Socially Awkward

Loose and curvy, Risa is comfortable interacting here.

Risa doesn’t have the best social skills. She’s much like the shy kid at the party. When first arriving, she introduces herself nicely but then she goes off in the corner to be by herself. She’s uncomfortable being there and doesn’t want to interact with anyone. If someone comes over to talk to her, she makes the conversation short and it’s clear she’d prefer they just stay away.

However, if you get her around close friends, she’s a completely different dog. The introductions are short as Risa already knows them quite well. Social invitations often turn into play and she can have a great time.

She’s a lot like I used to be, actually. 😉 Before college, I was very shy. People thought I was stuck up because it was so hard to get to know me. Around my friends I was boisterous and engaged with whatever was going on. In a large group of unfamiliar people, I was usually found alone or clinging to the few I knew. My confidence grew when I attended college which has made it a bit easier to make new friends. I’m still a bit shy and reserved but I open up to new people quicker and let my real self shine through (for better or worse!).

Curvy again but clearly unsure about the situation.

Since I got Risa from a shelter when she was 2.5 years old, I know very little about her early experiences. I imagine she had very little interaction with strange dogs. I have wondered whether or not she spent a lot of time with her siblings/mother before ultimately parting with them. Her bite inhibition is excellent and she clearly does know how to interact with dogs appropriately once she has allowed them into her circle. I will never know.

It takes Risa a long time to open up to new doggy friends. At first, she really doesn’t want much to do with them. These days, her curiosity usually takes over at the onset. She sniffs and greets appropriately allowing the other dog to sniff her as she sniffs them. But then the social interaction ends and she is ready to go off and do her own thing again. I have seen her do this many times over the four years I’ve been with her. She figures out who’s there and then goes off and sniffs, runs, or looks for hidden toys. All is right with the world for Risa as long as she’s left alone. Most dogs, however, follow greetings with play which causes Risa some distress.

Risa also tends to have some issues watching other dogs play. When two dogs are engaged with each other, she circles around the outskirts watching. Should play get out of hand, she often intervenes to calm them down. I once saw her split (a calming signal where a dog walks between two dogs) an older dog who was getting grumpy with a young puppy. She makes a fine referee dog yet this causes frustration when she isn’t permitted to intervene. Ris can be a bit of a control freak sometimes! 😉

Also, due to her lack of confidence, she tends to overreact in certain situations. Instead of simply using a whale eye or soft growl to guard an object, she will often fly into a barking/lunging reaction. (And the object doesn’t even have to be something that is hers; it could be anything that is nearby that she’s interested in.) If another dog is unhappy and shows its displeasure, Risa gets far more upset than is necessary. She’s had difficulty with this with one of her canine friends in particular as both Risa and her friend are fearful around other dogs. I am certain, as her confidence increases, she will be less likely to overreact in these situations. 🙂

Persistant lil Rio becomes Risa's favorite playmate.

It has taken me a while to really understand what Risa was saying when she interacted with other dogs. While she has found dogs she enjoys playing with immensely, she still has her limits. Early on, I noticed she used to flop onto her back a lot when interacting with other dogs. Since most of these dogs were male, I called it ‘flirting.’ The two dogs would be interacting nicely and, all of a sudden, Risa would roll over and expose her belly. It wasn’t until much later I learned this is a cut off signal. She was telling them she’d had enough and wanted to be left alone. Unfortunately for Risa, I can’t think of a single time when this behavior worked the way she wanted it to. 🙁 Now that I know better, however, I can help her out!

I often feel bad for Risa because she’s so uncomfortable with her own kind. Everyone should have a friend! But I also understand that, for the most part, she’s quite happy to be left alone. That doesn’t stop me from trying my best to increase her confidence so that she’s less worried about other dogs coming up to visit her or trying to initiate a play session. Her confidence has improved over the years and she’s much more tolerant of playful advances. Even if she chooses to ignore them. One of her newest canine friends likes to rush over and put Risa’s head in her mouth trying to get Risa to play with her. Risa’s best friend, Rio, always had the upper paw when it came to interacting with Risa. If barking incessantly didn’t work, he’d sit in my lap and wait for Risa to catch him there (Risa is a resource guarder and does NOT like to share me). When she lunged after him to make him move, he’d plop into a play bow. Amazingly, Risa would join him in play.

While I’ve had aspirations of adding a second dog (likely a puppy) for a long time, I do feel Risa is finally ready to accept a new family member if the time arrives. Certainly, it is going to be a lot of work knowing her history and her lack of confidence around fellow canines. I’m prepared for that.

Doing her own thing but still enjoying time with friends.

In the meantime, I am going to continue to work with her around other dogs and help her increase her confidence. Clicking and rewarding her for look aways, sniffing, lip licks, and eye contact with me around other dogs has been working out superbly. Watching her in rally class on Tuesday this week, you would have barely noticed her fear. She stood in a group of dogs and people without reacting. Dogs walked past her kennel without a peep from her. She performed rally exercises within 4-6 feet of another dog. Risa did a down/stay Honor exercise in the ring while a dog walked the course. It was outstanding.

Aside from distance work where Risa is simply around other dogs (not interacting with them), I am going to try and do some more close up work with her too. Rewarding her for offering calming behaviors when her new friend tries to initiate play, for example. I haven’t had much opportunity to try that out and it will be a bit more difficult given the wintry weather. We’ll give it a try at least

About Jamie

I'm just a traditionally-trained artist with interests in dog training. I currently teach classes at the local obedience training club (tricks, freestyle, and Rally-FrEe) and I also teach classes professionally for an organization who helps veterans train their own service dogs.
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