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By Published On: March 2nd, 2011

I wanted to share the following video of Sunny’s reaction to a novel object in his environment. Many dogs can be surprised by and wary of anything new in their world. How quickly they recover from the surprise and either ignore or investigate the object can give you a clue into how challenged a dog might be in regard to developing the skills and confidence to function in a world full of new and changing environments.

In this video I am encouraging Sunny to come into the room to be let outside, initially without this encouragement he looked at the object (a leather bag I’ve hung up to dry by the fire) and left the room. At one point he gives a tentative sniff to another new object in the room, a pair of rain pants on a chair.

It is important to note that Sunny has lived in this house for over 5.5 years and his ability to confront novelty has improved. You will see improvement in his behavior around the object and he would, with repeated exposure get used to it, but at that point it would cease to be a ‘novel’ object. Were it to move to a different location, or be something else, he would again show restraint and caution around it. This object is more threatening in appearance than something smaller and lower, but whatever it was, it would register as something of note to Sunny, and his response, while perhaps not as avoidant as with this bag, would still be notable. Other dogs in the room either completely ignored the bag or after a quick investigation of it, disregarded it.

While a dog can learn appropriate skills for dealing with novelty, and their recovery after being exposed to it does seem to be able to improve, can neophobia be ‘fixed’? There is no way to create every single novel experience a dog might have in advance, so they can learn to deal with it. Some dogs, like Sunny, may always show a heightened sensitivity to sudden changes in their environment but each successful interaction they have can help them learn about how to respond to future events. Successful for the dog means a low enough level of stress so the dog can think and learn from the experience. Medications may be needed in order to achieve this lower level of stress if a dog’s environment cannot be managed so that they are not always overwhelmed.

I am encouraging Sunny to move past the object as I film, I am not forcing him to do it, and you can see at one point he changes his mind about leaving the room and returns to the door to go outside. Once outside he’s no longer stressed and would happily play. When he returns inside he does choose to go to his safe spot. The reality for this dog is that even years of living in a space have not completely eliminated his sensitivity to changes in that space. Sunny routinely goes out into the world, but this wariness of novelty travels with him.

This was a spontaneously shot video. In the future one thing I might do differently is clean the kitchen beforehand.


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