5 Signs Your Reactive Dog is Obsessed by Novelty
Some reactive dogs really struggle in new environments. Knowing you have a dog who is obsessed by novelty can help you choose training strategies that will really work. You may have notice that they find it a challenge to control their investigative impulses, but that is not the only sign.
Here, you’ll find information to help you identify whether your dog finds new environments a challenge. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll find some strategies that really work.
What is neophilia?
Simply put, neophilia simply means a love for or an attraction to novelty.
If you do the same walk that you did yesterday, your dog will make a beeline for a single scrap of litter that wasn’t there yesterday. When you bring shopping bags or boxes into the home, your dog is nose-first into them. If there are people or new dogs about, your dog loves to run over and give them a real sniff through.
That’s the pleasant side.
Unfortunately neophilia can cause some dogs to really struggle when they first go into completely new environments. They’re on sensory overwhelm. They forget everything they ever learned. They don’t know what to investigate first.
It’s all just too much.
Their behaviour is often chaotic and frantic as they take in one scent or object after another. This behaviour means that the word is full of competing rewards. You may find that it’s simply impossible for your dog to follow any cues.
Sign 1: making a beeline to novelty
The first is an attraction to anything new in the environment. To test this, take your dog out of the room and ask someone else to come in unseen and place a new object. Then watch what your dog does when you bring them back in. Dogs who love novelty will not only notice the object immediately, but they will move towards it to check it out.
Novelty-loving dogs are amazingly quick at identifying what has changed.
Sign 2: frustration when they can’t investigate
The second sign of neophilia in your dog is that they seem to feel almost compelled to investigate new things. If they can’t, you will find they struggle sometimes with frustration or impulse control. It feels almost like they can’t relax until they’ve checked everything out. You may find that they scored very highly on the ‘responsiveness’ aspect of the Dog Impulsivity Assessment Score.
Sign 3: physiological signs
A low level of curiosity in novelty is normal, but dogs who are obsessed by new things may show signs of being emotionally overwhelmed. For instance, they may have ‘bug eyes’ where it seems their eyes are as wide open as possible. They may also pant even though it’s not hot. You may see the very typical ‘grimace’ as the dog has the corners of their mouth pulled back towards their ears. These physiological signs also help us recognise novelty-obsessed dogs.
Sign 4: an inability to settle in new environments
Fourthly, dogs who struggle with novelty may also find it very difficult to settle down until they have investigated everything in the environment. They take a long time to acclimatise to new places or if things change.
Sign 5: an inability to follow well-known cues
The final sign that your dog finds novelty intensely appealing is that there are so many competing things in the environment that they cannot follow cues for behaviour they know well. Perhaps, for instance, your dog is great at walking on lead. Suddenly, as the environment changes, they start to pull frantically. It feels like they have forgotten everything they knew.
Where neophilia affects reactivity
There are two ways novelty-loving dogs may struggle with reactivity.
The first is that a curious, investigative dog is not always a confident dog. If your dog regularly experiences strong negative emotions like anxiety or fear, then you have a dog who is drawn in to novelty but also tends to get spooked by it. Under normal circumstances, a dog who is fearful will shy away from novelty. However, a dog who needs to investigate novelty will struggle with natural avoidance.
The second way that neophilia affects novelty is that when dogs are in a heightened state of arousal, this affects how they experience other events that they would normally cope with.
Imagine if you had just come out of the Haunted House at the fairground or you had just watched a horror movie, and someone taps you on the shoulder unexpectedly. You would probably jump. Emotional arousal (positive or negative) primes us to react more easily. It also primes us to react more intensely to other experiences that follow.
Dogs who encounter triggers when they are emotionally aroused are more likely to respond more quickly. Their reactions are longer and more intense. Emotional arousal also lowers our ability to inhibit more rational responses.
The combination of exciting new experiences and triggers that elicit fear is one that causes many dogs to respond in more intense ways than usual. That can include snapping and biting.
Neophilia and Human Personality
In the 1980s, biopsychologists were outlining five factors in human personality that seemed like relatively stable traits. These five traits, known as the Big Five, are believed to help us define aspects of human personality.
The five traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
Neuroticism is how susceptible we are to negative emotions. Sometimes, the Big Five are seen as a spectrum. Neuroticism, or emotional instability, is seen as a spectrum with emotional stability at the other end. Anxiety, anger or frustration would be negative states.
Agreeableness is how socially harmonious we are. We may place group or family needs above our own, valuing social cohesion and getting along with others. Agreeable people tend not to be competitive or filled with intense rivalry. Disagreeable people are more competitive and more self-interested.
Extroversion is characterised by the breadth of our interests, our cheerfulness and sociability, and our enthusiasm. Introversion is the opposite end of this spectrum. It is characterised by deep rather than broad interests and lower levels of social engagement.
Conscientiousness relates to impulsivity and self-control. Conscientious individuals self-regulate well and can seem stubborn and overly focused.
Openness to experience is a way of understanding how curious, engaged and adventurous we are.
The Big Five in Animals
Since the 1980s, scientists have also begun to identify and measure the Big Five in animals. This has a lot of scientific merit because it helps us understand personality and temperament in animals. This helps us tailor welfare and also ensure that welfare laws are robust enough. Many ‘temperament tests’ for dogs are based around the Big Five. Personality tests for dogs help us understand if they are suited to life as an assistance dog or not.
As you can imagine, an emotionally stable, self-regulating, extroverted dog who scores highly for openness to experience is an ideal working dog for detection work, Search and Rescue, or Assistance work.
