Treating Social Anxiety in Dogs and Decoding Their Jitters

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Dog owners sometimes face unexpected challenges when their canine companions exhibit social anxiety in dogs

This unfortunate condition presents itself when dogs feel scared or uneasy around meeting new people, animals, or environments.

In this information-packed article, we’ll closely examine the reasons and symptoms of social anxiety in dogs and explore some practical techniques for tackling their fears head-on.

What is Social Anxiety in Dogs?

There are many types of Dog Anxiety, from dog travel anxiety to senior dog anxiety, but social anxiety is very specific. It’s a heightened state of increased stress or fears that dogs experience in social circumstances.

socially anxious dog outside

In dogs, this can involve interactions with unfamiliar people, other dogs, animals, or new environments.

Dogs can experience anxiety symptoms due to various factors, including genetics, past experiences, and lack of proper socialization during their critical development as puppies.

Signs of Social Dog Anxiety

Social anxiety is displayed in several ways, depending on the dog’s personality, breed, and individual experiences.

black and white dog on a white background

Here’s a short list of some of the more apparent symptoms to spot in your dog:

Behavioral Signs

  • Fearful body language: Your dog may exhibit signs of fear through their body language, such as cowering, tucking their tail, flattening their ears, or showing the whites of their eyes.
  • Aggression: Dogs can display aggressive behavior, such as growling, snarling, or snapping, to protect themselves or create distance from the perceived threat.
  • Avoidance: Your nervous dog might want to avoid social situations altogether, preferring to hide behind you, their owner, or seek refuge in a safe spot when confronted with a potential stressor.
  • Excessive vocalization: Barking, whining, or howling nonstop! This is one signal that your dog feels scared, anxious, or threatened, which is hard to miss! Your dog might bark or whine excessively to communicate their distress or ward off their source of anxiety.
  • Panting and drooling: Rapid breathing, panting, or excessive drooling can indicate that your furry friend is highly stressed.
  • Pacing or trembling: These behaviors can indicate heightened stress levels. Pacing or trembling might result from your dog’s attempt to cope with or release nervous energy.

Physical signs

  • Dilated pupils: Your dog’s pupils may dilate in response to fear or stress, resulting in a wide-eyed appearance. This physiological reaction helps them take in more visual information to assess better and respond to the situation.
  • Sweating paws: Dogs don’t sweat like humans, but they do have sweat glands in their paw pads. When your dog is experiencing social anxiety, their paws might become damp or leave wet paw prints on the floor.
  • Diarrhea or vomiting: Anxiety can cause gastrointestinal upset in dogs, resulting in diarrhea or vomiting. It could indicate social anxiety if your dog experiences these symptoms consistently during or following social situations.

No two dogs are the same and will display different signs of social anxiety. The severity of symptoms can vary, but knowing what to look for can help significantly tackle this form of fear and anxiety.

For more information on this subject, check out our article, Signs of Anxiety in Dogs – How to Know if Your Dog is Anxious.

Causes of Social Anxiety in Dogs

Understanding the root causes of social anxiety in dogs can help owners provide targeted support and create a more comfortable environment for their furry friends.

Brown puppy on their own - social anxiety in dogs

Some common factors contributing to social anxiety in dogs include:

  • Lack of socialization as a puppy: A crucial period for socialization in a dog’s life occurs between 3 and 14 weeks of age. During this time, exposing puppies to a variety of people, animals, and environments can help them develop confidence and adaptability. If a dog misses out on these early social experiences, they may become more anxious or fearful when encountering unfamiliar situations later in life.
  • Traumatic experience(s): Dogs with negative experiences with other animals or people may develop social anxiety as a defense mechanism. For example, a dog that another dog previously attacked could become fearful or aggressive when coming face to face with other dogs in the future. Similarly, if a person mistreats a dog, that dog might become anxious or distrustful around strangers.
  • Genetic predisposition: Some breeds are just more prone to anxiety disorders than others, suggesting a genetic component to social anxiety. For instance, typical breeds like German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Border Collies are sometimes known to show higher anxiety levels than usual. However, it’s worth noting that individual dogs within a breed can vary significantly in personality and behavior.
  • Inadequate training: Inconsistent or harsh training methods can contribute to a dog’s social anxiety. Dogs not taught proper boundaries or punished excessively might develop fear or mistrust around people and other animals.
  • Separation anxiety: Dogs struggling with separation anxiety may also exhibit social anxiety. Separation anxiety can lead to heightened stress levels in general, making the dog more sensitive to new situations and experiences.
  • Underlying medical issues: In some cases, medical problems, such as chronic pain or hormonal imbalances, can affect a dog’s anxiety levels. If you suspect your dog’s social anxiety may be a symptom of an underlying health problem, talk to your local veterinarian for an evaluation and appropriate treatment.

Once you know the factors contributing to their social anxiety, you can develop a personalized method to approach public places with your furry friend.

