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Dogs can experience social anxiety just like people can. This is more than just being shy. This is extreme stress in social situations. The dog does not have the skills to distinguish between friend or foe. He also lacks the social skills to interact properly with others. A dog may fear social interaction with other dogs, with people other than his own family, or both. It is usually seen in dogs who have received inadequate socialization during the critical stages of development. Dogs who are separated from their mother and littermates too early may have trouble relating to other dogs. Dogs also need to meet many different types of people when they are young to avoid social anxiety as adults.

Dogs with social anxiety sometimes react with aggression. This dog's philosophy is that the best defense is a good offense. He may become leash reactive, meaning that whenever a scary dog or person passes him when he is on-leash, he will lunge at the end of the leash gnashing his teeth. He may even bite your guests, often when they have their back turned to him. This is a form of fear aggression.

Other dogs withdraw. They may hide behind you or try to get in your lap when you have guests. They will cower or run if someone tries to pet them. They will also hide or run from other dogs. This is not a pleasant state for the dog to be in. They believe that everyone they encounter is a threat, and they live their lives in either fear or solitude.

Avoiding Social Anxiety

A dog needs to be with his mother and littermates until at least 8 weeks of age in order to learn canine social skills. They learn from other dogs in the first weeks of life how to interact appropriately with other dogs. They learn how to interpret the cues given by other dogs so that they don't commit a social faux pas. Knowing when a dog is saying 'back off' will help them avoid unwanted fights later. It will also save them from being needlessly afraid of friendly dogs they encounter.

Dogs also need to be thoroughly socialized with people, ideally before 16 weeks of age. There is a window between 8 and 16 weeks where the dog is curious about his environment and open to new experiences. After about 16 weeks, the window closes and the dog begins to fear the unknown. The more people, animals, places, and things he is exposed to before 16 weeks, the less unknown there will be. Note that while it is critical for a puppy to experience as much of the world as possible, it is also important to keep him safe. This is also the age in which he is most vulnerable to disease. Puppy Kindergarten classes are an excellent opportunity to socialize your puppy while keeping him safe because it is a controlled environment where all puppies in attendence are required to be up to date with vaccinations.

Help for the Socially Awkward Pet

If your dog already has social anxiety, you can greatly improve his quality of life by helping him to overcome it. Move slowly to build his confidence and his social skills. If your dog is a fear biter, a qualified professional behaviorist can help you help him while keeping everyone safe. Otherwise, enlist the help of a friend to get you started. Have your friend come over and arm her with plenty of yummy treats. The higher the anxiety in the dog, the better the treat will have to be. For extremely nervous dogs, try canned cat food or liver. Have your friend sit on the floor and hold out a treat while avoiding eye contact with your dog. The idea is to get the dog to go to her rather than vice versa. She may have to casually toss treats a bit away from her initially. He may snatch the treat and run at first. That's ok. Depending on the severity of the phobia, it may take several sessions before your friend is even able to touch your dog. It's still better to move slowly. If you try to move too fast and spook him, you will have to start all over again. Once your dog is completely comfortable with your friend and no longer tries to hide from her nor has to be coaxed with treats to interact with her, you can add another person, repeating the entire process with this new person. It should go faster this time.

The next step is to go out into the world. Take your dog somewhere with lots of people, but remain at a far enough distance from them that he does not panic. For example, you could walk him around at the corner of a shopping center parking lot where he can see all the people but they can't get close enough to try and touch him. Gradually decrease the distance as he is able to tolerate it. Another good way to get him used to being near people without him worrying about them touching him is to take him with you when you go to drive-thrus. He can see the cashier out the window, but they can't reach him! When he is able to tolerate it, take him with you to pet stores. Be prepared to tell people who ask that they cannot pet him because he is in training. He will let you know when he is ready to accept petting from strangers.

Of course, how quickly this goes all depends on the severity of your dog's social phobia. For minor cases, you may be able to skip many of these steps. You know your dog best! Just note his comfort level and stay under the level that sends him into panic mode. The more experience he gains, the more confident he will become.

Additional Resources

Dog Developmental Stages

Social Anxiety

Anxiety in Dogs Main Page
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