Saturday, June 20, 2009

Imprinting, my dog Socrates and Me.

Imprinting is a form of learning in which an animal, usually during an early period of development, fixes its attention on an object with which it has its first visual, auditory or tactile experience. Thereafter, since the animal has imprinted on that entity, it follows it for the rest of its life. Unlike classical conditioning—in which an animal learns to respond through contingent and repeated presentation to a stimulus—imprinting is considered to be innate, does not require repetitious pairing and is apparently independent of the consequences of the responses to the stimulus, thus making the process irreversible. The most common illustration of imprinting, which is how it was first described by the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz, is that of geese following the first object they see immediately after hatching, even if it is an empty soda can. From an evolutionary perspective, this instinctive form of learning is adaptive in that it enhances the chances of survival for newborn animals because, on average, their first contact after birth is with their mother. Dogs, which are born deaf and blind, have a particular period during which imprinting is believed to occur—usually between the third and eight week of life—and is mainly olfactory and tactile. This being the case, dog owners who play and spend sufficient time with their pets during this critical period of development can expect to have a faithful companion for the rest of the animal’s life since, based on the scent gathered from that interaction, they regard the owner as a congener.

Although my pet dog Socrates decided to adopt me at an undefined age, this particular explanation seems relevant because soon after my ex-girlfriend and I rescued him from the street he started following me around, much in the fashion of imprinting. It would have been impossible—almost inhumane—not to have taken him in. Although a puppy, the tan-colored Jack Russell terrier mix seemed to have prematurely aged, bearing a long ashen beard and an ornate Mohawk-style mane. A scoundrel had graffitied the puppy’s body and collar with gang-related insignia, making the rescue more endearing, as my ex-girlfriend and I joked that in a matter of weeks, beginning with tattoo removal, we would rehabilitate a gang member. The irony was that, especially for me, Socrates transformed me in several ways.

The most important way was that of caring for him, which renewed my interest for daily walks or bike rides where the concept of imprinting has become salient. I have to admit that this aspect is what I loved the most about Socrates, for it was effortless to walk around with a dog that only ventured to explore a few steps away from me and responded to my summoning quickly and without apparent objection. In fact, it was difficult to get him away from me. Several times at the dog park, for example, I had to run away from him so that he could interact with other dogs. Around my neighborhood, it was astonishing how obediently he followed the trail that I set for him, the reason for which I began to decrease my use of the leash—a big mistake.

Yesterday morning, as I sometimes do when I take out the trash before going to work, I asked Socrates to come along. He followed me, eager to interact with Red, a neighbor’s dog, through the back gate facing the alley. Although I was late for work, I asked Socrates to come because during the last two occasions Red had barked at me in a protesting tone. As I put the trash in the dumpster, Socrates and Red had their usual exchange, but the neighborhood’s stray cat appeared and Socrates ran after her. Since this type of chase has happened before, I was not concerned because the cat typically runs to the adjacent apartments and Socrates returns soon thereafter. This time, however, Socrates saw something on his way back, probably a squirrel, and ran to the side street, recklessly crossing it. I ran after him, in an attempt to prevent him from crossing back, but when I reached the street he darted towards me as a Chevy Suburban made its way south. All I could do was to scream “Stop!” and lift my hands in a halting motion, but it was too late. Socrates’ agonizing wail became a dagger entering my heart, followed by quintillions of pins penetrating the most sensitive parts of my human composition. When I picked him up his hind legs were twitching. He is dying, I thought, but looking at me with his apologetic puppy eyes, he began to lick away blood he was smearing on my forearms.

“It’s not my fault,” the driver screamed as she descended from the vehicle. “You shouldn’t have a dog without a leash. That’s the law, you know that, right?”

I walked to the curb, ready to exchange my soul to the devil so that Socrates would not die. The lady followed me.

“Is he OK?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, wishing that she would go away.

“It’s not my fault,” she repeated. “I slowed down when I saw your hands, but it is not my fault. You shouldn’t have a dog without a leash.”

“I know that,” I said while Socrates began grunting at the lady, showing more signs of normal life. “It is my fault. Now, you have several options. You can report me to the police, you can leave or you can go with me to the vet and pay for the bill.” The lady froze. After a few seconds, she apologized.

The veterinarian informed me that Socrates did not seem to have suffered any bone trauma, but that, based on his lethargy and lack of interest in food, it was necessary to consider internal damage. During my life, I have broken bones, dislocated my right clavicle, been stabbed in my right leg or, among other things, been run over by a bicycle. After those experiences, the least of my concerns was food, leading me to believe, in the most wishful of ways, that Socrates would soon recuperate as I had done.

Socrates and I spent the rest of the day together. He continued to have no interest in food, even for his favorite treats, making the veterinarian’s lecture on possible internal damage onerously resonate as a death sentence. However, he also refused to be away from me and I harnessed myself to the hopeful idea of the healing qualities that companionship can provide. At night, I put him in bed with me. When I do this he usually crawls under the sheets and goes directly to my feet. This time, he simply lay next to my torso and adopted what can be described as a human fetal position. He woke me up at 4:22 AM, his head resting on my neck, his eyes rolling in the fashion of REM sleep, his possible dream apparently re-living the memory of the accident because he was yelping in his sleep. One of my sisters once told me that animals do not have a soul. I can not attest to that, but I am now convinced that they can experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Today, Socrates has eaten 3 hot dogs and still follows me around, although slightly limping. He sleeps more than average, most of the time on my lap. When he wakes up, he looks at me with a contrite gaze, as if simultaneously asking for forgiveness for the accident and reassuring me that everything will be fine.

I believe everything I interpret because I have imprinted on him.


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