The Psychological Check Cord

By Dr Ed Bailey
Permission to reprint
First published GunDog Magazine 1984

When discussing range, we are not asking how far is right or how right is far. We will not even try to define “far.” Range is an emotional, individual preference issue. A good working dog for me is boot polishing to one person and out of control to someone else. “Correct” might be within shotgun range or beyond reach of an ICBM. Hitting the objectives can mean quartering for quail at 20 yards or streaking along the tree row at the west end of the next quarter section. But, what is the correct handler-to-dog distance is not in question. The question we are addressing is what holds a dog within 30 feet, 30 yards, or 30 miles. (Don’t snicker until you’ve walked after hounds tracking a mountain lion – or until you’ve seen a pointer make a really big cast.)

The question we ask about range are these: What keeps the dog at some regular distance naturally?
What determines the length of the psychological check cord, the one that makes the dog keep in contact more or less frequently and closely?

We normally conceptualise range in our hunting dog jargon simply as distance between us and the dog. The dog doesn’t know that jargon. To him, the distance in feet, yards, or miles is irrelevant. The dog does not maintain a level of contact or a degree or amount of contact in terms of distance. He does it in terms of knowing where you are, which way you are going, how fast you are moving, and anticipating where you want him to be. These bits of contact act to keep his anxiety level low. He doesn’t worry. Distance will vary with conditions of sight, smell, and hearing, but the level of contact is maintained.

So, we should look at range in the way the dog does, the level of contact between dog and handler …not just distance. This concept is more realistic in the dog’s world.

The obvious reason for – or determinant of – the level of contact maintained by an individual dog, as you might expect, is the interaction between dependence and independence. The dependent dog needs and maintains more contact with his human hunting partner. The independent dog needs and maintains less contact. Every domestic dog, except those that are feral, has a mixture of dependence and independence. We have selectively bred our dogs for a specific location on the dependence/independence continuum from the complete lap dog to the completely aloof dog.

The selection we have done has been a logical attempt to attain a specific use for the various breeds. To a great extent, the amount of dependence/independence is linked to function. The hound is expected to track game. Presumably, the track leads away from the handler so the dog must go away and decrease contact with the handler in order to do the job expected of him. If, under some given set of conditions, his psychological check cord is a hundred yards long, he would, of necessity, leave the track to check in and never go beyond that distance. As a hound, this hundred-yard-long psychological check cord would better suit this dog being a retriever. The hound, even to chase rabbits, must be on the independent end of the continuum. On the other end, a guard dog or Seeing Eye dog must not go romping away for several miles if it is to do its job.

Our bird dogs and retrievers are distributed more centrally on the dependence/independence scale. Pointing dogs are on the independent side of centre, retrievers are on the dependent side. The Versatile dogs are expected to point and track – independent qualities – but they must also retrieve and do guard duty to some extent…. dependent qualities. So, the versatile dog must straddle the median. But, there are breed differences among the versatiles as well. Of the better known breeds, the shorthair and pudelpointer are on the independent side, while the Brittany and griffon are on the dependent side with the wirehair falling between.

Among pointing dogs, the (English) Pointer is probably the most independent and is a good example of how selective breeding can be used to determine independence. A pro takes his string of pointer pups to the Canadian Prairie. Those pups that leave a steaming furrow between themselves and the trainer’s horse are brought along. Those that don’t move like that skinny bird in the cartoons are sold as “started” dogs for hunting. The big-going speedsters will be next years breeding stock. Similarly, retrievers are selectively bred for “tractability” – jargon for dependence.

The first way to establish the natural distribution for level of contact is selectively breeding so the individual dog’s dependence/independence balance falls near the average for the breed or within the high to low spread in which 95-percent of all individuals of that particular breed fall.

The innate capacities established by selective breeding will also act on other contributory individual traits such as nerves and aggressiveness. These, in turn, affect level of contact. Speed of development (precocity) is also under genetic control. Young dogs of the same age might differ widely in level of contact depending on how quickly they grow up.

The second major determinant of level of contact is a function of socialization. The socialization process in dogs occurs between three and 12 to 14 weeks of age. Socialization is a process of learning that takes place early in the dog’s life. It’s at this point that the dog learns to direct social interactions properly. Because we want our dogs to work with us and for us and to respond to us in a manner not unlike the way they respond to their own species in certain social situations, we want social interactions directed from the dog toward us and from us toward the dog.

“Critical distance,” the distance inside which an animal will not tolerate another animal, is altered by socialization. A dog not socialized on people will keep as great a distance between itself and people as possible. Such a dog would be a typical wild canine, acting like a fox, coyote, or wolf. A dog overly socialized on people but insufficiently on its own species, will be almost continuously close to people while keeping greater distances from dogs.

During the nine-week socialization process in a puppy, the midpoint falls at about 7 weeks of age. At this midpoint, the ambivalent tendencies of attraction and repulsion due to elevated anxiety levels are at their highest and about equal. After the midpoint, the attraction arousal (dependence) decreases and the flight arousal (independence) increases. Beyond 12 weeks of age socialization becomes almost impossible and the dog will not maintain an appreciable level of contact with people.

Allowing a puppy to stay with littermates to 12 weeks, assuming the pups also have human contact during the whole socialization period, will increase the dog’s independence. He may tend, on average, to be a more aggressive hunter because he will not be checking overly often on where his person might be. A puppy taken from the litter at six or seven weeks with the same amount of human contact during the socialization period will be more attached to his person and need to maintain a higher level of contact.

So the socialization process is a learning procedure during which the dog learns, among other things, dependence/independence. The reinforcing agent – the reward the dog gets for maintaining a specific level of contact – is reduction of anxiety. A level of contact lower than optimum for the individual dog increases anxiety. The optimum level of contact (the lowest anxiety level and what to do to maintain it), is determined during the socialization process.

Though dependence/independence can be altered by socialization, it cannot be altered beyond the normal genetically-determined range of the dependence/independence continuum. Within a population of a breed of dog, there will be a range of optimum contact from some low level to some relatively high level. The largest proportion of the population will fall near the centre, halfway between the two extremes. Through the process of socialization we can slightly alter its contact level to that of an average dog of a normally independent breed.

We can make an independent dog hunt in a more dependent way (increase contact level) by hacking it in. But we cannot do mush to push out the dependent dog. We cannot decrease the contact level of a dog from one of the more dependent breeds because to decrease its contact level increases the anxiety level. To push out such a dog is self-defeating.

If we want a bigger going, more independent dog, we must selectively breed for it, then maximize the genetic potential by longer socialization in the litter. If we want a more dependent dog, we must selectively breed for it and we can maximize the dependence potential by shortening the in-litter socialization time.

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Updated 4th January 2005