Dog afraid of new object

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.


15 comments so far

  1. fearfuldogs on

    I removed the sound from the video because I found it distracting from watching the dog. I am chattering continuously to keep him on the scene. He has come into the room because I have offered to let him out the glass door. I could try it again without any talking but I suspect he would have just left the room.

  2. honeysjourney on

    Your Kitchen isn’t clean? Wanna trade kitchens?

    Very interesting video, Honey shows the same caution when something new is added to her world. I have noticed, if I introduce a new item then leave the area she will check it out entirely from top to bottom then it is fine and she may, if it’s doable take it to her place, to check it out more closely. If I hang around it takes a lot longer for her to accept the new item. It would be interesting to see if you placed something new in Sony’s space then leave, if he would accept it faster.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes I would like to have a different set up, mainly one in which I kept my mouth shut!

  3. Karen on

    That’s interesting. My dog reacts similarly but not quite as worried as Sunny. I remember once he was playing with a food dispensing ball and it rolled over to the wall and stopped right next to a broom. He investigated the broom but quite cautiously, leaning forward with his body but not his feet, and backed up quite a few times. I could tell he wanted to get his treat ball but was afraid that something would happen with the broom (aka the object he avoids by sitting on the couch or the bed every time we sweep).

    I eventually intervened by taking his treat ball and giving it to him. In your opinion, should I have done that or waited for him to work it out and try to get the ball dislodged himself?

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think it depends Karen. I am always making choices about whether to step in and support Sunny somehow and when to let him sort something out himself. In the case of a broom I’d be afraid that if it fell and came crashing down that would be enough to send him running, not a good experience. If I don’t think that Sunny will actually move forward on a task, and it’s important to me that he does, I will look for ways I can encourage and coax him, knowing that for him, the process and outcome need to be as positive as possible so he’ll be happy to do it again in the future.

      I routinely walk with different dogs on a wooded trail that has a few shallow stream crossings. Sometimes a dog will balk at stepping into the water or jumping over it. It is interesting to watch the how they make decisions and how some screw up the courage to go for it. Others turn tail and head back home without crossing. In these cases I again have to weigh my options. I might pick up little dogs, cheer on a tentative dog or leash up a more resistant one. Ultimately my goal is to help the dog develop the ability to get across on their own without causing them any apprehension about having me approach or put a leash on them. Most often the water is barely ankle deep on a dog and crossed in 2 or 3 strides, and once they do it are good to go next time around. The most surprising was a black lab that refused to get his feet wet.

  4. Karen on

    Murphy is part black lab and doesn’t like water, not baths, not rain, not when I try to get his feet wet on hot days. When he stayed at an outdoor doggy camp while I was on vacation, the caretaker told me that he played a lot with the other dogs and when the other dogs that he liked ran into the ponds, Murphy would go in only as deep as his stomach and then decide that he didn’t like the dogs *that* much and leave the water. LOL

    Thank you for your input on the broom. I did move the broom out of the way because Murphy has fear issues and has learned on our walks to look at his triggers and then look at me for cues (I respond with reassurance and a treat or a chance to move away from the trigger), so I like to think that he can learn to do the same at home with mundane objects that he’s not sure of.

  5. Deborah Flick on

    Interesting topic. I think your comment about recovery time is key. As Nana told me early on, “I’m less concerned about a dog reacting to something new in their environment or being startled by a noise than I am about their ability to recover and get on with things.”

    It was so interesting to see the contrast between Sonny’s behavior and that of your other dogs in relationship to the bag. Having a ‘n’ of 1 as I do most of the time, I don’t get to see contrasts in real time. I think the next time Romeo or Moses and Dudley visit, or Sadie and I are house sitting for them, I’ll try my own experiment and introduce something novel into the environment.

    Thanks for the fine post, as usual.

    Love your kitchen, BTW.

