Home
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
Dog Halloween Costumes
Scary for our four-legged friends

It’s hard to resist the urge to put dogs in costumes. The cuteness factor can fly off the charts, and for many people, dressing up our dogs is as natural as dressing up our human children. Despite my recognition of the joy it can bring to see our pups parading around as cowgirls, devils, sports stars or Elvis, I urge caution when considering costumes for dogs.

Most dogs hate costumes. They easily become stressed and uncomfortable when wearing clothing, especially anything on the head or around the body. In the picture with this blog, the dog dressed up as a quarterback looks tense, with the closed mouth so indicative of a dog who is not comfortable, and he seems frozen in angst. In contrast, the dog behind him, sans costume, has a happy face and a relaxed body. I took this photo at a dog camp where all over the room on dress up night I saw unhappy dogs in costumes and cheerful dogs in their birthday suits.

If you simply must have your dog participate in this holiday, costumes that don’t impair dogs’ movements are best. Since most dogs are accustomed to wearing collars, small costumes that consist of something around the neck are the most easily tolerated. The key word is “small.” Rather than dress a dog up in a full tuxedo, for example, having him sport just a small bow tie may be easier for your dog to handle. This can be a great compromise that works for both people and dogs.

Costumes that dogs barely notice are great options. My dog was a skunk for Halloween one year. Being all black, the entire costume consisted of baby powder applied in a strip down his back—cute, easy and not bothersome to him. (Some dogs may even object to baby powder, but mine was fine with it.)

Even better is what my aunt used to tell trick-or-treaters about her dog Nellie who was a cross between a Beagle and a Lab: “What do you think of my cat’s costume? Doesn’t she look exactly like a dog?” My aunt could then have her dog take part in the spirit of the holiday without any ill effects. The older kids gave a little laugh, but the littlest kids were awed by Nellie’s “costume.”

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Reinforcement on the Radio
What will NPR do this time?

Each time KNAU, my local NPR station, has a pledge drive, they try a new combination of reinforcement strategies. As a dog trainer, I am naturally very interested in reinforcement since half of operant conditioning consists of reinforcement. (The other half is punishment, but thankfully, positive punishment is used in dog training less than ever, and never, as far as I know, by any NPR stations.)

Last year, KNAU emphasized negative reinforcement, which is the removal of an aversive stimulus in response to the performance of a certain behavior. (The classic example of negative reinforcement is the cessation of the loud buzzing noise as soon you put your seat belt on.) Specifically, NPR’s pitch was all about shortening the pledge drive. Their refrain was along the lines of “Do your part. If you give early, the pledge drive will end sooner.” Besides being effective for many people (I called right away!) they get points in my book for acknowledging that the pledge drive, however necessary, is annoying, which is one form of being aversive.

This fall, the tactics seem all about positive reinforcement. KNAU’s pledge drive has a theme this year: “Feed Your Mind, Feed a Family.” If you pledge at least $35 dollars, a donation will be made to provide 70 meals for needy families through a local food bank. Since people find feeding hungry people reinforcing, this may be encouraging people to contribute. Other forms of positive reinforcement include (if you donate by a certain date) the chance to win a computer or the chance to stay on a 75-foot luxury houseboat on Lake Powell with 12 friends, and a variety of other smaller prizes.

KNAU is trying to get people to perform a behavior—donating money—and like any desirable behavior, it will be performed more frequently if people get reinforced for doing so. Technically, reinforcement makes a behavior more likely to occur in the future, so if NPR can make us feel good when we donate money this time, the theory says that we will be more likely to contribute again.

Reinforcement in real life. It’s not just for dogs!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Is It Okay To Drink And Bark?
Many wineries welcome dogs

Hotels have become more dog friendly, and so have many businesses. Years ago it was rare to walk into a store to be greeted by a dog, but now it’s unremarkable. More and more people are bringing their dogs to work, and they are more common visitors at hospitals, schools, and rehab centers.

