Thursday, August 25, 2011

Socialization 101... for humans

I'm a pretty social person. I like going out with friends, I like trying new activities and new events, and I love meeting new people. Especially when I find out that they are, say, big Bruce Springsteen fans just like me.

Still, I'm not generally one of those people who stops to talk to complete strangers on the street, or who even says hello as I pass them by. In fact, I admit that I get a little embarrassed whenever my husband or my father - or anyone else that I might be with - enthusiastically greets every single person that we see in a day. I guess you could say that I am selective in my socialization. I'm more comfortable meeting strangers in controlled social settings - such as wine tastings or dinner parties - where we usually have something or someone in common.

Since adopting the Beast, however, I find myself interacting a lot more with complete strangers who I meet on the street. I get a lot more smiles, a lot more hellos, and a lot more people who stop me to engage in conversation.

More apt, I suppose, to admit that all of this attention is directed to the devilishly handsome, brown-eyed pooch by my side.

Take yesterday morning as an example. The Beast and I had just finished a 6.7k run, and decided to cool down with a stroll to the park. We passed by a man standing on his porch, having a morning cigarette, probably before going to work. He was wearing steel-toed boots, jeans, a white t-shirt, and sporting a couple of arm tattoos on either side. Probably a construction worker or a contractor, perhaps working on one of the many ripped-up-street sites in our 'hood. Not someone likely to have much in common with me, and therefore no reason for me to stop and chat.

But he smiled at us, and in between drags on his cigarette, said, "I'm glad to see he's feeling better and doesn't need that cone anymore."

I was just going to acknowledge the comment with a polite nod and walk right on by. After all, the Beast and I had to get to the park to play with the other pups before I had to run off to work. But the Beast gently pulled me toward the guy, clearly drawn to him. So we stopped.

The guy sat down on his porch steps and began asking me all about the Beast. What had happened to him that made him wear the cone? How old is he? How long have my husband and I had him? What's his name? In between questions, he would pet the Beast, tell him what a handsome dog he is, and that he is such a good boy. All the while, the Beast calmly stood between his legs, sniffing him, giving him an occasional face lick, and genuinely enjoying the attention. 

Now the Beast doesn't hate people. But he's very rarely calm in their presence, especially if they are strangers. His modus operandi is usually to excitedly wiggle his bum, throw a dominating little hip check, maybe try to jump up, maybe bark a little, and then once he is satisfied that his presence has been duly noted, he will simply ignore. People just aren't all that interesting to him for more than fifteen seconds (unless they have food). He did none of this to his new friend. So I said to the guy, "He's never like this. He must sense a real goodness about you to be spending this much time with you. You must be a dog person."

Turns out that one month ago, this guy lost his black lab to cancer, at the tender age of 10. As he described his dog to me, he was getting a little bit choked up. Frankly, so was I. He told me that sometimes, when he gets his meals ready in the kitchen, he can still see his dog's shadow lurking around the corner, waiting for food to drop on the floor. Or that the house just seems so quiet now because he no longer hears the pitter-patter of nails on hardwood. He told me stories about how his dog used to love to chase rabbits, and where his favourite park was and where his favourite walking path was. All the while, he continued to gently rub the Beast's head, transferring some of his love for his own dear pet to mine because he had to give it to someone.

I think meeting the Beast made his day.

I know that meeting him made mine. I was touched by his openness, his honesty, and his big heart. And I was struck by the fact that I never would have met this gentle and loving soul - having judged that he and I would have nothing in common to talk about - had it not been for my Beasty guiding me towards his porch. 

Having a dog is like having an immediate conversation starter or an ice-breaker to make people feel comfortable with one another. Dogs are, generally speaking, a neutral topic of conversation. Talking about our pets is not like getting engaged in a conversation about our political or our religious views, topics that set us up for disagreement, polarization, and tension. It's safe to talk about dogs. We are forced to offer very little of our personal selves when the focus is on our four-legged companions and their favourite toys, their favourite foods, or their most endearing neurotic behaviours.

Most importantly, dogs remind us that we have more in common with other people than we think. Dog lovers exist across social strata: construction workers, bureaucrats, lawyers, millionaire CEOs and even homeless people all count themselves within the community of dog owners. Some of us might prefer beer over wine, or baseball over golf, or fast food over 5-star restaurants. But we find commonality in our mutual love and affection of dogs.

I'm glad to have a Beast like mine to remind me to be more neighbourly. And I hope that he introduces me to more really great people who live just up the street.