Karen B. London

Bark Columnist and Blogger

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Pet Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 12 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs. Karen writes the training column for The Bark and blogs at Dogbehaviorblog.com. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, teaching a tropical field biology course in Nicaragua. Karen writes an animal column, “The London Zoo,” and is coordinating editor for the “High Country Running” column, both of which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Love Has No Age Limit: Welcoming An Adopted Dog Into Your Home.

Dog Reactions to Confusion
Frustration? Vocalizing? Sad face?

When we train our dogs, we are teaching them something new, whether it’s a new behavior, a new cue for that behavior, or how to perform it in a different situation. It’s bound to be frustrating from time to time, just as learning can be for us. People rarely get through the process of learning how to drive, learning a new piece on the trumpet, or learning the many methods involved in mastering calculus without some frustration. We all have different reactions to the frustrations of learning, and dogs show a variety of responses as well.

Some dogs may bark when a training session has made them feel a little lost. Others may shut down and refuse to do anything. A small percentage of dogs may become aggressive. Some become very affectionate and affiliative as if seeking comfort in this tough situation. I’ve seen dogs refuse to pay any attention to a trainer in these situations, and I’ve seen dogs looking searchingly at the trainer as though hoping to find the missing information in her face.

Of course, training our dogs methodically and little by little so that we can minimize frustration makes sense. We want them to enjoy their training experiences, and that’s not going to happen if frustration is the primary emotion involved. On the other hand, sometimes pushing things a bit can really accelerate the learning process, and that may be worth a bit of frustration or the risk of it. Those dogs who can handle frustration without it tipping them over the edge may even be better off for having worked through the frustration and emerged successfully on the other side of it. Some dogs really relish the sense of accomplishment that comes from finally getting it. Other dogs are harmed enough by the confusion that it’s best not to go there.

Of course, sometimes during the course of training, we try really hard not to frustrate our dogs and do it anyway. It may be because of circumstances beyond our control. For example, a dog may have learned a cue from a previous guardian, but then you try to use that same cue for a different behavior. Alternatively, we may just blow it by failing to notice that our dog is struggling, and push on.

How does your dog react if he becomes frustrated during a training session?

A New Dog in the Neighborhood
Grief fades and a new puppy is welcomed

In the 10 years that we have lived in the same neighborhood, I have seen one woman and her dog out walking so many times we began to joke that we were on the same treadmill. I saw the progression of this dog through youth and middle age to becoming an older, yet still active dog, to a dog who shuffled up the block and back, and no longer had that glow of good health about him. This was followed by a period of a week or so during which I didn’t see the pair at all. Then, one day, I saw the woman out walking alone, and I knew that the dog was gone.

Offering my sympathy, though I had never formally met this woman, I learned that she had lost her dog to cancer. We talked at length about how hard it is to lose a dog, how empty the house can seem, and how people’s well-intentioned advice to “get a new dog” can really hurt. She needed time to grieve, and for months afterwards, I would see her out for her own walk and feel the heaviness in her heart whether we just exchanged hellos or chatted for a long time.

Today while out running, I saw her with a new dog—a puppy who shows all the signs of a lovely temperament. She’s friendly, energetic and clearly adores her new guardian. The feeling is mutual, and I was delighted to see this woman happier than she had been in some time. I offered her my congratulations, and felt a close bond with her and the new dog. There’s so much love already growing between them!

Please share your experience of feeling great happiness with a new dog once you were ready to take that step.

Home is Where the Dog Signs Are
Do canine sayings decorate your house?

“Home is where the DOG is.” That’s the first plaque my husband and I hung on the wall after we bought our house. Quite a few have been added since. My artist mother-in-law painted two that I asked her for over the years. One says, “Love grows best in little houses,” and the other says, “Thank you for not stressing in our home.” Other than those two, the signs that I’m drawn to are about dogs. They capture my attention in stores and often the temptation to buy them is too strong to resist.

Today, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, I saw an oldie but a goodie. It said, “Husband, fishing pole & dog missing. Reward for dog.” The high regard for the dog is appealing, but the disdain for the husband doesn’t make it a good fit for me, though it did make me laugh. I’m more drawn to other whimsical sayings such as:

My dog winks at me sometimes, and I always wink back in case it’s some kind of code

Life is short, play with your dog

Beware of dog poop

The best part of the day is coming home to a wagging tail

Please remove your shoes. The dog needs something to chew on.

