“Neophobia,” which means, “fear of new things,” is a condition that affects many dogs. Dogs become neophobic for a variety of reasons, including genetics and past traumas. For the neophobic dog, daily life can be a difficult and anxious experience. Although it is relatively common, very few pet parents are familiar with Neophobia and its signs and symptoms.
What is Neophobia?
Neophobia is a deeply rooted fear of new things. Dogs that are affected by Neophobia will be very uncomfortable in situations that require them to step outside of their comfort zones. Neophobia can affect any dog, regardless of gender or breed and is exclusive to adult dogs. If the neophobic dog encounters a situation that makes him or her uncomfortable, it is likely that the dog will take much longer to calm down and return to normal than other dogs.
What Causes Neophobia?
Neophobia is most likely the result of inadequate socialization at an early age. When dogs are young puppies, they develop the ability to cope with and adapt to unfamiliar stimuli and, when a dog misses this developmental phase or doesn’t encounter enough within it, they often become neophobic.
Additionally, Neophobia can be a result of hereditary factors and is more common in breeds bred to be watchdogs than it is in other breeds. Because these dogs have been bred for centuries to be watchful and suspicious, they often develop Neophobia easily.
Finally, Neophobia can be the direct result of past trauma. Dogs that have been abused, abandoned or neglected may become fearful or anxious in unfamiliar environments and may lack the coping mechanisms that would allow them to adapt.
Treating Neophobia in Dogs
When treating Neophobia, it is best to catch it early if possible. Some dogs develop neophobic behavior later in life because of trauma; in these cases, the outcome is likely to be best if pet parents can nip Neophobia in the bud. In some cases, however, catching Neophobia early is virtually impossible and pet parents must treat an advanced form of the disorder. These steps can help treat neophobic dogs of all variations:
- Increase Socialization: Expose the dog to one unfamiliar stimulus at a time, such as a new place, a new person or a new dog to begin desensitization. Provide plenty of positive reinforcement, praise and food rewards to mitigate fear.
- Establish a Schedule at Home: Neophobic dogs need to feel safe and one of the best ways to do this is to establish a predictable, routine schedule at home. This means that the dog should be fed and exercised at the same time every day and that human companions should keep regular and predictable hours.
- Pay Attention to the Dog’s Boundaries: Pushing a neophobic dog way outside of his comfort zone will only backfire and make him more withdrawn and fearful. In order for socialization to be effective, it is important to pay attention to your pup’s boundaries. Desensitizing a neophobic dog takes time and the best tactic is to narrow down the dog’s fears and focus on one specific fear at a time. Take the process slowly and, over time, it is likely that you will begin to see change.
- See a Pet Behaviorist: For dogs with extreme Neophobia, a pet behaviorist can be helpful at establishing the cause and prescribing treatment.
Although Neophobia is an upsetting and difficult disorder, with enough socialization, time and positive reinforcement, most neophobic dogs can learn to be comfortable in new environments.
Content reviewed by a veterinarian.