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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.

A Dog Named Glacier
Coat color influences choice of name

The color of a dog is often the inspiration when choosing a name, and I enjoy that these names fit the dog. It shows that people made the effort to pick a name specifically for that dog. It’s a rare occurrence when I meet a dog named Shadow (or the Spanish equivalent so common where I live—Sombra) who is not black. I’ve also met my share of black dogs named Raven, Cinder, Midnight, Smoky and Stormy.

Similarly, there are lots of brown dogs, especially Chocolate Labs, named Hershey or Cocoa. Other common names for brown dogs include Mahogany, Mocha, Kahlua, Hickory and Snickers.

A fair number of “redheaded” canines go by Ginger or Rusty. I’ve also met dogs with a red or orange coat color with the names Ruby, Amber, Cinnamon, Penny, Brandy, Chili and Merlot.

Even before meeting a dog, I’m inclined to expect a white dog with a name like Snowball, Coconut, Casper, Beluga, Pearl or Sugar. I recently came upon a Great Dane named Glacier, which I thought was just fantastic! I’ve met plenty of dogs with similarly inspired names like Jack Frost and Iceberg, but Glacier was a new one for me. I especially love that it can refer to both the dog’s white coat and his fantastic size.

Does your dog’s name give a nod to his coat color?

Your Dog’s Look
How does it measure up to his looks?

“Your dog has a great look!” I called out to a woman at the park.

She looked at me suspiciously and actually asked, “Are you talking to me?”

I assured her that I was, though understanding immediately why she questioned me on that point. Her dog was not what most people would consider an attractive dog. He was a bit odd-looking to be honest, with a head that was small in proportion to his body, some very random color patterns in his slightly straggly coat and an ear that had been torn at some point in his life and healed imperfectly.

When I had commented on his “look,” I was referring to an aspect of his behavior—his expression—rather than his overall appearance. The look on his face as she took a flying squirrel toy out of her bag was one that combined pure joy, complete attention and enthusiasm without the slightest sign of over arousal. That combination is hardly common in my professional work with dogs with serious behavior problems, so I enjoyed it and appreciated its significance. This was a great dog—attentive, not excessively revved up, playful and happy. I was impressed with his expression, prompting me to comment on his “great look.”

Thanks to the ambiguity of the English language, my comment was misunderstood, and I suspect that the woman thought I was overcompensating and pretending that the dog was gorgeous or mocking her. It’s a fair assumption that nobody had ever told her that her dog was a handsome fellow. He is beautiful on the inside, but most people aren’t going to argue that he is gorgeous on the outside, and that’s a shame.

I’ve always maintained that some of the happiest guardians are those who pick dogs based on who they are on the inside and actively choose to love what they look like on the outside instead of doing it the other way around. This woman seemed happy once I had explained that I was impressed with her dog’s expression and went into detail about it. She told me that she loves his look, too, but that not everybody sees beyond his looks.

I’ve loved dogs who were visually stunning and dogs who were not, except perhaps to me. Do you have a dog whose “look” is a better representation of who he is than his “looks” are? Or a dog whose “look” and “looks” are both lovely?

New Dog Photo Shoot
Just like a baby (and maybe cuter)

Years ago, my husband brought our seven-month old son to an all-day seminar I was giving on dog aggression so that I could feed him during the breaks. In many situations, a man carrying a baby would attract a lot of attention from women, but not in this case. There were about 200 people at the seminar, and approximately 180 of them were women. During the course of the day, only a handful of them approached my husband, and all but two of them came over to share puppy photos with him. (“Look! You have a young animal in your life. I have a young animal in my life, too!”)

I’ve noticed over the years that in the world of dogs, there are many people who are just not that into kids. It’s especially true for people whose professional lives revolve around dogs. I’m fond of saying that as a group, we dog people are not very “breedy.” Of course there are tons of exceptions (I myself have two human children), but many dog people are not as child-oriented as the rest of the population.

Any couple who does not have children has probably faced questions and criticisms about that, which is obviously rude. It’s thoughtless, narrow-minded, and potentially hurtful (not to sound judgmental or anything) to ask people personal questions about when they are going to have kids or why they don’t have kids. It’s nobody’s business, and it’s impossible to know if a couple has decided not to have children or if perhaps they have been unable to have children even though they want them very much. Either situation may involve a couple who is very focused on their canine companions, and that is a beautiful thing.

