Novel ideas

black and white dog with stuffed toy beeA light bulb moment occurred for me in regard to my fearful dog Sunny when I understood that he was limited in his abilities by his brain. It wasn’t that he was choosing not to come to me, or that he refused to move out of the corner, as conscious choices, it was that given the development of his brain, these behaviors were how he was ‘wired’, so to speak, to perform. And any changes I wanted to see in him were going to be connected to changes in how his brain worked.

Although Sunny will likely always be limited in some ways by the deprivation of his early life, and possibly a genetic predisposition to startling easily, like a person who is short can find ways to reach the cans on the top shelf of the cupboard, Sunny too has been able to find ways to achieve certain goals despite his disadvantages. His brain has changed.

Not too long ago it was thought that the brain that you were born with was the brain you had for the rest of your life, you could take advantage of what you had, or not. Now it is understood that brains are far more plastic than anyone ever realized. You can make a brain better through stimulation, stimulation that does not cause chronic stress. This interview with Robert Sapolsky looks at stress.

What is stimulating to a brain? Just about everything! Sounds, smells, physical sensation, movement, problem solving and novelty. A major problem for many dogs is that they did not experience novelty during early brain development. Being stuck in a cage at a puppymill, tied to a tree in a backyard, or stuck in a hoarder’s home, limit the novel experiences a dog has. Even well-loved and cared for dogs can suffer when they are not exposed to other dogs, noisy children, cars, etc., in safe ways when they are young. The lack of exposure to novelty makes it scary when something new appears on the scene, something/one appears, or the dog is put into a new environment. The pattern can then be set, new things are scary, even if they cause the dog no harm.

Because brains can change, and introducing novelty is a way to do it, people living with fearful dogs can look for ways to change what their dog experiences, in non-threatening ways. Moving food and water bowls to different locations, leaving different toys out for the dog to investigate, playing calming music, massage, moving furniture for the dog to navigate around, introducing new scents to the environment, are just a few of the ways you can add novelty to a dog’s world. Sunny takes agility classes for the non-habitual movement the courses require him to perform. We practice obedience skills and learn new tricks to encourage him to think and figure out what is expected of him.

Living with an extremely fearful dog added stress to my life, but the novelty sure has been worth it!

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9 comments so far

  1. Laura on

    I am getting more and more fascinated by stimulating the brain in early development and throughout life. Have you used scentwork/puzzles for novelty? I think that’s one often overlooked (because it’s unnatural for us), but it’s so natural and reinforcing for the dogs! Great point about novelty.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Both great ideas! I use scented tennis balls or toys & treats for hide & seek games. I think the puzzles are great. They often startle my scared dog, with either their movement or sound but I he will watch other dogs play with them. I think that being startled but then interested and rewarded may help develop resiliency. So I put up with the crashing of the Ottenson food pyramid as my border collie pushes it around the house, picks it up and it crashes to the tile floor, because I think it’s good for Sunny.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, appreciate it!

  2. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    I’ve been watching a local litter of puppies develop, and I think it’ll be interesting to see how they do … considering what they’ve been exposed to and what they have not.

    • fearfuldogs on

      What kind of pups?

      • Goldens. They seem mostly well-adjusted, but a bunch of us did scare one when we clapped for another who had pottied appropriately. She startled. I should say. She seemed to recover.

  3. Mel on

    Great post Deb. I can completely relate to the “hard wired” feeling.
    From day she was rescued, Daisy would circle my car in the garage. At first I thought she was so fearful that it was her way of keeping her distance from me. But then I began to realize that it was a form of pacing and that it didn’t matter if I was in the garage or not, she would still do it. It was so frenetic. Now she only circles the car to get in for a ride to the dog park, but it took breaking up the pattern in her brain before we could get there. Amazingly, Daisy brain has changed too. It’s really cool to know someone who has seen and experienced the same thing!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing that Mel. OCDs are horrible to see in dogs. Very cool that Daisy got over hers. When I see a dog that has been able to change as much as dogs like Sunny & Daisy have, I imagine what totally cool, awesome dogs they might have been if they hadn’t been treated the way they were. Not that they’re not cool and awesome now, but what resiliency they have to have come as far as they have. They could have been superheroes!

      • Melfr99 on

        Superheroes for sure! I think it’s amazing that Sunny and Daisy have come as far as they have given how much they have gone through. Wonderful animals. Wonderful friends.

  4. rangerskat on

    I am loving this blog. So much of what you describe is giving me the science behind what I’m doing instinctively. Finna is getting fed all over the place partly because her 12 year old boy is responsible for feeding her and tends to set things down where ever he happens to be and partly because I figured our routine isn’t very predictable so she might as well get used to novelty in a safe way and she really likes food now that she’s more comfortable here. (First couple of weeks she was only eating every few days) The more I live with her the more I’m convinced that lack of socialization is the root of all her problems and not a genetic predisposition to shyness/fearfulness coupled with it. She acts like a confident dog in so many ways. I keep telling myself there’s a confident outgoing dog in there and our job is to show her appropriate ways to interact with her environment so that dog can come out. I’m so glad I found this blog and website. It’s such a great resource.


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