Novelty (or Practical Habituation)

I have been thinking a lot of late about novelty in dog training. More technically, I’ve been thinking about habituation (i.e. a type of non-associative learning) and how it works in the ‘real world’ for changing dog behaviour in simple ways.


Dogs can habituate to water.

Dogs can habituate to water.

When I was a kid, I grew up with a chow chow called Ted. Ted mostly lived in the backyard, but as a child, I one day decided that Ted was going to get a walk every day. And so I walked him every day for about a month (before moving onto the next project, as kids do). Ted started the month with enthusiastic jumping regarding the prospect of a walk. He also vocalised a little bit. By the end of the month, Ted had the lead put on with no fuss, no jumping, no noise, and soldiered on for the walk.

Sure, I could’ve implemented some kind of training regime. But, in reality, I didn’t. Ted started the month thinking walks were novel, and his behaviour stemmed from this novelty. At the end of the month, he was habituated to the walk. Previously, the outside world meant a lot to him and resulted in him getting aroused. By the end of the month, it meant close to nothing, and his arousal levels were far less.


Then there’s our foster dog Bandit. I picked him up from his surrendering family, one hour from my house, and drove him home. He drooled, paced, and stressed the whole way home. On ever subsequent car trip, Bandit’s behaviour got more mild. Recently, I drove him to a boarding facility about 20 minutes away, and he was laying, asleep, by the time we got there. No training went into this. Bandit just ‘got over it’ because he habituated to the car – it became less novel.


I find many outside dogs are often ‘over the top’ when they meet people, and I think this is a novelty thing, too. If dogs only see people on an occasional basis (i.e. when you go outside), of course they’re going to be excited to see you! If they were inside and saw you constantly, their responses are going to be more mild. Indeed, with most attention seeking behaviours (e.g. jumping up, head nuzzling, vocalising), these behaviours will decrease if the dog has sufficient attention to start with. If attention is given liberally, the resource becomes less important, and the dog’s behaviour changes.


I think the concept of novelty is often overlooked in dog training. Sometimes, dog behaviour will ‘get better’ simply because the novelty of something wears off.

Doing many varied things often can do more than maintaining socialisation – it can reduce novelty and so also decrease undesirable behaviour associated with that novelty.


A Link Between Desexing and Reactivity

ResearchBlogging.orgWhile desexing bitches is a common surgery, I was pleased to see Kim et al. take note that “the side effects of the operation, particularly any changes in behaviour, have been quantified in only few studies”.

That is to say, despite us commissioning vets to take the ovaries and uterus out of a great many bitches, we don’t really have much research about it. It’s a pretty scary state of play.

This particular study took 14 healthy German Shepherd bitches, between 5 and 10 months old. Half of these dogs were spayed, and the other half left entire. (The bitches were assigned to each group randomly, except for litter sisters, which were assigned opposite groups.)

After the spay, and having been given 4-5 months to recover from the surgery, the bitches were filmed in their kennel as a stranger and a dog approached. This footage was then scored based on how reactive the bitch was. A score of ’3′ indicated severe reactivity, and a score of ’0′ indicated no reactivity. The scorer was unaware of whether the bitch was spayed or not.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Willis.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Willis.

The reactivity of each bitch was recorded several times, and the reactivity of each bitch declined over the study. It’s likely that the bitches habituated to the novel stimuli. However, despite this affect, bitches in the ovary-hysterectomy group scored higher throughout the study.

Before generalising these results, there are some matters to consider:

  • Reactivity was only measured in a kennel setting, and how these dogs react in the ‘real world’ may be different. We can’t suppose that our pet dogs are going to respond in the same way as kennel dogs.
  • The reactivity of these dogs was not measured at the start of the study. While it is unlikely, perhaps more reactive dogs happened to fall into the treatment group by chance. Without a ‘before desexing’ score, we cannot be sure of this.
  • The authors make note that these results are for German Shepherd bitches aged 5-10 months old. We can’t assume dogs of all breeds and ages would respond this way to spays.
  • Further, the bitches in this study are working lined German Shepherds, which may be more reactive than the typical pet dog.


However, this study notes that other studies on bitch spays have shown that as a group spayed bitches are:

  • More likely to gain weight
  • More aggressive than prior to spay (if they were aggressive prior to spay)
  • More active
  • More likely to have urinary incontinence
  • More likely to be reactive after surgery


The authors recommend:

[V]eterinary practitioners should inform owners that a bitch may become more reactive after spaying either because they have lost the calming effects of progesterone or because elevated gonadotropins stimulate release of adrenal androgens.

