Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression
Good Dog: Studies & Research
What you say and how you say it both matter
August 31 2016
Humans use both words and the intonation of speech to decipher the meaning of language, and it turns out that our dogs do, too. In a research paper called “Neural mechanisms for lexical processing in dogs” scientists investigated how dogs process the meaning of language. They found that dogs’ brains have even more in common with humans’ brains than previously thought. (It’s not clear when we will collectively stop being surprised by this, but I hope we always remain excited about new evidence to explain why we feel that dogs are kindred spirits.)
In this study, dogs who have been trained to remain still while their brain activity is recorded listened to recordings of their trainers talking. There were four types of recordings: 1) words of praise spoken with intonation typically associated with praise, 2) words of praise spoken with a neutral intonation, 3) neutral words spoken with intonation typically associated with praise, and 4) neutral words spoken with a neutral intonation.
Researchers analyzed the brain activity of the dogs in response to each of the recordings, and came to several conclusions about the way that dogs respond to words and the intonation of human speech. The dogs processed the vocabulary in the left hemisphere of their brains, which is where humans also process the meaning of words. The dogs processed the intonation of the words separately, in a different region of the brain. Just as humans do, dogs processed the intonation of human speech in the right hemisphere of their brain. Dogs also process sounds that convey emotion without words in this same region of the brain’s right hemisphere.
Dogs process both words and the intonation of human speech to decipher meaning. Just as humans do, they process these two aspects of speech separately, then integrate them to determine the full meaning of what was said. Only the praise that was spoken like praise—higher pitched than normal speech and with more variation in pitch—activated the reward centers of dogs’ brains. Though they may understand words of praise said in any manner, it only makes dogs happy to hear us praise them when we do it with proper feeling.
This research does more than reveal yet another similarity in the way that human and dog brains process information. It also suggests that the ability to connect a word to a meaning did not develop with the evolution of spoken language. Rather, it is a more ancient ability that can be made use of in the context of the human-dog relationship to link specific sounds to specific meanings.
The take away messages from this research are that dogs process two parts of spoken language—words and intonation—the same way that humans do and if you want to make your dogs happy, you have to praise them like you mean it!
There’s so much “funny” out there
August 30 2016
We are taking care of a puppy whose tag has contact information on one side and says “Have your people call my people” on the other. It so accurately reflects the way many dog lovers view their position in the world—as the dogs’ people.
That tag is not the only amusing dog phrase to catch my attention in recent weeks. While traveling in Sri Lanka this past summer, I saw a bumper sticker proclaiming, “I like big mutts and I cannot lie.” Some of the windows of the vehicle were smeared all over with what I’ve come to learn is called “nose art”. The dog was no Picasso, but he was very productive, having created more art than most dogs ever will.
Most recently, I found myself chuckling over a dog-related saying at a client’s house. She had a prominently displayed wooden sign that read, “You’re not really drinking alone if your dog is home.” Though I myself lack any “wine-appreciation” genes, I knew right away that I would enjoy working with this woman.
Is your home, car or dog adorned with a canine-themed phrase that makes you laugh?
Interactive displays for canines by experiential artist Dominic Wilcox
August 26 2016
More Than insurance company commissioned British designer Dominic Wilcox to create a contemporary art exhibit for dogs. It is part of an ongoing effort by the company to improve the physical and mental health of dogs by encouraging people to play with them more.
One goal was the development of an exhibit like those in the best science and children’s museums that stimulate visitors and entice them to interact with the displays. Another part of Wilcox’s assignment was to come up with an exhibit that would fit in at any of the world’s best museums of modern and contemporary art.
The displays in “Play More” are varied and focus on different senses. There are paintings in colors within the dog’s visual spectrum and hanging at just the right height for them to view easily. The Watery Wonder exhibit is a series of fountains in water bowls with the water jetting from one bowl to another. Cruising Canines simulates an open-window car ride by blowing a fan to send the scents of raw meat and old shoes to the dogs seated behind cutouts in a two-dimensional car. Dinnertime Dreams is a 10-foot representation of a dog bowl filled with 1000 balls that each resemble dog kibble. Catch is a video of a Frisbee™ disk bouncing around a screen and consistently held many dogs’ attention.
