Fear, Part 1. by Dr. Miles Arakaki
“We’re having problems with Kamm, and we’re going to put him on the excess list,” Colin, the kennel master told me. Kamm was a 5-year-old male Belgian Malinois, an explosives detection dog, who had a history of inconsistent performance and hyper-reactivity to sudden stimuli. Being ‘excess’ meant that he was being pulled off service, and the next decision became what to do with him. Most of the dogs get adopted out, usually to their handlers with whom they’ve formed a tight bond, but Kamm had a history of aggressing towards his handlers, and nobody wanted him. “I’ve made contact with a local police department and they’re willing to come down and look at him,” Colin continued. That would be the ideal solution, I thought.
“I think they’re looking for a bite capability. Do you think we could retrain him for that?” Colin asked. He knew immediately from the look on my face what my answer was, and grinned, “yeah, I don’t think so either.” But, for Karl’s sake, it was worth a try. Kamm had never received any bite training in his past, and the first thing I wanted to see was how he would respond to a little pressure. We took him out to the back training field, and ‘posted’ him with a long lead to a ground anchor. I put a bite sleeve on and began to approach him. I paid close attention to my body position, keeping totally relaxed, and staying bladed to him to minimize the perceived threat. I gradually walked closer to him, and he immediately tensed up and began to back away. Kamm had kicked into defense, and knowing the dog, it was not unexpected, but also not what I had hoped to see.
The primary emotion underlying defensive drive is fear, but I also consider a dog slipping into defense at lower levels of nervousness, uncertainty, anxiety, and confusion. Observable manifestations of defense can range from tense body posture, pacing and circling, chewing, vocalizing, to trembling and urination/defecation, or trashing and biting. The threshold at which an observable response is seen depends on a laundry list of variables including breed, individual temperament, the type and level of stimulus, physical health (research has shown a relation between gut microflora and behavior), training (improper reinforcements and punishments), and environmental history.
In 1945, research done at the Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, resulted in the concept of “critical periods” (later renamed sensitization periods) of puppies, during which certain stimuli can have profound effects on their behavioral development. Pups who did not receive human interaction during the socialization period between 3 – 11 weeks of age (plus or minus) displayed more fearful behaviors to unknown stimuli in the future. Kamm was a product of a working dog puppy program, and they do a pretty good job of socializing the pups, so I didn’t think that was a factor in Kamm’s behavior. Early Life Stressors (ELS) is the term used to describe events or stimuli (positive, tolerable, or toxic in both humans and animals) that can shape behaviors into adulthood. The hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal (HPA) axis is the system which leads to the production of the stress hormone, cortisol, and research has demonstrated a link between cortisol levels and behavioral differences in animals. There is also evidence that the level of cortisol in the mother during pregnancy may affect the behaviors of her offspring. I had no information on Kamm’s pedigree or early life experiences, so I could not make any meaningful assumptions in that area.
At this point in the assessment, I had not pushed Kamm’s threshold, and there was no point in beating around the bush. I began to encroach on his space with a more threatening posture, facing him full frontal with the sleeved arm up. I wanted to see if, when, and how he would react. Kamm hit the sleeve and immediately released, and I held my ground. He hit and released up and down the length of the sleeve, a fashion Colin called ‘typewriter-biting’, and I associated as fear-biting. Colin was watching from the side, and we both knew Kamm was displaying all the signs of an overly-defensive dog who would not make a good patrol candidate. Research has shown that fears are very difficult, if not impossible, to completely resolve. Dogs who have a low defense threshold and hyper-reactivity are unpredictable against unexpected stimuli in dynamic and uncertain conditions; the same conditions working dogs are expected to function in.
A few weeks later, the police department came to visit, and as expected, they declined to take Kamm. We were back to square one in figuring out what to do with him. If he wasn’t working, then he was taking up kennel space, and eating up food. The pressure was on the company commander from higher to get him off the books, but no one was getting any warm and fuzzy’s about adopting him out unless the right person could be found.