seconds of being introduced.. Treating an unfamiliar dog like your best friend can be off-putting to some and lead to aggressive behavior. If you adore all dogs, it’s hard to remember that the feeling of love at first sight may not always be mutual.
There are plenty of dogs in each of these categories that are not dangerous in the slightest, but it makes sense to consider these potential risk factors and act accordingly.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
What makes your dog’s beauty show?
March 23 2016
Marley was in his element, taking a walk in one of his favorite spots with the nearby mountains showing off the last of their spring snow. The sunshine highlighted the reddish tones of his coat, and his face was radiant with happiness. I took a picture because my thought at the time was, “Everything about this moment shows off how magnificent this animal is.”
All dogs look especially attractive to me when they are happy, but it takes more than that to bring out the very best look in any dog. There’s often a perfect combination of factors that allows a dog’s beauty to show. It may have to do with their behavior at that moment, or the situation, or the specific facial expression. It’s rarely about how naturally nice-looking the dog is, because that’s not what’s important.
A mother dog with pups who is lovingly caring for them may highlight her most lovely self. Some dogs look the most appealing when they are engaged in a joyful game of fetch along the ocean shore. Eye-catching good looks can be seen in the happiness of a dog greeting someone after a long absence or in the peaceful sleep after a full day of strenuous exercise.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and every individual is different, so there are an infinite number of ways for dogs to display their appeal. What factors best bring out your dog’s beauty?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
March 16 2016
Recently, scientist Claudia Fugazza got out of the bathtub, drained it and then watched her newest dog, Velvet, jump in and spend several minutes lying in the tub as though she were relaxing. Despite the potential mess, Fugazza had no objection to Velvet’s activity. In fact, she had decided not to inhibit Velvet from performing behaviors inspired by her own actions.
Many dogs are inhibited, however. We reach into our bag, and when the dog sniffs its interior, we say, “No!” When we sit on the couch and then they sit on the couch, we tell them to get off, and we react the same way if they start to dig in the yard after we do.
Velvet is not the only one of Fugazza’s dogs to mimic some of her actions. One night several years ago, Fugazza was surprised to hear water running in the bathroom; she thought she had turned it off. When it happened again the next night, she began to suspect that her dog Siria, who loved to drink directly from the tap, was responsible. On a subsequent night, Fugazza made sure the water was off, then kept an eye on Siria. As she watched, Siria went into the bathroom, opened the faucet with her nose and drank from the stream.
This experience inspired Fugazza to begin reading about animals’ capacity to learn new behavior by watching others —a specific form of social learning called imitation. Years ago, it was thought that dogs were not capable of social learning of this kind—that only humans could do this. As it turns out, this hypothesis about human-only aptitudes failed to stand up to solid research, as have many others.
For example, the idea that only humans used tools was disproven by Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees. As pioneering anthropologist Louis Leakey famously remarked in a telegram to Goodall, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” Similarly, it was long thought that only humans used language or experienced emotions, but these capacities have been found to exist in many species.
Now, imitation as a uniquely human trait is on the chopping block. Research into social learning (including imitation) in dogs and many other species is extremely well documented.
A paper titled Reproducing human actions and action sequences: “Do as I do!” in a dog (Topál et al. 2006) was among the earliest to demonstrate the canine ability to copy human actions. It also detailed a dog-training protocol—Do as I Do—that makes use of this natural inclination. Fugazza started using the protocol with her dog India, and loved it. From this spark of interest, she began a new chapter in her own life, changing careers to pursue research in animal cognition rather than continuing to work as a lawyer.
During my interview with Fugazza via Skype, it was easy to see her affection for dogs as well as her scientific curiosity about them. Her walls are decorated with dog paintings created by an artist friend. She got up during our conversation to let in her very old Border Collie, Snoopy, lovingly explaining that he’s not always sure what he wants to do these days. When she talks about her research and the questions she wants to address in future studies, she is animated and enthusiastic.
Fugazza’s main area of interest is social learning, and she’s one of the researchers studying this phenomenon in our best friends. The principle underlying her work is that animals who live in groups are capable of acquiring new skills through social learning. For example, there are advantages to avoiding trial and error when learning what’s edible. For dogs, it can be particularly beneficial to acquire information from humans. After all, people are the experts on many things that interest dogs, such as where to find food or other treasures and how to open various contraptions such as drawers, doors and containers.
With the knowledge that dogs are capable of social learning, and that it can be used to train them, Fugazza began to explore ways to put this aptitude to use. Her book, Do as I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs (Dogwise), explains the method in detail as well as the history of its development.
The Do as I Do (DAID) method teaches dogs to copy human actions. Once a dog understands the system, the person can perform a behavior, say “Do it!” and the dog will imitate it. Fugazza’s research has demonstrated that this method is highly successful, especially when the behavior involves an interaction with an object.
In a recent study, Fugazza and her collaborators found that—when compared to dogs taught via shaping/clicker-training methods—DAID-trained dogs learned faster, were better able to generalize the performance of a new task to a new context, and were more successful at performing the task in response to a verbal cue 24 hours after the training session (Fugazza, Miklósi 2015).
Like any training method, DAID has both advantages and limitations. Though some see it as a challenge to their own longtime training methods, Fugazza considers it a supplement rather than a replacement. In order to learn what “Do it!” means, dogs must be able to perform a number of behaviors learned via other methods, shaping/clicker among them. She also emphasizes that while DAID can reduce the time it takes to train a dog to perform certain tasks, it’s not useful for teaching dogs to walk on a leash or to come when called.
Among its advantages is its focus on the human/canine relationship, and many dogs seem to benefit from this way of learning. Another interesting aspect of the DAID paradigm is the view it provides of dogs’ cognitive processes. What Fugazza finds most interesting is that it allows an investigation of the way the observer (the dog) represents the action of the demonstrator (the person). In other words, it allows her to see what is in the dog’s head when he observes the action of the demonstrator. Studying how dogs learn through imitation has implications for our understanding of dogs’ minds as well as their behavior.