Two dogs admire “Drumstick Park,” a park scene painted by Robert Nicol and placed at canine eye-level.
“Cruising Canines” simulates an open car window with a giant fan wafting favorite canine scents (raw meat and old shoes) through the air.
A dog is captivated with “Catch,” a multimedia installation that simulates a Frisbee bouncing around a screen.
Dog pals posing with the 10-foot wide “Dinnertime Dreams”—filled with dog food shaped balls.
The exhibit’s designer Dominic Wlicox and friend next to one of the exhibit’s meat-inspired sculptures.
It’s a daunting task to create a series of interactive displays for canines to enjoy that are also contemporary works of art worthy of display in a modern art museum. I think Wilcox succeeded, but you can judge for yourself in this video.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Individual variation explains a lot
August 24 2016
Dogs are well known to be chowhounds. The idea that they love food more than anything else is practically (excuse the expression) dogma in the fields of canine behavior and dog training. The trouble is, recent research suggests that it is not true for all dogs.
In a study called “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food” scientists investigated whether dogs prefer treats or praise, and whether their choice can be predicted by their brains’ response to both stimuli. In one experiment, they measured the level of activation of the brain’s ventral caudate, an area known to function as a reward center, in response to items that predicted various outcomes. A toy car predicted that verbal praise was coming, a toy horse predicted that food on its way and a hairbrush was associated with nothing. Dogs were trained to make these associations with a series of 40 pairings of each object with what it predicted. The activation of the specific region of the brain was measured with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is possible because the dogs in the study have all been trained to remain motionless while in the scanner.
The average activation of the reward center of the brain was higher in the food and praise conditions than in the neutral condition, which shows that the dogs did learn the associations between the objects and what the objects predicted. (Each dog’s responses in the brain to seeing the toy horse and NOT receiving the expected praise was also measured.) There were 15 dogs in this experiment, and most of them had a similar response in the reward center to the food or to the praise. Four showed a stronger response to praise and two showed a stronger response to food. The average response to praise and to food did not differ.
In another experiment, dogs were placed in a Y-maze and given the opportunity to choose which arm of the maze to go to. One arm led to a food bowl with treats and the other arm led to the dog’s guardian, who provided petting and praise. Each dog was tested in the Y-maze 20 times. Seven dogs in the study chose the guardian the more times than the food, and seven dogs chose the food more often. One dog chose the guardian and the food an equal number of times.
The relative value of praise versus food in the first experiment was highly predictive of the choices that dogs made in the Y-maze experiment. Dogs whose ventral caudate showed a strong response to praise were more likely to choose their guardian over food but dogs who did not show such a strong response to praise relative to food were more likely to head for the food when given a choice.
Regrettably, the results of this study have erroneously been reported in many places as proof that dogs prefer praise and belly rubs to treats, and suggested that using treats in training is therefore unnecessary. It has been written in many places discussing this study that 13 of 15 dogs prefer praise to food, and that’s not correct. What the researchers actually wrote is that in 13 of the 15 dogs, the ventral caudate showed either roughly equal activation to food and to praise or greater activation to praise than to food.
It’s quite interesting that roughly half of the dogs chose their guardian over food. For those dogs, social interaction such as praise and belly rubs may be more effective than treats in training. However, caution is important when acting on the findings in this study because the research may overestimate the response of dogs to their guardians relative to food in situations outside the laboratory setting.
The lab may have been stressful, causing a bias in dogs towards an increased interest in their guardians when compared with food. They may have been seeking comfort from their guardians in a way that they might not be during typical training situations. The scientists do point out that these dogs have been trained to stay still in the scanner and that the lab is a familiar environment. That does not mean the dogs are as comfortable as they are at home or in other areas such as on neighborhood walks, at the park or at the training center where they attend classes. It’s important to know what dogs choose in the actual training setting before changing what reinforcement to use based on lab research.
