Guest: Karen London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in domestic dogs. She began working with dogs in 1997, and has spent years working with clients in one-on-one consultations in addition to teaching group training classes, and giving seminars about canine ethology for trainers, veterinary and shelter staff, and the public.

She received her B.S. in Biology from UCLA and her Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied the defensive behavior of neotropical social wasps, and a nesting association between two species of wasps. Her research and scholarly publications cover such diverse topics as interactions between species that live together, defensive and aggressive behavior, evolution of social behavior, communication within and between species, learning, and parental investment.

After graduation, Karen decided to switch to working with dogs. It was a natural outcome of her love for dogs in her personal life, and her scientific interest in species interactions and aggressive behavior in her professional life.  She has enjoyed the change to becoming a dog behaviorist and trainer as dogs are easier to work with and less aggressive than the wasps she knows and loves.

Karen is an award-winning author of six books on dog training and behavior, five of them co-authored with her mentor, Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. She blogs for and and also writes the animal column, The London Zoo, for the Arizona Daily Sun. Her most recent book is Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.

Karen lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with her husband and their two sons. She is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, where she teaches tropical field courses in Nicaragua and Costa Rica called “Tropical Forest Ecology and Conservation” and a class for freshman about the importance of insects to society called “Sex, Bugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

In this episode we discuss:

  • What could aggression possibly have to do with play?
  • The importance of engaging in play for behavioral wellness
  • What do we mean when we are talking about play in this context?
  • How Karen incorporates play into her protocols when working with aggressive behavior.

Links mentioned:

This podcast is supported by: Voilà! Pets

Visit the Voilà! Pets website and use code DFTT for 10% off of your order of sustainable, consciously-crafted treat bags.


Episode Transcript

Karen London: [00:00:00] I mean, there are a lot of theories about “It’s to practice behaviors that you would need later in life,” like fighting or escape behaviors or predatory behaviors, or maybe “It’s to handle the idea of like surprises,” you know, that kind of– that idea about a fighter pilot. It’s like hours and hours and hours of boredom, you know, interspersed with, you know, 30 seconds of sheer terror. Life is really like that from an evolutionary perspective.

And so some theories say that the whole purpose of play is to prepare you for those sort of off- balance life or death moments.

Hannah Branigan: Hey there, fellow training nerds, you’re listening to Drinking from the Toilet. If you like to geek out about combining the science of behavior with positive reinforcement philosophy in real life, you’ve come to the right place. And I’m your host, Hannah Brannigan — teacher, trainer, [00:01:00] podcaster, and author of the book Awesome Obedience and its companion Awesome Obedience: the Field Guide, which are both available from

I also wanna remind you we are officially in the month of September, which means that next month at the end of October, my online mentorship program Zero to CD will be opening for enrollment. You can find out more information about that program by going to my website,, or you can go directly to And you can read more about it and I’ll tell you more about it probably in future episodes.

Okay. So this week we are talking about the intersection of two very sexy topics, play and aggression, with returning podcast guest, Dr. Karen London. And I know what you’re thinking, “How could these topics possibly overlap?” Right? Like that seems kind of weird. Well, I mean, this podcast is marked explicit, [00:02:00] but I do try to keep it mostly PG 13. I don’t know how many swear words you’re allowed to drop and still retain the PG 13 rating.

But anyways, it doesn’t matter because you’re gonna find out more about it. And in addition to references to adult toys and pornography, we also talk about dog training! It really is entirely about dog training. I know. Are you excited yet?

Okay. But before we go any further, I know I need to thank Voila Pets for supporting this episode. I don’t know if they’re gonna thank me, but no, they will. Along with some really awesome folks who are supporting this podcast on Patreon. So big thanks to Glenn G, Theresa A, Susan G, Gail L and Natalie P. I really appreciate you. If you’d like to support the podcast, get your questions answered and get access to some super secret, extra podcast episodes, go to

Okay, so you probably already remember, [00:03:00] we talked to Karen — Dr. Karen London, Karen London, PhD — well, this is at least our third episode that we’ve done together, I think. She is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and she specializes in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in domestic dogs.

So if you recall back to, gosh, at least a year ago, we first talked to Karen about her most recent book, Treat Everyone Like a Dog, which is all about how what we know about dog training and applying that to how we interact with other people can improve our lives and make the world a better place, which is very much what this podcast is about.

And then we talked to her most recently in the spring of this year, I think, about having a sense of humor about your training bloopers and how to recover from them. That was an episode I really enjoyed. And so the conversation that you’re gonna hear now today actually we recorded at the same time as that previous episode. So it was recorded [00:04:00] actually back in the spring and I am playing this part of it now where we’re talking about play and aggression together. So you may hear some seasonal references that aren’t particularly relevant to the conversation, but if it feels confusing, I wanted to kind of explain why. On the other hand, time is a construct and you should know that by now if you’ve been hanging out with me for 164 episodes. So yeah, but anyways.

Karen is amazing. I truly enjoy the conversation with her. I found the whole thing very reinforcing. She’s been working with dogs for years. According to her bio, she’s been working with dogs since 1997 and spent years working with clients in one-on-one consultations, as well as teaching group classes, giving seminars about canine ethology for trainers, for veterinarians and shelter staff and the public.

She is an award-winning author of six books on dog training and behavior and five of those were co-authored with her mentor, Patricia McConnell PhD, also a former guest of the podcast, and [00:05:00] she blogs for and and also writes the animal column The London Zoo for The Arizona Daily Sun. And we already mentioned her most recent book, Treat Everyone Like a Dog, which I highly recommend. You can read the rest of her bio in the show notes. I highly recommend that you do because she’s such an interesting person and there’s way more than I can cover in a short intro right here without totally derailing the conversation part, so check out the bio. It’s in the show notes.

And yeah, I think you’re gonna like this conversation. We talk about play. We talk about what we mean by play, because it’s harder to define than you would think. And I love some of the quotes that she brings up in the references. We’re very cool, very nerdy. I get real excited. We talk about the connection between play and aggression and how she uses play when she’s working with dogs with aggressive behavior and how she incorporates that into her training protocols and we take a number of interesting side quests as well. So I can’t wait to hear what you think about it.

(Intro ends, recorded interview begins) [00:06:00]

Hannah Branigan: Play and aggression today. And you just mentioned that you felt like they were a really natural pair because play and aggression go together so obviously, and when you’re saying that I’m thinking, “I don’t know if that’s so obvious,” like I think it feels like on some level aggression is a really serious problem. So how could that possibly be connected with play?

Karen London: Well, it’s definitely a really interesting question how they’re related and I find that I often feel like they’re closely related and so obviously linked, but apparently it’s not that obvious, because not that many people seem to agree with me.

But as soon as I started working with aggression cases, which was in 1999, I found that play was coming up over and over and over again with my clients. And I think the way that play and aggression are so closely linked is a bunch of ways. One is they’re often confused with each other. Like I have had dogs playing and I’m like, “Oh, what wonderful vigorous play,” and people are like, “Oh my gosh, are they fighting?” They can be confused for each other because there are a lot of similar [00:07:00] motor patterns that can be in them. Arousal is a huge issue in play and in aggression. And that’s where I think a lot of the intersection happens.

And then play is a part of being normal and in humans there have been a lot of studies that show that in really violent criminals — not your everyday average criminals, but like mass murderers and people that go up into bell towers and shoot down — a lot of them, it’s really common to have childhood play abnormality.

So play is really important for like, not having aggression in a number of species, including people. And it just seems like whenever there are behavior issues, it’s common that play might be a factor. For example, there have been studies that have shown that orphaned and depressed chimpanzees often cease to play. And you know, when, when you’re not playing because there’s emotional issues, then all kinds of other behavioral issues can come up, including aggression. And then just because I use play so often in my cases to help dogs improve their behavior, who are aggress aggressive, that just compounds the way that I view them as being linked [00:08:00] in my mind.

Hannah Branigan: Mm-hmm, that makes sense. I mean, I’ve definitely encountered obviously the concerned pet owners who worried that, “Oh, the puppies are fighting,” but they’re just wrestling loudly and that’s fair. But I’ve also, honestly, I’ve had those thoughts on the playground, watching my child play with, with her cousins with her friends sometimes. Less now at her current age than when she was younger.

And I definitely still occasionally — not so much, but occasionally — bump up against the myth that if you play tug with your dog, that they’ll become aggressive.

Karen London: Right? Yeah. I remember that from decades ago. That was a really common thing. And now it still is out there. I totally disagree with that idea.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah, yeah. Me as well!

Karen London: Right. I do think there are some dogs who are aggressive in a certain way where playing tug can get them revved up to the point that it– you know, tug might not be appropriate for some aggressive dogs. [00:09:00] But tug is not gonna turn a behaviorally well dog into an aggressive one.

Hannah Branigan: And I definitely resonate when you were talking about– was it that the stressed chimpanzees stopped playing?

Karen London: Yeah! Or if they’re depressed, which obviously is gonna have a huge overlap.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah! I mean, I think a lot of us have found it harder to play in the last couple of years with the conditions being what they are.

I’ve had so many conversations with people who are struggling to find joy in the hobbies that they enjoyed not that long ago. And, and all of a sudden, when we’re in survival mode, it’s really hard to care about the fun things that we used to. And from my therapist, my understanding is that actually we have to go the other way as well. We can improve our mood by doing the behaviors that we would do otherwise, doing play. We call it self-care and things, but…

Karen London: Right! No, play is so important for [00:10:00] wellbeing for all species, including people. And we’ve collectively as a species kind of had a crap couple years so play is important!

And one of the ways that I often think about that, what you’re talking about, like “it’s hard to enjoy play or hard to engage in it when times are tough or you’re not feeling well,” is that a lot of dogs obviously that have behavior issues, including aggression, are fearful and play can often be used — we can talk about exactly how — but play can often be used to help dogs overcome their fears. But it’s also a great sort of assay because if a dog is in a situation where they’re really fearful, they’re not gonna play. So if they’re playing, there’s likely some level of emotional comfort, so it can be used as an assessment as well, which I think is pretty cool.

It’s the same thing with treats. Sometimes dogs are too stressed to take treats and you can use that as an assessment, but sometimes dog will take treats, but they’re still upset. They’re sort of just snatching ’em or they still might eat them, but it’s not my experience that dogs are gonna be [00:11:00] playing unless there’s a pretty high level of comfort in a situation. Could be an exception for a dog that’s so obsessive about a ball that it’s like, you know–

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. I was thinking that I love the idea of using– I think it is so helpful, especially when we’re working with behaviors like aggressive behaviors to have a really good way to measure thresholds, like to tell “how much am I pushing on this, in this situation?” And I think the biggest challenge is we find out after the fact that–

Karen London: Right, right. We know where the threshold is when you stepped over it.

Hannah Branigan: Right. “Oh, it was back there, back there was where the threshold was! Now I know!”

Yeah. Yeah. And I think the sessions I’ve had that went really well were the ones where I had a good diagnostic criteria. I could identify very clearly as we were approaching and then make the adjustments. Both to like, “Oh, okay, now I can increase my criteria.” [00:12:00] Cause I tend to go the other way, having had some bad learning experiences, that I’ll never increase criteria and I’ll stay at the same level forever rather than risk going over, but that’s not good training either.

