If your dog is the picture of calm at home, but become a total wreck when you have friends over or try to take them some place in public, they might have social anxiety. Dogs experience social anxiety for many of the same reasons people do. They may be shy or fearful of new situations, when meeting new people, or when encountering other dogs. It's normal for a dog to be nervous with unfamiliar people or animals, but if they become increasingly anxious and fearful as time goes on, they may have social anxiety disorder.
What is Social Anxiety in Dogs?
Social anxiety in dogs is different from generalized anxiety or separation anxiety. It is triggered when your dog encounters new people or other pets, either at home or out in public. Social anxiety can be caused by a traumatic event in a dog's past, genetics, or medical conditions. It can also be that the dog has been abused or neglected as a puppy, which causes them to become fearful of people and other animals.
Often, social anxiety will only affect one particular thing like being afraid of strangers or going out on walks because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, dogs who are totally fine meeting other dogs in public will become territorial and anxious when new dogs visit their home. Other dogs might welcome strangers at home - where they feel safe - but freak out in public. It's important to identify the exact triggers for your dog's social anxiety so you can help address the issue.
Signs of Social Anxiety
Social anxiety in dogs is a common problem and can be difficult to identify. The signs of social anxiety in dogs may include:
- Hiding or avoiding contact with people
- Shying away from eye contact or physical touch
- Tucking their tail between their legs
- Lip licking, yawning, or other signs of stress on the face and body
- Cowering, trembling, or shaking when approached by people
- Panting and rapid breathing
- Aggression towards familiar people when they are around other animals or people; this is especially common with dogs who have been abused
Dogs who suffer from social anxiety can show nervousness, fearful responses, or even aggression. No two dogs are the same, so pay attention for all types of behavior. Also, never punish your dog for these behaviors. This will only confuse them and make them more fearful.
Treating social anxiety in dogs can be complicated, and current recommendations include behavioral therapy, management with medication, and even the use of pheromones to help calm dogs down.
Causes of Social Anxiety
Social anxiety in dogs can be caused by a number of different things, including:
- Poor socialization: If your dog has not been properly socialized at an early age, they may be more prone to developing social anxiety later on in life.
- Fearful experiences: If your dog has had a bad experience with another animal or person before, they may become fearful of their presence later on in life. This fear can lead to aggression towards these animals or people and cause them to exhibit signs of social anxiety.
- Genetics: Some dogs have inherited genes that make them more likely to develop this behavior than others do not have those same genes present within their DNA structure. In this case, a genetic predisposition could be the cause of their social anxiety symptoms.
Consult a Veterinarian
The first step you need to take involves determining if your dog is experiencing anxiety or something else. It's possible that your dog has an underlying medical condition that's causing the unusual behavior. If you suspect this is the case, take your pet to the veterinarian for an examination.
When dogs are in pain or suffering from a physical illness, they often exhibit signs of depression and anxiety. Dogs that are depressed may sleep more than usual, stop eating, lose interest in things they once enjoyed doing and act withdrawn or even aggressive toward other pets or people who come near them.
Behavior Modification Can Overcome Social Anxiety
If your dog isn't suffering from an underlying medical condition, then there are some steps you can take to help them overcome their social anxiety:
1. Build Your Bond
Spend time with your pet every day so you can get to know them better and learn how they act when they feel secure. This will also allow you to recognize any abnormal behavior so that you can address it right away before it becomes a problem.
2. Work on Socialization
Start with short socialization sessions and build up gradually. Make sure your dog is tired out before you start. A tired dog is less likely to feel anxious or stressed. Assuming your dog wasn't well socialized early as a puppy, you'll need to make this process consistent, and frequent.
Try to avoid situations where there are too many unfamiliar people in one place at once. Start slow and work your way toward different people, pets, sights, and scents. You don't need to work on introducing your dog to new people here. Just expose them to new sights and sounds. Do this every day, twice a day. The idea is to get your dog used to being around others in low-stakes, safe encounters where they don't feel threatened.
3. Desensitize Your Dog
Socialization is general. Desensitization is specific. Gradually expose your dog to whatever causes them stress, while at the same time providing them with treats or other rewards whenever they exhibit calm behavior in response to what would normally be stressful stimuli. Gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus until it is no longer stressful for your dog. This process can take several weeks or months.
For example, if your dog is scared of people, have a friend come up to your driveway one day, and let your dog see them. The next day, have your friend come up the drive. If your dog reacts negatively, stop and go back a step. If they react positively, give them praise and treats. Slowly, have your friend approach more closely, come up to the door, and eventually, inside your home. Every time your dog reacts negatively, go back a step. This takes time, but it can absolutely reverse social anxiety in dogs.
4. Counter Condition Social Anxiety Away
Next, once your dog is showing a low response to the things causing them social anxiety, it's time to use counter conditioning. The goal is to replace their fear and anxiety with positive emotions like happiness and excitement.
Start by introducing your dog to their trigger stimulus. Instead of remaining calm yourself, reward your dog and treat them, while showering them with praise. Flood them with positive signals. So, if your dog normally acts fearful of a stranger walking by, but you've desensitized them and they just remain calm, now have a strange person walk by and flood your dog with praise. This process takes time, but your dog will eventually learn to associate their trigger with positive experiences.
Control your emotions. Remain calm when trying to help your dog with its anxiety. If you are nervous or anxious yourself, your dog will pick up on this and become even more anxious than they already are.
Social anxiety in dogs can be a tough condition to manage, but it is not impossible. With the right training and patience, you can help your dog feel comfortable in public settings and around other dogs. The most important thing is to remember that social anxiety won't go away overnight. It takes time and patience!