One couple took an unusual approach to letting their families know that they should not expect a human grandchild. They had a photo shoot with their puppy that mimicked the popular “new baby” photo sessions. The result was a gorgeous set of photos by Elisha Minnette Photography. It looks like they enjoyed themselves and judging by the response, many people share their sense of humor.

>Are you tempted to do a “new dog” photo shoot with your best friend?

Too Much for a Young Puppy
Overwhelming a dog is not good socialization

There were easily 300 people in the school building that Saturday morning, all milling around and signing their kids up for various after school activities. There was also one very young puppy being carried through the crowd becoming more and more exhausted and increasingly overwhelmed.

When I say “very young,” I mean that I suspected that they had just picked up their new Lab puppy within the last few days even before they told me. (In fact, they had just brought her home the night before.) The dog was so small that she was outsized by over half the purses there. In addition, she had that loose skin look of brand new puppies. You know what I mean—it looked as though if you blew up that skin like a beach ball, there would be room for at least one and maybe two additional puppies in there with her.

Her new guardians were carrying her in their arms and everyone was touching, petting and leaning in at the puppy, whose eyes were wide until she was so tuckered out that they closed for an involuntary nap. She seemed like a stable enough puppy and never looked downright fearful, but she did look overwhelmed. That’s no surprise really—she was in a big crowd with too many people getting too close to her, and many people were hugging her guardian so that she got wrapped up awkwardly in the squeeze.

It breaks my heart to see a puppies dealing with such situations during the first few days or weeks in a new home because I know the guardians think they are doing right by their dogs. Everybody knows you have to socialize your puppy and get her to meet new people, but many people think that having a puppy around large numbers of people is the right way to do it. That’s perhaps a reflection of how misunderstood the concept of socialization is.

Socialization is an important part of becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. Socialization is the exposure to potential social partners during the early part of dogs’ lives, and typically occurs when puppies are three to 16 weeks old. That time is a critical period of development during which dogs learn who their potential social partners are. A critical period is a stage during which an animal is especially receptive to learning something.

For example, a critical period for learning language exists for humans, and if we are only exposed to a language after that critical period, we are unlikely to ever speak it like a native. It will always be a foreign language to us with perhaps an accent or grammatical difficulties, however slight. Similarly, dogs who are not properly specialized during the critical period may always have social skills that are not natural to them, but have an “accent” or various difficulties with social behavior.

For dogs, socialization requires providing puppies positive experiences with people in the first few months of life. Note that I specifically said, “positive experiences.” If a dog has negative experiences with people early on, they learn not to be comfortable and social with people, but to be nervous or afraid around them. That’s why bringing a puppy to a large crowded place the day after being adopted is potentially damaging and not recommended. It’s far better to meet people one or two at a time and have those people provide treats, toys and gentle touching in a calm setting. Exposure to people and other dogs that results in positive experiences for the puppy provides proper socialization. Being in a large crowd and becoming overwhelmed does not.

Drooling Dog in Car
A mess that made us laugh

I’m in favor of keeping dogs safe when they are in moving vehicles, and that includes not allowing any part of their bodies to be outside the car. There are many dangers to dogs when they ride with their heads hanging out the window, yet seeing dogs enjoy themselves in this way nearly always makes me smile. Recently, I saw one particular dog riding with his face out in the wind looking thrilled with the experience, and it did more than make me smile.

In fact, it did two more things. One, I laughed out loud, as did my sons who were both with me in the car. Two, it made me aware of yet another danger of having dogs stick their heads out of the window. Namely, they could cause an accident by making a nearby driver (me!) laugh too hard for too long.

If I had to guess, I’d say the dog was a St. Bernard crossed with an English Mastiff, and I’m sure he weighed one-and-a-half times what I do. His lips were blowing in the breeze in that delightful way that only happens to dogs with big flews.

What really made us laugh was the enormous amount of slobber on the outside of the dark blue car in which he was riding. The door underneath him was covered with layers and layers of drool lines, some of which went down to the bottom edge of the car. Most of the lines were at an angle towards the lower back end of the car, suggesting that the wind had blown the slobber. It looked like a frozen waterfall except that it wasn’t nearly as shiny.

If you have a drooling dog, has that dog decorated either the inside or the outside of your car?

Poop is Full of Information
Recognizing individuals’ poop

At The Bark, we regularly share dog stories with one another, often just for fun. When Editor Claudia Kawczynska told me about one of her latest experiences out on a walk, I just had to blog about it. It deals with two wonderful topics in the canine world: 1) poop and 2) the amazing olfactory abilities of dogs.

