I’d like to say that after nearly three and a half years with us, our Lilly, the Boston terrier, is the paragon of politeness when she greets other dogs.
If you’ve followed her story, you know that things have been quite different. Though Lilly has made great strides toward reducing her reactivity to other dogs thanks to our program of diversion and desensitization, she still whips into a whirlwind now and then when certain dogs draw near. And my wife Susan and I have reacted like the parents of a third-grader, cringing at their child’s awkward interactions with peers.
But any parents worth their salt know to shift their egos and inner control freaks to neutral for the sake of their child’s social development. This is no less true for pet parents. The difference is that there is absolutely no risk that a human child will be surrendered to the pound for “bad” behavior. It is up to us pet parents to create the opportunities for our fur children to clear the next hurdle, social or otherwise.
Our learned tactics had taken Lilly so far: she has made two or three close friends with whom she enjoys both unbridled romps and quiet time. Sadly, her BFF down the street, the deaf pit-mix, Lola, left last month when her human family split up.
Susan and I agreed that it was time to reach beyond our small circle of “safe” socialization satellites. But where? We both agreed that the local dog park is no option as that environment is only as safe the least responsible dog owner attending at any given moment. I’d fantasized about calling Brandon McMillan and imagined that he would welcome Lilly to the Lucky Dog Ranch with open arms - for a well-deserved but healthy fee.
Several months ago, Susan joined Nextdoor.com a free private social network. Through Nextdoor, more that 113,000 neighborhoods in the U.S. have created their own etheric and in-person enclaves to share information, keep up with community issues and form supportive groups with a common purpose.
Three weeks ago, a young man named Noah reached out through our local Nextdoor network. He was soliciting dog owners who wanted to give their canine children a supervised play time with others of their own kind. Noah bravely acknowledged his own challenges with his rescue, Leo, at a dog park and took a chance that there might be others out there who were facing similar issues.
Noah’s bold stroke paid off. At least a half-dozen locals - including us - responded. Last Saturday while I was out of town on an errand, Susan and Lilly attended the first play-group meeting. As was suggested in the videos about how to introduce dogs to one another that Noah included in the invitation, the attendees walked their dogs down the street, parallel to each other, so as to reduce any sense of threat. This intro was followed by letting the dogs calmly sniff each other out. Then came off leash play time.
Susan called me, ecstatic with the result. On Tuesday, I got to witness for myself how Lilly, for the most part, could be congenial, fully engaged and often the life of the party. My heart soared as she romped and and rolled and rested respectfully with the boys and girls from “next door.”
Moments ago, we returned from a hike at our local nature preserve. Lilly passed several dogs at close range with barely a quiver.
There’s a time to guide a child, and a time to get out of the way.
We may have built the launching pad for Lilly’s socialization. But it was Noah’s play group that fueled her to take off like a rocket.
Please share your breakthrough socialization story with us!