Star is brilliant and loving and easy to live with.  She is also an introvert.  She doesn’t really want to interact with you, whoever you might be.  She prefers the company of the few people she knows and trusts.  And if you leave her alone you will make her comfortable and happy.

On a walk yesterday it occurred to me that Star and I are alike, and also that people totally misunderstand introversion.  So I thought a blog post was in order! Being an introvert does not necessary mean that you have a mental disorder or that you are pathologically shy.  It means that, as a general rule, the people around you require an enormous amount of energy to deal with, even when interactions are pleasant.  Being sociable is fine in small doses and with those we truly like.  It becomes overwhelming and exhausting very quickly, however.  And when it does we need our solitude to refresh ourselves.

In Star’s case she is happiest to be ignored by other humans, except for her few really good friends (most of who she imprinted on as a puppy).  She doesn’t want you to look at her or talk to her.  At best you are neutral; at worst you can seem highly threatening.  When you invade her space and boundaries she will let you know it with a growl or bark, then she will try to move away.  If you continue to try to interact with her because “dogs like me” you are escalating an unpleasant situation into a dangerous one.  If you then want to correct her for growling at you I will step in and forcefully change your mind about pursuing that path.

Many dogs are attention whores.  In children there’s  a stage called indiscriminate sociability.  Most dogs are there all their lives.  I own several.  Feel free to lavish your attention on them.  They will love it.  But be aware that one only seems to love you because he’s hoping you will throw his hollee ball.  Another dog I know loved you until he clearly determined you had no cookies, then you were old news as he moved on.   They don’t care about you, but about what you can do for them.  They are users!

Star and I are actually both more than fine without your attention.  I don’t mind giving a nod and a wave to my neighbors as I pass, but I don’t want to get dragged into a 20 minute conversation every time I step out the door.  I want to go take my walk, enjoy the day, enjoy the solitude, unwind, and enjoy being with my dogs.  Star seems to feel the same way.  She wants to keep moving, watch for squirrels and enjoy a chance for a quick “sniff break”.  She doesn’t really want to be with you.

Dog people are the worst.  They think all dogs like them or that they have a special way that wins over all dogs immediately.  Trust me, it won’t work on Star.  If you try getting down on her level and making weird noises and gestures you will totally freak her out!  Stand up and ignore her and she’s just fine.  Quit trying to be her friend.  If you do that she is actually much more likely to approach you for a quick sniff, but that still doesn’t mean she wants to interact, she’s just information-seeking.  Allow her to sniff you without suddenly swooping down on her and you’re more likely to win her over.  Give her time and let her make all the moves until she determines whether or not you are safe.

I’m pretty OK with Star’s behavior because I understand it myself.  We cannot be made into social butterflies through conditioning or reinforcement.  We cannot be bribed into liking you.  We can learn to tolerate social activity, to a point.  Then we need a break from it.  It’s not completely fun for us, it’s an obligation.  As I said earlier Star has friends (and so do I!) that we are happy to see and enjoy spending time with.  But then we need twice as much time alone to recover.  Why?  Genetics and early experiences.  Of course, that covers pretty much everything!  We were indeed “born that way”.  Our experiences then either made our natural tendencies more extreme or altered them in the opposite direction.  We’re both in the “normal” range in terms of sociability, but low normal.

We’re not “anti-social”.  The term “antisocial personality disorder” is actually an extremely serious and dangerous personality disorder (think psychopath or sociopath).  That’s not us.  We are more asocial.  We don’t need it much.  It needs to be on our own terms in small doses.   For human introverts, internet communication is fantastic!  It’s controlled, yet still offers many of the benefits of social interaction.  Most introverts, myself included, prefer email or text messages to phone calls or face to face conversations.  I’m sure if Star could text she would enjoy it too!  It’s a controllable activity.  I am thrilled with the prospect of teaching online classes because they strongly appeal to my introverted nature.  Facebook is another great outlet for introverts.  Social activity that can be totally controlled and managed!

This is not to say that I haven’t worked on making Star comfortable around people.  I work on it constantly.  I will likely always have to work on it.  We have done tons of exposure to people below her arousal threshhold with huge reinforcement.  She will happily play tug and frisbee anytime, anywhere, and we do this in crowded settings like dog shows, which has helped her attitude about those settings quite a lot.  We work on seeing people and reinforcing for moving away or not overreacting.  And yes, I even reinforce her for grumbling.  I absolutely want her to feel free to express her discomfort so that I can be aware and do something about it.  Better that than a snap without any warning.  Punishing out the warning signs is a huge problem that only makes things worse.  Her discomfort is at its worst at the vet.  I actually believe some negative experiences there exaggerated these tendencies.  The first thing I did was change vets to change the context.  Luckily we also had a chance to work with a wonderful vet and trainer, Linda Randall, at her clinic on CU type exercises.  It was a great experience for Star.  But she still doesn’t want to be handled by strangers or even greeted by them.  My vets understand and have done a nice job staying neutral with her yet still doing what is necessary to care for her.  I have also positively trained her to wear a muzzle in case it is ever absolutely essential.

Star is NOT aggressive.  She has never made physical contact with another creature using her teeth.  That is not to say that it could never happen.  We all know that anyone can be aggressive when pressed hard enough.  Without good management, handling, and training, she could end up in an overwhelming situation and feel forced to defend herself.  That is why I need to be  her protector and ally.  I want her to be brave and confident, and know that I have her back if necessary.  I will sometimes ignore her minor reactivity.  Staying calm and relaxed myself gives her information that there is no cause for alarm.  And sometimes I may even pet her and talk softly after she has had a major reaction, to let her know that I understand she is upset and needs my support.  This is not reinforcing her reactivity at all.  Once the reaction happens it is too late to alter it.  All I can do then is minimize the aftereffects.  My goal is to be proactive enough to avoid reactions before they even start.

As a human I have the ability to realize when I have had enough social interaction and leave the situation.  Dogs don’t have that luxury.  It’s our job to monitor their interactions for them and to respond appropriately.  Over the years I’ve learned to manage my introverted tendencies.  In fact, many people, my college students in particular, are surprised that I describe myself this way.  I can act appropriately in social settings, but it is not always natural to me.  And it is always tiring.

At best, this is what I hope to achieve with Star.  I cannot make her an extravert, but I can help her cope in the least aversive ways possible.  I can give her the tools through training and exposure that allow her to tolerate social interaction when necessary. Now if you see us at a dog show don’t totally  ignore us!  But understand that she is my first priority.  Please follow my cues for how to interact with my dog.  Don’t swoop down on her and invade her space.  Let her make up her mind about you in her own way and time.

And if you’re talking dogs, I’m happy to do that all day!  That is NOT a social obligation and it’s something I never get tired of doing :-}!