Friday, March 20, 2020

Fear Must Remain Secondary

Motivated bold puppy is motivated and bold.
Handler shit-eating grin is genuine.
Chicken hat is awesome. Nobody slags on the chicken hat.
Photo credit Michelle Silka-Eaton.

For nearly three decades, I have given every wannabe SAR handler who starts with a pup, and every puppy-owning client, the same explicit, unambiguous warning that I got when I was training Lilly.

Your bold, friendly, people-loving puppy who has no environmental sensitivities will one day lose her damned mind.

At one or more points during adolescence she will go through a developmental stage called the secondary fear imprint period. This is natural. It is normal. All puppies* experience this. For some puppies, it's a week of woofing at balloons and lawn gnomes and done. For others it's full-on panic at seeing a stranger on the street, and it may pulse in and out of her consciousness for over a month.

For SAR puppies, it almost always plays out this way:

Puppy who is advancing well in her work, ranging out independently and finding boldly, starting to do longer big-dog training tasks, and trusting herself and her marvelous nose will happen to approach a search subject (or possibly an incidental person in her search area) in such a way that she sees the person when she cannot smell the person. The person may be sitting very still, in camouflage, in shadow, or just appear from an unusual angle.  The important thing is, puppy believes in her nose, and her nose is saying that there is no person there. Q.E.D. it is a monster.

Cogitate on the truth that in a dog's cognitive world, a thing that looks like a thing but does not smell like that thing is a monster.

Puppy barks, hackles, cowers, runs back to Momma. She may machine-gun bark. She's not gonna go anywhere near that enchanted stump, that vaguely human-shaped smell-less illusion.

And the handler who has been told about this exact scenario, nine times out of ten, loses her shit and forgets what to do, forgets that she was even told that this would happen, fixates on what the puppy is doing and not on what the puppy is experiencing. Oh wailie wailie my puppy is vicious and schizy and unstable!


That's when we hope that there's an experienced handler on the task to run the intervention, which is very simple.

Stop it!

Act like a damned grownup!

Show some leadership to your puppy! Not forcefulness. Not anger. Not cooing. Leadership.

Get the puppy downwind of the monster so that her nose can tell her what the reality is.

That's why I was stoked when I happened to get the first footage I've ever captured of a pup doing that thing they all do.

The setup of this task is simple. I wanted to use the wide-open agricultural field for young Sammie to practice ranging. There's a swale that gives enough cover for a person, and I'd sent Perfesser Chaos to hide in it somewhere. I thought I might catch some nice footage of her hitting the scent cone and working it. The wind had been shifty all day, even more erratic than usual for our part of the world.

I am walking west towards the swale while Peanut ranges. Initially the wind is coming from the north-northwest. You can see her hit the scent at about 0:32 and move directly into it, not casting across a scent cone. The topography is making the scent move directly towards her rather than disperse into a cone. At about 0:45 the wind shifts to north-northeast. At 0:49 she runs up a little bit, entirely out of the scent, and simultaneously sees PC at the bottom of the swale -- hatted, camouflaged, with a lumpy pack next to him, outline distorted by sharp shadows. (We don't do bright sun and sharp shadows in Pittsburgh. Has Sam ever seen one of us in sunglasses, even?)

A moment ago I smelled my Daddy and now there is a monster! Monster musta eated Daddy!

The background on Sam-Peanut-Horrible-Brandywine --

She's in training to be a fourth-generation search and rescue dog. Her genetic selection has been for boldness, friendliness, resilience, and a balance between cooperation and independent action, and she has displayed all of these from the time she could toddle. Her upbringing has supported those genetics. She is just turning seven months old at the time of the video.

The owner of her sire gave all the owners of the litter this heads-up -- bold, friendly, calm, chill, self-possessed Sid had experienced an acute, short-lived, and absolutely hellacious secondary fear imprint period when he was about six months old, from which he recovered fully without any lingering aftereffects or rebound episodes. So we were all watching for these transient emotional changes and prepared to understand and respond to them.

This is the kind of intel that one gets when one's dog comes from a community of breeders who pay attention, understand what they are seeing, care, and communicate. Don't expect that insight from onlinedoodlesdotcom or the retail rescue that ships wormy pitahoulas to a highway rest stop near you twice a month.

So Sammie is standing at the top of a rise in a standoff with a monster.

She considers running back to Momma, but Sammie is a brave puppy. She's a scared puppy, but constitutionally brave, and learning from her dog family about guarding the farm and livestock from raccoons and chupacabra. It would be perfectly okay for her to run back to Momma. Most puppies in this scenario -- yes, even your Rottweiler pup -- do exactly that. But she can see that I am coming, and chooses to hold off the the threat from her high vantage point. She's a bit of a Momma's girl, but that heavy attachment has more to do with FOMO than with insecurity, and she showed that to me in the moment.