And I like the play and I definitely– I’m thinking a couple of thoughts here. So I know for my own dogs that what I consider play does tend to be more fragile than eating food in general. Okay. I’m going discount the border collie, because he does not count.

Karen London: He’s in a special category!

Hannah Branigan: But for my other– well, let’s say for all of my dogs, there’s some reinforcement behavior– like the reinforcement behaviors occur on a continuum and some are more sensitive than others and they’ll be the one to disappear. So part of my job is knowing what that hierarchy looks like. So for Figgy, him not taking food does not mean the same thing as if Rugby were to not take food, my border terrier. If Rugby were not taking food– well, [00:13:00] we’d be going to the vet to be honest.

Karen London: Right. No, I get it.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. But I’ve also worked with enough malinois and labs and german shepherds that if we count the ball or the tug toy or the frisbee as play, those behaviors might even get stronger– but I also don’t necessarily count that as play in my definition. So maybe we should talk about what you mean when you’re talking about play and like what we’re looking at behaviorally.

Karen London: You mean in terms of a definition?

Hannah Branigan: Yes. Yes.

Karen London: Well, the first thing I’ll say about that is that if you got together with a bunch of scientists to discuss play and you started with the definition, no one would ever make it out of the session to lunch, dinner, or the evening after hours. It’s a messy area. And one of the most accepted definitions of play– and this is two scientists, Bekoff and Byers from decades [00:14:00] ago, and this is gonna be totally unsatisfying to everyone, but this is a commonly used definition. It’s “all motor activity performed postnatally that appears to be purposeless, in which motor patterns from other context may often be used in modified forms and altered temporal sequencing.”

And obviously the phrase “appears to be purposeless” is problematic.

Hannah Branigan: Mm-hmm.

Karen London: That’s obviously really ambiguous. And a lot of the ways that people think about play is from the scientist EO Wilson, who said, “We know intuitively that play is a set of pleasurable activities frequently, but not always, social in nature that imitate the serious activities of life without consummating serious goals.”

And when you hear both of these definitions, you really get that idea that– the the way I think of it is, you know when you’re studying a foreign language and they talk about all these rules, but then there’s a million exceptions? It’s like, there’s the way the world works. And then we’re trying to overlay [00:15:00] this patterning and definitions over it. And it, yeah, it covers 99% of the things but not all of them.

And it’s the same with the species definition. There’s very specific species definitions about they can breed and produce fertile offspring. But then there’s sort of these subspecies that might go like all the way around the world. And they can all breed with the ones near them, but not the ones across the planet. So it it’s very messy. And I think the easiest way to think of a definition of play is that old idea about like, “Well, I can’t really tell you what pornography is, but I know it when I see it.” Like, that’s kind of how play is — you sort of know it.

And the last thing I’ll say about that is that Wilson, the same scientist, EO Wilson of Harvard — who’s recently passed away, unfortunately — he said, and I love this, he said, “No behavioral concept has proven more ill defined, elusive, controversial, and even unfashionable.” What I love so much about that is that the idea that there could be a behavioral concept that could be unfashionable implies that there could be behavioral concepts that are fashionable and anything about science potentially being fashionable, just like warms my heart.

And so I think most play that we see, we know it’s play, there are things we [00:16:00] don’t know that is play and then we’re really just dealing with this gray area of like, “Oh, I’m not sure if this is play or not,” but that’s not that big a percentage of it. And again, it’s very unsatisfying and I get that.

Hannah Branigan: Mm-hmm.

Karen London: It’s tricky. And a lot of the trickiness about play is that there are things we don’t know about it. We don’t know completely the definition, we don’t know completely the function and we don’t really know completely the evolutionary history. So, you know, that’s a tricky behavioral issue when you don’t know what it is, what it’s for or how it got here. Mm-hmm, it’s a lot.

Hannah Branigan: And I could definitely imagine it gets even harder if we’re trying to go across species. Human play and dog play aren’t going to look the same because we are different evolution, different ecological roles and all the things. And yet we play together.

Karen London: It’s true. It’s true. That idea of defining play– Because you can have solitary play, you know like object play that’s solitary, but a lot of play is social. And I think–

Hannah Branigan: Sorry! (muffled laughter)

Karen London: I know it sounds bad. (more laughter) [00:17:00]

Hannah Branigan: Pornography to solitary play!

Karen London: It’s OK. Right. Exactly. The behavior world is all connected, but I digress.

Hannah Branigan: It’s all about reinforcers, right?

Karen London: Right, exactly. Yes, if we’re finding it amusing, it’s reinforcing to us. Play across species is a tricky thing because certain actions may be considered play in one species or not another, there could be interaction, but what I find so fascinating about dog/human play is that the fact that we play together across species is really a biological miracle. It’s so fascinating. And one of the things that dogs and humans have in common with a very small group of species is that we play all the way into adulthood. Just these ideas about– neoteny which basically means, you know, being young your whole life. Like humans are in many ways– adult humans are like baby primates of other species and dogs are a lot like [00:18:00] baby canids of other species. In some ways we’re all Peter Pan species; we never grow up and that explains why we play, because play as in many species, only in juveniles, but in dogs and people, we play all the way into adulthood and that’s pretty unusual. And then I think it has a lot to do with how close our relationship is. The fact that we, we are a very playful species.

I mean, when you think about it, most species– humans and many dogs are obsessed with any round thing, any ball. There’s a number of sports, like people live and die by these games with balls, whether it’s them or a professional team or a national team and, and dogs are much the same way. It’s pretty unusual.

Hannah Branigan: Yes. I mean, right now, recording this, we are in the middle of prime sportsball season for humans, particularly here in the ACC region, right?

Karen London: No, it’s pretty important. I myself am wearing the Costa Rican jersey from La Selección, the national team and they have a playoff to get into the world cup against [00:19:00] New Zealand in June and, you know, I used to live in Costa Rica and I am all worked up about it. And yet, is my life affected by this play, this game, really? Zero, not at all in no way. But I care. And I just think that speaks to how seriously we take play. Which is ironic because play has for so long been considered rather trivial. Scientists have started to take it more seriously and not just recently, but for some time.

And I think in the dog training community, we can be really proud of the fact that we have for quite a while recognized the importance of play. I mean, there’s a lot of information out there about play and how powerful it is and how important it is and how much it matters for our dog’s wellbeing. I would still say that play is underutilized in influencing behavior.

I mean, it can be used in so many ways. It can be used as an incompatible behavior. It can be used as a redirection. It can be used as reinforcement. It can be used as enrichment. It can be used as part of a counterconditioning paradigm. I mean, that’s a lot for something that [00:20:00] people are like, “Oh, it’s just play.” I mean, play is so powerful and it’s one of the reasons that I use it, even though I mostly see dogs who are aggressive, I use it so much in my cases because it’s powerful, it works, it’s impactful and it helps dogs and helps people.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. I mean, that makes a lot of sense. It seems like part of why we are struggling to define it effectively and operationalize it is because it really does encompass such a rich depth of behaviors. Like there’s so many complex behaviors and interactions and in general, I think it’s almost like a theme that we keep returning to in the podcast, and maybe it’s just kinda where I’m on my journey right now, but emphasizing behavioral flexibility, broadening behavioral repertoires are all things that put us into a more reinforcement-based contingency lifestyle. Whereas more rigid, more narrowing behavioral repertoires are associated with [00:21:00] coercion and like you were saying earlier with reduced welfare, behavioral, emotional problems. So it seems really like a really common feature to solving a lot of these problems comes to ways that we can enrich the repertoire and make it more flexible and play seems like a really– like here, we’ve got this huge bucket that contains all these different kinds of behaviors, like lots of variety, like we’ll just pour that in and that’s gonna double the size of that repertoire already.

I’m also wondering, is maybe part of why it’s hard to define because so much of it has to do with, with the context, like the same behavior in a different context isn’t play. But in this context, we would describe it as play?

Karen London: Yeah, I completely agree. I mean, if a dog is chasing after a person or a [00:22:00] ball or another dog, that could be very playful. If the dog is chasing after a squirrel or a deer, I bet the squirrel and the deer wouldn’t think it was playful, but I mean, it’s that same behavior. And I mean, behaviors from like agonistic behaviors, fighting, confrontation, reproductive behaviors as well, courtship behaviors, hunting, stalky behaviors, all of those things can be involved in play.

So yeah, those behavioral patterns are definitely part of play. And I mean, probably the real issue with defining play is that originally when the concept of play was developed however many hundreds or thousands of years ago, it lumped a lot of things. It was just all these kind of things. I mean, it’s, it’s sometimes it’s funny if you go to a scientific conference and hear people talking about play, they’ll say these very complex words about ending up in some physiological [00:23:00] state that we could define as “having fun,” you know, but it’s after all these like 5,000 science words and it really is the idea that, I mean, play seems to happen because it is fun. That’s the immediate motivation.

But as for why it’s important from an evolutionary perspective to have fun, it’s not clear, is it? I mean, there are a lot of theories about, “It’s to practice behaviors that you would need later in life,” like fighting or escape behaviors or predatory behaviors, or maybe it’s to handle the idea of like surprises, you know, that idea about a fighter pilot. It’s like hours and hours and hours of boredom, interspersed with 30 seconds of sheer terror. Life is really like that from an evolutionary perspective. And if we’re in situations where we’re like off-balance or moving in strange ways, and we recover from that, that’s a really valuable survival skill. And so some theories say that the whole purpose of play is to prepare you for those sort of off-balance life or death moments that you need. And that our brains have [00:24:00] evolved to find that feeling fun. Like a lot of people that are like adrenaline junkies are the ultimate players and we all have different needs in terms of stimulating that part of our brain, but being out of control, physically, to some extent– you know, roller coasters, doing a flip off the diving board, wrestling with someone, that all kind of gives you an off-balance thing that for many people and other species too, there’s an element of fun about it.

Hannah Branigan: I had not thought about that, because I was spending a little bit on asking myself, “Well, what is fun?” Like how do I even know if I’m having fun? I’m questioning that now. And I don’t know. I don’t even know if we can talk about that, but you’re right. There’s something about the controllably uncontrollable, the predictably uncertain that is why we like a little bit of– like, I’m very risk averse in general. I run to [00:25:00] anxiety. So I don’t like uncertainty. My threshold for uncertainty is very, very low. It’s something I’m working on, but, you know. So I don’t love– I don’t like gambling. I don’t like many of the things that that for other people would be well within an average threshold perhaps even that– But I probably have my own versions of that, where I like the littlest kind of non-risk risk that I kind of know that I’m going to win, but there’s just enough of a question that I get to experience it. Like maybe not an actual roller coaster, but maybe going on a children’s roller coaster at the spring festival. Yeah. And that kind of fits a little bit. I hadn’t really thought about it that way.