Additionally, although dogs may value social connections over food when the social interaction is with their guardian, not all training occurs between guardian and pet. I do a lot of training with dogs who I adore, but I don’t share quite the same bond with them as they do with their own guardian. So, just because dogs may prefer affection from their guardian over food does not mean that they prefer affection from just anyone over food. Finally, in many training scenarios, dogs receive praise in addition to food during training, and that may be more effective than either one alone.
Many people swear that their dogs prefer praise and petting to treats, and others are just as certain that food wins out every time with their dogs. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that individual variation in preferences is huge. If you feel strongly about what matters most to dogs, there’s a good chance you’re right—when it comes to your dog, anyway.
Do you think your dog would go for food or for praise and affection if given the choice?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Important enough to be a featured story
August 21 2016
I’ve been a dog trainer long enough (almost 20 years) to see a massive change in the perception of the field. It used to be considered more a hobby than a job, even though many of us were already making a living doing it full time. I remember someone once telling me that it was “almost as though you have a real career”. Now, dog training is recognized as serious business and as a valuable contribution to society. In fact, it’s so legit that the CIA discussed its top 10 dog training tips in a featured article alongside articles such as “The Korean War Controversy: An Intelligence Success or Failure?” and “The Spymaster’s Toolkit”.
What’s even more exciting to me than seeing how seriously the CIA takes its dog training is realizing that the CIA’s Top 10 Dog Training Tips are absolutely spot on. The first tip is “Make it fun” and the last one is “Always end on a positive”. Everything in between is just as likely to make your typical dog trainer nod, smile or click. Dogs who work for the CIA begin their training as part of civilian training programs such as Guide Dogs for the Blind or programs in which inmates in jail train puppies in basic skills.
Dogs in the CIA aim to do what other members of this agency try to do—keep people safe—though their specific job is primarily sniffing out explosives. In addition to that detection work, dogs may be involved in apprehending suspects and educating the public. The K-9 program at the CIA emphasizes training as well as lots of exercise and plenty of time to play.
It was news to me that the CIA’s methods of developing great working dogs combine consistent and positive training with making sure the dogs have happy, balanced lives. Did you already know this?
By the Numbers
August 19 2016
Congratulate the canines in your household for showing up on earth at just the right time, because, compared to those dogs who lived 25 years ago, today’s dogs have many advantages.
1. Coercion training has been largely replaced by kinder, gentler positive methods. While not everyone is training with modern techniques, the trend continues to gain momentum. It is more effective and better for the relationship between dogs and people to teach dogs what to do and then reinforce them for being right—with toys, treats, play or affection—than to issue commands and deliver a leash pop or a shock in response to an incorrect response.
2. Behaviorists abound to help people with their dogs’ issues. Twenty-five years ago, it was more common to euthanize dogs for problems such as aggression, destructive chewing or repetitive behaviors than it is today. Now, many of these concerns can be resolved by working with a qualified animal behaviorist.
3. Options are plentiful for dogs who suffer pain due to injuries, arthritis or other medical causes. Acupuncture, while an ancient art, is relatively new on the scene for canine pain management, and the multitude of dog massage techniques, including TTouch, means that many dogs are relieved of pain rather than living with it or suffering from the side effects of medications.
4. It’s easier to travel with dogs now. More hotels accept dogs, and riding in the car is safer due to the use of crates and canine seat belts. Fewer dogs are left at home during family vacations and outings, and fewer are sliding around in the backs of vehicles.
5. Walking on-leash is a part of life for most dogs, and compared with 25 years ago, there are more relatively humane and effective options. It’s hard to imagine a dog who wouldn’t prefer a Gentle Leader, Snoot Loop, Halti or SENSEation harness to the choke chains that once were common.
6. Canine play is considered important in ways that were unheard of years ago. Play is widely viewed as critical for developing and maintaining good relationships between people and dogs, and as a result, more than ever, dogs are having fun with their people on a regular basis, and playing with better toys. The toy options are dizzying; from Kongs and Chewbers to Dogzillas and Nina Ottosson’s puzzle toys—the world of dog toys has moved well beyond balls and sticks!