It would not be okay for Sammy to flee back to the refuge of the van (across a country road from this field) or just hightail it for the hills in a panic, and this is one of a hundred reasons why dogs with weak nerves, those who are fearful as a baseline, are not suitable candidates for search and rescue training. There is no training patch that can cover that kind of temperament and make the dog safe and effective at work in a complex world where wind shifts are the least of the challenges. If the puppy enters her secondary fear imprint period with fear and flight already her baseline, any untoward events are going to be orders of magnitude more traumatic, possibly permanently scarring, however mild the trigger appears to be. The shy puppy's brain is already primed to uniformly process new as bad, and to hold on to any lesson that supports that view of the world. A pup with a weak attachment to her handler, or a handler who she fears, or a handler who is weak and fearful himself, might also flee, because the handler has not been a reliable source of authoritative safety in the past.✚

So Sam holds off the scary monster from her high position while her handler approaches, and then the wind shifts again, and just like that it's Daddy! It is a human and it is my human Daddy down there in the swale! I am so embarrassed! I am so relieved! I have found Daddy and saved him from monsters! Woo hoo!

I have observed wannabe handlers remain distressed and upset over their puppy's "aggressive" episode during what should be a collective burst of joy and relief. It's important to model good humor and happiness for the puppy. She's feeling sheepish about her mistake and has a lot of explosive emotional energy to dispel, and it should be dispelled in lap-rolling and love and play and laughter.

What to do if the wind hadn't shifted?

Ideally, if the puppy has some of her wits about her, the handler invites the puppy to walk with her and circles downwind of the monster without coming in any closer. When the puppy hits the human scent, she recovers exactly as Sam has done on her own here.

If the pup has become so overwrought that a faceful of human scent does not overcome her fear-fire-foe-flood mindset, or if some obstacle prevents the team from getting downwind, the handler should ask the subject to call the puppy in a calm, happy voice. Just talk to her.

Dogs believe their noses first, their ears second, their eyes last of everything.

If you are the monster, don't suddenly stand up and fordogssake do not move towards the puppy, but sometimes slowly removing a hat or the hood of a camo jacket or straightening up can change the picture for the tyke.✝

This may be a good time to reflect on the importance of using intelligent, fully-briefed, fully-committed helpers to hide for our SAR dogs, people who need not be experts, but who enjoy dogs and are capable of following instructions, even instructions shouted at 50' over the sound of a barking puppy.

What do handlers who have never been briefed and don't understand developmental periods and canine sensory processing do?

I've watched them attempt to force a puppy to march straight at the scentless monster.

This does not go well.

Don't do that.

Similarly, attempting to "lure" a puppy who is in a state of terror towards the terrifying thing is a disastrous shitshow. It's a good way to convince a puppy that you are a born idiot and inherently untrustworthy. The thing has to first stop being terrifying and resolve into something familiar and comprehensible, and then, if the puppy has decent resilience, you won't need any damned bribe.Nothing beyond the monster-turned-human's friendly invitation to contact and fun, all is forgiven, it was just a mistake, aren't we all silly, let's be silly here together as befits a puppy and a human.

I'm not a pollyanna, but I also tend to the point of view that Nature conserves most traits for a functional reason, and if we can understand that function we can work with it instead of at odds with Nature.

The secondary fear imprint period in canine cognitive development is there because throughout evolution, pups who go through this experience at this time were more likely to survive. It's a potential brake on the coming heedlessness of social adolescence. A few scary experiences fueled by endogenous emotions teach appropriate skepticism; recovery from the well-managed scary experiences and a resolution of the conflict that the puppy feels becomes an emotional skill, a resource for managing risk and her own emotions later in life. The apparent crisis really is an opportunity for emotional growth.

Peanut has processed her experience, and next time she sees and does not smell, she will have knowledge that is deeper and more unshakable because of the emotional charge that gaining it required of her.


* Except Mel. Mel is always the exception to every rule. She didn't have a primary fear imprint period, or a secondary fear imprint period, because she didn't know what fear was. She wasn't courageous, except morally courageous, she was fearless, confident in not only her own invulnerability, but in the power of her aegis to spread over everyone in her orbit.

It's funny how much you can learn about the mold from the one who shattered it when she was born.

✚ If you have acquired an adolescent or just pre-adolescent puppy for SAR, no matter the pup's genetic temperament and upbringing, work for several months on building up a strong attachment and relationship with the handler in safe circumstances where the chance of untoward surprises is as minimal as possible. Nobody wants to spend the next two weeks setting live traps for a teenage puppy with gazelle-speed who has gone feral because away from here felt safer than with that guy.

✝ Do not have your subject use a ghillie suit when hiding for puppies or adolescents. Those things make ya look like Swamp Thing to everyone. That's the point. Expect even well-seasoned adult dogs to react strongly the first time they encounter a subject or anyone else who is wearing a ghillie suit, even if they can smell them perfectly well. Don't spring the ghillie-suited subject on a team the first time without briefing the handler. Seriously, that is a dick move.