Despite their individual differences, dogs as a species still have overarching ‘dog like’ attributes. If you live with a dog, you might have reflected on a particular doggie characteristic this holiday season without even realizing it.

Dogs like new things. The scientific term for a preference for novelty is called neophilia, and neophilia could explain why you got your canine companion a new holiday toy. But how long until it’s time for the next new toy? The answer could depend on you.

While neophilia in dogs has been anecdotally assumed, researchers investigated it only recently. In 2008, researchers from the University of Giessen in Germany and the University of Lincoln in the UK (Twitter) published a study in Animal Cognition investigating whether dogs prefer a novel object over ones they’ve already played with. In what could be called the Usual Suspects Toy Lineup Study, 17 dogs were familiarized with two different objects. The experimenter played with the dogs and the objects to ensure interest. Dogs were then presented with a lineup of three toys -- two they had already seen plus a novel toy. Each dog saw three different lineups and was exposed to three different unfamiliar objects over the course of the study.

“NEW!” screamed the dogs. Dogs overwhelmingly chose to sniff or pick up the new object, and the researchers reported that “the unfamiliar object was chosen first in 38 out of 50 tests”. Chaser the dog knows all about the difference between new and old toys.

If you are a dog owner, you might not always be so keen on neophilia. While dogs are interested in new objects, the interest is not always long-lasting. That makes sense; new things can't be new forever. Researchers at the University of Bristol Anthrozoology Institute and WALTHAM Center for Pet Nutrition explain that dogs “show intense but transient neophilia towards novel objects" (emphasis added). 'Transient’ is the real kicker for dog owners, particularly if you've shelled out big bucks for a new toy, only to find it alone in the corner 10 minutes later, replaced by the wrapping paper that it came in.

How do you keep a new toy new?

The research suggests that many dogs, if they had their way, would get new objects constantly (I’m sure the pet product industry is thrilled). The good news is that buying new toys is not the only way to keep toys “new.” Instead of leaving toys out all the time so that they lose their appeal, toys can be put out of sight. Old toys can be rotated back into sight as somewhat ‘new’. Like old Seinfeld re-runs. You might even consider adding a new scent to the toys, rolling them in leaves or grass, or finding another way to change their olfactory composition. While I don’t know of any studies that have investigated toy rotation, some dog owners find it incredibly useful. It can help prevent dogs habituating to a toy, meaning that the dog stops responding to the object or stimulus after repeated presentation. Dogs habituate all the time, to the sound of an airplane going by or a baby crying; this is a good thing, but I’m sure people would rather dogs don’t habituate to toys.

YOU make the toy

Playing with a dog and an old toy can also change the toy’s meaning and the dog’s interest, as demonstrated in this video by applied ethologist Patricia McConnell. Toys can gain an entirely new meaning when both person and dog engage with them. It also gives Santa and his elves a break.

How do you keep your dog interested in toys?

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Picture: Bailey's adventure via Nosey Nest flickr creative commons license.

References

Kaulfuß P. (2008). Neophilia in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) and its implication for studies of dog cognition, Animal Cognition, 11 (3) 553-556. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10071-007-0128-x

Pullen A.J. & John W. S. Bradshaw (2012). Habituation and dishabituation during object play in kennel-housed dogs, Animal Cognition, 15 (6) 1143-1150. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10071-012-0538-2