Claudia’s dog Charlie sometimes like to try to pee on Kit, who is another of her dogs, while she is peeing or pooping. Claudia usually intervenes to prevent Kit from ending up with a yellow stain on her back. Of course, life being what it is, sometimes it happens anyway. Charlie will also pee on Kit’s poop, a behavior which is called “overmarking.”

One day in an off-leash area, Claudia couldn’t find Kit’s poop to pick it up, so she asked Charlie (who is always by her side) to help her find it, which he did. He peed on it, and then Claudia picked it up. On another occasion, Claudia asked him to do the same thing, and he did. This time, he ignored at least three piles of poop that were not Kit’s, but finally peed on hers. Claudia knew it was Kit’s because she and her dogs were the only ones at the park and the pile of poop was too fresh to have been anyone else’s. (In case you’re curious, Claudia bagged up the other three piles of poop, too. Some people do more than their share in all areas of life!) It’s hard to know whether Charlie was responding to Claudia’s cue to find Kit’s poop, or he was just seeking it out because that’s what he likes to do.

As a practical person, I love the way the detection of individual poop by Charlie allows Claudia to be sure she cleans up after her dog if she happens to miss “the event.” It’s so easy to have that happen in off leash areas, especially if you have more than one dog with you.

Given that dogs can use their noses to smell whale poop underwater, to detect low blood sugar levels in a person with diabetes as well as cancer in people, bacteria in diseased bee hives and a whole host of weapons and drugs, it’s hard to be surprised by what dogs can do. It also makes sense that dogs would be able to tell which poop comes from their housemates. The components of the odor of any pile of poop is going to include chemicals related to that dog’s diet, intestinal flora, sex, reproductive status and a whole host of other factors that create an individual odor signature. Social animals of all kinds are adept at recognizing individual members of the group, and dogs can do this through olfactory, auditory and visual means.

Still, just because I’m not surprised doesn’t mean I’m not impressed. I’ve not lost the admiration for dogs and their amazing abilities that began when I first focused on them professionally, and hopefully never will.

Do you have a dog who has demonstrated the ability to identify the poop of another one of your dogs?

Beating the Cancer Odds
Lucky Flat-Coated Retrievers

“We just lost our other Flat Coat a few weeks ago,” she said when I asked if I could meet her young dog, Sally.

I have many fond memories of training members of this breed, though most of them are from long ago. In the 1990s, when I started dog training, there were quite a few Flat-Coated Retrievers in training classes, and I met some absolutely lovely ones. Then, the breed became less popular and for years now, they’ve been a rarity among my clients.

Breeds do ebb and flow in popularity, sometimes with the inexplicable whims of any fashion. In the case of Flat-Coated Retrievers, though, it was the high likelihood of an early death that was primarily responsible for the decline in the number of these dogs chosen as pets. The average lifespan in the United States is currently about 8 years, though a small study in Europe found a median age of about 10 years.

Flat-Coated Retrievers have a greater risk of developing cancer than most breeds. The cancers they develop are frequently serious (e.g. hemangiosarcoma and osteosarcoma) leading to the loss of many young dogs. Because of this, I braced myself for the answer when I asked Sally’s guardians about the age of the dog they had just lost.

“She was thirteen, the same age another of our dogs was when she died a few years earlier.” This family had raised not one, but two, Flat-Coated Retrievers who lived to age 13. I got really excited thinking that maybe the British lines of this breed were not prone to the cancers so prevalent in US dogs, or that maybe differences in nutrition and health care prevented the troubles seen in my country.

As soon as I mentioned my surprise and joy in response to learning that her dogs had reached these advanced ages, she replied that they were really lucky with those two dogs, but they didn’t know why. All of their other Flat-Coated Retrievers and those of their friends were succumbing to cancer at young ages ranging from 4 to 7 years.

As I continued to play with and pet their 2-year old dog, I fervently hoped that she, too, would defy the odds and live to be a teenager. Have you had a dog who lived a long time despite coming from a lineage with a history of early cancer?