Kim HH, Yeon SC, Houpt KA, Lee HC, Chang HH, & Lee HJ (2006). Effects of ovariohysterectomy on reactivity in German Shepherd dogs. Veterinary journal (London, England : 1997), 172 (1), 154-9 PMID: 16772140

Further reading:
Desexing: It’s bad for Vizslas too
Is desexing a cult?
Desexed dogs – 2.6 times less likely to bite!
Why would you NOT desex your dog??
Golden Retrievers: Cancer if you do, cancer if you don’t


Do dog dreams matter?

Border terrier puppy sleeping on a couch with question above 'Do dog dreams matter?'.

Listen by clicking play above, or read on…


Ever since I’ve been a child, I have had very significant nightmares. I often dream about my house being on fire, or being maimed or killed in a robbery or abduction or any other type of foul play. I have died many times in my dreams – more often than I can count.

Furthermore, I experience sleep paralysis.  I wake or semi-wake from nightmares, only to not be able to move from bed, and have the terrifying experience of both being conscious of the fact that I am dreaming, but unable to remove myself from the situation.  Then there are the times that I have just sleep paralysis with no dreaming, which is almost as frightening as your body tricks you into believing that you are also unable to breathe.

Luckily, I know that my dreams and nightmares are merely figments of my imagination, and I can rationalise the sleep paralysis experience.  I know that a masked intruder has never entered the house and killed me or my partner.  I know that I have never been in a house fire.  I know that I have never been involved in a robbery and witnessed the slaughter of bystanders. I know that I have never, actually, been unable to breathe.

Despite ‘knowing’ that these things are not real, they still make way to very real fears for me. I slept with a light on until I was 14 and sometimes still do if I am home alone. I always lock my car doors when I am driving. At night, I am hyper-vigilant in public spaces, and often find myself looking for weapons to use in self defence.

Me, a rationale adult human, is very affected by the nightmares I have – even though they’re not real. Like Phoebe, in Friends (watch from 3 minutes).

But I often I wonder if our dogs can conceptualise their dreams as real. Is it far-fetched to think that maybe dogs are psychologically affected by their dreams?

We know dogs must dream. We can see them partake in REM sleep. What they are dreaming about, however, remains a mystery.

Dreams are something we learn about.  I remember a six year old telling me over breakfast, with a bemused expression, “I think I had a dream”.  This child has knowledge on the concept of ‘dreams’, but was still connecting this term with her own cognitive processes.  While we can teach children on what a dream is, we do not have this luxury with dogs.

Is there much of a difference between the memory of a dream and a memory of a real experience?

I have nightmares that result in real-life fears. Despite my capacity to conceptualise and rationalise my dreams, they still translate to fears in my life.

Is it possible that dogs are having nightmares? And is it such a big stretch to suggest that these dreams may affect a dog’s behaviour?

What do you think?


Further reading:

A post on DOL forums on dogs and nightmares.

The Science of Dreaming.


Predicting Adults from Puppies – in 15 Minutes!

A typical vet consult is just 15 minutes. Is this long enough for a vet to diagnose future behavioural problems in puppies? Vaccination consults seem to be an ideal time for vets to assess puppies and make recommendations for the future, but is it really enough time for a vet to reach adequate conclusions?  Pageat set out to find out.

Listen to audio:

Or read on…

Rottweiler puppy on vet table having a check up.


256 puppies were observed during a vaccination appointment at the vet.  The puppy was first allowed to ‘free range’ around the room, and then the puppy was examined. The behaviour of puppies during this consult was noted.  The owner was also asked to answer 8 questions (on fear, sleep, and self control).

Pageat wondered if the behaviours shown by the puppies and the answers given by their owner might have a correlation between the behaviour (including problem behaviour) the puppy may have as an adult.

Telephone consults occurred 1 month after the vaccination consult, then 6 months after, and then another evaluation was done when the dog came in for its vaccination 1 year afterwards.

Pageat found that there was a correlation, and referred to 6 classifications for adult dogs: ‘normal’, deprivation syndrome, hypersensitivity-hyperactivity, disorder of sensory homeostasis, phobia, and separation anxiety.

This preliminary study showed that there was some merit to Pageat’s ideas. Below are the behaviour classifications that Pageat created and how they correlate to the behaviours and questionnaire responses seen in puppyhood.