Still, it represents a big advance that so many wineries have resident dogs or welcome visitors with their own dogs in tow. In the October 2009 issue of Diablo Magazine, wineries in Northern California that welcome dogs are highlighted. How much nicer is it to take your dog with you for a relaxing weekend in the wine country than to go alone. When you can bring your dog and drink wine, you have found a place where life is good!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Big Even For a Great Dane
George might be the world’s largest dog.

My sister is about an inch shy of six feet and people regularly tell her that she is tall. A lifetime of handling this rudeness (Would you go up to a woman who is five feet tall and proclaim, “You’re short!”?) has yielded many witty replies, but my favorite is, “Well, I’m definitely not shopping in the petite section.” That’s all I could think of when I read about George, whose owners are trying to get him in the Guiness Book of World Records as the world’s largest dog. At 42 inches tall and 245 pounds, he is most definitely NOT shopping there either.

Great Danes are the dogs of my childhood and I am quite fond of them. I love the way they sit on couches (and laps!) in a posture that few breeds can assume. I enjoy the way they clear the coffee table with one wag of those whip-like tails. I love the galloping gait they have and the specific shapes of their massive paws.

The dogs we know as young children stay with us forever. I cannot help myself—I must go meet every Great Dane I see. (Occasionally I am able to resist meeting dogs of other breeds, but not often. And with Great Danes, never!) Does anybody else feel a particular affinity to a certain breed, even if, like me, you don’t currently have one in your home?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Blessing Animals
An interfaith event

Over the weekend in Flagstaff, Ariz., many people brought their dogs to a blessing of the animals event. Various faiths were represented, including clergy from the Buddist, Muslim, Jewish, Meher Baba, Christian, Muslim and Celtic Pagan faiths. (The breeds present were every bit as diverse as the religions.) Could our dogs lead us to increased interfaith understanding and tolerance? What a blessing THAT would be!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I Love “Wait”
It’s my favorite training cue.

I am so fond of the cue “Wait” that I wrote a column called An Ode to ‘Wait’ to express my enthusiasm about it. This cue tells a dog to pause and not to move forward until given permission to do so. It can literally be a lifesaver at doors to both houses and cars because it can prevent bolting out into traffic. Additionally, it can be a sanity-saver when heading out for a walk because it stops the chaos that naturally results from dogs who are so eager to go out for a walk that they act like they are out of their minds.

Here’s a video of Tyson

, a Pomeranian who stayed with us for a few days when his family was out of town. The video was taken after just one session of teaching Tyson to “wait.” He got better at it over the next couple of days. It was much more fun to take him out for walks when he was calm than when he was leaping and spinning around.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Researching Social Cognition
Dogs finally get some respect

Science recently ran an article about the importance of dog research. It’s an understatement to say that times they are a-changing. The fact is that times have changed so much that it’s a whole new era. This journal is among the most prestigious of scientific publications, and to see a big article about the value of dogs as research subjects is mind-blowing to those of us whose discussions of dog research over the years were usually met with derisive comments about dogs that all fit into the category of “familiarity breeds contempt.”

Although Charles Darwin and Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz studied dogs and found them scientifically interesting, there soon followed a gap of many generations of researchers who mocked attempts to study dogs. In the last decade, the tide has turned, and now excellent research on dogs is being done in many areas of the world. Some of the most exciting studies are coming from a lab in Hungary where scientists, such as Vilmos Csányi and Ádám Miklósi, are exploring the canine mind. Along with American scientists, such as Marc Bekoff, Alexandra Horowitz, Colin Allen and Clive Wynne, some very revealing studies about the canine mind have come out in recent years. Canine research is finally getting the respect and attention it deserves. Hurrah!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs and Their Outstanding Noses
How has your dog amazed you?

