I'm the first to admit that my social skills aren't great. I do okay with people I know, but it takes me a long time to feel comfortable with new people. I hate parties, to the point that most invitations from my friends are prefaced with "I know you won't come, but I wanted to invite you anyway."
I suppose if you wanted to be all psychology-student about it, you'd say I had a moderate case of Social Anxiety Disorder. I'm happy to call myself extremely shy and I've pretty much always been that way. I just don't know how to talk to people I've just met. When I was unemployed, I tried doing a networking event and it was a near disaster.
For whatever reason, I never learned how or just don't have the gene that allows me to feel comfortable (or at least hide my discomfort) with strangers. For things I care about, like camogie, I will suck it up and go to a new place and meet new people. But, for the most part, I am comfortable with my asocial personality and don't feel any great need to change.
Toby appears to share my lack of social skills. I feel bad for him as it's pretty obvious that no one properly socialised him when he was a puppy. When he meets other dogs, he either stiffens up and acts apprehensive or he puts up an aggressive front. We haven't been able to identify a pattern to his behaviour, but it seems like he sometimes feels the need to protect me. Once, with Peter, he was able to play with another dog. Then two weeks later, with me, he got aggressive with the same dog. (And it was a really cute, 8-month old lab-cocker spaniel mix, not exactly the most ferocious dog on the block.)
If we were living in Chicago, we'd know exactly where to take him for socialisation. In the Middle of Nowhere, it's a bit more difficult. Most people have huge yards or fields and don't have a need to exercise their dogs in public parks. It's also unfair to subject unsuspecting people to your unpredictable dog.
Our landlord has been building a "shed" in our yard for the last few months. He brings his dog, an ancient border collie named Sam, and his sister's dog, a lab named Harry, along for company. The first time Harry met Toby, it didn't go so well. Peter tried several times to introduce them in somewhat controlled circumstances, but all it accomplished was impressing on Toby that it was wrong to growl at Harry.
The problem is that Toby has no idea how to interact with Harry. Toby's first line of defence is avoidance. If Harry's in the yard, Toby will stay in the house. If you throw the Kong, Toby will make a half-hearted attempt to get it, but will give up if Harry shows any inclination to follow. Peter's been trying the Tough Love approach - chucking Toby outside and closing the door, but Toby just sits or sometimes cowers up against the back door, waiting to be let inside.
Harry's also a funny one, part happy-goofy-lab and part unneutered male. He will approach Toby with the wagging tail, happy lab jumping with excitement and then turn a little growly when closer. Toby will avoid eye contact, then hunch his shoulders, put up his hackles and back away. His feelings are clear - "Hey man, I don't want a fight. It's your yard - I'm only renting. That's cool." Harry's usually happy not to press the issue too far, prefering instead to plop his sausage body down and study Toby from a short distance.
I'm not one of those people who wants a dominant ass-kicking dog. I'd just like Toby to be able to relax and enjoy the company of other dogs. I know he'd have great fun chasing and cavorting with another dog if he could only get over the initial introductory hurdle. But I should admit that my reasons aren't purely altruistic - I would like to add a second dog one day (and perhaps a third or fourth if we have a farm) but we won't do it unless Toby can accept another dog.
I'm a bit at a loss as to how to teach Toby to deal with other dogs. It's not like I can buy him self-improvement books, take him to seminars, or put him on Paxil. Maybe, with time, he'll overcome his shyness. Or maybe, he'll join me on the sidelines, politely declining party invitations.