Irish Wolfhound on Famous Pottery
Honoring a breed that was nearly extinct

We had just toured the Balleek factory in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland and most people had questions about the design and making of the high-quality, handmade porcelain pieces produced there. All I wanted to know was why the Irish Wolfhound has been on the stamps that marked every piece of Balleek pottery since 1863, along with other distinctive Irish symbols such as round towers, Irish harps and shamrocks. The tour guide’s answer was that at the time that the stamp was designed, this treasured breed was nearly extinct, and the owners wanted to pay tribute to this symbol of national pride.

The Irish are not the only group to take a strong interest in a dog breed whose history is strongly linked with their nation. There’s the Saint Bernard, so beloved by the Swiss, the Keeshound which is the national dog of the Netherlands, the Coton du Tulear from Madagascar, the Havanese of Cuba, the Rhodesian Ridgeback originating in Zimbabwe, and the Fila Brasileiro which comes from Brazil, to name just a few.

During the month I spent in Scotland, I met many people who pointed out with pride that their dogs are “proper Scottish dogs!” This description was used to refer to Scotties and Westies, of course, but also to a large number of collies (Border Collies, Smooth Collies, Rough Collies and Bearded Collies) and a variety of terriers (Border Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Skye Terriers and Dandie Dinmont Terriers, which is one of my favorite breed names ever.) Dog breeds are so closely linked to Scotland that virtually no souvenir shop lacks for stuffed fleece dogs to sell to tourists, including my sons. Both chose, for their one souvenir from Scotland, a stuffed Scottish dog—one picked a Westie and the other bought a Scottie.

Are your particularly enamored with a dog breed because of your interest in its country of origin?

Dogs Says Mama But Child Doesn’t
That’s not what impressed me about this dog, though

The plan was to teach the baby to say, “Mama” but it’s the dog in this video who does it and really steals the show. Though there’s a certain charm to this dog’s vocalizations, what really impresses me about his behavior is the patience and tolerance he displays. He deserves whatever his heart desires for the way he handles himself in a situation that is far from ideal.

From the dog’s point of view, this is a challenging state of affairs. There is food right in front of his nose that he seems to want very much, and he is not getting it, despite responding to his owners with “Mama” repeatedly. (Whether that’s intentional or not, I can’t say.) Many dogs would lunge for the food, but this polite dog has enough self-control not to do that. He stays planted in a sit and does not move forward towards the food at all. As his vocalizations become more intense, it’s obvious that he is dealing with a considerable amount of frustration at not getting to taste the food.

Even more important, he does not react badly when the toddler slaps at him. He simply flicks his tongue, indicating his anxiety with the situation, and looks away. I can almost imagine that he is looking up at someone as if to say, “Please rescue me from this,” but that is pure speculation.

The parents have put their child in a risky situation and are very lucky that their dog responds as he does. The child has done what children that age do and that’s why dogs need to be protected. It is my hope that in the future, they protect their dog better from their child, or at the very least that the dog continues to behave far better than many dogs would in similar circumstances. I see a great dog, but he is clearly agitated, and that could lead to trouble if he is regularly forced to deal with the challenges he faced in this clip.

What do you see in this dog when you watch the video?

Learning About European Dogs
Travel provides opportunity

My dog life is very America-centric. I have not owned dogs anywhere but in this country, nor have I taught dog training classes elsewhere. Except for the occasional seminar in Canada and some ad hoc consultations in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, my canine experiences are confined to the United States.

This summer promises many lessons because my family will be spending the entire season in Western Europe. So far, what I know about dogs in that part of the world is that they are not spayed and neutered at nearly the rate of dogs here, there is some evidence that they live a little longer, and they are rarely vaccinated against rabies because that disease has been essentially eradicated in the region. I also know that a lot of canine research is currently being conducted in Europe.

Based on the limited level of knowledge that is my starting point, it is exceedingly likely that I will be getting quite an education during our travels. I look forward to everything from observing how people interact with their dogs in different countries to meeting new breeds to seeing how dogs behave in public and what is expected of them.

For those of you who have personal experience with dogs in Europe, please tell me what pleasures you expect await me. All advice about observing and enjoying dogs in countries that are (mostly) new to me is welcome!

I’ll be spending a month each in Scotland and Germany, plus making short excursions to Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and possibly Poland. The trip is for my husband’s work, and we expect him to be busy. That puts me on full-time duty as recreation director for our kids. I’ve never taken such a long hiatus from work (not even after the births of the children) so this promises to be a new experience. I will miss, among many other aspects of my professional life, blogging here for The Bark. I’m already looking forward to resuming that when we return in August!

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Karen B. London
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Karen B. London
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Karen B. London