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Dogs Take to the New
Stay Loose: Dogs’ impressive ability to cope with novelty
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Dakota had previously struggled with behavioral issues, but this time, he really went bananas. When the cell phone began to vibrate on the table, he panicked, which is why he jumped through the window, shattering it and scaring a couple of kids riding by on their bikes. Luckily, his guardian was able to calm him down, and his injuries were minor. Is he a bad dog? No, the situation was just more than he could handle. It would be unfair to call his response “bad,” though it was certainly undesirable. Oh, and Dakota isn’t a dog, technically speaking. He’s a wolf hybrid, and like most such animals, reacts strongly to anything new—a sound, a person, an object or a situation. The difficulty that a majority of wolf hybrids have with novelty is one of the reasons I caution people against having them as pets.

Dogs are different; their tendency to respond more easily to new things is one of the many reasons they make great pets. Their ability to take “new” in stride is part of what makes dogs who they are. Perhaps best of all, they easily form new social bonds throughout their lives, which is why many of us are able to have loving, close relationships with dogs whose first home was not with us.

Most dogs are able—even expected— to face new situations without blinking (and, for that matter, without barking). Think of what we typically ask dogs to contend with. Many are placed with new people in a new home at the age of seven to 10 weeks. Some stay in that home, but others are rehomed, in some cases multiple times. Even dogs who stay with the same family will face much that is new.

They might be taken out in a canoe, or spend the night in a kennel while the floors are being refinished; eat a different kind of food; endure a loud party; welcome a new dog or a new baby or a cat to their household; move to a new home, a new town, from the city to a rural area, or vice versa. They may have to stay with a dog sitter, greet a new dog walker, accept regular rearranging of the furniture or a change in routine when their guardians start working in an office instead of from home. Even if the household remains steady, dogs generally meet new dogs as well as new people, and go many new places throughout their lives.

When facing unexpected craziness in my own life, I tend to say, “No worries! I’m a mom. I’m nothing if not flexible,” but dogs have a far stronger claim to that characteristic. The range of situations, objects and social partners that most dogs take in stride is enormous. Though we tend to take it for granted, their ability to roll with whatever situation they find themselves in is really amazing, and far from typical in the animal world.

Of course, things don’t always go smoothly. Some dogs freak out when they walk on snow for the first time, or when the baby cries in the middle of the night. Many dogs struggle to deal with “newness” of one sort or another, or perhaps anything new. Even dogs who appear to accommodate it may find it stressful. Though dogs tend to handle novelty better than most other species, there is still considerable variation in individual reactions.

Their responses depend on personality and experience, both of which contribute to how they react to stress and how they solve problems, and also to how distressing they find the new thing. A dog may bark, cower or hide. A few will growl or lunge; the occasional dog will bite. Some seek comfort from their guardians; whine, freeze up or approach tentatively; head for their crate; or retrieve a comforting toy. Similarly, responses to a positive novelty can run the gamut from leaping and spinning, sniffing, grabbing, jumping, whining, or barking to offering a behavior that has been reinforced in the past, or a tail wagging that’s vigorous enough to cause a mini tornado of fur. Behavior has a genetic component; dogs are genetically predisposed to be flexible and adaptable. Yet, genetics do more than account for differences among species. They also explain various behavioral differences among breeds and individuals, including disparities in dogs’ ability to cope with changes in their environment. As in other aspects of canine behavior, this ability also varies. That’s why certain traits such as gregariousness, shyness, curiosity and fearfulness can actually run in lines of dogs.

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