Why novelty-seeking dogs are more likely to sensitise

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Why novelty-seeking dogs are more likely to sensitise

May 14, 2024 Uncategorised 0

Sensitisation can be a risk for many dogs. This is particularly true when our dogs are aroused or when they are in heightened states of emotion. It is also more likely when triggers are particularly intense.

It’s also true when the triggers are of significance to the dog. It’s much easier for our dogs to sensitise to some things than to others.

While sensitisation is a temporary process, it can have a cascade effect if it happens repeatedly. Not only does it make it easier for our dogs to resensitise in the future to the same triggers, it also makes it more likely they’ll generalise. Added to this, they are more likely to learn what predicts those triggers. Our dogs may also become hypersensitive to triggers and whatever predicts them as well.

If our dogs are fearful, the things that predict scary stuff can come to cause the same level of fear as the scary stuff itself. This in turn can then cause powerful avoidance behaviour. Our dogs may panic if they are unable to escape.

Sensitisation in real life

At the moment, I am working with a dog who has become very sensitive to all sorts of loud noises. He was hit by a stone and injured when his guardian was doing outdoor chores with a weed whacker. As a result, he is not just sensitive to the outdoor machines, but to all kinds of other machine noises, from the washing machine through to the vacuum cleaner.

In the past, he was not afraid of these noises.

Not only that, he is aware of the context in which the event happened. As a result, he avoids going in the back garden unless he is bribed or forced. In fact, bribery and coercion have made it much worse.

He is also aware of the cues that predict his guardians are about to use noisy tools. When his guardian opens the cupboard where the vacuum cleaner is kept, the dog runs and hides. When his other guardian puts on his wellies, the dog also runs and hides.

Putting on wellies or opening cupboards comes to cause the same levels of fear as the machine noises themselves.

Not only that, but these trigger powerful avoidance behaviours. Their dog is now spending most of the day in the bedroom, hiding from the world.

It’s not just for bad stuff

Other dogs sensitise to particularly joyful dog stuff. One dog I’m working with is nuts about squirrels. When he was in the garden as a youngster, a squirrel shot up a tree. This was highly delightful for the dog and very exciting. That squirrel worked like a new key to open an old lock: chase small furries.

The dog then became very sensitive to the movement of small creatures.

He also generalised. After a while, it wasn’t just squirrels. It was also cats and birds.

He became very sensitive to the context as well.

That meant that any time he was in the garden, he was on high alert. In fact, seeing things in the garden and being locked inside was the reason his guardians came to me for support. Their dog had started to run up and down by the window, and in their attempt to move him away, he nipped them. Seeing the garden and not being able to go in it is highly frustrating.

Their dog is now also very sensitive to the things that predict cats and squirrels, like their smell. He also started pulling whenever he could smell a cat or some other small furry creature. He is highly sensitised to approach and chase.

The cascade effect

Because of this cascade, sensitisation is a bit like a behavioural starter motor in a car. It is often the initial event that releases an inevitable cascade.

It’s the cascade that can be troublesome. It means our dogs can become hypervigilant, scanning the world for triggers. It also means they can learn to make links with everything that might predict something happening. Those predictors can have the same emotional, motivational and behavioural effect as the trigger itself.

They can also cue other behaviours, like approach and chase behaviours, or escape and avoidance behaviours. These can become strong habits that it can be very challenging to compete against.

In other words, we go from a dog being hit in the face with a stone to a dog who panics when the microwave is turned on, and a dog who saw a squirrel one day and now can’t walk nicely on lead and certainly can’t recall when asked.

But there is a population of dogs who are much, much more likely to sensitise in the first place. Because we have selected dogs over many generations for particular behaviours, it’s almost as if they are on a hair trigger to have these innate behaviours awoken. Once learned, they can be very challenging to overcome.

These dogs are novelty seekers or ‘high responders’.

The world around us

We mammals live in an increasingly complex world. If we came with pre-installed software to help us navigate this world, we’d be out-of-date and unable to function: a Commodore 64 from 1982 trying to keep up with the latest smartphone.

For this reason, evolution has gifted us with adaptability. What this means is that new skills fit pretty well onto old behaviours. Although humans have the distinction of taking adaptability and creativity to an extreme, most other mammals just need to be able to process the world in three main ways.

The first ways is in noticing things that are significant to our goals at the time. For instance, if you are hungry, it makes sense that you might spot the nearest fast food restaurant.

If you are a hungry dog, it makes sense that you would notice the nearest pavement buffet.

This means mammals need the ability to notice the things that are relevant to them at the time, and ignore things that are not. This has to be flexible otherwise we’d get into trouble. A zebra so fixated on eating or mating that they did not notice the lion chasing them would make an easy dinner.