7. Dog-centered activities are more numerous now. Agility, flyball, herding, tracking, lure coursing, rally-O and dog training classes as diverse as basic obedience and even tricks and games are common, as are “dog camps,” places where people and their dogs can enjoy such activities in the company of the like-minded.
8. Compared with 25 years ago, dogs are welcome in more places. Many people take their dogs to work, and more shops and businesses are allowing dogs as guests. On a more fundamental level, more dogs are now living inside our homes rather than outside as before. This greater hospitality may stem from the biggest change of all over the last 25 years, which is that more than ever, dogs are now considered members of the family. The wholehearted inclusion of dogs in our families—a perspective once voiced only by the very brave or slightly quirky—has become a mainstream idea over the past quarter-century.
Then or now, perhaps one of the greatest things about being a dog is that the tendency to sit around with friends and bark about “the good old days” doesn’t exist. I like to think that for dogs, the “good old days” are happening right now.
Dog's Life: Events
Partner with the Clear the Shelters initiative encouraging pet adoptions.
August 17 2016
Dealing with the media can get in the way of Olympic athletes’ training, but it’s obvious that none of them were complaining about a recent photo shoot to promote Clear the Shelters. This is a nationwide adoption effort to find loving homes for pets in need.
Even paired with such famous Olympians as Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Gabby Douglas and Venus Williams, the puppies stole the show. The expression on the puppy with Nathan Adrian is so cute it almost hurts to look at him! The little guy held by Michael Phelps is obviously in tune with others, realizing that the greatest swimmer of all time is uncharacteristically dry and needs to be licked. Justin Gatlin and Alex Morgan both enjoy a laugh with their puppies.
There’s a lot of love on the people’s faces in all the photos. Though a few of the puppies look a little overwhelmed, they were all adopted into loving homes. Gymnast Aly Raisman fell in love with Gibson, the Maltese-Shih-Tzu puppy who posed with her, and ended up adopting him. He was just one of the over 45,000 pets in need nationwide who was adopted thanks to Clear the Shelters.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Canine Synchronized Swimming Commercial
August 12 2016
The Rio Olympics inspired a Farmer’s Insurance commercial featuring dogs enjoying a flooded home. The five dogs play in the water and perform a synchronized swimming routine.
In a related ad, the same water-filled home serves as the venue for a dog diving competition.
Seeing these commercials provides some compensation for the misery that comes from staying up way too late watching the Olympics every night!
News: Guest Posts
German flight attendant meets her dog in Argentina
August 10 2016
When flight attendant Olivia Sievers met a stray dog near her hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she could hardly have predicted that she would adopt him a few months later. A dog lover, she gave the dog some food and played with him for a bit. This loving attention resulted in a strong attachment by the dog to her, and he continued to seek out her company. He waited outside her hotel until she emerged again, and no matter where she went or by what route, he found her and followed her.
It’s easy to imagine that this sociable dog had rarely encountered people who were as kind and giving to him, so naturally he felt a strong bond with Sievers. He stayed by the hotel’s entrance, prompting her to give him an airline blanket to keep him cozy at night.
She returned to Germany, but the dog greeted her outside the hotel on her next trip to Argentina, and the next one, and the one after that. For several months, the dog was outside her hotel every time she arrived in Buenos Aires, and their friendship grew. She named him Rubio (Spanish for blond) and continued to feed and play with him. Wanting the best for him, Sievers contacted a local rescue group so that he could be adopted. Though he was in a loving home, he escaped and headed back to the hotel in search of his German friend.
When Sievers learned that Rubio escaped and had apparently come to find her, she decided to adopt him herself. Following a mountain of paperwork for the woman and a flight to the other side of the world for the dog, there was a happy reunion for the pair of them.