Karen London: Well, and I think some people really enjoy like the physical play and risk. Like I definitely like physical play and risk. Like I enjoy that, but I also don’t like gambling. I guess I don’t like to be emotionally or financially out of control, but I don’t mind being [00:26:00] physically out of control. It just depends on I guess where your anxieties run, but like, I love trying to jump across a creek that I’m probably not gonna make it, but the rest of my family will all make it. And I’m like, “Ker-sploosh!” Oh, well, I tried. That’s fun, but what’s the harm, but like gambling, that’s not fun to me.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. I buy my own health insurance, so that feels less fun to me than it would have 10 years ago. But yeah, no, it’s definitely– I don’t even like the board game Risk. So that’s not fun for me.

Karen London: Oh, I don’t either. I don’t like any board games. My mom theorized that– I have an older sister; I’m the youngest. I was kind of youngest of the neighborhood kids. And she theorized that I don’t like board games because I really just– when I was little and playing with older kids, I just knew I was gonna lose and it was never fun for me. I still don’t like board games and when the rest of my family gets Risk out, like on a snow day, I’m like, “Ugh.” I know that a lot of people find that game fun, but the idea to me of seeking world domination by rolling dice and probably losing anyway, just doesn’t have an element of [00:27:00] play or fun to me.

Too much like real life! Too much

Hannah Branigan: like real life already!

Karen London: Right! Too much like real life.

But I think this is interesting in the sense that not everyone has the same idea of what fun is or what a game is. And I’m sure if you’ve seen dogs playing in any kind of group setting, even if it’s a small group or like a large gladiator pit, dog park sort of situation, you get these situations where like one dog is trying to play chess and one dog is trying to play tag. It doesn’t work very well. Or checkers. I don’t mean chess in the sense of “very strategic.”

But if you get very typically some of the Northern breeds that are really into body slamming, but you get dogs that are more into like rough-and-tumble wrestle play, or some that are more into chase, or some that it just doesn’t really matter if they’re dogs there because they just wanna fetch their whatever, Frisbee or ball.

A lot of what play has to involve in social play is that everyone is interested in the same game and they’re playing it simultaneously. And I think so many problems in play that can lead to aggression or [00:28:00] misunderstandings that lead to aggression are when there aren’t the same rules or it’s not the same game.

And so I find it really fascinating to watch dogs play and think about rules. And one of the things that I’ve noticed a lot in using play to treat aggression is that, say there’s a certain situation, like maybe a visitor coming to the door and the dog is either fearful or aroused. Anyway, they might be aggressive towards a visitor at the door, and it’s very common to redirect them to a toy.

And I’m just gonna make a short segue to say here: a lot of people say, “tell ’em to go get a toy.” And I would say, “tell ’em to go get a toy so that you will play with them with it.” Because just going to get a toy is one thing, but if they get it and they bring it to you and it’s a fetch or a tug, that’s so much more engaging, reinforcing, and keeping their mouth busy than just having them go and get a toy.

Hannah Branigan: It changes the contingency versus just trying to artificially swap in a behavior.

Karen London: Right? Exactly. It’s not just about the behavior being incompatible, which it still is, but it also adds in this whole element of the full game, the contingencies are much better from the dog’s point of view. But in [00:29:00] many cases, if dogs are in a play situation, they’re really willing to accept rules. So if you have a rule that like the dog can’t go to the door or the dog can’t do this, it’s challenging for them. And there can be sort of antagonism between people and dogs about exactly what the expectations are. But if the dog learns like, “Oh, this is the rules during a game,” I think that very often works better. And when I’m working with clients, and maybe they have challenges to set boundaries for their dog because maybe their dog resists them or maybe they’re not clear or just issues with criteria in general, I find that that’s all easier in the context of play. There’s something about when dogs are having fun, that– rules– And I’m not talking about rules just for the sake of rules. I’m talking about rules like “your mouth can’t go on people,” “no teeth on delicate human skin” [00:30:00] or “you can’t come running down the stairs at that speed.” You’ll get the toy when you get here, but I’m not gonna toss it down the stairs for you. I don’t want you running that fast down it. I just feel like dogs get a lot of emotional control practice in play because there are rules. They have to have an on and off button.

Maybe when you ask them to fetch, after five or six fetches, they have to sit if you ask them and they might have a hard time if they were just in– just running around the house, like crazy on their own or goofing around and you ask them to sit. But if they know, “Oh, okay. That’s how it goes in play. Like I fetch a bunch of times, however many times, and then I sit and then I go again.” I feel like the communication and context of play often allows there to be sort of on/off buttons, lowering of arousal and rules followed that would be much harder in other contexts.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah, that makes sense. I think. Going back to the– when play works, when it doesn’t work, when it’s between two or more individuals, there’s a requirement for it to be responsive. If [00:31:00] I’m not having fun, you think you’re being playful and teasing me and it’s not fun for me, then that’s not play. And if I bring it up and you say, “Well, I was just playing,” that doesn’t make it okay.

Totally! It’s

Karen London: only play if everyone’s having a good time.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. And good play doesn’t mean that that doesn’t ever happen, but it’s responsive. So you say something that pushes me a little too far and I respond and you respond by adjusting and then we’re back in the stream. And I see that physically with dogs all the time, where one dog will get just a little bit too rough or will push just a little bit too far, or I have watched–

So I have herding dogs and a terrier in my house and they have by default different play styles. And so like Spark, my terv, loves chasing games. She does not like contact, but she loves chasing. But Rugby, border terrier, not even half her size, cannot chase her. And she has been trying to teach him to play chase. It’s easy for her to avoid his preferred style of play, which [00:32:00] is much more physical and contact-y because she can leave. But she’ll be playing small chase games with him and then you can see her go too far, too fast. And he’s like, “Oh, well, forget it. I can’t catch her.” And she’ll see him start to disengage and she’ll circle back and go a little bit slower and like throw her shoulder at him and you’ll see him flirt a little bit. And then he’ll be back in the game and she’ll make a smaller circle, a little bit slower and hesitate a little bit, let him catch up and adjust herself, you know? And that’s very cool to watch happen.

And certainly seeing young dogs playing with older dogs and they get too rough and the older dog says, “Hey!” and the younger dog says, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!”

Karen London: Totally! I’ve seen– I remember this one time, I saw great pyrenees, big, big old furry paw, just– I can’t remember what the other dog was, but it was a smaller dog and it looked maybe like a Teddy bear actually, and just put its paw on it. Not hard, but just like, “No. Thanks for trying.” It [00:33:00] wasn’t rough. I wish I had it on video. It wasn’t rough, but it was steady and it was clear. And the little dog wasn’t frightened, but the little dog was like, “Got it.”

And I love what you’re talking about, this idea of like, there’s so many adjustments to be made and I think some of the most wonderful assessments I’ve seen of dogs or when I get such a good opinion of them, it’s like, “Oh, look how they played. Look how they rolled on their back or got down really low to make that dog not feel fearful, or they slowed down, or they circled back, or they– just anything they do to sort of adjust their behavior, to engage the other dog.

I think those kind of dogs with those amazing social skills, it’s pretty interesting to watch. And I was thinking about this earlier, but when I said skills, I re-reminded myself, which is weird. Like I’m having a conversation with you apparently in my own mind as well. One of the things that’s so fascinating to me about play is that dogs get skills in play. And I [00:34:00] don’t just mean like a retriever or drop it, although those are certainly skills, but they just learn. Maybe they do know drop it, or maybe they’ve learned sit in the context of play or they know how to stop, or they know how to calm down or they know how to rev up, or they know how to do a play bow to show that they’re interested in play.

And sometimes when I’m working with clients with aggression cases in their house, it can be kind of alarming when it’s like, okay, this is a dog with a serious aggression problem. And the dog basically knows its own name and maybe to sit — it knows nothing else, or maybe not even that. But when you think of play as a set of skills, like to go and get your toy when you’re told to, or to bring it or to hold onto a tug toy, but not move up the rope or whatever. Sometimes dogs I work with, the skills they have are their play skills and they don’t have any real training history. So sometimes– we always wanna start with clients where they’re at. Like you can’t say like, “All right, well, we’re gonna send your dog on a flying lie down if they try to chase after the mailman.” It’s like, “Okay, [00:35:00] well, the dog doesn’t even know how to lie down, much less do a running away from you lie down while they’re aroused, when they’re outside, when they’re off leash, when there’s something exciting to them, when their children are getting off the school bus.” They might not have anything really proofed except for play. The idea that they have certain skills that they can do in play when they’re really highly aroused– I mean, that might be the skills they have. And so that’s why I start. And that’s why I more often use play to help treat aggression when there are children in the house, because the likelihood that dogs are gonna have play skills or be playing when there are children in the house– I know that sounds terrible. Like, oh my gosh, like sometimes aggressive dogs and playing children sounds like a recipe for disaster, but you know, maybe the aggression is towards strangers or towards other dogs. The kid, the great with the kids, but kids are often really great teachers in terms of the play skills that dogs have.

Hannah Branigan: They’re just skin puppies!

Karen London: Right, right, exactly.

Hannah Branigan: I wonder– You were saying that dogs, they have an easier time learning emotional [00:36:00] control because there are rules. And I’m wondering if it doesn’t also– if it’s not one of those things that flows both ways. They can learn the rules in play because there’s emotional distance. It’s a different emotional context than where similar behaviors might be showing up with different contingency, different, emotional context, like being actually afraid– like pretending to be chased is a different emotional experience than actually being chased. And so I wonder if it might go both ways there, if it’s an easier set of conditions to learn the rules that we can then apply in the harder set of conditions.

Karen London: Yeah, I definitely think so! As we know, context is everything and different contexts can be more difficult. And I think for a lot of dogs, maybe partly because the reinforcement’s so good, like “if I calm down for a second, the play’s gonna resume.” So that’s so motivating, so inspiring and there’s a history of reinforcement, but it gives them practice calming down that they can then apply elsewhere. You know? I mean, obviously [00:37:00] you still have to move in your gradual steps of training. Like we all know.

Hannah Branigan: Well, and they have some agency, right? Like, like when you’re in– if we’re looking at the responsive nature of a good play interaction, you’re influencing each other. And if control, influence over your environment, is a primary– we consider that a primary reinforcer borrowing from Dr. Susan Friedman–

Like one of the things that I’ve loved watching that older adult dog that is just really great with puppies and like bringing out– like we say, “Oh, she’s got really good dog skills. She’s got really good social skills. She’s got really good play skills.” And I will often– I had the deep privilege of having one of those dogs in my life for not long enough, and I didn’t know what I was seeing at the time, but I could [00:38:00] see her take an awkward, shy, insecure adolescent, and through like, “I’m gonna show you my shoulder and then I’m gonna run a few steps away and then I’m gonna do this.”

And you would see the, you the awkward teenager kinda like, “Do I bark? Am I gonna… what if I like pounce a little bit towards her?” And then she would immediately respond. Just like when my daughter was a baby and she would like, cover me with her napkin and I’d be like, “Oh, you’re you’re, you’re so gone. I can’t see you anywhere.” And I kind of see that playing out like similarly and the younger dog gets more confident and then the next time will make a little bit more stronger of a gesture. And then my older dog would respond to that. And there’s a really clear reinforcing quality of this young dog who maybe to date, hasn’t had a ton of control over his life, hasn’t had a lot of experience of being able to [00:39:00] control his experience with his behavior, especially socially and now he’s getting to have this low stakes way where his movement makes the other dog do stuff.

