When my dog Mr. Bingley was about 6 months old we walked past a neighbor’s house where a cement pig resides in the front yard. We’d passed this house many times, but for some reason, on this particular day, Bingley noticed the pig and froze, staring at it and puffing up like a bottle brush. He didn’t know what to make of this strange and apparently dangerous object! To help Bingley overcome his seemingly irrational fear of concrete porkers, I kept his leash loose and gave him a treat as he looked at the pig. I stepped toward the pig and waited, offering him another tasty morsel if he took a step closer. He did. I repeated this procedure until he was able to sniff the offending swine and easily take a treat from the top of its head. This whole procedure took less than 10 minutes and from that day on Bingley has ignored the cement beast. Because he was able to approach and explore the object at his pace and he got rewarded for doing so, Bingley learned that there was nothing to fear.
In working with dogs, cats, and horses, I have noticed that they are most comfortable with new things when given the opportunity to explore novel items at their own pace. Temple Grandin describes this phenomenon nicely in her book Animals Make Us Human, “[N]ovelty can be attractive or scary depending on how it is presented. The single most important factor determining whether a new thing is more interesting than scary is whether the animal has control over whether to approach the object. Animals are terrified by forced novelty. They don’t want new things shoved into their faces, and people don’t either.” Bingley and his encounter with the cement pig, is a classic example of this.
If you need to introduce your cat, goat, dog, guinea pig, horse, or bird to something novel, especially something that is going to be in the animal’s life for awhile, remember that forced novelty is frightening. Give your pet the time and space it needs to explore the item, reward it for its efforts to engage the object and you will likely have a happy and non-traumatic encounter.
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