In dog beers, I’ve only had one


Perhaps the all-time champion for causing me to engage in an awkward public fit of laughter is:

Home is where the dog hair sticks to everything but the dog.


What dog sayings adorn your walls?

Professional Hockey Player and His Service Dog
Max Domi relies on Orion every day

“He’s made me a better person and a better hockey player.” That’s what rookie sensation Max Domi says about his two-year old diabetic-alert dog, Orion. Diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 12, Domi’s first question was, “Can I still play hockey?” The answer was yes but that doesn’t mean it was easy. It’s still a challenge, but Orion has made it easier and safer.

Like many diabetic-alert dogs, Orion is a Labrador Retriever who has been trained at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Orion was trained by Canine Hope for Diabetics to do his job, which is to detect odor changes that indicate a low blood sugar level and alert Domi. When Domi is awake, Orion alerts him by pulling at the bringsel (which looks like a small foam roller) that Domi wears at his waist. That’s the cue to Domi that he should check his blood sugar, which he does 15-20 times most days, but around a dozen times before, during, and after each game in addition to the rest of that day’s tests. When he is asleep and his blood sugar drops, Orion wakes him up by barking and jumping on him. If that doesn’t rouse Domi, then the dog will use his paws to wake him up with some well-placed contact to the face. Low sugar levels in his blood can be especially likely after a late-night game, so Orion’s tenacity about waking him up is especially critical at those times.

Domi had to go through a huge process to be considered for a service dog, and that included writing essays about why he was worthy of receiving such a dog, why he wanted one and what would do with him. He also had to meet several dogs so that the trainers could choose the dog they thought was the best match for Domi. For example, of the dogs under consideration, one was eliminated for not being as good in crowds, which is obviously not ideal for a professional athlete. I really enjoyed a recent video on ESPN that discusses what Orion does for Domi, and includes good footage of this adorable and hard-working dog.

Orion travels with Domi to all their games so he must be able to handle the air travel, the huge crowds, hotels, the ice rinks and the generally complex and crazy life of a professional hockey player. One challenge for anyone with a service dog is preventing other people from petting him or otherwise distracting him while he is working. All the other players along with coaches and other staff of the Arizona Coyotes know that they cannot interact with Orion when he is working. When he is off duty, though, he is just as friendly and loving as you might expect, and everybody cherishes the time they get to spend with Orion when he is not working.

Domi treasures all his time with Orion and is grateful for how much easier it makes it to concentrate on hockey. At only 20 years old, he’s arguably the best rookie in the NHL, so any fan of Domi or his team should appreciate that, too.

When a Dog Holds Another Dog’s Leash
Many reasons for this behavior

Dogs often hold onto their own leashes with their mouths, and sometimes even take the leash of another dog. It’s generally pretty adorable, perhaps, in part because we relate to any example of dogs acting like us. If you watch any dogs hanging on to the leash of another dog, you may be able to make guesses about why the dog is doing it.

In some cases, as in the video below, it looks to me as though the dog is simply playing with the leash. The leash is an object in the environment that has caught the dog’s attention and interest, and the fact that it is attached to the collar of another dog does not seem to be important or highly relevant.

In other situations, such as in the following video, one dog appears to be walking the other dog around, much as humans do. It’s not a very forceful situation and no malice is apparent, but the dog with the leash in his mouth is using it to lead the other dog around. The dog on leash seems untroubled at first, but later appears to dislike the limitations imposed by the leash. Then, he starts to pull on the leash, just as dogs so often do when it’s a person holding it.

In this last clip, the more confident dog in the video appears to be using the leash to encourage (pull!) the more timid dog to go down the slide. Again, this is something that a person might do. Some dogs benefit from being forced in this way because they find the slide fun but might not have tried it on their own. Other dogs were scared to go down the slide before they did it and very scared while they do it, so it can be traumatic for them. It’s definitely a risk, but it sometimes works out well. I’ve seen a lot of people make their dogs go down a slide with this technique, but I’ve not seen a dog participate in this way before.

After watching the last two videos, it’s natural to wonder if dogs have learned how to guide dogs around by their leashes from watching humans do it. With so much recent research on social learning in dogs, I find myself watching dogs do things that humans have done and wondering if the dogs learned it by observing people.

