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Understanding Neophobia in Dogs

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Are your dogs neophobic?

Are your dogs neophobic?

What Is Neophobia in Dogs?

Neophobia in dogs is simply a term used to depict a fear of new things. The term comes from the word "neo," which means new and the word "phobia,'' which means fear. Affected dogs tend to have an exaggerated fear of anything they haven't been exposed to before. Because dogs cannot talk, the evidence of this fear is manifested through body language, which includes dilated pupils, tucked tails, flattened ears, panting, a lowered body stance, and other signs of the fight or flight response.

You will very likely know when you own a neophobic dog because you will see that he may be very hesitant in exploring new things and may have a hard time adjusting in a new environment and around new people. These are the dogs often seen shivering or hiding when a new noise startles them or some scary sight just popped out of nowhere. Neophobic dogs may also have longer recovery times. Where a non-neophobic dog is frightened by something, he usually recovers within seconds and may even go to investigate the scary stimulus. A neophobic dog may take a longer time to recover, with some staying under a bed or table for extended periods of time. When in a new environment, neophobic dogs may linger by hiding spots and retreat to them when they are unsure. If there are no hiding spots, they may tensely walk by the walls.

If you just adopted a dog that appears to be neophobic, don't be too fast to label him as such. Some newly adopted dogs may just need an adjustment period, and after a while they will come out of their shells and become more confident around new things. Truly neophobic dogs often remain fearful by nature and will continue acting fearfully when exposed to novel stimuli. But what causes a dog to be neophobic and what can be done to help him? We will see common causes of neophobia and how to deal with it in the next paragraphs.

Causes of Neophobia in Dogs

So you own a neophobic dog and may wonder what may have caused him to become so fearful of stimuli. There can be various causes. This check list is for general purposes only. It's not meant to diagnose your dog nor provide a reliable explanation for his behavior. These are just assumptions that may or may not apply to your dog.

Lack of Socialization

During puppy hood, there is window of opportunity during which socialization should take place. This critical period takes place during the puppy's first 12 to 16 weeks of life. It is during this period that dogs are more open to social interactions and willing to explore new stimuli. This period then closes down at 16 weeks when the pups become more wary. In nature, this phase has a distinct purpose. According to Jean Donaldson, trainer and author of several books, this brief window of time has the purpose of giving the pups a chance for becoming better acclimated to the sights, sounds, and experiences within their surroundings so they won't be spooked by harmless, innocent stimuli such as the wind blowing.

Then, once this critical period ends, because of an adaptive function, the pups become more wary of novel stimuli to up their chances for survival since the pups are more cautious of getting in contact with stimuli that may harm them. So if your puppy didn't get to experience much pleasant exposure to novel stimuli during this critical period, he may be more likely to develop neophobia.

Genetic Predisposition

Sometimes, dogs are genetically wired to be weak nerved and wary of novel stimuli. Some breeds may require more socialization because they are naturally cautious of strangers. This should not be confused with neophobia. Neophobia involves fear of novel things, and even in a litter of pups belonging to a breed that is known for being naturally social towards people, sometimes some pups who are wary of new stimuli may pop up now and then, despite selective breeding. There is no genetic marker for neophobia. Despite loads of socialization, some pups may never be totally comfortable when faced with novel stimuli.

Negative Experiences

Dogs with a history of being punished and abused may develop neophobia. For instance, a puppy who is repeatedly punished for interacting with novel stimuli may associate the novel stimuli with fear and may stop wanting to interact with anything new. Negative experiences during a puppy's fear period may also cause the onset of neophobia. For instance, a young puppy left outdoors while the owners are at work may be flooded with scary stimuli that may cause fear and sensorial overload.

How to Prevent and Deal With Dog Neophobia

Dealing with a truly neophobic dog is not an easy task. For this reason, it's best to do your best to prevent neophobia rather than treat it. There are fortunately many things you can do to prevent it, but not as many for treating it. You can manage it to a certain extent so the dog is a bit more relaxed. Here are some tips.

  • Socialize, socialize, socialize. Make all new stimuli a pleasant experience to discover. Expose your puppy to new surfaces, noises, people of all ages, sizes and races, different animals, various types of dogs, places, etc. Don't flood your puppy with too many stimuli at once or with stimuli that at full intensity may be overwhelming and scary. Read about desensitization.
  • When you are away, keep your puppy in a safe secure area where he is not exposed to and bombarded with frightening stimuli.
  • Provide your dog with the reassurance of a structured schedule where your dog knows what to expect next.
  • Identify what new stimuli your dog is fearful of and work on counterconditioning techniques.
  • When your dog encounters a scary stimuli, your attitude counts! Never force your dog to interact with what scares her. Talk to you dog in a cheerful tone of voice and reward her promptly with high-value treats if she takes initiative to approach.
  • If you notice a trigger at a distance and you know your dog will react fearfully, do an about face and an emergency U-turn.
  • Instill confidence in your dog through clicker training and targeting.
  • Invest in calming aids such as a Thundershirt, calming diffusers, and music therapy.
  • Read the books Scaredy Dog and Cautious Canine.
  • For severe cases, seek the help of a professional.

Further Reading

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 11, 2015:

This is really something you will have to sort out with your husband. It takes time for new dogs to adjust to a new home, especially when they are fearful. These dogs benefit from quiet, calm interactions and routines.

