Strange New Things – Helping Your Dog Learn to Love Them

How would you introduce your dog to this new agility equipment?

When introducing new things into a dog’s environment it’s important to consider how a dog will perceive the new object.  Dogs, like people, learn through association (classical conditioning) and develop a positive, negative or neutral emotional response to new people, places or things. Any new first interaction and experience needs to be a positive one. As we all know, first impressions are lasting impressions.  You may have a much different emotional response to an object or sensory experience than your dog or your friend.

I have a negative emotional response to the smell of diesel fumes – it reminds me of being seasick.  My friend, Brad Waggoner, has a very positive experience when exposed to the same stimulus.  For Brad, it reminds him of great fishing trips with his dad.  Neither reaction is incorrect, it’s just our individual emotional response based on previous experience.

Strive to Install a Positive Feeling

Our dogs form lasting emotional responses to objects and events that from our perspective are completely harmless. However we don’t really know what our dog will think of the new thing that suddenly appeared.  When a dog encounters something new they immediately try to determine if this new thing is safe or dangerous.  Can I eat it or at least chew on it? Is it something that might be fun and I might get rewarded for interacting with it?  Will it hurt me? Should I run away from it? Should I try to scare it away? Or, as a last resort, should I try to fight it?  As your dog’s guardian and advocate, it’s your responsibility to do your best to make those first impressions as positive and stress free as possible.

What’s That New Stuff?

We purchased a new set of agility equipment over the holidays and are in the process of exposing our little bundle of energy, Mercy, to the new stuff that suddenly showed up on her deck. For all we know that new agility tunnel may look like a one-way ticket to a bad place. Those weave poles and jumps don’t look or smell like anything she has ever seen before. It’s important we allow Mercy to inspect and explore  the new equipment at her own pace.  I want her to learn that the new objects pose no threat.  When we’re out together and near the equipment, I’m prepared to toss her a piece of yummy food when she checks out the new equipment (pairing the new equipment with good things – a yummy treat).  Playing tug or chasing a ball near the equipment is also something we do, because Mercy loves play! As she continues to explore, using a reward marker, such as the sound of a click or praise followed by a tasty treat when she interacts with the equipment, will continue to build the positive experience for her.  Once she’s comfortable around the new objects, then I can begin to encourage her to interact with each one.

Take Introductions at Your Dog’s Own Pace

Please don’t ever force a dog to interact with something with which the dog is uncomfortable. Set the dog up for success by taking things slow, pairing new things and objects with tasty treats and before long, your dog will be happy and relaxed with the new, unusual things in her life.

Jim Ross is the owner of Cold Nose College Blue Ridge. He studied at the Karen Pryor Academy of Animal Training and Behavior, is member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, is trained in pet first aid and CPR and carries the Pet-Tech First Aid/Canine CPR caregiver designation. Jim is also a volunteer dog trainer working with the detainees and their shelter dogs within the Rescued Program at the Colwell Probation Detention Center in Blairsville, Ga.  

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