SEC is an acronym for Sudden Environmental Contrast. In plain English it means that something changes in the environment and it happens so sudden that it raises concern or plain fear in an already distressed dog. SEC could take place in many forms but it does have the above signature as its underlining characteristic. I am defining “environment” as anything in the world that has an impact
on a dog’s behavior, well-being, etc. So it could be a person, another dog, natural phenomena and the like.
I think that SEC is so stressful to dogs that are not comfortable in either that environment or have generalized fear or anxiety because it is an unpredictable phenomena. You see, dogs thrive (all animals frankly, but let’s just keep it to dogs) in being able to have control over their environment. It is a question of feeling safe and basic survival instinct.
Some examples of SEC that I have worked with are: a person coming out from a hallway to the room where the dog is, a person popping/exposing their head from a threshold such as a window, someone unexpectedly getting up from sitting, an object “suddenly” appearing in sight- which in some cases, the novel object might have been around, but the dog had not noticed it before.
The good news about SEC is that once we can identify it, we can teach the dog that there is no reason to be concerned. It is a case of typical classical conditioning that is: building positive associations.
This is how I normally like to begin working with SEC: When I encounter this in my cases, I quickly move to operant work which means that I am not only and exclusively concerned with building a good positive association, but I also want to teach the dog how to react when encountering any fearful trigger – in this case SEC.
I’ll explain further: I recently worked with a fearful dog that was very concerned to the point that he would bark, and even charge whenever a guest of the family. For example, I would come down the hall and into the living room. You can appreciate how complicated this situation might be!
So I taught the dog to lie down in the living room – yes this took quite a bit of positive association and reinforcement for the dog to lie on his bed whenever he heard someone coming down this hall.
In addition, the guests were coached to talk in a cheerful voice to the dog as they were coming down the hall. So by definition, someone walking down the hall was not a SEC anymore because the dog has been given a heads-up and now can expect the outcome. In addition he has learned an alternative behavior to lunging or barking and instead lies down and gets paid handsomely for doing so.
Another typical SEC situation is the picking up of small breed dogs. They are small and pretty much everything in their world is larger than they are. Add to this the fact that people, when picking them up, will loom over them; so for these reasons most small dogs hate being picked up. How they go about demonstrating their concern runs the gamut. Some dogs just dodge their little heads in an effort to avoid the interaction, others can escalate to a growl or other warnings or even a bite.
What I like to do in cases like this is to give the dog a heads-up about what I am going to do: loom over and lift them up. This procedure is so simple that I think that everyone should implement it.
You could simply choose a phrase that you will say just prior to looming over and picking the dog up. Such as: Pick up, etc. Wait a few seconds before you loom over and proceed to pick the dog up.
After very few trials the dog can relax because it knows what is going to happen next. What a great gift to help dogs when it is so easy to do so. In addition to doing this, I reinforce the dog once I am holding him. Finally, I put the dog down before the dog gets too overwhelmed and starts to wiggle or resist being held.