Sometimes we have to travel to the ends of the earth to find our true love!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Using canine ethology to improve interactions
August 3 2016
An understanding of canine emotional expressions and human responses to them are a promising avenue to pursue in developing the best social robots. Social robots are machines that interact and communicate with humans by following social behaviors and rules that go along with their roles. People want more out of them than simply performing tasks to make our lives easier. They want their Interactions with these robots to feel as natural as possible, which means minimizing the disturbing feeling many people experience with robots. For that to happen, social robots must act in a manner that is socially appropriate, which includes exhibiting the right emotions for the situation.
Much of the work on developing emotionally expressive robots has focused on human facial expressions, with some emphasis on gestures and tone of voice. These subtle forms of communication are difficult to create in an artificial system, and researchers are exploring other options. One promising line of study is to consider interactions between humans and robots as an interaction between two different species that must communicate, and to use a non-human species as a model for the robots.
Dogs are a natural choice because of the ability of humans, even without a lot of experience, to identify the emotional content of dogs’ behavior. Children can correctly identify the emotional content of dogs barks, people tend to ascribe emotions to their dogs, and these two species are able to cooperate and communicate with remarkable success. People are able to understand dogs, which is likely a result of our long-standing relationship and shared evolutionary history.
In a recent paper (“Humans attribute emotions to a robot that shows simple behavioral patterns borrowed from dog behavior”), a group of canine ethologists show that people are capable of understanding the emotions of robots when their actions are based on the behavior of dogs. Using a robot that was not shaped like a dog and could not alter its basic posture, this experiment asked the question, “Can even simple expressions of emotional behavior elicit an acceptable level of emotional attribution by people to the robot?” If so, such behaviors in a robot could lessen the need to develop robots capable of communicating complex emotions through behavior based on human facial expressions.
The subjects in the experiment watched videos of a trained dog and of the robot and were asked to attribute emotions to them. The dog was a Belgian Malinois and the robot was a touchscreen mounted on a base with wheels. The body of the robot had arm-like limbs attached to it, one of which was capable of moving in a variety of ways and one of which was not movable. The touchscreen, or head-like part of the robot, could not move independently and had no face. The robot made sounds, which were considered vocalizations. The emotions expressed by the dog and by the robot were fear, joy, anger, sadness and neutral (no emotion). Both the dog and the robot made sounds to accompany other aspects of their behavior.
The behaviors of the dog for expressing joy were approaching, wagging his tail and sidling, while in the robot, joy was represented by approaching, lifting one arm and moving the fingers and spinning. Anger in the dog involved approaching and wagging the tail as well as moving the head up and down dynamically, barking and showing his teeth. The angry robot approached, moved its arm high and swung it several times. Sadness in the dog meant sitting followed by lying down with his head down and then not moving. The robot showed sadness by backing away and turning away, lowering its arm and remaining motionless.
People more often attributed emotions to the dogs than to the robots, but the type of emotion was correctly identified with similar levels of success. The amount of experience people had with dogs was not a factor in their ability to identify emotions in either the dog or the robot.
The goal of this study was to investigate the possibility that simple canine behaviors can provide a way to facilitate the understanding of emotional expressions of robots. The robot is not designed to resemble a dog, and indeed a strength of this approach is that robots do not have to match their animal models. That is an advantage because the robots can be built with their function in mind without the extra expense and constraints of creating a specific form in order to maximize emotional expression.
General behaviors such as approaching, backing away, turning to the side, being in motion or staying still can all be performed by a robot of any shape. These behaviors, though based on canine models, are hardly specific to dogs, but apply across a large range of mammals. It is possible that creating the most emotionally expressive and natural-seeming social robots may require developers to consider a number of universal actions that are easily understood by humans as well as by other mammals.
Because human facial expressions are often considered too complex or confusing to mimic in social robots, the use of simple behaviors that convey emotions may provide a better way to make robots that are capable of emotional expression. Future work will explore ways that dogs (and perhaps other mammals) can serve as models for combining functionality with sociality. This approach will allow researchers to develop better social robots that people consider more like companions and with which they are more comfortable.
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