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Read More From Pethelpful

kate o on November 09, 2015:

we rescued our black lab mix(?) from a shelter at 3.5 months. She is now 7.5 months. She is very skittish and afraid of new things and sounds, although she loves to run in the yard during the daytime and loves to play with other dogs. She recently fears being outside at night in the dark. She will not hang out with us downstairs in our walk-out basement, seeming afraid of everything downstairs. My husband does not want to keep her, but I have really grown attached. I'm afraid the negative energy from him is working against us. Would she be better with another family? HELP

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 22, 2015:

Hello, I am still catching up on comments having been away from my computer for some time. I have quite a collection on tips for fearful dogs on my Pinterest account if you want to take peak.

Diana Bryant on May 20, 2015:

Hello Alexadry, I have recently inherited my mothers dog as she has gone into a care home. He has neophobia. He was happy at home with mum but he won't enter my house. This is a huge problem and I can't find any easy answer. I don't think he was socialised at the right age as he was one of 4 6 month old labradors that were found abandoned in a shed. I have ordered scullcap and valerian for him. I am having to stay with him in the family home but it will be sold soon. I have my own lab and they get on well.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 30, 2014:

Stop having people bend over to pet her. Manage her environment and avoid people who do that at least for now. Have her look at people from a distance and feed treats. Play the "look at that" game.

Instead of having people loom over, ask them to ignore her and toss a treat PAST her.

Afterward, have people bend very slightly without touching her and have them again toss the treat PAST her.

If at any time she reacts, she's going to fast in the process. Look up my articles about dog threshold, counterconditioning and desensitization. If you go on my profile, you can follow me on pinterest where I have a board chockful of tips for fearful dogs. I always recommend to consult with a trainer and behavior consultant to implement these techniques correctly. Best wishes!

MaryAnn on October 30, 2014:

I was just given a 5 yr. old female pomeranian named Sandy by a breeder and and dog show trainer/owner. Whenever someone bends down to pet her she snarls and sometimes snaps. She is deathly afraid of being brushed. She barks incecessantly when I'm not home. My apartment neighbors are very understanding. I have had her for a few days, now and she has calmed down somewhat because I've started to give her treats when I brush her. However, I would like for her to not be afraid of other people. What can I do?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 13, 2013:

Sounds likes you have done an awesome job in changing your dog's perception of fearful stimuli. If it's in his nature to be fearful and it has been a way of life for quite some time, fear may pop up its ugly head every now and then, but if he is now mostly calm as you describe you can give yourself a big pat on the back! Fear is reinforcing on its own because when a dog moves away, hides etc, since nothing happens to him he feels safe, and it quickly becomes a habit.It's easy therefore to revert to old habits at times, best wishes!

CraftytotheCore on August 12, 2013:

I think one of my rescued dogs might have this, but I didn't know what it was called. I adopted a border collie mix and was told by her foster mom that she was very fearful. She hit it off with us from the moment we got her and fits in nicely with our pack. One of our other dogs, a pitbull mix, has always been afraid of everything. It's taken a lot of energy and hard work to help him feel at ease. (He was found abandoned tied up. We got him at 7 months old.) Over the last year, my hard work paid off. I can walk the two of them together. I've also socialized my pitbull a great deal. He used to bark at people and the ridge on his back would stand at attention. He no longer does that. He sits down and smiles when people walk by now! Yet I still see some of the fear in him at times.

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on July 15, 2013:

I appreciate the suggestions. I will go into the link you posted and read your hub on counterconditioning/desensitization and confidence building.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on July 15, 2013:

I hate seeing when dogs are frightened. So sad. This is a fantastic hub. I love how you emphasize the socialization aspect. I hope more people heed your advice about how important that is. Voted up!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 14, 2013:

This is something that you should really discuss with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist as they are the ones that deal with medications and brain chemistry. I can just tell you though that in my experience, the vets I worked with prescribed usually benzodiazepines mostly in controlled situations when you know that a fearful event is about to occur (ie 4th of July when you know fireworks happen, or upcoming vet visits etc.) Also, discuss with your vet side effects and behsavior modification options. In her case, you can perhaps try counterconditioning/desensitization and confidence building exercises along with calming aids. Best wishes!

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on July 14, 2013:

When I saw this title, I just had to read it. My rescue dog who is four years old definitely has neophobia. I feel so bad for her. If a twig moves on the grass as she's out doing her duty, she jumps. If she hears new noises, she hides, etc...She was three months old when we adopted her. She was found with her two other siblings roaming the streets when she was baby. A friend of mine gives her dog pet Xanax when her dog is having extreme anxiety. What do you think of that in crisis situations?

Suzi Rayve from California on July 14, 2013:

Thank you for this. I had a dog for 17 years who was neophobic. You have done a great deed in writing this!

Shay Marie from California on July 14, 2013:

My dog is neophobic as well. Other than her "adjustment" period with new toys or furniture, we don't have too many problems with it. It can sometimes be a blessing because she tends to not get into too much trouble!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 14, 2013:

The books don't directly deal with neophobia, but offer options to help a fearful dog better cope with scary stimuli.

GiblinGirl from New Jersey on July 14, 2013:

Thanks for posting this. My dog is definitely neophobic. I'll have to check out the books you mentioned.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 13, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by Mel Carriere. I can imagine people developing neophobia as well and am sure there are many too. New things can be scary at times as it gets us out of our comfort zone.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on July 13, 2013:

I work with a lot of people who seem to have this syndrome; in other words they are unable to adapt to any sort of change in their routine. It is especially sad to see any kind of animal go through this. I think the blame lies mostly with the cruel humans that abuse them. As usual you have introduced me to new concepts in the canine world. Thanks. Great hub.

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