Proper socialization is essential for all dogs. Failure to socialize can result in a dog with crippling social anxiety, fear and sometimes even aggression. Many people don't realize how a lack of socialization can impact their pets' behavior, though there are steps you can take to help your pup feel more at ease.
What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety in dogs is a fear of people, other animals, or unknown places, sights, sounds, and other stimuli in the environment. A dog may be perfectly fine around its human family members then become anxious around strangers, for example. Likewise, some are fine indoors or in their own territory, but panic when leaving home.
Depending on the dog, the level of anxiety in a social setting can be mild or extreme. It can cause a dog to act out or behave in ways that are not normally observed when it's in a familiar environment. While some dogs may become very timid, others may feel trapped and cornered, which often results in fear aggression. When a cornered dog experiences the biological fight-or-flight response, the only available action is to fight.
Signs of Social Anxiety in Dogs
- Aggressive behavior, such as barking, growling, or jumping toward a person or animal.
- Timid and fearful behavior, including cowering behind the owner, whining, or even screeching.
- Some dogs show signs of extreme nervousness like panting or drooling. They may even suddenly urinate or defecate without seeming to know it.
Causes of Social Anxiety
- Puppies who are not introduced to new experiences can be overwhelmed when they meet new people or dogs. They may also become nervous on a car ride or at the park because it's simply too much to take in all at once. Proper socialization at a young age can help them learn to adapt to new situations throughout their lives.
- Adult dogs can also experience social anxiety. It is most common in dogs rescued from puppy mills or abusive and neglectful situations. They may have had little or no human contact or only negative experiences with humans.
- Stray dogs may be anxious because they have a general distrust of people and busy places. This may be something they learned that was necessary for survival on the street.
- Dogs who grow up in rural areas or who are sheltered in their own homes and rarely leave may become very fearful when taken out of their home territory.
If your dog is the anxious type, you need to take careful steps to help it overcome the fear. It's best to start small and desensitizing a fearful dog is hard work. This can be a long, drawn-out process that can take weeks to months, but it's well worth it. You will need to carefully judge how much your dog can handle at one time. Be patient and keep it positive.
Begin by letting your dog meet one person at a time. Allow your dog to initiate contact and ensure it has a safe retreat where it can go if it begins to feel overwhelmed. Remember to go slowly, rewarding good behavior and moments when your dog is calm. Be sure not to comfort the dog when it's fearful, as this can reinforce the fearful behavior rather than help the dog overcome it.
Through steady exposure to new experiences, you should notice that your dog is relaxing more as things become more familiar. Make every outing fun. If you take the dog down a busy street and it acts afraid, finish the outing at a place your pup enjoys—a quiet park to play or a walk down a quiet street, for example. This way, your dog is less likely to fear outings in general. While your dog may never learn to love being in busy areas, it can learn to tolerate them if it can associate outings with the "good part" at the end.
If your dog is anxious around other dogs, be sure to keep it away from dogs when you do not have control over the situation. Avoid dog parks and cross the street during walks if another dog is coming toward you.
When you decide to introduce your dog to another dog, do so very slowly and carefully. Choose a calm, aloof dog that will not seem threatening to your dog, stay at a comfortable distance, and limit it to just a short time. Reward your dog for calm behavior. If your dog remains calm, you may gradually decrease the distance between the dogs and increase the time of exposure. At the first subtle sign of fear or anxiety, increase the distance between the two dogs or remove your dog entirely if necessary.
The goal here is to avoid letting the anxiety build up to a high level. Your dog may never learn to enjoy the company of other dogs. However, it can learn to tolerate the presence of another dog at a distance.
How to Prevent Social Anxiety
Socialization is most successful when started early. Begin the puppy socialization process as soon as possible. This essentially trains your dog to handle itself 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 it has been fully immunized against Parvo and Distemper. By exposing the dog while still young to different sights, sounds, and people, you teach it to accept these as normal. You will have a happy, friendly dog who handles others well.
If you adopt an adult dog, you cannot be sure what it has been exposed to. Don't worry, you can still socialize an adult dog. In fact, you should start this process as soon as you bring your new dog home.