One study involved the action of opening a drawer. The people performed the action with their hands, but dogs’ use of either paw or nose was considered successful. (Researchers were looking for what they call “functional imitation,” which takes into account the differences between dog and human anatomy.) One of the dogs did not imitate the behavior, which was surprising because this dog had previously had a lot of success with DAID training. The guardian said she thought her dog would do it if she herself demonstrated by opening the drawer with her mouth, which she did. The dog then immediately copied her action, and did it correctly. Since most dogs opened the drawer by mouth after observing a human do it by hand, this exception provides insight into individual differences in dogs’ mental representations of actions.
Currently, Fugazza is researching the length of time that dogs can remember behavior shown by a human demonstrator, and this is the area in which she has been most surprised by dogs’ abilities. Specifically, she was amazed to find that dogs can remember actions they observed after a 24-hour delay but did not ever perform during the learning session. Her research into time delays suggests that dogs’ mental representations of the actions demonstrated are long-lasting (Fugazza et al. 2015).
It’s exciting when science meets practical experience, and when love and understanding of dogs connect with a desire to improve our interactions and relationships with them. Claudia Fugazza, who has experience in both the world of science and dog training, has seen firsthand how different these fields can be.
In the scientific arena, there has been (and continues to be) extreme skepticism about work with canines in the area of imitation. Fugazza welcomes the criticism, which she says forces her and her colleagues to do even better, more conclusive research. The intense scrutiny has improved their work and allowed them to design and carry out the very cleanest and best studies possible.
She has had the opposite reaction from the dog-training world—hardly any skepticism at all—probably because dog lovers believe that dogs are amazing and have incredible untapped potential. Additionally, dog trainers, who typically are open to new styles of training and always looking for novel ways to work with dogs, are finding the DAID approach to be quite useful.
That’s no surprise, because the method takes advantage of social learning, which comes naturally to dogs. What is thrilling is that it opens up a world that millions of dog trainers and dog guardians have fantasized about for years. We can show dogs—literally show them—what we want them to do!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
They prevent hassles, too
March 16 2016
Equipment can and does fail from time to time. Collars break, leashes slip out of hands and gates fly open. I’m a very responsible person prone to excessive checking and re-checking, yet I have had every one of these things happen to me at some point. It’s part of my general nature to have back-up plans, and these little misfortunes have only made me more aware of their importance.
A good recall, a solid stay and a reliable wait are helpful cues that I use as back-ups in case of an error or simple bad luck. It takes a lot of training for them to work in emergencies, which is when they are needed most. A back-up strategy that works even with no training is a welcome addition to any safety plan, which is the reason I’m a fan of the carabiner.
A carabiner is a metal loop with a spring-loaded gate that can be used to connect components together quickly and easily in a reversible way. Carabiners are used by rock climbers and by other adventure-sport enthusiasts. Sometimes, like it or not, working with dogs, especially the aggressive ones that are my specialty, is an adventure. Paying attention to safety in the way so inherent to successful rock-climbing just makes good sense. With dogs, we often need to attach things, but not in a permanent way, which is why I regularly use carabiners in two ways.
I use them on gates. Even when latched, gates can blow open in high winds. Where I live, we regularly get wind gusts over 50 miles per hour in the spring, and many dogs are accidentally released from their yards during that season. Not only do carabiners prevent latched gates from failing in this way, they also provide an extra safety against a gate being left unlatched. It’s easy for a latch not to fully catch, even if you think you’ve closed it, but if you’re taking the extra step of securing it with a carabiner, you know your gate is closed.
I also use them with leashes, harnesses and collars. By attaching any equipment such as a harness or head collar to your dog’s flat collar, you protect yourself from the failure of any one piece of equipment. Even if your dog slips out of one, it is still attached by the carabiner to something else on your dog’s body. It may not be functioning as it does when it is properly in place, but at least your dog is not free in a situation in which that would be dangerous. The leash can be attached to you with a carabiner by wrapping it around your waist for a hands-free walking experience (only if your dog won’t be trying to pull you over!) or to your backpack or other sturdy accessory.
Make sure that the carabiner you are using is a true weight-bearing and locking carabiner, and not one simply designed to be used as a keychain or to hold something little like a mesh bag to a backpack. Many carabiners are great for casual use with light objects, but are not sufficient for the uses I’ve described here.
Have you used carabiners to help keep your dogs safe?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
What puts your dog’s tail in motion?
March 13 2016
When I taught training classes, we often had contests on the last day of a session. Dogs (and their guardians) could win prizes for the most charming trick, the best stay, the slowest heel and other categories. My favorite contest was always the most enthusiastic tail wag. I would tell my students to do whatever they would do to get their dog to wag his tail if someone told them that they could won a million dollars for the best tail wag. (In reality, the prize was a dog toy, a package of dog treats or perhaps a gift certificate to a local pet store.)
Over the years, I saw a range of ways to prompt tail wags. People would praise their dogs, “Who’s my good girl? You’re my good girl!” play with them, show them a ball, or pull out the leash and say, “Do you want to go for a walk?” People told their dogs that dinner was ready or said, “Daddy’s home!” In one memorable instance, a guy left for a minute and then came back so his dog could give him a welcome home greeting. (He won by a wide margin!) Other students fed their dogs handfuls of treats, said, “Do you want to go for a ride?” or headed out the door saying, “You get to go!”
If you were in this contest, what would you do to get your dog to show off his best tail wag?
Copyright © 1997-2016 The Bark, Inc. Dog Is My Co-Pilot® is a registered trademark of The Bark, Inc