Thursday, July 12, 2007

Social Skills

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.


At 12 July 2007 at 12:22, Anonymous Coastal Aussie said...

Hi, I've been reading your blog for a while now, but I don't think I've commented before....This is (another) great entry, and I just wanted to tell you about my dogs as I had a similar problem. I had 'an entire’ (not de-sexed) male dog who would pull too hard on the lead when I walked him and was too protective and aggressive around other dogs. He's a great dog though and I wanted another one like him. The eventual new addition was a different breed and personality, was 6 mths old at the time of purchase and was already de-sexed. The new dog didn't care what the older dog thought of him, his was just so happy to have a home. During the first year they had a few (half a dozen) tussles and fights over 'top dog' position, but now they're the greatest mates - the older one is calmer, and the younger one gained confidence from the older one’s protectiveness… and now they love running long together shoulder to shoulder... Also, sometimes I'm really shy too, even thought it doesn't always show - shyness, its a dreadful thing, isn't it! Looking forward to your next entry.. oh! And I was so pleased to read you found your keys, I thought you might, and I was hoping you would !

At 12 July 2007 at 12:48, Blogger laurie said...

hey, ann--

great posting. i gave up parties a while back too and i'd blog about it except for the fact that i'd have to mention specific disastrous parties i've attended, and some of the hosts read my blog. so suffice it to say--i'm with you on that. it's party season right now, and i've been invited to parties both tonight and tomorrow, and i'm begging off on both.

re toby: i don't have a lot of success introducing riley to dogs in our yard. neutral ground works better. i know you're shy, but you must know some people around the Middle of Nowhere who have dogs and who would be willing to help you. take toby somewhere away from your house and arrange to meet someone else there with their dog.

like coastal aussie says, there may be some iniital growing and jockeying for position. but if the other dog is calm and non-threatening it should calm down after awhile. (you will likely have to do this on a regular basis for a while.)

the first time riley met sara, he went ballistic. barked at her nonstop for more than a half-hour. but she didn't care. she ignored him and played with boscoe. and eventually they settled down and now they're the best of friends.

i've also read that dogs figure it out quicker if they're not on their leash when they meet, but living in the city as i do i've not been able to experiment with that.

just as with you--eventually you get to know people and like them, it just takes a while--eventually toby will, too.

good luck

At 12 July 2007 at 14:51, Blogger Kaycie said...

I can really relate to this post. I have never owned a dog before and I think that we've been lax in socializing Jack. I am trying to remedy that with puppy training, but as he is already eight months old, I don't know how well it will work. Yesterday one of the neighbors' dogs escaped from his back yard and was running around the neighborhood, unbeknownst to me. I put Jack on his leash for a walk and went into the front yard. Jack weighs 16 pounds, and I'd guess this other dog weighs 35 or 40. That did not stop Jack from growling and nipping and being generally aggressive when the other dog was in our yard. It's a wonder he didn't get his butt whipped. I think the other dog is just a goofy, happy type of dog. He sniffed at Jack and took the aggression with almost no reaction. Lucky for Jack. I picked Jack up and the neighbor called his dog and it was all over. I have no idea what I would have done if the other dog had responded in kind. I think I'd like it much better if Jack would cower.

At 12 July 2007 at 16:01, Blogger Dave P. said...

We never had any luck socializing Autumn and eventually just gave up. She'd been abused before I got her, and on top of it, was never socialized around other dogs. After a few unfortunate incidents with other folks' pooches, we gave up.

Good luck with Toby!

At 12 July 2007 at 19:02, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Good post, I enjoyed it. Dogs are special.

At 13 July 2007 at 03:18, Blogger laurie said...

ps you asked about hemingway and joyce. i'm reading joyce very slowly so i have to read other things in the meantime. some time you'll have to tell me why you hate hemingway. i thought "the sun also rises" was a wonderful book. i didn't like any of the characters, but the book itself was stunning.

At 13 July 2007 at 19:18, Blogger -Ann said...

CA - Hi there. Welcome - thanks for commenting. It's good to know that your dog was able to come around on other dogs. Shyness can be a pain, alright, but I think too much emphasis is put on being outgoing - extrovert-ism is valued too much.

Laurie - The funny thing is that Harry believes this is his yard and Toby seems perfectly happy to concede the point. I can see where being off the leash would make a dog feel more comfortable and allow them to greet each other in a dog-proper manner. As for Hemingway - I think that's a topic for a whole post, in which I reveal what a Philistine I am. :)

Kaycie - Jack sounds like a handful - it's probably a good thing he's small.

Dave - Funny, Autumn is exactly the dog I thought of when Toby first started to display aggressive behaviour to other dogs. (She was a great dog.) Toby doesn't seem to have been abused, he was just kind of neglected.

Jack - They sure are!


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