 This may involve a combination of training, behavior modification, and environmental adjustments to address your dog’s specific needs.

How to Recognize A Dog with Social Anxiety

Identifying social anxiety in your dog involves observing their behavior and body language in various settings.

dog looking on edge

Paying close attention to your dog’s reactions, you can identify patterns and better understand their emotional state.

Here are some tips on how to recognize social anxiety in your canine companion:

  • The role of body language: Your dog’s body language can provide valuable clues about their emotional state. Signs of anxiety may include cowering, tucked tail, flattened ears, showing the whites of their eyes, or tense body posture. Conversely, a relaxed and confident dog may exhibit a wagging tail, perked ears, and a loose body posture. By familiarizing yourself with your dog’s specific body language, you can identify any changes that may signal anxiety.
  • Paying attention to their behavior in various situations: Observe your dog’s behavior in different social settings to gain insight into their comfort level. Does your furry friend become anxious around strangers, other dogs, or unfamiliar environments? Are there specific triggers, such as loud noises or crowded spaces, that cause them distress? By understanding their reactions in different contexts, you can pinpoint the sources of their anxiety and fears and develop a plan to address these issues.
  • Keeping a log of their behavior patterns: Documenting your dog’s behavior can help identify patterns and trends in their anxiety levels more clearly. Maintain a journal or diary of your dog’s reactions, noting the date, location, and circumstances surrounding each event. This record will help you track your dog’s progress and provide valuable information to share with a trainer or veterinarian should you need to.
  • Seeking input from others: Friends, family, or other dog owners who have interacted with your dog are a valuable source of information. Their observations can provide additional insight into your dog’s behavior and help confirm or expand upon your conclusions.
  • Professional Help: If you’re unsure whether your dog is exhibiting signs of social anxiety or if their behavior is challenging to interpret, consider seeking expert advice from a professional dog trainer or behaviorist.

The Impact of Canine Social Anxiety

Social anxiety affects a dog’s physical and emotional health overall, as well as their relationships with humans and other animals.

social anxiety in dogs - dog feeling uncomfortable around the other dog

The following are some ways in which social anxiety can impact your canine companion:

  • Physical effects: When a dog experiences social anxiety, their body undergoes a stress response that can have several physical consequences. Increased heart rate, rapid breathing, excessive panting, and a weakened immune system are just some of the physiological responses to stress. Chronic stress can also lead to gastrointestinal issues, such as diarrhea or vomiting, and may exacerbate existing health problems.
  • Emotional effects: Social anxiety can take a terrible toll on a dog’s emotional well-being, leading to feelings of fear, insecurity, and helplessness. This intense emotional distress can impact their ability to cope with new situations, making it difficult for them to relax. In some cases, social anxiety can even result in depression or other mood disorders.
  • Quality of life: Dogs with social anxiety may be unable to fully engage in activities that would otherwise make them happy and content. They may be reluctant to participate in training classes, avoid dog parks, be nervous around large groups of dogs, and even go for walks in busy areas, which may make your dog extremely anxious. This limited exposure to enriching experiences can hinder their mental stimulation and overall quality of life.
  • Relationships with people: A dog’s social anxiety can affect their bond with their owner and others. Fearful dogs may struggle to form trusting relationships with people, which can make training and daily interactions more challenging. This mistrust can cause some socially anxious dogs to exhibit aggressive behavior towards strangers or visitors, creating tension within the household and potentially putting others at risk.
  • Relationships with other animals: Social anxiety can also impact a dog’s interactions with other animals, both within and outside the home. An anxious dog may also become fearful or, worst, aggressive around other dogs, making it difficult for them to mingle peacefully with them. This can lead to isolation and further worsen their anxiety around these situations.

Treating Social Anxiety in Dogs

Addressing social anxiety in dogs requires a multifaceted approach that often involves behavioral training, medication, and alternative therapies.

two dogs undergoing training with trainers

Behavioral training

  • Desensitization and counter-conditioning: These techniques gradually expose your dog to the source of their anxiety while simultaneously building positive associations. Desensitization involves slowly increasing the dog’s exposure to anxiety-inducing situations, starting at a low intensity and working up to more challenging scenarios. Counter-conditioning pairs the anxiety-provoking stimulus with a positive experience, such as treats or praise, to change the dog’s emotional response.
  • Positive reinforcement training: This method focuses on rewarding desired behaviors and ignores or redirects undesirable ones. Consistently reinforcing your dog for calm behavior, and confident behavior, can help develop new, positive associations with anxiety-inducing situations.

