Monday, May 13, 2013

Imprinting vs exposure

Definition of imprint (n)

Bing Dictionary
  1. pressed-in shape: a pattern, design, or mark that is made by pressing something down on or into something else
  2. lasting effect: an effect that remains and is recognizable for a long time
  3. special mark: a printed or stamped sign on an object, e.g. to indicate its origin
I am posting this because a friend recently wrote that she had imprinted her pup on cadaver source.  This is something that I have heard before from SAR folk, and have always taken issue with it. I want to take this opportunity to explain why I feel strongly this is both a waste of time, and not advisable

 Some like to place source (Human Remains) and see how a pup responds and call this "imprinting".  Now tell me, if you put something dead and stinky out, what do you think a dog will do?  I venture to say that if a dog shows avoidance it is likely not because they aren't a candidate for HRD work but that they are a dog who lacks the innate curiosity and boldness that is desirable.  I keep chickens.  When the pups investigate the chickens and the inevitable tasty treats left behind, they wiggle with excitement, tails wagging.  Does this mean I am "imprinting" them on chicken shit? Not a chance.  They are exposed to the critters, and to many other new adventures and situations.  But it would be incorrect to define this as "imprinting".

Note that #2 of the definitions above is: an effect that lasts and is recognizable for a long time.  The simple placing of stinky dead stuff and exposing a pup to it once would not be considered "imprinting"  It is only exposure.  However, if a reward system was paired with the odor you would be building that long lasting impression.  This is what we do when we train detection dogs.  We teach them that a particular odor is rewarding by pairing the association with food or toy. I find this smell and I get my reward? wow!  After this, the final response is introduced and it becomes: find odor, give final response and get reward.  The results last and are recognizable.

When we select young adults for police service work, we test their prey and hunt drives in a variety of exercises.  I doubt that any of them were ever imprinted with the odors as puppies.  If they have the correct drives to pass the selection test, they can be trained to detect whatever it is you desire: narcotics, explosives, HRD, and etc. If it doesn't make a difference in the final selection for detection work, why is it important to imprint?  Answer: it is not. 

If not, then why bother to expose the dog to source?  As near as I can figure, it is because someone a hundred years ago carried down a stone tablet to the waiting SAR trainers which said "thou shalt imprint" and this attracts them to potential puppies to purchase.  If someone can explain to me why this makes sense to do with a pup instead of simply enhancing prey and hunt drives through training, I am interested to hear it.  Perhaps because you cannot give a dog drive it isn't born with , but you can expose it to dead things.  While this may, indeed, be a selling point for some, in the case of the pup in question, the exposure is not necessary at all.  I happen to own a littermate and they are incredibly confident and drivey dogs.

True imprinting can actually narrow your potential buyers and create problems.  For example, if you don't know what you are doing and you create a pairing of "I put this in my mouth and get reward" it is going to be a problem for many forms of detection and will leave the new buyer having to fix those early mistakes. For those of us who will not use pseudo source material for law enforcement detection dogs, if you have imprinted pups using pseudo, you have lost us as buyers. So why bother? If it does nothing to improve the pup and can actually pose a problem, don't do it.  Spend your time exposing the pup to things that matter such as new experiences, surfaces, climbing and crawling.  That is what I'll be doing.