Dogs with social anxiety disorder? While this may sound unusual, dogs can have fear and anxiety just like humans, and this can be expressed in relation to new situations, new people, and being around other dogs.
According to a 2016 study of 3284 dog owners of 192 different breeds, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, about 39% of dogs are sensitive to noise, 26% have general fears about unfamiliar people, other dogs, and new situations, and 17% have separation anxiety. These three issues can also be linked to behavioral problems in dogs such as aggressiveness. A dog who is afraid is more likely to become aggressive than a dog who has no fear.
Causes of Social Anxiety in Dogs
Because of the overlap between different kids of anxiety and fear in dogs, it’s likely that some part of your dog’s temperament is determined by genetic factors.
Over my lifetime I’ve had four canine companions—all of them miniature schnauzers. And, while the breed was the same, the dogs were as different as night and day.
The first and third dogs, Mindy and Max, were both fearless. The second and fourth, Mandy and Flash differed greatly from those two. Mandy was cautious in new situations.
Flash, our current dog, is the most anxious of all the dogs I’ve owned. He is afraid of walking on solid surface floors. He is afraid of walking around our house. He sits on his bed and looks out the window. He barks at people who come to the door or that he sees outside. When we have large gatherings, he can’t be here, because I don’t trust him. His fear causes him to be unpredictable.
Just like people can be highly sensitive, so too can dogs. Dogs with social anxiety may be the victims of physiological and behavioral overarousal, meaning that they have deeper processing of sensory information. A 2017 study published in PLoS One developed a 32-item questionnaire to measure this sensitivity in dogs.
What they found was that demographic characteristics of the dogs, things like whether the dog was male or female, how old the dog was, age at adoption, and also characteristics of the owners, such as their age, job, communication style, had only a small influence on the sensitivity of the dogs. Similar to humans, it seems that there may be a genetic basis for being highly sensitive.
However, beyond genetics, early experiences in a dog’s life likely influence later behavior.
In a 2015 questionnaire study of 3264 dog owners in Finland, published in PLoS ONE, early life experiences were found to relate to anxiety.
What they found was that fearful dogs had had less socialization experiences and lower quality of care by their mother as a puppy.
Signs of Dog Anxiety
If you think your dog becomes anxious in new situations with unfamiliar people or other dogs, look for the following signs:
- licking his/her lips
- scanning the environment
I know in the case of Flash, when I take him in the car and he isn’t sure what is about to happen, he pants, shakes, and whines.
What to Do If Your Dog Has Social Anxiety
- First, don’t respond with punishment, either verbal or physical. This is likely to just make the situation worse.
- Get your dog out for some daily exercise. In that Finnish study, they found that anxiety in the dogs was also linked to the amount of daily exercise. Dogs getting less exercise were more sensitive to noise and had more separation anxiety.
- Avoid anxiety-provoking situations if possible. For example, in the case of Flash, I put him in a kennel for the night when I know we will be having a large number of people to our house, such as at a holiday party. It’s better for Flash, and it’s better for our guests.
- Talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of anti-anxiety medication. This can sometimes be prescribed for dogs.
- Try to alter the association between the triggering event and the dog’s response. For example, I watched a video of the dog whisperer Cesar Milan helping a dog who was afraid of squeak toys. He gradually helped the dog to calm down by using lavender essential oil and a massage. He then paired the lavender scent with the squeak toy, so that the dog, who had learned to associate the smell with being relaxed, would now react that way to the toy as well. This is a simplified example, but you get the idea. Find a way to break the bad association (e.g., new situation = anxiety) and replacing it with a new better association (i.e., new situation = fun OR treats OR relaxation).
Finally, don’t confine your dog to a crate unless that is something he or she is used to. This can just make the anxiety and panic worse.
Braem M, Asher L, Furrer S, Lechner I, Würbel H, Melotti L. Development of the “Highly Sensitive Dog” questionnaire to evaluate the personality dimension “Sensory Processing Sensitivity” in dogs. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(5):e0177616.
College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Context is Critical When Treating Anxiety in Dogs.
Tiira K, Lohi H. Early Life Experiences and Exercise Associate with Canine Anxieties. PLoS One. 2015;10(11).