Medication

  • Anti-anxiety medications: If a dog’s anxiety is particularly intense, a veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, which should help ease the condition. Frequently prescribed medications such as fluoxetine or clomipramine regulate mood and can reduce anxiety levels.
  • CBD oil: A popular treatment is Cannabidiol or CBD oil. It’s a non-psychoactive compound made from the hemp plant and has fantastic benefits for dogs with anxiety. It works by interacting with the endocannabinoid system, which plays a pivotal role in regulating mood and stress. However, using good-quality CBD oil is essential, and we recommend the following…
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Alternative Therapies

  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate the nervous system and promote a sense of calm. This ancient Chinese therapy has been used to treat various dog conditions, including anxiety. 
  • Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy uses essential oils derived from plants to promote relaxation and well-being. Some essential oils, such as lavender and chamomile, have been found to have calming effects on dogs. However, using essential oils safely and consulting with a certified aromatherapist is crucial to ensure proper usage and avoid potential risks.

When you come up with a treatment for social anxiety in dogs, it often involves a combination of approaches tailored to the individual needs of your canine companion.

We’ve given just a sample of solutions. Still, we have an even more extensive, more comprehensive list of ideas in our article that investigates dog anxiety solutions.

We highly recommend that you take a look at it.

Preventing Social Anxiety in Dogs

Dog social anxiety can be avoided by taking proactive steps to help your canine partner gain self-assurance, resilience, and adaptability.

two dogs, one unsure of the other.

By focusing on early socialization, exposure to various environments and experiences, and creating a safe and comfortable home environment, dog owners can set the foundation for their pets to thrive in different social situations.

  • Early socialization: Proper socialization during a puppy’s critical period (between 3 to 12 weeks of age) is essential for every dog when building a foundation of confidence and adaptability. Expose your puppy to a wide variety of people, animals, sounds, and environments during this time. Puppy socialization classes, visits to dog-friendly establishments, and playdates with well-behaved dogs can provide valuable opportunities for your puppy to develop positive associations as an adult dog with new experiences such as new family members and new pets.
  • Exposing dogs to different environments and experiences: Introduce various situations and locations to your dog as they age. Be mindful of your dog’s comfort level and provide positive reinforcement, such as treats and praise, to encourage them to explore and interact with their surroundings. Taking your dog walking in different local areas, trips to the dog park, and visits to pet-friendly stores can help give your dog a sense of ease in various settings.
  • Consistent training and boundaries: Establishing consistent training and limits from a young age promotes a sense of security for your dog. Use positive reinforcement techniques to teach basic obedience commands, such as “sit,” “stay,” and “come,” which can help your dog overcome social situations with more confidence. Setting clear expectations and reinforcing good behavior can also help prevent anxiety caused by uncertainty or inconsistency.
  • Ensuring a safe and comfortable home environment: A stable and secure home environment is crucial for your dog’s emotional well-being. Provide your dog with a designated safe space, such as a crate or a quiet room, where they can retreat if they feel overwhelmed or get anxious. Keep a consistent daily routine, including feeding, walking, and playtimes, to reassure your furry friend and make them feel secure and in control of their environment.
  • Monitoring your dog’s levels of Anxiety: Pay close attention to your dog’s body language and behavior and intervene if you notice signs of stress in your dog, or notice puppy anxiety in your bundle of fluff. If you nip these issues in the bud early on, you can prevent them from escalating and impacting your dog’s overall well-being.

Dog owners can prevent social anxiety from developing in their furry friends by focusing on early socialization, consistent training, and fostering a secure home environment.

Final Thoughts on How to Help your Dog with Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is a very complex issue when it comes to dealing with dogs, and it can drastically impact their emotional, physical, and social well-being.

Dog owners may easily manage or even avoid social anxiety in their furry friends by being knowledgeable about the signs, causes, and implications of the illness.

Points to keep in mind include the importance of early socialization, recognizing signs of anxiety, exploring various treatment options, and fostering a secure home environment.

As you journey through life alongside your furry best friend, remember that reducing social anxiety often requires patience, understanding, and commitment.

Being proactive and attentive to your dog’s needs, you can make a world of difference in their ability to navigate social situations confidently and easily.

dogs playing happily

We’d like to encourage you to take the knowledge gained from this article and apply it.

Keep learning, stay compassionate, and be the supportive partner your dog needs to overcome social anxiety and embrace the world around them.

References

Tiira, K., Lohi, H., & The Anxiety-Related Behavioural Assessment Study Group. (2015). Early life experiences and exercise associate with canine anxieties. PLoS ONE, 10(11), e0141907. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0141907

Blackwell, E. J., Bradshaw, J. W. S., & Casey, R. A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145(1-2), 15-25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004

Disclaimer

All information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to replace your veterinarian’s advice.

Disclaimer

All information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to replace your veterinarian's advice.
Jen Smart

Transforming anxious pups with her wealth of hands-on practical experience, and qualified in the following disciplines: Holistic Healing, Canine Anxiety & Therapy, Zoopharmacognosy, and CBD Oil for Animals

Founder of Anxious Canine and proud member of the Complementary Medical Association.

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