Home > Dog Behavior, Dog Breed Information, Health Care - Dogs, Jasper > Why is my dog afraid of new things?

Why is my dog afraid of new things?


Jasper hangs back in the hallway while I put up the Christmas tree. This is not new behavior. It happens every year.

Jasper hangs back in the hallway while I put up the Christmas tree. This is not new behavior. It happens every year.

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by animal behavior. When I was a child I would sit for hours observing the Canadian geese that lived in the pond across from my house. I even took an animal behavior class in high school. Dog behavior is just one more area in which I am often fascinated. I love watching my dogs figure things out or adjust their behavior to a new circumstance or puzzle.

When my friend Debbie over at FearfulDogs.com shared this piece on Neophobia (fear of new things) in dogs, I immediately went to check it out. Not just because it was about dog behavior, but because it was one more piece to the puzzle in understanding my own dog’s behavior.

When Jasper was about a year old (I adopted him at 9 months), I took him to training class at the shelter where I volunteered. During our weekly training sessions, it soon became clear Jasper was frightened by everything new that was introduced into his environment. He refused to go near a dish full of food because he had never seen it before. He refused to go near any of the dividers or other equipment because they were something new he had not seen before. He was easily startled if something new was brought into class and would often freeze in fear or back up or look for an escape route to get away from it.

Unlike most puppies, Jasper was not curious about new things. In fact, he was outright fearful of all of them and would shut down as soon as they appeared. I remember our instructor, a friend of mine, mentioning that maybe he suffered from something called “brittle dog syndrom,” or neophobia, as a result of not being exposed to a lot of new things when he was a puppy. I had never heard of such a thing, but I now know she was right on.

So what is Neophobia?

It is a fear or avoidance of new things. Dogs with neophobia show fearful behavior in new environments or around unfamiliar objects or animals they’ve never seen.

Some of the behaviors dogs display when they are confronted with something new in their environment are:

  • trembling
  • panting
  • whining
  • avoidance or attempts at escape when around new things (In Jasper’s case, he avoids and barks what I call his “chicken little bark.” The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Alarm! Alarm!)

Many dogs who display neophobic behaviors were not socialized as puppies. In Jasper’s case, he spent the majority of his early life in a puppy mill, and then in a pet shop store window. He was “rescued” from that environment at around 8 1/2 months. Before coming to our shelter and then to me, he had very little opportunity to be exposed to many new things, except people, which he has no fear of at all.

Some neophobic dogs can also be so as a result of genetics or breed disposition (i.e., some breeds appear to display it more than others). Although I have no expertise in this area, I would not be surprised to discover that Shelties are a breed who falls into this category. One only has to look at the number of lost Shelties who were lost, after they bolted in fear, to suspect this to be the case.

Since Jasper is a Sheltie and had little socialization as a puppy, he has two strikes against him. However, I have been able to manage his fear of new things by removing him from the object he fears and/or rewarding him with treats when he examines it with curiosity. It takes work, time and patience, but a neophobic dog can learn to live a fairly normal life, depending on how bad the fear is and how well you manage it.

If you have a dog you think may suffer from Neophobia, check out the great article on the ASPCA site. It’s definitely worth the read. My thanks to Debbie Jacobs for sharing it.

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  1. December 4, 2012 at 1:28 AM

    Mel, this sure hit home. Lacy is afraid of new things. The first Christmas when we put up the tree she would not come in the room for a full day. When she finally did she would run past it and get to her safe spot behind my chair and not come out until she had to go outside and would run past it again. Finally after a few days she would come out, but stayed on the opposite side of the room from it. She did the same thing the next year. We have not put up a tree yet this year, but I expect it to scare her again. Evil tree!
    I moved her food bowl and it took days for her to accept it. Eating in front of us took her months to do. Even now if she is disturbed while eating she will stop and move away from it.
    I’m sure she was not socialized at the mill and is hard to watch her struggle with things that I don’t notice or pay much attention to. She has come so far, but still has a hard time with new things.

