Social Anxiety in Dogs

Photo of Dog Hiding Under Blankets
Photo © Crystal Cartier Photography/Getty Images

Does your dog experience anxiety or fear in social situations, such as going to the park, walking through crowds, going to the veterinarian, or even visiting your friends' homes? Socialization is such an important thing to do with your dog. Many people don't realize the impact it has on their pets, and how it can affect the rest of their lives. Failure to socialize can result in a dog with crippling social anxiety, fear and sometimes even aggression.

The Cause of Social Anxiety in Dogs

Social anxiety is often seen in dogs rescued from puppy mills. It may also occur in stray dogs (those found on the street living on their own) or dogs rescued from abuse/neglect situations. Most of these dogs have had little or no human contact at all. Some have only had negative experiences with humans. When you take this type of animal and put him in a social setting, he may feel trapped and cornered. This often results in fear aggression. A dog who is cornered has no "flight or fight" option. "Fight" is all that is left.

Preventing Social Anxiety in Dogs

By beginning the puppy socialization process early, you are training your dog to handle himself in busy situations. A well-socialized dog is not fearful of crowds and plays well with other dogs. Start by taking your puppy out to different places. It is best to do this after he has been fully immunized against Parvo and Distemper.

By exposing him early to different sights, sounds, and people, you teach him young to accept these as normal, and you will have a happy, friendly dog who handles others well.

How To Help Dogs With Social Anxiety

If your dog is already an anxious dog, you need to take steps now to get him to overcome his fear.

Start small. Begin by letting your dog meet one person at a time. Let your dog initiate contact. Be sure that your dog has a safe retreat he can go to if he feels overwhelmed. Reward him in the calm moments. Just remember to always start small and reward for good behavior. Be sure not to comfort him when he is fearful, as this can reinforce the fearful behavior rather than help him overcome it.

Desensitizing a fearful dog is hard work and a long, drawn out process, but well worth it. You will need to judge your own dog on how much he can handle at once. Some are fine indoors, or in their own territory, but panic at leaving home. 

Through steady exposure, you should notice that your dog is relaxing more, as things become more familiar. Make every outing fun. If you take him down a busy street and he is scared, end the outing at a place he enjoys (like a quiet park to play, or a walk down a quiet street). This way, he is less likely to fear outings, just the situation. Your dog may never learn to love being out in busy areas. However, he can learn to tolerate them if he can associate outings with the "good part" at the end.

Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT