Neophobia is fear or avoidance of new things. Neophobic dogs show fearful behavior in new environments or around unfamiliar objects or animals they’ve never seen. Fear includes behaviors such as trembling, panting, whining and avoidance or attempts at escape when around new things.
Dogs with strong neophobic tendencies are reluctant to explore new environments. They tend to freeze in response to unusual noises and unfamiliar things, and they’re typically afraid of unfamiliar people and animals. When they enter unfamiliar open rooms, they often try to hide in corners or hug the walls while moving around. Neophobic dogs are prone to developing other anxious behaviors, including compulsive habits like spinning, tail chasing, pacing, flank sucking or self-injurious licking and chewing. Please see our article, Compulsive Behavior in Dogs, for more information.
What Causes Neophobia
Some dogs develop neophobia because they didn’t get enough pleasant exposure to new people, animals, places or objects during the critical socialization period, which lasts from 3 to 16 weeks of age.
Neophobic Predisposition (Breed or Individual Tendency)
Despite adequate socialization, some dogs are still fearful or anxious in new environments or around new people, animals, places or objects. Some behavior experts believe that neophobia is more common in certain breeds.
Other Behavior Problems to Rule Out
Fear of Strangers
Although many neophobic dogs may also fear people they haven’t met or don’t know well, this reaction isn’t neophobia. Neophobia is specific to things a dog has not experienced in the past. A dog doesn’t fear an unfamiliar person because she’s never met people before. She fears the stranger because she doesn’t know how that new person will react to her.
Defensive, Fear-Based Aggression
Some dogs show aggressive behavior—which can include barking, growling, lunging, snapping or biting—when in new environments or when around new things, people or other animals. In addition to aggressive behavior, these dogs sometimes display other kinds of fearful body language, such as trembling, panting, whining and avoidance. Fear-based aggression is excluded from neophobia, and treatment recommendations differ for dogs who respond aggressively to fear. If your dog displays any kind of aggressive behavior, immediately seek consultation with a qualified professional. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, for information about locating a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) in your area. If you can’t find a behaviorist in your area, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure that he or she has professional education and extensive experience successfully treating fear and aggression problems, as this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification.
What to Do If Your Dog Is Neophobic
Why Some Dogs Are Neophobic
By the age of six or seven weeks, most young puppies are highly social and fearless. They’re likely to explore new environments and new things. This tendency continues until a pup is about 16 weeks old. After 16 weeks, some puppies develop varying degrees of neophobia. For some, this is an inconsequential developmental phase. For example, a puppy might be slightly leery when she encounters something new, but she can be encouraged to investigate and will quickly become comfortable. Other puppies show stronger neophobic tendencies and react more fearfully to new things. In general, the more experiences a puppy has had up to the point when neophobic behavior starts, the better.
It’s crucial to expose all puppies and young dogs to a wide range of experiences, like driving in a car, walking on city sidewalks, visiting friends’ homes, playing in the park, visiting the veterinary clinic and the grooming salon, and so on. These experiences should be as pleasant as possible for a young puppy so that she associates them with fun and familiar things. Likewise, a puppy should have many pleasant experiences when meeting a range of new people and animals.
Neophobic dogs thrive best with a rigid, unvarying schedule of daily events. If you have a neophobic dog, try to feed, groom and exercise her at the same time every day. A stable and quiet home environment is ideal, with few visitors and other forms of disruption. If your dog is unable to cope with walks on the street, try exercising her in your fenced yard instead. If you do take your dog outside her yard, try to follow these general guidelines:
- Try to predict the things that will frighten your dog and prepare for her reactions. Whenever you go anywhere with your dog, be sure to carry some high-value treats, like bits of cheese, freeze-dried liver or chicken. You can also note which games your dog likes to play while you’re at home, and then bring one of her favorite toys with you on your walks. As you walk, look ahead for things that have frightened your dog in the past. Whenever you approach one of those things, distract your dog with her toy. If you make it past the scary thing without your dog reacting fearfully, tell her in an happy voice how brave and smart she is, and give her a few delicious treats. Then return to your home, trying to avoid other scary things along the way to minimize your dog’s stress.
- If your dog unexpectedly reacts fearfully to something, quickly but calmly take a few steps away from the object to increase her comfort level. If you take a few steps away from the scary thing and your dog still seems frightened, move farther away until she seems calmer. Then try helping your dog overcome her fear by playing with her with the toy you brought from home. Your goal is to change your dog’s perception of the scary thing by associating it with something good, like a favorite game or toy. (Keep in mind, however, that if your dog is timid, too much excitement might frighten her or give her the opportunity to bolt away in panic. Keep play happy but low-key.) Delicious treats can also work well to change the way your dog feels about a scary thing. Instead of playing with your dog right after she sees something that frightens her, try feeding her a few goodies. Remember to use something delicious and special, like small bits of cheese, chicken or hotdog. As soon as your dog’s fearfulness lessens and she seems comfortable again, take her back home and let her be around familiar things that she’ll find comforting. Along the way, be sure to avoid things that might frighten your dog again.
- When you and your dog encounter something that scares her, keep in mind that your attitude is really important. The more happy and calm you seem, the better your dog will feel. Speaking in cheerful but relaxed tones can help reduce your dog’s anxiety.
- The best time to help your dog feel better about new things is when she’s NOT already reacting fearfully to them. If your dog takes the initiative to approach or interact with something unfamiliar, immediately give her a really tasty treat or two. Remember, your goal is to help your dog learn that encountering new objects makes good things happen.
Attempts to rehabilitate adult neophobic dogs meet with limited success. With patience, effort and time, a neophobic dog may become more relaxed and less fearful at home, but she will probably always deal poorly with change.
Sometimes it can be difficult to help a neophobic dog. A well-qualified professional can offer guidance and advice. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, for information about locating a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) in your area. If you can’t find a behaviorist in your area, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure that he or she has professional education and extensive experience successfully treating fear and aggression problems, as this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification.
Some neophobic dogs benefit from long-term, daily anti-anxiety medication. Medication doesn’t cure neophobic dogs, but it can help them cope better. When medicated, many neophobic dogs have less intense fearful reactions, seem less vigilant and recover from scary events more quickly. Do not give your dog any kind of medication without consulting her veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist first.
What NOT to Do
- Do not force your dog to confront her fear by forcing her to look at, approach or interact with a person, object or other animal that frightens her. This practice can actually increase your dog’s fear and worsen her behavior.
- Do not scold or physically punish your dog for being afraid. Punishing your dog by yelling or physically “correcting” her will merely intensify her fear and distress—and it will probably worsen any aggressive behavior.
- Do not constantly reassure your dog. You do want her to look to you for safety and security, but it’s not helpful to repeatedly pick her up or chant, “It’s okay, it’s okay....” Your dog won’t understand what you’re saying, and if you sound anxious, you might make her even more upset. Instead, you can calmly praise and reward your dog for confident, relaxed behavior if she offers it on her own.
- Do not immediately follow your dog’s fearful reaction by doing something that gets her attention but doesn’t make her less afraid, such as yelling at her, speaking loudly or acting nervous yourself. This can actually make the thing that frightened your dog more memorable to her, and it might increase the likelihood that she’ll have a similar reaction to similar things in the future. When your dog reacts fearfully to something, the best thing to do is to calmly increase the distance between her and the thing she fears. Then praise and reward her for any reduction in fearful behavior or any confident behavior.