Do you have a dog who leads another dog around with the leash?

Breaking Up a Dog Fight is Risky
Just ask skier Lindsey Vonn

Lindsey Vonn has had many injuries over the years from skiing, but this past weekend, she joined the dog bite club. She was hospitalized after being bitten when she tried to separate her own dogs during a fight. True to form, she is back on the slopes and plans to race later this month even though the bite to her thumb required stitches and looked ghastly.

Vonn’s two dogs, Leo and Bear, got into it over a toy, and she tried to break it up. The gash on her thumb is both bad luck and a warning about the dangers of trying to break up a dog fight. Of course, when you see dogs at risk of hurting one another, it’s natural (and commendable) to want to step in and halt the madness as soon as possible, especially when they are both your dogs.

There is no surefire way to break up a fight between dogs, and there is no guarantee that it can be done safely. There are always risks, but some techniques are better bets than others, and depending on the seriousness of the fight, you may be willing to take a big risk. If you ever have the misfortune to see dogs fighting with each other, consider your options and choose what you think is the best way to handle the situation.

Some low risk options for breaking up a dog fight are not always that effective, but they aren’t likely to cause a problem, either. These include making a loud sound such banging any loud meal objects together, blowing an air horn or a sudden yelled, “Hey!” Often dogs ignore these attempts, but for dogs who are not that committed to the fight or who actually want to stop fighting, but can’t seem to break it off themselves, loud startling sounds can work.

It’s true that spraying dogs with a hose may stop a fight, but dogs so rarely fight within reach of one. Even spraying them with water or dumping a bucket of water over them can work, but many dogs don’t seem to care. I’ve heard of cases in which fighting dogs were pushed in a pool and stopped, but again, there’s not always a pool handy when you need one. Spraying dogs with a citronella spray can have the same effect as water.

Using a barrier to separate dogs is riskier than the above suggestions, but also more likely to work. Inserting a cookie sheet, a piece of plywood or even a thick piece of poster board between two dogs can break up a fight. That said, it’s a major feat of coordination to accomplish this in most cases during a highly active altercation. There is a risk of being bitten but the bigger the barrier, the lower the risk because you can keep your hands further away from the mouths of the dogs.

Separating the dogs with direct physical contact has the best chance of stopping the fight, but also poses the biggest risk of you being bitten. It’s wise to lower that probability any way that you can. If two people are there, an option is for each person to grab the back legs of a dog and pull them away from each other. Yes, it can work, and yes, it’s awkward to time this right. Dogs have almost no power when their back legs are not in contact with the ground, which is why this is not likely to lead to a bite to the people. Of course, a failed attempt in which one dog is being held and the other gets away can put everybody at risk. I’ve seen people separate dogs by grabbing tails instead of hind legs. It’s not very pleasant for the dogs, but is generally better than continuing to fight.

The worst and riskiest ways to separate dogs involve putting your hand near their front ends. That includes grabbing at collars and reaching for an object that is the source of the dispute. This so often leads to dogs turning and biting at people’s hands. That’s how Lindsey Vonn ended up in the hospital, but it’s only fair to point out that reaching into the middle of a dog fight is most people’s natural response to trying to stop it. Like any other guardian, Vonn didn’t want her dogs to get hurt, which means that she didn’t want them fighting. Though reaching in is risky, if a dog’s life appears to be in danger, it may be worth doing anyway. One sobering bit of advice I once got from a brilliant animal control officer was that if you absolutely have to use your hand to separate fighting dogs, use your non-dominant hand. That way, your good hand is not the one that gets injured. It’s fine advice that I hope nobody ever has to take.

Have you broken up a fight and been injured while doing so?

A Study of Sleep in Dogs
Effects of feeding frequency and age

When and how much our dogs sleep matters to us because it affects our own sleep. Most people who have ever raised a puppy know the horror of sleep deprivation, and many people caring for elderly dogs or those who are unwell are facing the same problem. Even dogs who don’t need to be taken out in the middle of the night or in the wee hours of the morning often work against the goal of an uninterrupted stretch of eight hours of restorative sleep each night.

