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Introductions turn darling daughter into shy pup

| Sunday, June 8, 2003

My daughter started barking sometime around her second birthday. It wasn't anything that I felt that I needed to be concerned about. Sarah was an articulate, imaginative child who was developing normally. I figured the dog behavior was another version of the let's pretend game that dominated her life that year. I also assumed that if I ignored it, it would eventually go away.

Like all little kids she loved to pretend. She went through the Disney-princess stage, only answering if I referred to her as Belle or Cinderella. She had an animal phase, too. She loved to be led around on a leash, wore butterfly wings more than she wore shoes, and she'd paint herself so that she resembled our cat. Eventually, the other pretend games tapered off, but the barking dog persisted.

Sarah would bark and pant at the oddest times - at church, in the mall or at dinner parties. My barking 2-year-old was met with smiles and indulgence. My barking 5-year-old was considered rude. The more I tried to get her to quit barking, the more insistent she would become.

Once, we'd run into an old college classmate, and I proudly introduced my daughter. Like most moms, I'd prompted her: Say hello to Ann. Sarah barked. I told her it was good manners to say hello when being introduced. Sarah barked, stuck out her tongue and panted. I begged and pleaded for some socially appropriate behavior. Eventually, she started howling like a dog in the mall food court. No human form of communication passed her lips. I think my friend decided right then and there to put off motherhood for a few more years.

After the mall incident, I decided that my puppy needed some training. So I started paying attention to the barking. It seemed to come and go. She'd sometimes bark during the greeting time at church and when we visited adult friends. But, she didn't ever bark at school or play group.

One afternoon we were at a playground, and there was no puppy in sight, just a little girl playing happily with her sister, mother and grandmother. Soon, another grandma-granddaughter pair ventured over to the slides. My mother-in-law called Sarah down for introductions. Sarah started barking and panting happily, but not speaking or shaking hands. Needless to say Grandma was horrified that the child she so often bragged about didn't have good enough manners to get through a simple introduction. Grandma wasn't indulgent. She was angry. Watching the interaction, I began to get an inkling about what made Sarah bark.

I confirmed it on the day that we were having cookies and punch at her preschool art show. A woman whom I'd always respected was there, and I wanted to introduce Sarah. Of course, my puppy barked, scampered under the couch and refused to come out into the crowd. We stood there, punch in hand, trying to coax the dog out from under the couch. I tried all of the usual commands - come, please, heel. I even presented a cookie like a dog treat. She didn't budge.

Seeing her cowering under the couch, I figured out that even though Sarah was intelligent and articulate around family and friends, she was overwhelmed with shyness when she was being introduced to adults. It wasn't a quiet, demure, hide-your-head-in-mommy's-leg kind of shy, but an overwhelming, I-gotta-get-out-of-here, fearful kind of shy. It wasn't surprising, since I was exactly the same way.

I have always dreaded introductions and hated small talk. Even now, I still agonize about going to parties where the conversations are superficial and forced. But like most grown-ups, I've discovered more appropriate ways of dealing with feelings of social insecurity. Instead of barking, I tend to get silent and watchful. I stand aside, aloof.

Seeing Sarah struggle with her shyness has given me a whole new attitude about people. Watching her, I could clearly see the insecurities that our grown-up behaviors try to mask. Too many times, I'd taken people at face value, mistaking bravado for confidence, sarcasm for superiority or shyness for arrogance. People who met my "dog" Sarah may have assumed that she was rude or defiant - a far cry from the sensitive and loving little girl that she can be.

Sarah's now 8 years old, and the barking has tapered off. She's still articulate, intelligent and shy. I don't force her into social interactions, but I don't shelter her from them either. When I introduce her to strangers, I no longer prompt her to speak. Instead, I just explain that Sarah is very uncomfortable meeting new grown-ups.

It's amazing how many people breathe a sigh of relief and admit that they share her fears. Bringing the issue out into the open seems to make everyone feel more relaxed. Once the pressure is off to say and do the "right" thing, it seems easier to know people better.

Sarah may never overcome her own shyness, but she has helped me deal with mine. Sure, there are still times when I'm overwhelmed and seek the sidelines. But Sarah has taught me not to fear the situation. She's shown me that insecurity can make people behave in unusual ways. Some people may be barking or bragging. Others may be sarcastic or silent, but most of them are probably as nervous as I am.

Sue Washburn is an Apollo freelance writer for the Tribune-Review.

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