I’m such an introvert, even my dog is an introvert.
My husband and I have plans to go out of town this Saturday night. We’re going down to Portland, OR, to attend one of Susan Cain’s book tour events. I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks… even so, I didn’t really start planning the logistics of our trip until a few days ago (very unlike my INFJ nature, which likes to plan, plan, plan!).
Usually my husband and I don’t have much to juggle when we want to go somewhere. Our cat, Lucy, is either self-sufficient for the day or can be boarded at our vet’s. This all changed in late October, when we adopted Ginger, a 2-year old lab. We love her to pieces – did I mention she’s The World’s Best Dog? – and she’s brought us nothing but joy (except for the Fleece Blanket Eating Incident, which has already become the stuff of legend in Buelow Family Lore).
Today was a true test of that joy: it was time to see if she was a candidate for overnight boarding at the facility where we’re taking her (well, really, us) for training.
I’d scheduled us for a “Meet & Greet” session with a couple of trainers. They wanted to see how Ginger did when interacting with other dogs. Since we didn’t know much of Ginger’s history when we adopted her, I went into it with my fingers crossed. After all, she’d done well during the training sessions and had become much calmer when we encountered other dogs on walks. And she’s a lab! She’s supposed to be social!
Well, I knew there were going to be issues from the get-go. The first dog they brought in, a cute little thing named Chai, was super mellow and non-threatening. But Ginger wouldn’t have any of it. She stayed behind me, and I felt like a mother whose child was hiding behind her apron. We decided Ginger might be protecting me, so I left and sat out in the car for a while. When Leigh, one of the trainers, came to get me, I could tell by her face that I wasn’t going to like the news.
It turns out Ginger is rather shy and anxious around her own kind. With most humans, in small doses, she’s fine. But other dogs… not so much.
They told me she wasn’t quite ready for overnight boarding, or even doggy daycare. You’d have thought someone told me that my 5-year-old wasn’t ready for kindergarten; my heart broke a little for her. What should I do next?, I asked. Schedule her for some 30-minute play-dates, they said, so she could be safely and thoughtfully socialized.
After my initial disappointment wore off, I got to thinking: if I wouldn’t throw my Ginger into the deep end and send her to overnight boarding, triggering anxiety and insecurity, why do we introverts think we have to dive right into the deep end when it comes to networking and other social events? Why should we expect ourselves to “perform” and get everything right or feel comfortable the first (or second, or even fifth) time?
What if we took some lessons from the socialization of dogs and applied them to ourselves?
I spent the entire day with Ginger, visiting a friend and taking her with me on errands. I studied her and reflected on the experience at the training facility. And over the course of several hours, she enlightened me with a few tips about how she would most like to be socialized. I took careful notes.
1. Ease into it.
Don’t start out by putting yourself in the same room as the most exuberant, chatty dog – I mean, human – around. Get to know the lay of the land. Find and focus on someone else in the room who has a similar or even calmer energy than you. Seek out a friendly face. Start out with smaller gatherings in more intimate settings, so that distractions are minimized. Allow them to be shorter “play dates,” only staying as long as you want.
2. Engage in calming behaviors.
Dogs do a full-body shake, yawn, sniff the floor, stretch and initially avoid eye contact. These actions calm them down, as well as send signals to other dogs that they’re open to being approached. While I don’t suggest you do a head-to-toe shake or sniff the ground (or anything else, for that matter), there are calming behaviors that we can adopt to help us adjust to a potentially stressful situation. Before walking into the room, yawn. Roll your head around. Shake out your hands. Take several slow, deep breaths. During the event, step out as needed and do these things again (out of sight, of course!).
3. Take time-outs.
New interactions can be intense, especially for introverts who feel that their energy output isn’t being replenished fast enough to balance things out. I notice when Ginger is about to take a turn for the worse; she’ll sniff and circle around with another dog, and it’ll be fine for a moment, but then I see the fur on her shoulders and rump start to stand up. That’s when I know she’s ready for a break. For us introverts, I suggest we notice in ourselves when our “fur” stands on end and we’re feeling tension or too empty to keep going. That could be a sign that it’s time to quit while we’re ahead, before we hit the wall. Or we might just need a time-out… a little time away from the crowd, so we can do a full-body shake if need be.
4. Retreat to recharge.
Today was a socially intense day for Ginger. As soon as we got home, she slurped up some water, inhaled her dinner then cozied down in her doggy den. That’s exactly how I operate at the end of a busy or highly interactive day. I’m drained on every level, and all I can think about is the moment when I cross the threshold of my house and sink into the calm. For that to happen, I need to have a space that nourishes and calms me. In our house, that’s our “quiet/prayer/meditation” room. It’s our den, our little haven. Consider your living space: where’s your den? Where can you go to be quiet and recharge after a period of people overload? And even in the middle of an event, is there someplace that can serve as your den, where you can retreat if necessary? A quiet corner, an empty room, or even a bathroom stall? Find a place where you can take that time-out and restore some energy.
5. Motivate with treats.
Ginger LOVES her treats. When we’re walking, and she’s being especially good, I give her an encouraging “yes.” Her eyes automatically dart to my left coat pocket, the magic place where treats live. Being rewarded keeps her going. The same is true for us. When we’ve extended ourselves socially or professionally, it helps to acknowledge our efforts with a bit of reward. It gives us something to look forward to when it’s all over. It also creates a ritual or practice that reminds us to celebrate our successes. Just one piece of advice: since you’re not a dog, don’t reward yourself with food (ha!).
Once Ginger starts being around other dogs more often, learning to practice calming behaviors and paying attention to when she needs a break, she’ll start to feel more comfortable, even playful, around her canine colleagues. It will take practice, training and commitment. Does that sound familiar? We can benefit from the same things. Even for the most socially uncomfortable dogs – and humans – there is always hope.
What do you think? Has networking gone to the dogs, or are there more lessons you’ve learned about human interaction from the animal kingdom? Please share in the comments.
PS: Do I really think Ginger is an introvert? She certainly shows some of the signs! It just makes me love her all the more, if that was even possible :-). Oh, and a dear friend has agreed to dog-sit for us Saturday night, proving there’s a graceful solution to just about any challenge.