Karen London: And then that sounds so amazing. I mean, so beautiful. The way you’re talking about this, like a dog that’s aware enough of what the other dog needs, like a sort of a gentle enticement into play.

You know, this is not a dog that’s suddenly leaping on that shy insecure adolescent being like “let’s rumble.” I mean, the idea that is just like, “Look, you can make this happen.” Like you kind of make a, in your own place, like sort of pretend pounce towards me. And then I kind of spook and jump. And then it’s like, that idea of that interaction is really great.

And it really does make me think– Like, I definitely think that dog human play can be really powerful and important for our relationship and so valuable for physical and mental exercise and building the relationship and the trust and just being outdoors and relaxing.[00:40:00]

But man, dog/dog play. I mean, the idea that you interact with your own species is obviously advantageous in many ways, less opportunities for certain types of misunderstandings. And I mean, if every puppy or adolescent, whether they’re have any insecurities or not– to be able to have an adult dog guide them through play is– It’s like everybody having that like favorite aunt or uncle who is just playful and fun and delightful, such a valuable part of development.

I really think it’s so amazing what dogs can learn and the confidence they can gain in play. I think what you’re saying about agency is a big part of that. I love to watch dogs play, especially when they have really amazing social skills. I also like watching it sometimes when they have awkward social skills, but then I’m more worried about the dogs getting upset, but it’s just as fascinating as well. It just worries– like fascinating, but I’ve [00:41:00] watched dogs play where I’m like, “wow, this is really sort of going south.” And of course you decide to intervene, but there’s always a part of me that’s like, “Oh, I wish I could see what happens,” but obviously you can’t risk a dog’s wellbeing, emotional wellbeing.

Hannah Branigan: Right, they might work it out, but you might also need to go to the vet. So we try to…

Karen London: Right, right. “But I would find it interesting.”

I think that the details are so fascinating. Like when you were talking about the dog that was in your life that had those incredibly good social skills, what was going on in that dog’s mind and processing, like, “Okay, this other dog is a little insecure, can handle this much at this time.” I mean, that’s a huge degree of social and cognitive development. And some of my favorite dogs ever have been the ones where I’m like, “They’re not just playing because it’s fun.” They don’t have a training plan like you and I might write one down, but they might as well. They’re doing all these sort of decision trees, like “Oh, too much. Okay. A little bit. And now I can try this.” It’s pretty fascinating.

And it is interesting. [00:42:00] I feel like it used to be that play was used in training– when you had a training class, dogs played before and after, and that was mainly what it is. But now it’s used maybe even in the class. Like, I certainly see people in agility classes where the first thing they do is that they might tug with their dog to kind of get them revved up enough. And then it’s certainly used as reinforcement and all kinds of things. It’s been a while now, but it’s still relatively new in the world of dog training to use play in such a pointed fashion.

Hannah Branigan: I think that we’re still very young in understanding it and how it works. I mean, I’m fascinated by reinforcement in general and understanding all of the potential of the reinforcers that are available to us in the world and how we might cultivate and manipulate those to get outcomes that we want or need particularly in the sports world. And so trying to figure out ,when I’m playing with my dog and it’s going [00:43:00] well, what am I doing? And then what of that is something I can articulate and then teach to someone else. And I definitely with my sports students– and this is a little bit of a sensitive topic. I mentioned before we started recording that I’m both fascinated and frustrated with trying to talk about play, because it is really complex and I’ve got some baggage. Like I was told very early on when I was a child in my dog training journey that I couldn’t do agility with my dog unless he would tug. And then I went and cried in my car and that was maybe my first experience of crying in my car in a dog sports setting.

Karen London: Why were they saying you couldn’t do agility if your dog wouldn’t tug?

Hannah Branigan: I think it was a belief in the sport at the time.

Karen London: That a dog who wouldn’t tug was just not fit for agility somehow?

Do you know, I find that fascinating, because we used to have a retriever cross who didn’t like to fetch and I know my husband was like, “he doesn’t fetch it’s so weird,” and [00:44:00] I taught the dog to fetch, but I taught it like a circus trick. It was like the same way I would teach the dog to like pick up a sock that dropped out of the laundry basket.

I taught it and the dog did it and the dog would do it and it was reinforced for it, so it was happy enough to do it, but there was no true joy. Like the dog was not– the dog was a retrieving cross by genetics, but the dog was never really a retriever. Like if I threw a ball and said, “go get it,” he would go get it and bring it back and spit it out. But it was not play to him. It was just the same as if I taught him to spin or high five or sit pretty, it’s like, “Oh, this is what we do for reinforcement. So that’s fine.” I wouldn’t have called it play even though it looked sort of like play because I threw a ball and the dog brought it back. And I imagine you could have certainly taught a dog to tug to some degree but I’m angry on your behalf that you were made to go cry in the car for this silly

Hannah Branigan: I’ve forgot. And I should– you we’re always shaped by your [00:45:00] experiences, so you can’t really give select ones back, because it changes how I am now, which isn’t all bad. I have some good qualities.

But I am actually really good at teaching dogs to tug from nothing and teaching retrieving by transferring the function, starting often with food and building tugging behavior with food, and then getting it to transition to a behavior that I think anybody watching would classify as pornography. I mean play, uh, you know.

Karen London: Anybody! But I mean, some of these dogs, I presume that you’ve taught to tug– I mean, some dogs, they’re an eight week old puppy and you show ’em a rope and they’re backing into it and they’re all excited and you can just see the shiny light in their eyes, the kind that makes you think, “oh boy, this is not gonna be all that fun when they’re an adolescent; we’re gonna have a rough patch, but okay. It’s a great dog. But it’s gonna have a rough patch.” And then dogs that are like, “All right.” You know, it’s a very like [00:46:00] socially compromised way of tugging, like “I clamp my teeth down on this. I pull my weight back,” you know, but it’s not– I’m sure there’s a range of how much real joy they have in it.

Hannah Branigan: So yes. And also this was actually where I wanted to go with this was to bring it back to what I have found– Because I’ve had the same experience. I could absolutely teach– I mean, I don’t wanna say any dog, but so far, most dogs, I can teach to bring me an object back. We’ll call it a retrieve.

But in order to use that as a reinforcer in the situations where I wanna use it, I need a lot more than that. I want the bounce. I want the ears up, the eyes bright. I want persistence. I want speed and low latency. And what I have found that makes the difference between that business retrieve and the play retrieve or the “I’m holding onto this rag until you click, because that is how I get the treat,” is adding that responsive [00:47:00] context to it so that if I define how to win, then it changes– you can see the switch flip in a way that’s so cool. And I really think it’s because it transfers it to “now I’m making you do stuff,” you know, and that’s where it becomes play. So with with the tugging — and I was actually working through this mostly with my border terrier, who for all that he’s a terrier did not come with tugging, just did not, did not compute for him. I had to install it after-market.

And working with my friend Julie Jenkins, who is our flyball instructor, she said, “You know, what really helped me with my dog was reinforcing her for pulling it out of my hand.” And that was the missing link. And when I went from, instead of reinforcing for pulling the toy, pulling the toy out of my hand, I think it gave some– it gave context to the behavior, so now [00:48:00] he’s– The way you win, the way you earn reinforcement is to pull the tug out of my hand. And so then I have a shaping plan of, well, I can make it very, very easy so I can hold it with just like my fingertips and he can pull it out of my hand. He gets a treat and then I can hold it with more fingers and he pulls it out of my hand and then one day I’m holding it and he pulls and I let my arm stretch, but then I pull back.

In that moment, his terrier kicked in and he was like, oh, hell no, you’re not standing between me and my treat. And he pulled back harder and I let him pull it outta my hand and I gave him the treat. And from then on, it was just like, the doors had opened and now he’s pulling and he’ll come in and he’ll thrash it and he’ll clack his teeth at me, like a like a little tiny malinois

And what was missing, what made it the play, was he pulls and I give, and then when he kinda reached the peak of his pull, that I pull back. So it’s like that elasticity, and then he pulls [00:49:00] again, and then I pull back, and he pulls again. And he’s a little bit pissed off, but also, I feel like I could put it in the same category of like the controllably uncontrolled, predictable unpredictability.

I’ve done the same thing with the play retrieve where if the goal is that they have to put it in my hand and they put it in my hand, they put it in my hand, and then one day I present my hand and they go to put it in my hand and I pull my hand away, and you’ll see them go, “Hey!” and they’ll push another six inches to get it in my hand.

And from then it becomes, you can’t touch me with the toy. And now we have a game — but we had to get to a place where we could tap into that, that interactive responsiveness. And I’ve noticed that with dogs that I’m teaching that tug, that come with tugging, like that come with some of vestigial baby tugging already, thta me holding the toy isn’t the thing, it’s me holding the toy and them pulling and me letting my arm stretch out a little bit. [00:50:00] And maybe even like, if it’s a little puppy, they’ll pull it. “Oh my gosh. You’re so strong. Oh, she was so strong.” And you’ll see them just like, “Oh yeah, I am. I got you.”

Karen London: Yeah, I think there’s a lot going on what you’re saying. I love all this. I mean, I think some of it is like the unpredictability of it, sort of like a gamble. Like “am I gonna get what I want?” And so I’m not sure that it’s gonna happen. And then the idea that they can make things happen. And then when you’re talking with your terrier about, like kind of that, “Oh, hell no,” I think then they’re like, “Oh, I can get it from you. Challenge accepted!” And there’s sort of a goal — not goal oriented in the boring way, but in a fun way, like, “Oh, I have to try something else.” And I think there’s like a problem solving element of it. And then that sort of teasing, like, “Oh, gonna move my hand away.” You’re kind of playing hard to get. And I think dogs like that. I mean, in just that short little bit you were talking, there were so many different ways that you offer dogs opportunity to use their minds and have fun and try things. I mean, that’s, [00:51:00] what’s so great about play is that there’s so much.

And some dogs, I love the idea that, whether they have to be installed after-market with tug, something I find really interesting about play is that– like some dogs, dogs that are real natural tuggers or if you ever met a puppy that’s a natural retriever and all you maybe have to do is maybe work a little bit on the quickness of the release, but they basically– they’re a puppy and you throw ’em something, they bring it back and there might be some training with the release–

Hannah Branigan: Getting the toy back is often a little bit of training, yeah.

Karen London: Right, right. But some dogs will go run after the toy and then not even bring it in your general direction. They’ll just pick it up and drop it or run off with it. But the ones that will go get it and head back to you, that that’s already a retrieve. Yeah, you gotta fine tune it, but–

Or dogs that love to tug. But I think there’s something very fascinating about teaching dogs to do something that’s really natural for them. Nosework, retrieving, versus something that’s maybe not that natural for them. Like I think agility often fits into that category or obedience. I know a lot of dogs love agility and they take to it, but there’s still, you know, “you gotta [00:52:00] hit your contacts, you can’t just jump anywhere on the weave poles.”

Yeah. It’s

Hannah Branigan: like soccer or– it’s very contrived in most of it. Yeah.