I once had a dog who slept in every morning, and I valued that quality in him immensely.  Though I made many attempts to figure out how to transfer this quality to all dogs, I suspect he just came into the world that way. True, we did feed him healthy food and give him lots of exercise, but that surely hasn’t worked on a large number of other dogs. Still, I maintain a strong interest in learning about the variables that affect dogs’ sleep patterns, with the eventual hope that dog guardians everywhere can apply it to their own dogs for the benefit of all.

Because I am interested in canine sleep, I was interested in a study that investigated some basic aspects of dogs’ sleep patterns. The research looked into the effects of age and feeding frequency on dogs’ sleep patterns. Dogs were in one of three age ranges (1.5-4.5 years, 7-9 years, 11-14 years) and were fed either once or twice daily.

The researchers found that older and middle aged dogs slept more during the day than young adult dogs, but that was because they took more naps, and not because their naps were longer. Older and middle aged dogs also slept more at night than younger dogs because they had a longer total sleep interval at night (waking up later) and woke up fewer times during the night.

Dogs of all ages were affected in a similar manner by being fed twice daily as opposed to once a day. Dogs who were fed more frequently took fewer naps during the day, but the naps lasted longer. Dogs fed twice a day fell asleep earlier at night, but woke up earlier, too with a decreased total time sleeping at night. (The earlier waking time more than compensated for the earlier bedtime.)

>The take home message to me is that if you want more sleep, just wait until your young dog ages a little. That’s interesting when you compare dogs to humans, because we sleep considerably less as older adults than as young adults.

Have you noticed a change in your dog’s sleep pattern with age or with changes in feeding schedules?

Impressive Physical Skills
Canine abilities that are inconvenient for humans

By the time he was six months old, my husband’s childhood dog could leap their six-foot fence. He was part Whippet, so it should come as no surprise that once he was out of the yard, it was pretty easy for him to cruise the neighborhood at speeds that made it impossible to catch him on foot or on a bike, and even a challenge by car. His physical capabilities were wondrous to behold, but also highly problematic.

I once fostered a puppy who was an excellent jumper and extremely fit. She had a lovely temperament, but like most active young dogs, she could be a bit tiresome to other dogs. Since we also had a five-year old dog at the time, we knew that giving our adult dog some breaks from the puppy would be wise. The first afternoon that the two were together, we put a baby gate across a doorway to separate the two dogs. We figured our adult Lab mix could jump over the gate if he wanted to be with the puppy, and jump away if he needed a break.

Regrettably, the puppy hopped over that fence with more than a foot of clearance under her, while our adult dog did not attempt it. It had surprised us that our adult dog was hesitant to jump because he had a history of leaping obstacles we thought were high enough to contain him, so we took him to see his veterinarian. That’s how we learned he had a slight tear in his AC. (So, on the bright side, we probably saved him from more pain by treating that injury earlier than we would otherwise have done.)

Some dogs show tremendous prowess at track and field events—running and jumping in a variety of ways—but others excel with their fine motor skills, and that can be just as challenging. It’s easy to marvel at a dog who can open doors, is undeterred by childproof latches or can open every secure trash can on the market, but it’s far harder to live with such a dog. If you have a dog who turns on faucets or opens the refrigerator, I would bet good money that you envy people whose dogs lack the skills to do so.

What physical ability of your dog has been a colossal inconvenience for you?

Bites to the Face
Human behaviors that precede them

One disadvantage of being a canine behaviorist is that so many human behaviors scare me. My heart leaps into my throat all too often when I see people performing risky behaviors around dogs. From hugging dogs and picking up dogs to sticking their faces right by a dog’s face or bending over a dog, there are plenty of gasp-worthy moments. I see people performing these behaviors and want to scream out a warning. It’s similar to the reaction I have when watching a horror movie and want to yell, “Don’t go in the house!”

I work with so many clients whose dogs have bitten someone, and as I hear the stories of the bites, the same human behaviors are mentioned over and over. I’m not saying this to blame the people, but rather to help us all learn how to lower our risk of being bitten.

Dog bites are a serious problem that we should all attempt to avoid, and among the most distressing are bites to the face. In a new study called Human behavior preceding bites to the face, scientists examined 132 incidents of bites to human faces that did not involve bites to any other parts of the body. The goal of the study was to determine the human behavior that preceded bites.