  6. Nancy on

    You know the phobia thing is interesting. I have two littermates, one I adopted as a puppy from a foster home, while her brother came when he was two years old and bounced from home to home. Because they are littermates, they have many of the same traits–physical and emotional/mental. They can be suspicious but while Ellie can investigate and move on, her brother can only run and touch (out of habit, from training with treats) and then he doesn’t know how what to do with himself. So, he runs and touches and then he gets all weird. I have to change the subject with him, hand him a treat (in his head, touching something new equals a treat), but he doesn’t really know how to get over it or move on. Or even how to adjust with something strange around him. He blasts through an initial contact and then he’s suddenly feeling awkward and it doesn’t go away.

    Ellie has her own phobias that I know will never change (unfortunately, she was “flooded” when I didn’t know better and took her to a bad instructor and true to form, flooding only intensified her phobias). She is afraid of firecrackers and riding in the car (fair enough and I think the car makes her sick), but weirdly enough, she’s afraid of dirt trails. (Guess she would NOT be a candidate for your forest walks, Debbie!) She loves the park but only the grass part.

    Her brother on the other hand gets a phobia (or an idea, I like to call it) in his head and you might as well call it a night. Once he thinks something weird is going on it takes a lot for him to move off it.

    One thing I’ve wondered about him is how he seems to have OCD where Ellie does not. He engages in lots of rituals that she doesn’t seem to engage in. He circles twice before he’ll let me put the leash on him, for instance. And he has other must-do habits. I’ve often wondered how much is nature and nurture with them.

    Ellie is by far my outgoing dog–she is in advanced obedience classes, and she’s the class clown, and the goofball friendly dog at the vet. Contrast that to her brother who shrinks down as small as he can when he’s at the vet. They are both anxious, perhaps, but they display it quite differently?

    It’s interesting having two littermates who have some of the same personality traits but handle life’s situations differently.

    Or do they? Or should I just quit typing this LONG response?

    Thank you for such a provocative post!

  7. fearfuldogs on

    Are either on meds? Sound like good candidates. What’s your vet said?

    • Nancy on

      My vets (both conventional and holistic) think that they’re both functional and happy, so long as they live their predictable lives. I’ve toyed with doing more with a behaviorist (DVM) who has talked with me. We’ll see. What I was wanting to say (but finally was just too tired) is that I think nature and nurture are intertwined here. She is gentically nervous but appropriate (minus her phobias and in the car all she does is lay quietly, which the vets say is functional) while he is more withdrawn (he was not socialized in his former homes). Can definitely see the importance of socialization even in the face of similar genes.

      • fearfuldogs on

        You are right, nature and nurture (i.e., environmental impacts) are ALWAYS intertwined.

  8. Martina Annelie on

    Watching the video really touched my heart!

    I feel so passionate for Sunny that I would like to offer help.

    Together we could give him the opportunity to overcome his neophobia by working with him on a consciousness level. This has helped many dogs overcome their terror.

    I have no financial interest, it would be a gift for Sunny.

    If you like you can contact me via

    Since I am in Germany we can work on a remote basis which I do most of the time with great results. My time zone is GMT +1.

    With love from Annelie and her Goldens

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’d never turn down an offer to help out Sunny so long as I new he’d be kept safe. Thanks always curious to check out new options.

  9. V Lipscomb on

    My dog, Ellie, is EXACTLY the same way. Whether it be a new couch, shower curtain, floor fan, whatever — she’s scared of it. She was a rescue whom I adopted at 10 weeks. It’s my understanding the rescue got her at around 5 weeks after her mother was hit by a car and all the pups were very sick. Besides socialization, is there something ekse that may cause this? Thanks in advance! Feel free to look up my pup, Ellie Mae Lipscomb on Facebook. She’s my world! ❤

    • fearfuldogs on

      There may be other contributors to your dog’s behavior. You could speak to a vet or vet behaviorist about medications that might help her be less anxious about novelty in her life.

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