Other patterns are more common in reactive behaviour. Often, reactive dogs are less emotionally stable. They may struggle to self-regulate or control their impulses. As well as this, they may not enjoy social engagement with strangers. When dogs like this are also highly curious and unpredictable, it can lead them to struggle in a variety of situations.
The Big Five personality traits have degrees of heritability meaning they can be passed on. It is perhaps no surprise that gundogs and herding dogs score more highly on responsiveness and openness to experience. Working lines of spaniels, shepherds and collies have been selected because of this specific trait and it is no surprise to dogs from working lines struggling with life on Civvy Street. However, when coupled with emotional instability, it may mean dogs from working lines aren’t cut out for work and they can end up causing no end of trouble for pet dog guardians who are unprepared for their needs.
Working with Novelty-Seeking Dogs
Dogs who score highly for impulsivity may also struggle with novelty. For dogs like these, they may need time to adjust and adapt to new environments. Instead of going straight into a walk, for instance, they may need time to take things in and adjust.
Although it can be tempting to give dogs like this plenty of time to explore and acclimatise, we should also understand the addictive nature of behaviour like this. Each new discovery is accompanied with a burst of dopamine and adrenaline. This makes novelty-seeking more and more important for the dog. As we know from addicts, nothing is as good as the first occasion and the body quickly acclimatises so that we seek more and more. The first time we win at gambling provides such a heady charge of neurochemical reward that we are forever chasing bigger and bigger hits.
In many ways, guardians of novelty-obsessed dogs are not just fighting a battle with a world that is much more exhilarating than we are, with our tired old biscuits. The world itself is fighting a battle where the dog is fruitlessly searching to replicate the intense burst of dopamine and adrenaline that characterised their first experience.
What we need to ensure is that we really work on our dog’s impulse control and that we help our dogs disengage from the world and learn how to switch off.
Dogs who are both emotionally unstable and curious are dogs who may need more support in regulating their reactions, emotions and behaviour.
Where training packages fail our novelty-seeking dogs
Many packages for reactive dogs work mostly on fearfulness. Of course, novelty-seeking dogs can also be fearful. However, dogs who are highly curious about novelty can really struggle with anxiety, with frustration and with a lack of impulse control. They struggle to disengage from the environment.
Where we may have traditionally given dogs time to acclimate and acclimatise, letting them sniff and take things in, novelty-seeking dogs can really struggle with this. The more time they are given, the more aroused they can become. Getting their attention becomes an impossible task. They are also sensitised to react more intensely and their abililty to inhibit their responses is diminished when things occur.
They simply get more fired up the more we leave them to acclimitise.
Using food can also fail with novelty-seeking dogs if we don’t do it in the right way, especially if it is delivered from the hand like a plate. They habituate easily and need variety. Some traditional reactive dog programmes have focused on predictable pairings. Jean Donaldson’s highly influential and helpful ‘Bar is Open/Bar is Closed’ is a mainstay of reactive dog programmes. Some trainers have taken this to mean that the bar opening when a trigger appears should always and reliably predict steak, for instance.
For novelty-seeking dogs, this will inevitably lead to habituation effects that will interfere with our work. Predictability is great, but it does not work for dogs who score highly for openness to experience.
Training that will work
Impulse control will be a crucial skill for these dogs and it will need to be rock solid before moving out into the world. Having a range of predictable routines can also help, especially where you are varying the reward. Mixing up foods, toys and games so that the reinforcement is surprising can keep novelty-seekers engaged. Never knowing what you’re going to get is one way that the environment (and gambling palaces!) keeps addicted reward-seekers coming back.
It’s also vital to stop static feeding. Make the food, toy or game interactive and increase variety. Leaping after a treat may not seem particularly different than eating steak from a plate-like hand, but our dogs’ brains know. That little jump-pounce-seek rewards our dog’s SEEKING system, giving them a burst of dopamine that they just don’t get from food in the hand.
Novelty-seeking dogs struggle with a world without boundaries or direction. They need support and co-regulation, not to be left to their own devices. Hoping that they’ll calm down when they’ve taken the environment in is futile. Patterns, routines and predictability help them cope with sensory overload.
Neophilia and arousal
Dogs who love novelty need to be helped to work with their arousal rather than waiting for it to disappear. All new environments are emotionally stimulating and novelty-seeking dogs will never progress if we’re waiting for them to be less aroused. Watching some guardians wait for hours for their dog to calm shows just how important it is that we work with arousal rather than waiting for it to drop. It has also led guardians to mistakenly seek out medication including sedatives in search of the elusive ‘calm’.
Especially where novelty-seeking is paired with high persistence and strong frustration tolerance, we have a dog that will work for hours for a single novel experience.
These dogs are great at cadaver searches, Search and Rescue work and other working roles, but coupled with emotional instability or impulsivity, it means that they can struggle in the working world. That said, many novelty-seeking dogs benefit hugely from scent work, and from experiences like Mantrailing in less demanding circumstances. Many novelty-seeking dogs are also highly trainable and benefit from more operant processes than typically fear-based reactive dog training methods.
It is vital to work in environments where arousal can be channeled and focused rather than waiting for it to drop. For fearful and anxious dogs who don’t have high interest in the environment, it’s vital that we work when the dog is calm. For dogs who love novelty, it’s vital that we help our dogs work through arousal. Dogs who only respond when calm will really struggle to cope when aroused. Unless we can avoid arousal for the rest of the dog’s life, we need to address this in our training.
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