column By: Alec Sparks | March, 21
As you sit there reading this, you probably aren’t aware of the pressure on your seat, the feel of the magazine in your hands, the ambient temperature of the room or countless other things. Our brains are consistently bombarded with a massive amount of information, and it’s the job of the thalamus portion of our brains to filter out what is currently necessary information and what isn’t. Now you can override the thalamus and focus your attention as you wish much of the time but not always. Feel the magazine in your hands, feel your seat or the room temperature as you wish, but in certain situations, the thalamus decides for you.
Let’s say you’re minding your own business when out of the woods charges a grizzly bear. Unprepared and unprotected in your surprise, the thalamus is likely going to direct your focus to your eyes, so much so you may not even hear someone yelling for you to follow them to safety. This is called “Auditory Exclusion.” This is what causes law enforcement officers to testify that they never heard their sidearms discharge in a shooting, soldiers claim to have not heard explosions and people do not hear a variety of things and can’t explain why.
It’s the same with dogs. When I learned about AE and thought back on four decades of working with dogs, I realized that I had undoubtedly witnessed dogs that were clearly exhibiting signs of AE.
As I understand it, the only ways out of AE is to remove the stimulus, i.e., the bear turns away or through a neurological stimulus. Turns out that bump with a remote collar may initially not be enforcing my command but will work rather a bit like a splash of water in the face that then allows the dog to respond correctly. People who use a collar as strictly a punitive device may be breaking AE as well in high-drive situations.
I believe it’s also pretty clear that a dog does not have to be a great distance from us for this to happen. I can easily remember dogs close to me that were likely in AE.
I’ve been speaking at length with someone who studies canine cognition and brain science and is trying to devise a way to determine if a dog at a distance is in AE. So far, we’ve not been able to come up with a meaningful experiment. “So, Alec,” you ask, “if we don’t know and can’t tell for sure, then why bother with this information in the first place?”
First and simply put, the more you know the more you know, and it might cause you to proceed differently in some situations if you realize that your dog might not be blowing you off, but it actually might not be hearing you. Do you really want to punish or correct a dog for not complying with a command it didn’t hear? I hope not!
Luckily, there is a straightforward process that will help reduce the likelihood of a dog entering AE: exposure. If you had several bears a day charging you, every day, you would eventually become conditioned to that, and after some time, the experience would likely not put you into AE. It’s the same with dogs and the distractions they encounter. Remember, early encounters are generally more exciting than those encountered on a regular basis. An exception might be a self-rewarding behavior. Chasing and catching, for example, is a self-rewarding behavior just like getting a steak off the counter is. Learned self-rewarding behaviors can be very difficult to break because once you know you know …
In most dogs, exposing them to events that bring out their highest drive while maintaining control of trained skills will eventually reduce the excitement. Please notice I wrote most dogs. The drive some dogs display around certain distractions can become habitual and more difficult to remedy.
Interestingly, I’ve asked a positive reward-only trainer how they would deal with AE with the understanding that removal of stimulus or neurological stimulus is needed, and the best I’ve gotten is, “I know how to do it, but I’m not going to tell you.” Extrapolate from that incomplete response as you will. And I’ve tried the AE excuse with my long-suffering wife with no real success, either.
A better understanding of why your dog may do something lets you better prepare for the, “What am I going to do now?” situation. And “Next, I will …” is always going to be more productive and effective than, “What next?”