Normal Dogs

Pups that were likely to have a ‘normal development’, unsurprisingly, displayed normal behaviours in the vet clinic, like:

  • sought comfort from their owner,
  • checked out the room while ocassionally checking in with the owner or vet,
  • sought vet’s contact,
  • had submissive posture when vet reached over the puppy, and
  • sometimes cried when restrained, but soon settled.
  • On the questionnaire, owners said there were no fears, no sleep problems, and no excessive biting.

So: Puppies that act normally in the vet seem to act normally as adults.


Deprivation Syndrome

‘Deprivation syndrome’ is the term that Pageat used, which means dogs that are under socialised and so fearful of most things, which in turn leads to fear aggression. (source)

In the vet consult, pups were more likely to grow up with deprivation syndrome if they:

  • were stationary (didn’t move around the exam room),
  • reacted fearfully when touched by the vet,
  • remained fearful even when the owner interacted with them,
  • persistantly tried to escape and bite from restraint, and.
  • if they appeared to calm when restrained, they started fighting again when the restraint was lessened.
  • The owner’s responses to the questionnaire described the puppy as ‘fearful’ towards loud noises, moving objects, and people.

That is: puppies that acted fearful during the 15 minute vet consult will probably stay fearful. They should immediately start an intensive socialisation program to try to reduce their fearful reactions.


Hypersensitivity-Hyperactivity Syndrome

‘Hypersensitivity-hyperactivity syndrome’ is basically a dog with lack of control, especially bite inhibition. They are often not-aggressive but nonetheless hurt their owners and others because of their lack of bite inhibition in ‘over the top’ play.

In the vet consult, pups were more likely to grow up with this syndrome if they:

  • were active, ran everywhere,
  • repeatedly interacted with ‘every thing’ they could in the exam room,
  • if this interaction included chewing and often destroying items,
  • immediately started to play during the physical exam,
  • growled and bit,
  • tried to escape restraint by biting, urinating, or defecating, and if this fighting may continue for 30 seconds or more,
  • had an owner who’s presence didn’t influence the puppy’s behaviour, and
  • had an owner who was covered in bites themselves.
  • Owners on the questionnaire indicated the puppy didn’t sleep solidly (i.e. made noise at night) and described the puppy as rough or bitey when playing.

That is: Puppies who seemed hyperactive and orally fixated would stay that way into adulthood. Puppies in this category should be put in puppy playgroups and otherwise taught to inhibit their bite.


Disorder of Sensory Homeostasis

This was the most confusing classification that Pageat used. Here are a couple of definitions I was able to come up with in regard to ‘sensory homeostasis’:

  • “the ability to react in a suitable manner to sensory stimulations coming from the external environment” (source)
  • “The normal state can be regarded as the normosensoperceptive [normal sensory perceptive] condition to be maintained in the physiological range by means of various cooperative and coordinated mechanisms” (source)

That is, ‘dealing with’ (behaviourally, psychologically, and physically) the environment in a normal way. So, a dog who has ‘sensory homeostasis’ could be described as ‘a dog that reacts suitably to sensory input from its environment’.

The behaviours of puppies in this group were diverse:

  • Puppies were active, running everywhere and chewing everything – or they did the opposite, staying in one place resting and not moving much.
  • Puppies either began to play when you interacted with them, or just stayed still.
  • These puppies bit when they were restrained – sometimes with urinating and defecating as well, but always did not submit.
  • The owners reported these puppies were fearful, that they didn’t sleep well or were active, and they were rough biting and playful.

As you can see, there is a lot of variety in this category, and I’m not sure what conclusions can actually be reached. This is especially true when you compare with the rather logical and conclusive results made under different headings.


Phobic Adult Dogs

Dogs were more likely to be fearful adults if they were puppies that:

  • sought comfort from owners in new environments,
  • if the explored, they checked in with the owner or vet as exploring,
  • adopted a submissive posture during handling,
  • cried softly during restraint, or
  • moved legs when restrained, but soon calms down and is submissive.

That is, the pups that overall seemed quite soft and ‘submissive’ and sought reassurance from people were likely to be fearful dogs in adulthood.  These puppies could also have their behaviour remedied by socialisation where they could learn to be more outgoing (as they realise the world is a not-so-scary place).


Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is basically a fear of being alone.  Pups that exhibited the following behaviours were more likely to have separation anxiety as an adult:

  • rests as close as possible to the place it was left,
  • vet has to initate contact, and
  • pup exhibits fearful behaviours like escaping, biting, urinating, defecating or anal sac excretion, but when the owner approaches, these behaviours stops.
  • The owner answered ‘yes’ to fearful behaivours on the questionnaire.