It also helps if we can learn things that predict what might happen next, so that we can keep an eye out for those things. These help us learn and prepare. They help us understand what will happen, when it will happen, and where it will occur.

We also need the ability to tune out irrelevant stuff in the world around us. If we had to process absolutely everything in the world around us, we’d be incapacitated by the brain power it required.

Novelty seeking

One other skill we need is the ability to notice novelty. When we notice novelty, it can then become something relevant or irrelevant. We can either habituate to it if it’s not relevant to any of our goals and needs in life, or we can learn to keep an eye out for it. It becomes salient to us.

Across all kinds of animal studies, researchers have noticed that two patterns emerge. One is that most individuals take time to appraise new situations. Only fools rush in, they tell themselves. If you see something new and you rush towards it, it could be a threat. Better wait and see. Caution pays.

But on the other hand, if it’s something wonderful, you may miss out. Other individuals spot novelty and move in towards it.

This seems silly that animals would approach things that could be dangerous. Yet a small subset of individuals in all kinds of species do this, be they guppies, sheep, wolves, rats, dogs or people.

When they notice something new, it has two effects. The first is that it incentivises them to approach. It is a trigger that draws them in like a tractor beam. The second is that it also triggers arousal and interest as well as anticipation.

Novelty seeking in dogs

Because of artificial selection, it may be that we have more of these novelty seekers than in other species. If our terrier sees a new hole, it’s useful for them to want to approach excitedly with the anticipation of a family of moles living in there. If our spaniel sees bushes, it’s useful for them to want to approach with interest and enthusiasm just in case there are ground-nesting birds to flush out.

We haven’t bred dogs for caution, on the whole.

Many of our dogs are novelty seekers, able to notice the most simple change in the world. In fact, one of my clients reported that her dog notices everything, from dangling threads or flower buds through to tags or strings. He’s not just incentivised by this difference but motivated to approach it.

It’s a behaviour I know very well from my dog Lidy. This morning, she moved in towards a tissue on the floor, a packet that had blown out of the rubbish bin and a small branch that had snapped off during recent high winds. Of all the things on her walk, she noticed only those things that weren’t there yesterday.

It’s an easy behaviour to identify in your dog. When they are outside and cannot see you, put something novel down on the floor in the room. This should not be something they are already familiar with, or in the same class of stuff. For instance, Lidy knows well that boxes and bags occasionally contain dog treasures, so she would be motivated to move in towards them.

If your dog goes straight in to suss it out, they may well be a novelty seeker.

Why novelty seekers are at risk of sensitisation

Novelty seekers are often the kind of dogs we think of as ‘brave’ or ‘bold’. We can think of them as ‘confident’ or ‘optimistic’.

This is only true, however, if they are emotionally stable and not prone to sensitisation on the whole.

Think, for instance, of a dog who spots a box in the garden. The dog does not know that the box actually contains a puppet on a spring: a jack-in-a-box. For the dog who takes their time to approach, when the tension in the spring finally reaches critical mass and the puppet pops up, they will be nowhere near. They will be unlikely to sensitise.

For a novelty seeker who not only spots novelty but is incentivised to approach it, they are likely to get a shock when the Jack pops up! This shock is then likely to sensitise them and we are likely to see some bigger behaviour in the moment. For Lidy, for instance, that could cause her to panic or startle. Once she caught sight of a hubcap in the hedge at the shelter. A small number of high responding dogs were startled by it even though they’d moved in to approach it! She did the same.

Of course, sometimes things popping out unexpectedly can be extremely rewarding. A shrew popped out of the bush the other week and my dog got an early morning rewarding delight.

Novelty seeking and sensitisation

Our dogs who are eager to explore new situations may be highly aroused by novelty.

As a result, this causes them to rush in, rather than hang back or assess things. It’s not uncommon to think of such dogs as ‘risk takers’. These dogs are often sensitive to rewards as well, giving them the reputation of being highly trainable, if highly aroused. Many dogs whom trainers call ‘high drive’ who are highly motivated are better categorised as highly responsive to rewarding opportunities, especially where that involves novelty.

If they also struggle with anxiety or strong fear responses, however, it can cause them to approach rather than avoid new things, putting them especially at risk for sensitisation. The same is true for strong excitement. Working lines of dogs may be susceptible to accidental sensitisation.

Helping these dogs with impulse control and frustration tolerance around novelty can be a big help. It may be that they need alternative activities to do until they have a little emotional equilibrium.

If you recognise your dog from these descriptions, you may find this short webinar on frustration to be of use. There is a second that focuses on impulse control that may also help you understand your dog better.

When we are aware of where and why our dogs may struggle, it makes it easier to manage the world so that they don’t accidentally sensitise to things.

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