It is well known that dogs have an extraordinary sense of smell. Nearly everyone who has lived with dogs has a story illustrating these astonishing olfactory abilities, and here is mine:

Our dog Bugsy (half black Lab, half handsome stranger) was not the cleverest of dogs, and we eventually learned to embrace the moments when he showed his lack of Einsteinian brain powers. One day on our farm, he suddenly began to sniff his own footsteps in the snow, backtracking for several hundred feet along his own path. I chuckled to myself about his silliness, and even said aloud (to no effect), “Those are your own footsteps, you nut.” Finally, he veered away from his own path and continued to track. Upon investigation, I realized that he was tracking a rabbit, and that he had first caught the trail in his own paw print. He had stepped onto a rabbit paw print hundreds of feet before, and yet there was enough scent to get his attention and for him to follow. It made me wonder how many other times I had erroneously identified his behavior as resulting from low IQ rather than existing in a different sensory universe.

My dog amazed me that day, and I’ve heard many tales of dogs saving the day by smelling lost children, gas leaks, intruders, injured pet cats and dangerously low blood sugar levels. How have the abilities of your dog’s nose astounded you?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Beware of Silent, Stealthy Aggressors
They can be the most dangerous.

Threat displays can function to thwart serious aggression, which is why many of them occur without ever leading to real trouble. By showing their weaponry or signs of strength, dogs are communicating that it would be unwise to challenge them. Dogs can assess each other, and often one or more decide that to proceed would be unwise.

However, dogs who never give any warning before behaving aggressively are the most frightening and potentially dangerous. Many dogs who attack with silent stealth (not so much as a bark or a growl) have no intention of avoiding aggression and are the ones most likely to deliver uninhibited, seriously injurious bites.

Similarly, the scariest and most dangerous dog fights are the silent ones in which all the dogs’ energy is focused on the attack rather than the loud ones in which a lot of energy goes towards barking and growling. They are the ones that are most likely to lead to critical injuries or even death. Much less likely to cause serious damage are the ones that sound, to use a phrase that is descriptive if not pretty, “like dogs in a blender.” These are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The vocalizations and visual displays that often accompany dog fights are a form of communication. As long as the dogs are attempting to communicate with one another, there is some possibility that they are seeking to end the conflict. If the dogs have no interest in working out the conflict or to de-escalate the aggression, then the dogs are most likely serious about injuring each other. Quiet fights and quiet attacks involve individuals who are most likely actually trying to cause injury, rather than trying to reach a peaceful resolution.

Although personality differences in how much individual dogs tend to vocalize can influence how loud an attack or fight is, and a victim dog may make piercing yelps and screams while the attacker remains silent, I still generally find that quiet incidents result in the most damage. Of course, there are also tons of exceptions. Regrettably, many people and dogs are seriously injured by dogs making a big ruckus.

Though I’m describing a general pattern, I know of many exceptions to it. For anyone who has been unlucky enough to witness an aggressive dog attack or a fight between dogs, what did you observe? Have you seen a quiet incident that was extremely injurious? Have you seen a loud crazy fight that resulted in little damage? Or, did you see something else entirely?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Find Your Dog A Date
Matchmaking for canines

I once introduced a friend of mine to my roommate because I felt so strongly that they would like each other. Now that they’ve been married for six years and have two kids, I still consider my matchmaking success with them to be among the biggest accomplishments of my life. Her dog even fell in love with him, so the happiness was complete all around. (This couple happens to be in a picture together that I took in the photo section of Patricia McConnell's book The Other End of the Leash. It shows them kissing to illustrate that this is a primate form of affection and very different from the ways that dogs express affection.)

The urge to make introductions runs strong in many people, but perhaps never more so than in the case of Mike D’Elena, who started the site FindMyDogADate.com. When his roommate moved out and took his own dog with him, Mike’s dog Mika was left missing her best canine friend. Rather than have her continue moping about the house, Mike tried to find her some new playmates by asking neighbors, making phone calls and using Craig’s list, but he had no luck. A few months later, his new website was born out of necessity.

The site, based in Phoenix, Ariz., already has hundreds of dogs registered. Using the free site, people can find companions for their dogs by searching for dog buddies based on size, breed, personality and what activities they are looking to share. Whether someone is seeking hiking or walking companions or another dog for vigorous romping, FindMyDogADate.com just may provide a link to that perfect partner.

So many human couples have met online in recent years. It’s about time dogs had that same opportunity.

Pages