Karen London: Yeah, exactly. But some parts of play aren’t and to me, one of– sometimes people say their dogs aren’t playful and sometimes they need to be taught like your dog was taught to play tug and has become quite good at it and seems to enjoy it. We can obviously teach dogs to be interested in toys with the use of food or, you know, with erratic movements. But sometimes when people say their dog’s not playful– in some cases there are dogs that are truly traumatized or there are some dogs that really just never really show a lot of play. But I think that for some of those dogs who are deemed not to be playful, I would advise people, “see if they will chase you.” And they may have to do it very carefully. Like your wonderful dog that was enticing that shy adolescent dog to do things. But I think that running and chasing, and obviously like with a terv that’s not surprising, border collie, you know, any of the sort of retrieving, hunting, herding breeds tend to be very chase [00:53:00] oriented.

But I think one of the best things that we can do in terms of being playful with our dogs is to run and let them chase us. I don’t, except for certain exceptions, like to chase after them, just because it could be dangerous, it can ruin their recall. ButI do think that– if you think of that sort of iconic image of– it’s usually a dad, but we should adjust it to moms. Like the iconic image of the good parent is out throwing catch with their kid. To me, the iconic image of the good dog owner is letting their dog chase them. And there have to be– you can’t just with the average– dogs that tend to get into– you don’t wanna turn it from like, you’re chasing me to you’re nipping my ankles. (Hannah, overlapping: “You’re bringing me down like a gazelle on the plains, right!”)

Hannah Branigan: There has to be this is sort

Karen London: of fine tuning. But I think that so many dogs just love to run. And I’m not talking about going take him out for a five mile run or a two mile run. I’m talking about–

Hannah Branigan: No, it’s different. It’s the responsiveness, it’s the responsiveness of it. I run at [00:54:00] you and my behavior makes you do something.

Karen London: Right. And sometimes I might initiate it. Like if there’s a dog that is aggressive to other dogs on walks or chasing the mail carriers and the mail truck, that if they learn that– if that becomes the cue, you see a dog or you see the mail truck or you see a person and then we’re gonna run. And something that I love about it, it does give a lot of dogs wanna get out of that situation. So running gets them out of it, but it also like they get to chase you.

And I did wanna say that I don’t usually advise people to chase their dogs because of the obvious reasons like you could chase your dog into the street by mistake or they might run away from you.

But I did have an exception. I had a client whose dog was going absolutely bananas with delivery trucks. And this was the beginning of the pandemic when delivery trucks were very common. And I advised her within the house, every time a delivery person came up to her door to chase her dog. And that was such fun for her dog to get to run and be chased, it was so special, but I was like, “don’t ever [00:55:00] do it outdoors because of the potential risks.”

But I think that chase is the– oftentimes we don’t think of running as play in the same way that dogs do. But I think anytime you just say to a dog, if you put it on cue, like “let’s go!” And you get moving, it’s fun for them. Speed is fun.

Hannah Branigan: Agree completely. That’s like one of my top five games that I use in my obedience is to do chase games. We call it chase me and it’s on cue.

Oh, it’s so

Karen London: great. You know, I used to have issues, like I would tell people to run and they wouldn’t necessarily do it and they’d kind of halfheartedly do it, but I one time did a little one time dog training session for some of the professional runners that live here in town, because we live in mountain town where people train a lot. And so I was like, “Okay, well, what I want you to do now is I want you to run.” And it was funny because they all took off like Jack rabbits. Like normally the dogs are always faster than the people in this. Yeah, I mean the fastest dogs were faster than the fastest people, but some of their dogs were not as fast as they were. So I was like, [00:56:00] “huh, I’ve never had this particular scenario where like half the people are faster than half their dogs.” So. Yeah.

Hannah Branigan: No, and it’s hard to teach! I think very much about “how can I teach the stimulus control component.”

Like I– so I was feeling slightly guilty, but I rationalized it to myself while you were talking. I chase my dogs. I chase them all the time, but it’s in the same mutual way that I watch them chasing each other. So I’ll like do my version of a play bow and they’ll kind of run at me and then I’ll run at them and we’ll run at each other. And my Stormy had a game that we played all the time that I called Got Your Pants, which is me chasing her and I say, “I’m gonna get your pants!” and then she’ll spin and do sweet moves.

And you know, backwoods in a small area, right. I’m not chasing her across the yard, into the road because that’s right. With all of these things there’s so much nuance, which is probably why it’s hard [00:57:00] to talk about and hard to teach. I’m not always aware of the nuance of what I’m doing in a way that I can effectively articulate to someone else and they may do what I think I’m describing that I do. And then they do, and I like, “oh, that’s not what I hadn’t mind at all. Oh my gosh. Sorry. Let’s slow down. Are you okay?”

Karen London: Let me just add one guidance about that kind of situation. I think chasing dogs– dogs love to be chased. So it’s a wonderful thing to do. My general rule is not to chase dogs, but for someone like you, that’s doing it in a controlled setting, and I bet if things started to go south, you’d just stop moving and you’ve got a good recall on your dogs. It’s not a problem for me. Like that expression, “Good trainers know all the rules. Great trainers know when to break every single one.” If someone had good enough skills with their dog that the risks of chasing them weren’t there– but I don’t work with that many people that are doing such high level training. So I just generally am like, don’t chase your dog. This is an exception, but right.

Hannah Branigan: If you’re you’re coming, like you’re [00:58:00] starting from a different starting point. And so you’re “do no harm first.” Right?

Exactly! Well,

Karen London: and so many people chase their dogs and if you chase your dog and the dog is not used to a recall, like they get out the door, you start walking three steps towards your driveway to them, and they’re like, “Great!” And they take off, that’s the kind of thing I’m worried about.

I would love– in my vision of paradise, everyone would have enough training with their dogs, that the dangers of chasing their dogs would go away and they could do it because it is– I mean, there’s no doubt that they love it. And when you see a lot of dogs play, they love to switch off who chases. Everybody wants to turn to be the chaser.

Hannah Branigan: That’s what it usually looks like when it’s going well. Yeah.

Karen London: Yeah, when it’s going well. But yeah, like you say, “do no harm.” I’m always conscious of what happens when dogs don’t have a lot of cues that they respond to reliably in pretty intense context.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. When we’re starting– where you’re going in there probably because there’s a lack of attunement in the first [00:59:00] place, so starting with the most nuanced versions of a high risk behavior is probably not a good shaping plan for the people. And that is absolutely such a common thing where it’s just the other side of the one sided play where I’m trying to get the dog back in the house, but I don’t know how to do that. And so I’m trying to catch the dog and the dog is like, “Oh, and now we’re playing!” And it’s a one sided game that I’m not having fun with. I mean, I don’t do this personally, but it’s a common thing that, that people do.

It causes

Karen London: a lot of frustration and sometimes danger.

Hannah Branigan: Yes, exactly. Exactly. It’s, it’s a bad situation. And so not chasing, running away from your dog is better advice there. And the contrast of the running away, I think is the key part of that. It’s that quick– we’re still and now we’re going away the other direction, like red light, green light makes it more playful. Still has to be responsive.

I also love chasey games [01:00:00] because you can do them with protected contact with a dog that maybe isn’t a good idea to be all the way up on and get a lot of the same benefits. I’ve watched really good decoys in protection sports, building repertoires, building confidence, we would say building drive, but I think we can go more specific than that, where the young dog is behind a barrier or on a line. And the the decoy– I’m making movements, but nobody can hear me make the movements. The decoy will like kind of stalk or lurk and the dog looks and then the dog makes a move. Maybe they bark. Maybe they pick their head up and the handler goes, “Oh!” and runs away. And the young dog goes like, “Ah, I made him move.”

And so the next time the decoy approaches, the dog goes “Buff!” And the decoy goes, “Oh,” and runs away. And you can really shape behavior from a distance using [01:01:00] that kind of chasey– and I enjoy watching really skilled people working in that way because you can see the dog’s ears just perk up and the tail wagging, the “I did that, I made that guy move!” And then they’re like, “You come closer so I can bark at you and make you go away!”

And again, that’s a context– that’s not the direction we’re usually trying to go when we’re working with an aggression problem. But I love watching the interaction playing out.

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Karen London: Yeah, that sounds cool. Have you ever seen a dog get frustrated about like, not being able to chase across a barrier? Cause what you don’t wanna do is be like “This is how you fence fight,” you know?

Hannah Branigan: Right. No, exactly. Right. It depends on what you’re shaping and which direction you go, but yeah. Since that’s often, I suspect, the evolution of some of the aggression that ends up developing, but then becomes a problem that then becomes why they call you for help.

You can see how it evolved. “I made them go way by barking at the fence and they’re not going way fast enough. I will bark harder.”

Karen London: Yeah, definitely. And to me that seems so fun to be on either side of that. I’ve long said — and I imagine you view it the same way — training should be fun. It should be interactive. And I feel like when you’re using play– [01:04:00] you know, school is always in session, your dog’s learning while you play, whether you’re specifically trying to teach them something or not.

Hannah Branigan: And of course whether it’s what you mean to teach them or not. Yeah, yeah.

Karen London: Right, right. That’s why we’ve all. Some of my very quickest and “most impressive” — I’m using air quotes for that — teaching moments have been teaching a dog something I didn’t wanna teach ’em in play. And you and I have talked about this before, about how like, “okay, you know what, let’s throw food at it sometimes.”

I was working with a dog many years ago that got very aroused and bit, like not just nipping, but really biting in play. And the dog was really aroused and it was so upsetting for play to end for this dog that I always said, “You always give this dog a stuff Kong at the end of every play session, at least for now.”

And then I said, “If the dog bites you and you have to stop the play session, give it the Kong anyway.” And of course people would be like, “Wait, you’re teaching them like bite,” and get it’s like, well, that already happens. I mean [01:05:00] the negative aspects of play ending was a worse consequence for the dog than getting the Kong they’d rather keep playing.

So I think it was okay in that sense. But also it’s like, “okay, but now it’s dog is it’s mouth is occupied with something that does not involve my skin and its teeth.” So I would be fine with that. But certainly, I’m always worried about what I’m teaching dogs in play because the “school is always in session” kind of situation.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. The biting at the end of a session– that’s a not at all uncommon problem to come up in sports training as well, the end of an agility course or something, and the frustration of “Now what,” and having them go get a toy, go get a leash, go get a kong. So we can have a clear punctuation mark at the end of that so there’s no questions about, “are we still playing? Are we not playing or what, or what do I need to do to, or should I escalate?” And that is one of the challenges. There’s so much nuance. It’s so easy to say you shouldn’t play tug with your dog [01:06:00] because it will make him aggressive. Because one time I played tug with my dog and it got outta control and he bit my hand instead of the toy. And now he’s aggressive and everything is ruined. That can be a leap, but it is also true. Poorly done play is not play anymore.

Karen London: Right. And there’s something to be said. I mean, we all talk about management and prevention. It’s like if the only situation in which your dog bites is associated with tug, then we can drop that out or work on it.

