Understanding Neophobia in Dogs
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, whereas, neophobic dogs 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, but may wondering 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 so to up their chances for survival since the pups are more cautious of getting in contact with stimuli that may harm. 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.
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; yet, 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.
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 dogs is not an easy task. For this reason, it's best to do your best to preventing neophobia rather than treating it. There are fortunately many things you can do to prevent it, but not as many for treating it. Yet, you can manage it to a certain extent so the dog is a bit more relaxed. Following 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. Yet, 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.