Sunday, January 28, 2007

Confidence Comes with Age

I'm so pleased that Kirby is becoming socialized to people and other dogs. When we first adopted the little guy, he was pretty shy around strangers. He would exit every door with an officious (but fearful) bark. He greeted strangers walking down the sidewalk the same way.

A lot has changed in the past few months. Now Kirby is fully integrated into our family and he appears to be confident and secure in his own surroundings as well as out in public. He now greets friendly strangers with a cheerful wag of the tail (no barking) and he romps and plays with all the dogs at the dog park. I'm sure Baxter has played a large role in Kirby's socialization. When we would take them out to walk together, Kirby would see Baxter quietly accepting that a strange person has the right to walk on the sidewalk across the street. And he's learned that strange dogs should be approached with cautious optimism, not a bark and hiding behind someone's legs.

For Kirby, both age and having a happy and consistent home life have brought confidence and security.

While Baxter has always been a pretty secure and happy dog around people, age has changed the way he interacts with other dogs. When Baxter was a puppy, he was usually the bottom of the pack at the dog park. As he matured into an adult, it became quite obvious that he was never going to rise to an alpha position. He just wasn't assertive enough.

While it's usually a fairly equal playing field among neutered dogs at our local dog park, there are those times when, for some reason known only to the dogs, it becomes necessary to sort out the pack order. For the first three or so years of Baxter's life he was usually the bottom dog in the "who's the boss" conga line. By the time he reached the age of four, his fine qualities as a social butterfly earned him a respectable position somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Something changed in the last couple of years, however. Along with his increased interest in marking the nearby fence post (something he never cared much about as a younger adult) has come an increased sense of importance when it comes to his place in the dog park pack order. Since he turned six, he has actually found himself at the top of the conga line on several occasions (provided there are no aggressive or intact males at the dog park). And there have been a few times I've been embarassed because he'll find some bottom-of-the-pack dog (his former self) and make his superiority known in no uncertain terms. He's never aggressive, mind you, and there's no growling or snarling involved. As soon as the teeth come out, Baxter hits the road and wants no part of it. No, he's only assertive when his compatriots are less assertive than he is. But still, that's a change. And I guess I shouldn't be ashamed when Baxter just does what comes naturally. Still, as a matter of dog park human etiquette, I usually break it up.

All I can think of is that Baxter is aware of his age, and age buys some level of seniority in the dog world. Of course, this doesn't hold when he's up against an intact male or female dog (witness the fact that Baxter was pretty deferential to Kirby, a puppy 1/4 his size, before Kirby was neutered). That situation has evened-out considerably now that they're both on the same playing field.

And while I sometimes feel concerned about Baxter's new-found confidence, there's a little part of me that enjoys the way he's finally speaking up for himself. When the occasional alpha dog decides to assert his position over everyone, Baxter doesn't just roll over and say "uncle!" anymore. He manages to shake them off with a huff and uses his best spin-and-fake routine to make a fast getaway.

I'm just glad that, at home, both Baxter and Kirby still seem to see my husband and I as the alpha dogs. That's the order of things in our pack. And while the lower two positions are debated daily, everyone seems more secure knowing who is in charge. (Then again, when Kirby's ringing the bell for the fifth time during a DVD movie, I start to wonder...)

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