I think it’s such a tricky thing because then, the dog’s quality of life can suffer if they enjoy that so much. With fetch, with dogs that get really overaroused with fetch and are very resistant to the game stopping, I like to say “one more” before I do the last throw, because I think the predictability of it– when you suddenly, like, they bring the ball back and they’re ready play, and you’re like, “oh, we’re done.” they feel upset. But if you say “one more,” so they know.

I’ve tried various things with tug, like finishing up or winding down or saying something like that and then tugging for another [01:07:00] five or 10 seconds. But it’s not as clean as “one more” in a final retrieve. But I do like to give dogs– I mean, some dogs don’t care. It’s no big deal. You just stop when you stop. And they’re like, “all right, let’s go inside” and whatever. But for dogs who are resistant to the end of a game, which is very understandable, I like to give them a warning so they know.

And I always think about this, like there are dogs that get themselves into trouble in play and then aren’t allowed to play. But what they need often in my opinion, is more play and more skills in play, not less play. At the same time, if you drop it out for now and that prevents injuries or lawsuits or all these kind of things, that’s good.

But it always comes back to me. It seems like such a childish thing to say, but it’s so true. It’s the Cat In The Hat and Dr. Seuss says “It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how,” and that is my overriding motto for when we’re teaching dogs how to play. A lot of dogs just play and it’s never really taught, they do what they do with their dog buddies or with you, but there’s a lot to be learned in play to make it happen. And so often my [01:08:00] goal with people is to either add play into their dog’s repertoire or increase the play when they might come to me thinking that what they need to do is cut that out. It’s so interesting, because play is both so frivolous and fun and lighthearted and also so serious.

And sometimes if a dog has a serious aggression problem and I talk about using play, some of those people are like, “Okay, wait, like we need to do some serious work, not play.” And other people are like, “Oh, this gives me hope. I was worried we’d have to get rid of our dog or euthanize our dog. But if we’re gonna play our way out of it, I guess there’s hope.” So there’s these very different kind of views. But I think play is so serious even though it’s fun. I mean, I think it’s such a weighty topic. It’s interesting the dynamics of discussing play as either important just for relationship building or enrichment or exercise or relaxation or specific skills or treating aggression, how it can be perceived so differently.

But I find that people’s ability and [01:09:00] motivation to work with their dog if it involves play is often higher, than with any other possible treatment protocols, because people feel hopeful and they feel capable and they feel like maybe it’s not quite so dreadful as they thought. If play can be a part of the treatment, a lot of people feel like maybe the problem isn’t so serious, which isn’t necessarily true, but it’s helpful for people doing what they’re we want them to do to help their dog.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah, no, I mean, that makes complete sense because you’re also changing their contingency as well. Like you’re putting them in a more of a– if you’ve been living your whole life in the midnight dog walkers club and not having friends over and everything’s gated and high security, then you’re operating in a rigid, narrow repertoire, very negative reinforcement based lifestyle. And that sucks. And if you’re now getting to practice broader more flexible behaviors in a positive reinforcement contingency that’s an improvement in quality of life, like your [01:10:00] welfare gets better. So the people’s life improves already.

And I’m also thinking how you respond to that. Like, “Oh, we’re gonna use play to help your dog’s serious aggression problem.” Probably how that lands might depend a lot on how your understanding of “what aggression is” is framed. Like if you’re coming at this with “aggression is a respect issue. It’s a dominance issue or character flaw. My dog is fundamentally flawed as a dog” compared to “this is an emotional based behavior problem and what we really wanna do is change the emotion so that he feels better and doesn’t feel like he needs to growl bark and bite.” Then I think at this point, we all agree that we’d love to move people in the direction of understanding. where the aggression is coming from, what the function of it is rather than “this is an aggressive dog who is trying to– all the languagethat we use when we’re in that [01:11:00] mind space of he’s dominant, he’s trying to control us, he doesn’t respect us, you need to show him whose boss” and and move them into “this is a dog that, that is afraid and is trying to make the unfamiliar person go away in the only way he knows how.”

Karen London: Totally, avoiding the value judgment of it in so many of the ways that you’re saying is important. And people often– to me, I feel like they’re expressing to me, they know the dog shouldn’t be doing this. And like, sometimes people will like correct a dog that’s behaved aggressively out of fear because there’s the expectation from someone watching them that– if your dog barks and growls at someone, like it can look bad if you start feeding them treats even though I think that’s a great thing to do, you know? They’ll be like “No, Fido!” They wanna communicate to the people. I know this is not appropriate, this is not what we want.

And one of the things I think that helps with that– people feel so much guilt and so much shame when they have aggressive dogs. And it’s one of my big things in life. I know what it’s like to have an aggressive dog. I had an aggressive dog that I worked with who was aggressive to other [01:12:00] dogs on walks. Pretty good with them off leash in a lot of contexts, thankfully. But I know what it’s like to have people look at you kind of with contempt over the way your dog is behaving.

And you know, that’s not super fun. Does not feel super great.

Hannah Branigan: — Swear at you and criticize you and judge you on the internet. Like people can be not very nice. Right?

Karen London: Right. They all are works in progress.

Hannah Branigan: We’re all doing the best we can with the tools we have available to us.

Karen London: Yes, exactly. And something that I found is– when I go and I work with people and say their dog’s aggressive to other dogs on walks, which is such a common problem, and the dog loves to tug. And I wanna do tug and I love doing tug on a walk because, you can redirect the dog’s line of sight, which is helpful, you keep them near you, you keep ’em leashed.


Karen London: mean, it’s hard to use fetch on a walk in that context.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. When you’re on leash less than

Karen London: practical.

Hannah Branigan: Yes.

Karen London: Yeah, exactly. There are ways you might be able to do it with really soft throws and really slow dogs, but it’s not really manageable. But tug, like I said, redirects the line of sight, it keeps their mouth occupied, it keeps them close to you, you can do it on leash. [01:13:00] But if I go out and I see them and I’m working with their dog and I’m tugging, not only do they see “Play might be useful in this context. And I feel like I can do this, because my dog has these tug skills. My dog will drop it. My dog will take it.” And I’m also seeing their dog play.

And I think one of the saddest things about having an aggressive dog, especially a dog that’s aggressive to other people, but just like an absolute angel in the house, which is very common when it’s fear based, is that other people don’t see the dog that you love. Like they might not even understand how you could love this dog. And if I’m out and I’m working with their dog and it’s seeing a dog maybe behind a fence in a yard and I’m playing with it, they see that I’m seeing the dog that they know and love, the dog that they care enough to put the time and money in to help. And I think that in itself is so valuable. I love being able to communicate so easily even without actually saying anything, like that their dog is great.

Like I’m often drawn to the dog that has the little issues because that’s [01:14:00] mostly the community of dogs that I know. And so like, if I’m just out in a social context, maybe out running with friends, and one of them has a dog that needs a little care and loving and just little help, whereas the other dogs are just like, “you put ’em on your leash, you go, you don’t give ’em a thought til they need to be hydrated.” Those are the dogs I’m drawn to, the ones that other people might view as troublemaker, but I just feel they’re a little troubled.

Hannah Branigan: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, I mean, I do prefer dogs that can match me in neurosis, so I think that that’s fair.

Karen London: No, so you’re looking at ’em and you’re like, “you’ve got issues. I’ve got issues. Good.”

Hannah Branigan: We’re a good pair. No, I think that really is important. And I definitely– I mean, I I’ve found myself falling into kind of a psychological trap of when you have a dog that you’re working with that has serious issues, like making that the work? And feeling like you aren’t allowed to do the funner stuff, because if you have time to spend with your dog, you really should be working on this aggression problem.

And [01:15:00] I know objectively if I’m coaching you or someone else that I would say, you know, you need to do a lot of other training. Don’t always be working on the hard stuff. Do some tricks, get involved in nosework, teach your dog treibball. Like let’s do some other things so that you’re both building reinforcement history with each other and you’re remembering why you got a dog in the first place, because that’s the dog that’s gonna stay in the home even if we don’t ever really air quotes “cure the aggression,” and they’re both gonna have better quality of life, but it’s really hard.

It’s really hard to remember that in the moment when you’re feeling all those feelings about if– I don’t know if anyone listening feels like their dog’s behavior problems reflect on them as a person, but I think a lot of us do get a little wrapped up in that.

And I think it’s really important that we keep talking about that and– oh, and there was something– I’m going on a rant now, but I’ll let you have a word in just a second. But what you were saying about, I don’t [01:16:00] know, two or three hours ago about not like going in and thinking, “Oh, the dog has trouble ending the play, so we should never play.” And that made me think about all of the places where we have a dog that does natural dog behaviors that would be okay with some rules around them or in a one context, but not another. And it feels like so often our natural response or maybe it’s our conditioned social response is, “Well, we should never like never let them sniff and never let them eat food off the floor. Never let them play with another dog. Never let them–” you know, fill in the blank with the thing that when it’s not understood with control or when we don’t have some rules around it, can be a problem. In my experience, not letting them do the thing is usually not– one, it’s not sustainable, like dogs are gonna sniff. They’re just gonna do it when you can’t catch them. And then it’s worse because now they’re evading you to get the sniffing. And now we have the [01:17:00] chasing/keep-away situation. But I also think– so I was coming somewhere with a point, it was taking me a while– I also know that a lot of people who live with a dog that has problematic aggressive behaviors can be very afraid of exciting play because it feels like they’re getting out of control.

And I definitely went through a stage in my journey where I thought that the best strategy was to never let these dogs get excited, never let them get aroused, put all of the money in the relaxation basket. And I don’t believe that anymore. And I think– because that’s what I mean, I learned the same kind of thing. If I never allow the pressure to let off, then I’m just setting myself up for an explosion at a time that I can’t control [01:18:00] it. And it’s usually much easier to– “let’s take this thing that’s happening anyways and put some structure around it and then use it” is usually more powerful. But what do you say to people who might be afraid of tugging, of playing, doing something arousing with a dog when they’re associating arousal with

Karen London: dangerous behavior.

Well, it’s a little bit different for every dog of course, and how much the people can handle and that kind of things. But I often feel like I address that in the context of like incompatible behaviors. It’s so common for people to be like, “Oh my gosh, my dog is like lunging at every person that it sees. So I try to step aside on the sidewalk and sit down and get them to calm down.” And I often say like, “They have that high energy. Let’s use that to our advantage and choose an incompatible behavior that uses that energy. That’ll be easier for your dog and better for your dog. So like let’s run, let’s chase, let’s tug.”

And I often say that the key thing is not dogs getting aroused, but having it out of context. And I feel like it’s fine for dogs to [01:19:00] get excited, but we need to teach them how to get unexcited. And I often– When I first was teaching dog training classes at Dog’s Best Friend, which Patricia McConnell owned at the time, she always said– she always started each class and taught me to do it, where you get all the dogs all excited and then you calm ’em down and then you get all excited and then you calm ’em down. And one time I told her– I was like, “Well, I did it in that class and it didn’t really work. They just got more excited.” And she was like, “Tell me more; tell me details.”

