How to Help Your Dog with Social Anxiety and Fear of Strangers
Pet anxiety is a topic of special concern to me. So much so that I launched Pet Anxiety Awareness Week (PAAW) back in 2017 and continue to commemorate it today as Pet Anxiety Awareness Month in honor of my beloved dog, Buck, who suffered from fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS).
In particular, social anxiety can take a toll on both dogs and dog parents. Going on a long walk with your pup or getting outside for some fun in the sun can be challenging if he has fear and anxiety around strangers. Activities others might take for granted can be tricky to navigate depending on how your dog expresses himself when he’s feeling stressed.
Does he bark, lunge, or cower behind you when you come across others? These and a variety of other reactions can be signs of social anxiety.
In order to help your pup feel better and have an easier time around others, and in order for you to enjoy walks and outings with less anxiety too, here are some ways to identify what’s going on and then take the necessary steps toward a calmer, more peaceful time in and out of the house.
How to Know if Your Dog Has Anxiety
Anxiety can show up differently from one dog to the next. One French bulldog, Max, gets anxious when he’s introduced to new people or when he’s not leading the pack when out on a walk. Max will howl and cry in these situations, and if you’ve ever heard an upset Frenchie, you know how high-pitched that sound can be!
For Max, there are two primary sources of anxiety: meeting new people and leadership. The reasons for your own dog’s anxiety could be similar or wildly different. Perhaps they stem from particular events, like loud noises, travel, or visits to the vet. But they might be more social in nature. If you notice that your dog routinely shows signs of anxiety when being introduced to new animals or people, this is the likely source of your troubles.
It’s a good idea to track your dog’s socially anxious behavior, which might include cowering, hiding, shaking, panting, drooling, pacing, peeing or pooping in the house, barking or growling, and exhibiting destructive behavior or even aggression.
Causes of Social Anxiety for Dogs
Why is your dog feeling so anxious? The reasons can vary as widely as the potential symptoms. As a first step, it’s always best to consult with your veterinarian so they can evaluate your dog and rule out medical conditions that could be causing these behaviors. When and if anxiety is established as the reason for the behavior, your vet can help you work through causes and solutions.
Often, social anxiety in dogs stems from a lack of socialization. Puppies and dogs need to be trained that human and animal interaction is normal, and if this doesn’t start from a young age, it can be difficult for them to unlearn other established behavior.
Additionally, social anxiety can stem from traumatic experiences. Sadly, for example, many rescue dogs have been abused, causing them to experience fear and distrust in others no matter their age.
As dogs get older, they might develop Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS), which can also lead to social anxiety. CDS is similar to dementia or Alzheimer’s in people. If you’ve ever experienced moments of confusion, forgetfulness, or disorientation, you know how stressful this can be. And we can only imagine that our four-legged friends must experience similar fear, anxiety, and stress when it happens to them. A colleague’s dog suffered with CDS during her senior years, and at times, she wasn’t able to recognize her family and would display fearful behavior out of the blue.
Additionally, as pet parents, we can cause stress for our dogs (even if we don’t mean to!). Our dogs are very intuitive and often react to how we’re feeling. If we show signs of anxiety in social situations, our dogs might pick up on that.
Dog Anxiety Prevention and Treatment
It’s important to note that it’s occasionally possible for dog anxiety to be cured, but often times, it can only be managed. Either way, when you take steps toward reducing your dog’s anxiety, you’re creating a better and less anxious life for him overall, making it a worthwhile effort no matter the precise outcome.
As already mentioned, you can help your pup live a calmer life by first talking to your veterinarian. They can help you come up with a treatment plan, which could include medications, training, and/or the use of calming, natural solutions. Here are some helpful options that I’ve leaned on time and time again for my own anxious dogs through the years:
Socialization: Ideally, you should start socializing your puppy right away (between 3 and 14 weeks) in order to avoid social anxiety and fear of strangers. This process sets your dog up to be able to enjoy interactions with others as they grow and develop.
The Anxious Pet drops: If your dog has general anxiety, these drops may help. If their anxiety is more situational, try giving them a dose before heading out into a stressful social situation.
Exposure therapy: Take small, deliberate steps to expose your dog to new people, places, and situations. For example, sitting together on your front stoop can help him get used to seeing new people from a comfortable, safe environment.
You could also ask a dog-friendly friend or neighbor to visit your house so you can introduce your dog to new people slowly and calmly. Monitor him carefully and if you notice signs of anxiety, remove him from the situation.
Regular exercise: A tired dog is less likely to become overstimulated, so before exposing your dog to crowded areas or new people and situations, give him a great round of exercise. By the end of your session, your dog should feel calm, but not exhausted, still ready for what’s to come, but in a calmer frame of mind.
Reward your dog for calm behavior: Strike a healthy balance between rewarding your dog for calm behavior (treats are great for this!) and comforting him when he becomes anxious, as this can reinforce the behavior.
Pheromone collars: I’m a fan of pheromone collars, which can be helpful as they emit comforting pheromones that can help your dog feel at ease. My favorite is the Adaptil On-The-Go Calming Collar.
Supplements: All dogs should be taking a supplement appropriate for their life stage and brain health. I’ve been using ALL-IN for my dog Chilly for years now, and it helps with anxiety as well as cognition as he ages (plus a ton of other health-related benefits!).
Look inward: Don’t forget to think about yourself in all this, too. As a pet parent, you need to make sure you feel good about going out with your dog into new social situations. If it helps, bring a family member or friend with you so you feel more at ease. If you feel calm, your dog is more likely to feel calm.
When is Professional Help Necessary?
Your veterinarian might choose to refer you to a Certified Veterinary Behaviorist who can help you narrow down your dog’s triggers, come up with ways to further help him feel less anxious, and create a plan for how to start working toward a calmer frame of mind. Some dogs may need medication to maintain quality of life and your veterinarian will be able to make that call.
Calmer Days Are Ahead
There’s no doubt all of us pet parents have experienced our own anxieties in life, ranging from any number of issues and situations. We know the value in finding ways to soothe ourselves, heal, and work toward calmer futures. Of course, we want that same thing for our beloved furry friends, and using the tips, tricks, and products above will help you get started.
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