Timber Wolf

Before we consider the genius of Maurice Sendak [in the next post], let’s hear it for the amygdala [which I am usually offering readers tips on subduing, or at least bending to their will]. If you look up “timber wolf,” you will see a photo of a black wolf, who looks quite like Lili [except Lili’s ears are bigger and shaggier, like an over-the-top stage version of the wolf in a melodrama]. Since she is my totem to represent the amygdala [and I am feeling particularly grateful to her, for alerting me to falling branches in the woods, this rainy season], I shall henceforth regard her as my “Timber! wolf”: a niche-market service dog who warns its owner of a very specific [hopefully, rare] hazard, thereby inspiring confidence during woodland walks.

Speaking of (actual) service dogs, this week’s New Yorker has an article entitled “Man’s Best Friend: Scratch and Sniff,” describing the ability of several dogs in the K-9 Unit of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, to detect the presence of contraband cell phones in prisons, by “scent.” It’s a heartwarming article [unless you are incarcerated in New Jersey, Virginia, or Maryland], but here is my favorite bit. I shall quote, as the article does, K-9 Officer Mitchell: “All our dogs right now are German shepherds or Labs. We did try one golden retriever, but we had to fail him out. That dog was too easy going. He’d come into a room on a search and just lay down. We sent him back to the Seeing Eye dog center in Morristown, where all our cell-phone dogs came from. That golden was a lover, not a fighter.”

So, what breed of dog are you? What is the default setting, in your amygdala? Do you tend to “bark” at the first whiff of threat? Do you, instead, high-tail it outta there? Or do you go into the deer-in-the-headlights freeze? And, anyway, which limbic response do we think that golden was displaying, lolling around on the cellblock floor? Is that the laid-back form of freezing? [Gives “Chill out” a whole new meaning.] To use an Australian animal metaphor, in the choice of a K-9 partner to sniff out the dodgy stuff, it’s a matter of “horses for courses.” [By which a racecourse punter in Oz means to say, if the bobtail nag is a good mudder, and the track is listed as “sloppy” that day, bet your money on her; but if the track is listed as “fast,” bet on the bay. No worries, mate.] So, if a dog is limbically wired to bark at a perceived threat, it is a better bet for contraband detection, than one wired to run away or freeze [or loll, even].

In fact, all dogs [and horses, and people] are capable of all 3 limbic responses. It’s just that one response is more typical or characteristic of any given individual. Here is where I invoke our acting school aphorism: “Know your type, and love your type.” I love Lili for her vigilance [even if she issues many false alarms in the course of a day]; and I know that my limbic wiring is closer to hers, than to the 2 hippy-dippy golden retrievers next door. My goal is not to “change breeds,” but to become the best German shepherd [or even Timber wolf] I can, by lowering my incidence of false alarms.

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