I was like, “Well, this was a really excitable class. Like the dogs were all kind like, WOOHOO. You know? And so I didn’t get them too excited. I didn’t wanna get them too excited.” It’s this exactly what we’re talking about people being like “I’m afraid to get ’em excited,” and she’s like, “No, no, I put this in place FOR the dogs that are more excited. Like the more they’re excited, the more you need to get them really excited and then calm them down.” And what I would always do was do it three or four times. And by like the third or fourth time, people could barely even get their dogs excited. So I often have people practice that and I used to do it with my kids too.

Hannah Branigan: I was just gonna ask if you did it, because we [01:20:00] that was done with me and I use it now as a parent myself.

Karen London: Well, I learned it from dogs and I did it with kids. And actually I used to do it with my kids and– so annoying, I was trying to get video for a seminar I was giving about like things that you can do with dogs that you can also do with kids. And my kids were preschool type age, and I was trying to get a video of them getting ’em all excited. And I accidentally– remember like back in the day with digital cameras before it was like iPhones or whatever? I had, it turned 90 degrees. So the video was unusable . And so I had my kids rev up like twice and I videotaped it wrong. And so then I think we used to call it like “the be crazy game” or something. And then I asked them to do it again. And, you know, the first time they were like all excited, then I would tell ’em to freeze.

And you know how kids freeze where they’re like wobbling like statues. And so I think I’d revved ’em up twice, maybe three times, and then realized, oh, I’d videotaped that wrong. And so I tried to get ’em to do it again, and I was like, “be crazy!” And they were like, “Oh wow, we’re so crazy.” It wasn’t working at all.

And so in parenting rules, [01:21:00] education is never a waste. I fed them a ton of sugar, like jelly bean type things. and then did it. And it’s like, one could question the parenting, but like, as a dog professional, when you’re giving a seminar, you need video. And so–

I’m not taking the moral high ground nor am I excusing myself. I’m just saying it was necessary. So I fed them something like that and then I got it. And it’s so funny too. Cuz you read these studies about how sugar doesn’t really affect children and it’s actually like the additives in like the coloring and the jelly beans. And it’s like. Yeah, I’m not buying it like my kids– and me, I mean, I’m definitely capable of getting sugared up– and my kids at that age, that was great. I had given them a handful of jelly beans and we were good to go in a few minutes with good video.

Hannah Branigan: The only nutritional health articles that I’m interested are the ones that say that a glass of wine is good for your heart. So I read only that one and the one about chocolate as well. And then I move on and I pretend the rest don’t exist.

Yeah. Dark,

Karen London: dark chocolate. I think I have some sitting right next to me in case of, you know, any kind of energy emergency here.

Hannah Branigan: But yeah. Yeah. I mean, we use it from [01:22:00] Pee-wee Herman’s Playhouse scream real loud. And if it’s too loud, instead of telling kids to be quiet, tell them like “on three, we’re gonna scream real loud” or we usually pick a silly word, so it’s just like Peewee Herman, whenever anybody says milkshake scream real loud. And then like you scream real loud and you can at best get it done twice. And then everyone’s quiet again. And the louder, you can get them to scream the quieter they are after.

Karen London: It’s so fascinating. I don’t know the actual physiology of this but I assume it literally is the release valve kind of thing.

And something I also talk about related to your original question, before we got discussing important things like red wine and chocolate and our children, was that when people are afraid to get their dogs aroused– sometimes I’ll do it– I’m still seeing some clients by Zoom, but mostly I’m seeing people in person now. Most of the Zoom ones are long distance. I wouldn’t be able to see ’em anyway– but I’ll take their dog and I will do something really arousing, like [01:23:00] tug or run with them so that they’re not worried about the aggression, because I’m using my leash handling skills and my experience and my desire to run away sometimes and showing how their dog gets less aroused with this increasing arousal.

Now I have had a few dogs that I’ve worked with– one was an old English sheepdog that the more it got aroused, the more it got aroused. I mean it, it just never seemed to calm down. I’m not a veterinarian. I have no medical experience, but it seemed to me there was something physiologically unusual about that dog. So we started trying it and I’m like, “There’s a good chance your dog will calm down.” And they’re like, “I don’t think so.” I’m like, “Let’s try.” And I was like, “Oh, you’re right.” So we took a different protocol. That’s okay. But it’s, it really stands out as one of the few dogs where getting aroused, spiraled up– and yeah, a sheep dog is a pretty high energy dog, but I don’t think it was a breed thing at all. I just think it was this individual dog. We ended up actually– this dog was so interesting. It loved to get on its back and roll and we put that on cue and that had very large calming [01:24:00] effects. It’s not always that practical like on a sidewalk or–

Hannah Branigan: In the middle of a crosswalk or something. Yeah, yeah.

Karen London: Right. But it was interesting and it was super cute when you see an old English sheep dog with tons of fur rolling on its back. It, it looked like– you sometimes were like, “where is the head?”

Hannah Branigan: That makes a lot of sense. And I’ve definitely noticed that effect, that getting them more aroused.

I’ve also noticed– When I was working with my dog that taught me a great deal about arousal and frustration and stuff, I would try to calm her down. You know, my thought process was “I have to control this. I have to put the lid on this,” but my behavior in those moments while I was attempting to calm her down usually made it much worse. Actually, this is very much like when I’ve tried to calm my child down and made it much worse. Like, especially if she’s getting aroused because she’s frustrated about something and I start being more hesitant and slower and slowing down the reinforcers, she gets more frustrated and we start to cycle up. [01:25:00] Whereas if I just increase the rhythm of the session that we’re doing, we’re both moving faster, but it’s moving faster with purpose. And the behaviors in that faster rhythm are the ones that I want rather than the barking, the biting my clothes, the out of control behaviors. It is easier. Like we can establish the cues on that kind of spectrum, which then also give us the cues to come back down.

Karen London: Yeah, I agree– like sort of establishing the contingencies there and putting things on cue. And I also find, and I don’t know that there’s like scientific evidence of this, but it just seems that in most cases for a variety of species faster is more fun.

So faster is always something we can do that enhances the experience of the other individual that we’re interacting with. I mean, unless we’re explaining, you know, how to derive Shrodinger’s wave equations and then faster is not fun. You know, in nothing mathematical is faster fun in my opinion.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah, that’s a whole nother podcast. But yeah, faster’s fun. [01:26:00] Faster brings you a higher rate of reinforcement just by like elapsed time. If you’re getting reinforcers, they’re coming more quickly because you’re moving faster.

Karen London: Definitely. And sometimes faster_- I don’t know how this applies to dogs, but I definitely think with kids, when adults do things faster, they seem sillier. And I think kids find that entertaining. I don’t know how that relates to dogs exactly. But you know, I’m just interacting with individuals in my life and not always paying that much attention to the species they are in some cases. I definitely think for dogs– I mean, running faster is more fun for them.

There’s a tendency in games to make the pauses too long. Like when you receive a ball and you’re like, “Good dog, good dog.” And the dog is like, “Okay, the praise is nothing to me; throw the damn ball.” Yeah. So faster is fun. The turnover can be fun for dogs.

I think if you’re playing fetch with a dog, sometimes I think it’s great to vary the direction so it’s unpredictable. It especially keeps dogs from stopping short. But sometimes with certain dogs, I’ll throw the ball in one direction and then throw it [01:27:00] 180 degrees the opposite way, predictably alternating back and forth. And then the speed is fun because they can like drop the ball as they go through. They don’t even really have to stop and you can throw it again. And so that is very fun for some dogs. And with some dogs, I don’t wanna do it because I feel like they need the cyclical levels of energy like that. Some dogs can spiral up that way in a way that is not helpful.

Hannah Branigan: I agree. So I use that pattern all the time. I use it with treat throwing. If I wanna move, then it’ll throw to left, click, throw to the right. So they’re doing that shuttle run kind of effect. And it can actually be really soothing for a lot of dogs. It can be very kind of focusing. So it’s a really nice kinda anchoring reinforcement-y game to do in the training context. Ido it with your two toys as well.

But also I really find it useful to think of how I’m throwing you the treat or the toy. That’s a variable that I can either increase or decrease the predictability of. And one of the ways I find helpful to think about it, just in a decision tree way, is like, if I’m working in [01:28:00] a situation that is very– the environment is already unpredictable or the thing that I’m working with is already unpredictable, then I can balance that by being more predictable with the throwing of the treat or the toy or the presentation of the toy. And if the environment’s kind of more pinned in place, now I can increase the fun and up the ante a little bit by adding a little more unpredictability, a little more unpredictability, and then I can adjust kind of the meter that way, like get a little dimmer switch on the unpredictability factor to land where I want this dog to be.

Because you’re right. The random treat tosses can be detrimental. Like we think we’re being very generous because we’re throwing a lot of food, but if it’s too unpredictable, I see the behaviors that I don’t want in a particular dog in a particular context.

Karen London: I agree. And I think sometimes it depends on what I’m trying to accomplish or the dog I’m working with. Like, if I’m working with a dog that’s a bit anxious, that maybe doesn’t know me as well, I don’t wanna add an [01:29:00] unpredictable– I want them to just sort of know where the treat’s coming, almost like I’m just like a vending machine. I’m irrelevant socially sometimes with dogs. But dogs that dogs that need a lot of mental exercise or I really wanna give them cognitive tasks, like “It’s 10 below outside, and guess what? Our walk is gonna be 15 minutes instead of the 45 minutes or an hour they’re used to,” then I wanna add the unpredictability because I’m giving them mental exercise. Or for dogs who I feel like aren’t focusing on me, then I will sometimes hold the treat and like indicate where I’m gonna throw it before I throw it. Like point my hand in a direction and then toss the treat. So then putting attention on me, “what are you gonna do,” becomes relevant? It depends on how much attention I want them to put on me or what I’m trying to accomplish.

And sometimes I just– and I imagine other trainers do this too– with a dog that’s stable and knows me well and I kind of look like, “Let me see if I throw the treat predictably, what happens to their behavior? If I throw the treat unpredictably, like what seems to happen to them?” And I remember one dog I was doing that with, and I’m like “Oh, dog’s like super chill and whatever.” And I did a [01:30:00] couple unpredictable and the dog barked at me and I think it made it really frustrated, annoyed. And so I changed and I don’t think I messed the dog up too bad, but you’re sometimes you’re experimenting. I’m coachable. I’m not totally set in my ways.

But I love seeing how dogs act for this. And this is something that I just love about just like training and training in general and your podcast specifically. It’s like people who aren’t taking training seriously, aren’t that into it would never imagine that the direction, the speed, the height, the unpredictability, the way you throw the treats could be just this fascinating thing that keeps us up at night and gets our mind going and impacts their behavior. There’s so much there, but that seems like a really big detail, like what direction and how quickly you throw the treat onto the floor. And it’s like, it’s fascinating to me in so many ways. And yet I can kind of almost laugh at how absurd that could sound to someone.