Well-know risky behaviors such as bending over a dog, putting the face close to a dog’s face and eye contact with the dog and person very close to each other did occur before many of the bites, which is no surprise. What was a bit of a shock was the percentage of times that these no-no behaviors happened before the 132 incidents in the study. In 76 percent of the bites, people bent over the dog just before the bite! In 19 percent of the cases, a bite was preceded by people putting their faces close to the dog’s face, and in five percent of the cases, gazing between dog and person at close range occurred before a bite. In no incidents was a bite to the face preceded by trimming the dog’s nails, falling on the dog, hitting the dog as punishment, stepping on the dog, pulling the dog’s hair, tugging the dog’s body or scolding the dog.

More than 75 percent of the bites to the face happened to people who knew the dog. Over two-thirds of the bites were to children, and of those, 84 percent were to children under the age of 12. Children who were bitten were with their parents in 43 percent of the cases and with the dog guardian in 62 percent of the incidents. Sixty percent of the bites were to females, and no adults were bitten by their own dogs. More than half of the bites were to the nose and lips of the person, as opposed to the chin, cheek, forehead or eye area.

All of the dogs who bit someone in the face were adult dogs, and over two-thirds of them were male dogs. In only six percent of the bites did people report that the dog gave a warning such as growling or tooth displaying prior to biting. (To me, this is the single most surprising finding in the study, and I think it’s quite possible that some people did not notice or failed to remember warnings by dogs.)

As the authors of the paper mention, this research is based on questionnaires that ask people about past events. As such, there are inherent limitations with the study. Still, the results about the frequency with which kids are bitten, the greater likelihood of male dogs biting faces than female dogs, and the finding that only adult dogs bit faces are consistent with previous research.

If you have ever been bitten in the face or seen it happen to someone else, what do you remember about the human behavior right before the bite?

Prevention on Halloween
A common sense approach that should be more common

Of course, we all want solutions to our dogs’ behavior issues, but sometimes the best approach is to avoid the problem. There’s generally nothing to be gained by putting our dogs into situations that they cannot handle. In other words, sometimes preventing the problem in the first place is the way to go.

In some areas, we as dog guardians take this for granted. It’s not unusual to put a dog in a crate or in the back room if a toddler play group will be descending on the house. It’s even more common to use a leash when walking a dog on a busy road. Nobody thinks it makes sense to bet a dog’s life on his recall or his ability to refrain from chasing cars.

This seems like basic common sense to me, but there are a lot of barriers to this approach. Using prevention feels like a failure to many people. I wish this weren’t so. To me, a dog being hit by a car or injuring a young child represent failures. Keeping a dog on leash while walking on a busy road or letting a dog chill out in the crate with a stuffed Kong do not.

Halloween offers a very specific opportunity to protect your dog with a commitment to preventing trouble. However dear trick-or-treaters may be to many humans, few dogs feel the same way. Having a tree, a storm trooper or a fully functioning traffic light at your door may prompt you to say, “My, how clever,” but most dogs react in a more, “Ye gads, what is that thing?!” kind of way. Between the doorbell and the monsters (literally!) at the door, the night is far more trick-y than treat-y for most of our beloved canines. Many of them react with fear, excessive exuberance or even aggression.

Since this holiday happens only once a year, it’s hard to give dogs practice with the situations unique to it. It’s true that handling the horrors of Halloween can be step 100 in a program to teach dogs to be able to cope with anything, but most dogs are somewhere between step 20 and step 50. Jumping up too far in the process can be damaging to dogs and actually set them back. I do hate to sound defeatist, but unless your dog is experienced all the way up through step 99, I’m in favor of avoidance for so many dogs who struggle with this holiday.

Avoidance may mean staying in the back room with your dog while another member of the household answers the door and passes out candy. It may mean having your dog spend the evening visiting a friend who gets no visitors on Halloween. Another option is to put candy out on your porch with a note saying, “Take a piece of candy to save my shy dog from listening to the doorbell ring.” If you really want to go to extremes, you can turn your lights out, draw the shades, and pretend you’re not home. None of these options are ideal, but they all have the advantage of protecting your dog from getting overly excited or spooked this Halloween and exhibiting undesirable behavior as a result.

Life can be hard, and for many dogs, that is especially true on Halloween. Let’s not miss out on opportunities to make it easier when we can.

More From The Bark