A vet could recommend that puppies displaying these behaviours begin to engage in a separation anxiety program before issues become apparent. Undertaking anti-separation anxiety procedures are good practice, anyway, but could be applied with more emphasis in puppies like this.



Unfortunately, this research is almost 10 years old and hasn’t been as revolutionary as first hoped.  However, it shows there is still promise in the original suggestion:  Vets could have a role in preventing problem behaviours from developing or becoming more pronounced by making recommendations based on behaviours seen in a 15 minute consult.  Vets are a major source of information for dog owners, including new puppy owners, and almost all puppies will visit a vet for at least their first vaccination. Because of this, it’s vital that we make the most of these consults and direct puppy buyers to appropriate resources.


Links of Interest

Resources for New Puppy Owners

How to Stop Puppy Biting




Pageat, P 2004, ‘Evaluating the quality of behavor development in puppies: preliminary results of a new scale’, Proceedings of the 10th European Congress on Companion Animal Behavioural Medicine.


The Range of Imitation in Dogs

ResearchBlogging.orgThis is a brief review of the extensive work by German researcher Friederike Range, looking at imitation or modelling behaviour in dogs. Previously, I posted anecdotal evidence on modelling in dogs (which many people shared their experiences on). This post is more sciencey!

Border terrier and young woman running in large paddock with bushes behind them.

Dogs can imitate the behaviour of both dogs and people. Imitation success depends on a range of factors, including:

  • The task at hand, including its complexity, has a role in imitation.
  • If a human is modelling the behaviour, if they are talking, this can either help or hinder the dog’s modelling, depending on the task. Eye contact can also help (or hinder) a dog in a task. It can help, as it may illustrate to the dogs bits that it should pay particular attention to. However, it make hinder as it may distract the dog from the task at hand.
  • Training plays a role. Dogs that are ‘better trained’ are better at making deduction on behaviour from witnessing a model.
  • The dog’s individual personality.

Interestingly, dogs don’t ‘blindly model’ behaviour of other dogs. They will try to be more efficient, they will learn from the other model’s mistakes, and make adjustments based on particular circumstances. For example, if a dog witnesses the model dog carrying a ball and pushing a lever with its foot, the dog will imitate by pushing the lever with its mouth. The dog seems to realise the model dog used its foot because its mouth was occupied. However, if the model dog pushed the lever with its foot without anything in his mouth, the dog will imitate the foot-push. (Almost, the dog imitates superstitious behaviours.)

Fascinatingly, several dogs have been trained to imitate behaviour.  A dog called Joy was trained with the cue ‘Do it!’.  The experimenter would do one of eight behaviours, say ‘do it’, and Joy would then do the behaviour just demonstrated. After several weeks, they then asked Joy to ‘do’ a behaviour that the experimenter had never demonstrated behaviour. Joy did it. Joy understood the concept of ‘do what I do’. You can see more videos of dogs ‘doing it’.

The conclusions are: Yes, of course dogs model the behaviour of people and dogs. Indeed, they can be trained to do so. There is still a lot of research going on about all the facets of imitation, and it’s all truly fascinating. Definitely a space to watch.



Links of Interest

Do dogs imitate? by Patricia McConnell.

Dogs show human-like learning ability.

If you’re aggressive, your dog probably will be to.

Dogs automatically imitate people.



Huber, L, Range, F, Viranyi, Z & Voelkl, B 2008, ‘The evolution of imitation: Old wine in new bottles?’ (PDF).

Range, F., Heucke, S., Gruber, C., Konz, A., Huber, L., & Virányi, Z. (2009). The effect of ostensive cues on dogs’ performance in a manipulative social learning task Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 120 (3-4), 170-178 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2009.05.012

Range, F., & Viranyi, Z. (2009). Different aspects of social learning in dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 4 (6) DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2009.05.007

Range, F., Viranyi, Z., & Huber, L. (2007). Selective Imitation in Domestic Dogs Current Biology, 17 (10), 868-872 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.04.026

Szucsich, A, Range, F, Miklosi, A, Huber, L 2008, ‘Imitative ability of dogs‘.

Tiefenthaler, M, Range, F, & Huber, L 2008, ‘Personality in dogs and its influence on social learning behaviour‘.

Virányi, Z., & Range, F. (2009). How does ostensive communication influence social learning in dogs? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 4 (2) DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2008.10.023

Viranyi, Z, Range, F, & Huber L 2008, ‘The influence of ostensive demonstration on selective imitation in dogs‘.