Hannah Branigan: I know. Well, you know, I did an entire webinar just on the behavior of sit

And I could do several webinars on this. Because I mean, this is really something. I throw a lot of food in training and a lot of the progressions that I used to teach skills [01:31:00] involve a lot of food throwing. And it’s a common thing that I’ll run into where a trainer will tell me, “Oh, well, I can’t throw food with him because he won’t come back or there’s various reasons why we can’t throw food” and it’s like, “Well, let’s look at what happens when you throw food and maybe we can troubleshoot this a little bit.” And the common one that I’ll see is that they’re throwing food like flicky. Like they just flick it. Their hands are close to their body and it’s just being flicked as a hand motion, which doesn’t provide, like you were saying there, it doesn’t make the handler relevant. And the flicking is very unpredictable, so the food could go anywhere. So the dog is always having to hunt for the food. There’s no information about where the food is gonna be or how or when it’s coming. And if we switch it to a big telegraphed underhanded, like bowling movement, now the movement of the arm has a lot of information. And all of a sudden the dog that was disconnected and doing all this sniffing is staring very intently at the person to find out where that food is gonna go [01:32:00] from that information. And, and. It is lost when we just say “throwing

Karen London: food.”

No, it’s true. And I mean, I think the only time I really specifically want a dog searching for food, unless I’m playing like a find your treat hiding kind of game, is occasionally with dogs who have issues out on walks for whatever reason, reacting to vehicles or dogs or people or bikers or skateboarders or whatever, is sometimes I’ll toss a bunch of buckshot so that way they’re having to go around and sniff. And it’s like, if you only do one, then once they find it, they’re done. But if you throw like five or six, they don’t know that you’ve thrown three or four or five or six or eight. And so they’re searching a while and that can, in my experience can help calm them down.

And sometimes for various reason, it can be difficult to move past the stimulus. Like you’ve gotta get to your house and the fire engine on your cul-de-sac is between you and your house. Or just things where you could toss treats to lead the dog and have them search or different things, or just give the [01:33:00] very slow family with three tricycles and a baby carriage time to get by you or whatever you need to do. Then I like them searching food, but only for a dog that enjoys that and has experience with it. But just literally the time it takes for them to find the food can be valuable.

But in most training sessions, I don’t want a dog using up a lot of their mental powers searching for the food. I mean, usually that’s counterproductive. Although of course, I’m sure it happens to everyone. It’s like you have some kibble and some treats and some different things and then you’ve got like one amazing piece of hot dog and that’s the piece that goes under the couch. And you’re like we’re literally not gonna be able to progress on this training session until someone else in my family comes home and we can move this couch together.

Hannah Branigan: I mean, if I were to try to train myself to toss a piece of kibble into the HVAC register on the floor, it would take me months. And yet when I’m trying to bounce in a completely different direction, it goes right down the vent every single time. I do not understand how the physics of that work, but it’s–

Karen London: I don’t know, but I’m obviously living in the exact same kind of vortex that you are in because [01:34:00] I have that same particular issue.

Yeah, no, it is really fascinating how even when you’re saying tossing the treats, there’s a lot of information that’s lost where we give that as instruction and even food on the floor is a very wide category. I think it’s a fun thing about being a dog trainer. We’re often thinking very big picture, you know, “reinforcement drives behavior.” We wanna align what the dogs want to do with what we want them to do. They choose the reinforcer — these very basic principles and then the details of like, “But if you move your arm an extra 15 degrees away from your body as you toss the treat, suddenly the dog is paying attention to you.” I love the big picture idea combined with the details. I feel like — and I imagine most trainers do — like my job all day is a bit of problem solving and a bit of fun.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah! It’s like engineering and creativity at the same time, the art and craft and science,

Karen London: And the, the opportunity to practice being frustrated.

I think it has made me– the amount of frustration I felt in my career, which is probably normal, has really made me a better [01:35:00] person. I say that with complete honesty, like I used to hate being frustrated so much and now it’s not like I’m like,”Yay, I’m frustrated. This is fantastic,” but I’m just able to cope with it so much better because frankly there has been so much of it.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. It’s sink or swim. There’s definitely being a dog trainer. And then I feel like being a dog trainer helped prepare me for being a parent and then being a parent made me a better dog trainer because I was forced each time to level up on like– honestly one the acceptance that I can’t control all of the outcomes when I’m dealing with another biological organism with its own set of reinforcers and agendas and all the things, and then noticing, “Oh, I notice that I’m getting frustrated. I notice that I am noticing that I’m feeling frustrated.”

Karen London: Right, right. “I have noticed the degree to which the frustration is compromising my ability to do anything ahead for the chocolate drawer at this time.” Yeah.

Hannah Branigan: Five things I can see, four things I can hear. Yeah. So lots of opportunity to practice emotional [01:36:00] management and regulation.

Karen London: I think something that’s really nice about using play in training in a very pointed way is I think it minimizes the frustration because it it’s just like teaching a lot of tricks, as opposed to doing formal training. I know these are all very gray and blurry outlines, but well, the stakes are lower. And I just think it’s not as emotionally laden. Like, if your dog doesn’t come when called, that’s very frustrating and people can get very upset about it. And it certainly can– obviously recalls are incredibly important. Most training isn’t important in the way that a recall is, but when you’re playing with the dog and the dog doesn’t seem to get it, I think it’s so much easier for people to be like, “Oh well, we’re sorting this out.” Not like “The dog’s doing it wrong.” It’s easier to put it in the context of the dog is still learning, which is so much of what– and I know we’ve talked about this before– so much about what training is about is like, “Okay, well that didn’t work. What’s my next step? How would I tweak this?” And I think it’s easier in play to be that way because you rarely feel people saying like “The dog is playing wrong.” It’s more like, “Well, they’re still getting it,” which is a very different [01:37:00] way of looking at it.

Hannah Branigan: I agree. I rather think that we do better when we’re moving away from there being a right or wrong way to teach or do things, a right or wrong– like there’s always– we talk about the dead dog behaviors, you know, “Not doing a behavior isn’t a behavior.” Like that’s not a behavior. We need to define it. And there are inevitably a range of other things your dog could do in that space that would be preferable to what he’s currently doing. That’s the reason you called. But it’s easy to get– I think kind of the traditional thinking is, “Well, he needs to sit for the petting” or “here comes another dog and I need to make my dog sit.” And when we’re in that mind space, then there’s a right or wrong. And if he’s not sitting now we’re wrong. But sitting is one of the things that my dog could do — and sitting is definitely better than lunging and barking — but also sniffing the ground for a handful of scattered treats, also playing a quick micro-chase game, a little got your [01:38:00] pants game, running away is better. Like I always– you know, fight or flight? Gimme flight.

Karen London: There’s a right answer in that case. Yeah. I agree. I think too– when you– of course we hear this, like “I make him sit or I make her sit.” We hear that a lot from clients. And I think the idea of that, it’s sort of like there’s a power approach to it. Whereas if you’re saying, like– instead of saying like “When such and such happens, I need to make my dog sit,” if you say like “When such and such happens, I need to engage my dog in play.” It gives responsibility to both of you in a way that’s– I don’t mean necessarily physically forceful, but not force driven, you know, coercion, or sort of like, “you must, you should,” but it’s more of a challenge. Like, “Let’s see if I can get him as interested in tugging as he is in that skateboarder,” as opposed to like, “He needs to sit when he sees a skateboarder” and then there’s less sense of the dog being wrong. I think it’s just more teamwork oriented and I love that.

Hannah Branigan: So much more room for expression, so much more [01:39:00] micro slices and nuance there. And I think when you’re– anytime we can get back into the place of “I’m running towards the ice cream truck, instead of away from a bear,” we’re better equipped to handle the nuance anyways.

And I know when I was doing more of the “sit and look at me,” kind of stuff, which was originally the only thing that I had first. First try yelling “No!” and jerking on the leash and being ignored while the dog continues to do it. And that doesn’t work. So we rolled that one out. And so next is “sit and look at me, sit and look at me, sit and look at me,” but that often doesn’t work either. But when I’ve been doing this “sit and look at me,” I’m still running from the bear. Like I’m still in a place of anxiety feeling out of control. And the only way that I can control this is by getting this dog to sit and look at me. And if he’s looking, you know, darting around, trying to look between my legs and stuff, then I’m not winning. I’m still out of control. Whereas if I can flip myself around now, I’m running towards an ice cream truck and I’m playing– maybe playing tug, maybe [01:40:00] playing chase, whatever. Totally different. Like that cues a whole different set of mental processes for me, that open the doors to better training, better judgment.

Karen London: Well, and I think like when we talk about running to the ice cream truck instead of just running from the bear, I think it’s so helpful for dogs too. And sometimes with dogs, they just need to be running. They don’t need even to be running to something specific, just running, you know, just for the sake of running.

And I think that something that I love about using running and chase to get dogs out of problematic situations is that so many dogs do wanna get out of those situations, but they don’t know how. And once you’ve taught them that, “Oh, when we see that we run,” they’re happily doing it playfully because that is actually what they wanna do is not be in that situation, but they don’t know how to get out of it.

Hannah Branigan: You can be running away from a bear and towards an ice cream truck at the same time.

Karen London: Yeah. I should try that.

Hannah Branigan: Could be a margarita truck! Lot of options for what things are running towards. I do think it makes a difference though. Like it looks like the same behavior, but the context is different.

Karen London: And the emotion is so [01:41:00] different.

Right. And running away from a bear gets you away from the bear, but running to an ice cream truck makes you happy about the situation. And you were saying this earlier, it’s so much about not that “the dog shouldn’t do this,” not “the dog is bad,” that kind of context or viewpoint, but the idea that the dog’s emotional state needs assistance. If they don’t feel bad, they’re not gonna act in a way that we consider bad. And I think that so often– I often say to clients– because people do feel like they should be in charge of their dog in a way often. I so often say, “Your dog is not so much out of your control as out of his own control and we’re gonna help him feel some control.”

And that is very helpful. Because I think putting it on people that they don’t have control of their dog is upsetting and giving dogs control is often what I think is the– like the agency that we’ve been talking about so much is really one of the key factors. And I think if people feel like they’re helping their dog, instead of [01:42:00] showing their dog what has to be done, they’re often so much happier. I just think it’s amazing how something that’s often considered trivial, just play just for fun is so powerful. I think the power of play continues to be underutilized in influencing behavior. And all the things we’ve talked about today are really about using the power of play in beneficial ways.

And it doesn’t in any way take away from the fun of it. That’s still just as joyful and useful and helpful and fun at the same time. Which I mean, what other area of behavior can you say that about?

Hannah Branigan: Mic drop! And I think that’s where we wrap it up. That was really well said. Very nice. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Karen London: My pleasure. It’s always fun to talk to you.

Hannah Branigan: Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, well, you have good taste and I hope you’ll hit the subscribe button on your podcast app to [01:43:00] make sure you don’t miss the next episode. It might be even better than this one. If you are already subscribed, well thank you, I really appreciate it, and there are still some ways that you could reinforce me if you were so inclined. You could always leave me a five star review on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you happen to be listening to this podcast. And you can also check out and support the sponsors because they help make the podcast possible. You can find links and information about them and the other things that we’ve talked about in this episode by going to the show notes, which can be found at And while you’re there, you could also pick up a free PDF training template to help you plan your training sessions. There’s also some other articles and previous podcasts and that sort of thing, which you could always find if you were interested. So until next time, happy training!