What if your 'shy' dog is actually just an introvert?

Why you might want to embrace your pup’s loner vibes.

Why you might want to embrace your pup’s loner vibes

(Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Not only am I the youngest of four siblings, but I also happen to be the only extrovert. Even my identical twin sister and I are worlds apart on the introversion-extroversion spectrum. So, in an effort to better understand my family, I picked up a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Its basic premise is that we've evolved into a culture that favours the extrovert: we hire them first for jobs, we assume they're more qualified and we find them more likeable overall. I can't say that I disagree with her observations. I also can't argue with her realization — especially coming from a family like mine — that we may be missing out on an entire population's worth of skill sets as a result.

Given my profession as a trainer, this got me thinking about dogs. Especially after I learned that the tendency toward introversion or extroversion is so powerful that it extends itself to the animal kingdom. In a discussion with the Wharton School, Cain explained that, "there are introverts and extroverts in almost every species of the animal kingdom, all the way down to fruit flies. You see fruit flies who tend to sit still in place and then other fruit flies who roam around in an exploratory way … these [are] two types of different survival strategies."

So if we, as a culture, tend to favour the extrovert, how might this play out for our animal companions? Well, let's take a second and consider the social climate as it seems to be evolving for our dogs. Right from their first weeks on Earth, we're told to socialize, socialize, socialize. We put them in daycare, throw them in crowded dog parks and bring them everywhere we go. Don't get me wrong, I'm the first to tout the virtues of a robust socialization process for our dogs. In fact, early and appropriate forms of socialization are the key to a confident and happy pup. The reality though, is that not all socialization is equal, and more certainly isn't always better. Could it be possible that, by painting all of our dogs with the "extrovert" brush, we could actually be doing them more harm than good?

I know for sure that if you threw any one of the introverts I know into a room full of strangers every day, they'd come home wracked with anxiety and worn out from exhaustion. Yet we seem so determined to have our dogs enjoy the company of every other dog, in every situation. Not only do we feel that they should tolerate it, but that there's something wrong with them if they don't. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a client stammer apologetically, "I'm sorry, she's just shy. We're working on it." But what if there's nothing to work on? As long as your dog isn't showing active signs of fearfulness or anxiety, it could be that he just prefers his own company or the company of one beloved family member. If we try to better understand not only the introverted dog's limitations but also his strengths, perhaps we might gain new insight into the training process.

The idea of applying notions of introversion and extroversion to training is by no means new. In a 1970 study by Jeffrey A. Gray, we learn that introverts react differently to negative reinforcement. "High degrees of introversion represent high levels of sensitivity to punishment and to frustrative nonreward," notes Gray. Have you ever had a dog that was so mild that all you had to do was look at him the wrong way and he'd go running for the hills? It makes me wonder if what we're dealing with isn't so much a desire to please as it is a higher sensitivity in general.

Not only are introverted animals more sensitive to punishment but, conversely, extroverted dogs are generally less deterred by it. Gray says that extroverted dogs are so motivated by rewards that they're less likely to consider negative consequences: "the extravert acts on the spur of the moment because his behaviour is relatively more determined by potential rewards in his environment, and he is relatively less likely to operate the 'stop' of passive avoidance in the face of potential punishment." It kind of puts that crazy labrador that keeps running through your electric fence to chase squirrels into perspective, doesn't it?

So, where does all this leave us as trainers and dog owners? It would serve us well to realize that we can't apply cookie-cutter training techniques to every dog. Your extroverted pup, for example, is less likely to be deterred by all the yelling and screaming, since he's too interested in the world around him. Instead, try to find ways to be more intriguing. Your introverted dog, on the other hand, may need a gentle touch. Consider that it might not be the worst thing in the world if he prefers to stay at home on the couch with you than be at a crowded dog park — or the worst thing for you. After all, we can all benefit from taking a step outside our extrovert-centric world, every so often, to enjoy a little peace and quiet.


Danielle Hodges is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Licensed Family Paws Parent Educator for Dog, baby, and toddler safety. She is co-owner of Follow the Leader Inc Dog Training School with locations in Toronto and Hamilton.

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