    • Mel
      December 4, 2012 at 6:59 AM

      Yup. It sounds like Lucy has the same fears as Jasper Carole. When Daisy first came to live with me she would do the same thing. She often ran through doorways because she was so afraid of them. Now she is less so. I can’t explain it. Maybe she has just adjusted so well in the past 5 years that she no longer has the same fears? I don’t know.
      I do know that Cupcake appears to be fearless about almost everything except people. She is not frightened by new things at all.

      Daisy used to be the same way about eating. She had to be able to see me and I had to have my back turned to her for her to eat her food. Then a friend who had already rehabbed 10 puppy mill dogs of her own (all at one time!), suggested just feeding her in her kennel. Best advice I got. Breakfast and dinners are no longer an issue because she is already in her safe spot.

      I hope Lacy will adjust with time, but if she doesn’t, at least you now have a name for why not. Poor girl.

      • December 5, 2012 at 6:46 AM

        Oh my! 10 at once, that is a lot of pups of any kind!
        I fed Lacy in her crate from the start. That use to be her safe spot, then she found the spot behind my chair. We have long since removed her crate. She would bury her food under her blanket at first, I guess because she was not use to being fed regular. She was very emaciated. We just can’t watch her eat.
        I let her set the pace and do not push her. If this is all she can do I am happy with it. She was 7-8 years old we we got her and lived in that hell for a long time. She deserves peace and love now. Being with a normal dog (if you can call Max normal) has helped her the most. She copies him when unsure of what to do.
        She trusts us enough to be affectionate which amazes me sometimes. How they can forgive and love people.

  2. December 4, 2012 at 3:50 AM

    Going to head over to ASPCA for that article in a minute, but first wanted to comment. Great post! Jeffie has what I guess I’d call a “mild case.” Since we adopted him from a shelter when he was just 9 weeks old, it is not how he was raised. (Okay, we could do a much better job at people-socialization) We’ve often wondered what his life was like before we got him.. All we know is that mama Golden and 3 pups were surrendered.. Perhaps it is a breed thing. Perhaps his canine memory is incredibly strong.
    Jeffie likes things just as they’ve always been. He’d prefer no changes. Period. He’ll approach, but very, very cautiously, anything new or different.

    • Mel
      December 4, 2012 at 6:52 AM

      How interesting Sue. Didn’t you say yesterday that Jeffie was possibly part Border Collie? I am not as knowledgeable and expeirenced with BC’s, but I wonder if that might be part of it. I think some dogs crave routine more than others. I know Cupcake does for sure. Let me know if the article offers any additional insight. Now I’m curious!

      • December 4, 2012 at 12:01 PM

        Right, Mel. Definitely think it’s the Border Collie. In fact, our Lizzy had some of the same behavior. I’m wondering if the herding breeds have more of a tendancy towards this – maybe because of their watchfulness? Neither of these dogs like disturbance of the status quo. However, Jeffie is much more anxious about it. Which is why we wonder about his very early years.

  3. December 4, 2012 at 10:22 AM

    Can you imagine my poor doggie coming around the corner and finding the neighbor’s yard lined with those orange leaf bags with the big faces on them? Yikes! Yes, I heard it’s common in the herding animals. They know every inch of their environment and expect everything to be in its place. My Stoli is so much better with objects, however. She summons up her courage to check the objects out, and if the leash is long enough (!) I reach out my hand to tap on the object and show her it’s not going to get her…. No Xmas tree this year, however!

  4. December 4, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    Really great information, Mel. Shiva definitely had a fear of new things when we first adopted her. It wasn’t as severe as some of the symptoms you mentioned but it was something we had to work with. I attribute our agility practice for helping her gain confidence and overcoming a lot of these anxieties. She still sometimes startles to new objects and definitely reacts if someone approaches holding something she has never seen before, but she has learned to see many new things as more an opportunity to get treats than as something to fear.

  1. December 4, 2012 at 5:37 PM
  2. December 5, 2012 at 11:41 PM

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