What can leaders learn from dog obediance training?

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After many months of discussion and pleading from my daughter, our family decided to adopt a dog from an animal rescue. Dundee is a cross between a shih tzo and a poodle (a.k.a. a ‘mutt’) and in the past three weeks he has captured our hearts and settled into our family.

Not having owned a dog before, we did some research and discovered an excellent book by John Ross and Barbara McKinney called Adoptable Dog: Teaching Your Adopted Pet To Obey, Trust and Love You. As a leadership trainer and coach, I am called on to teach managers and supervisors how to shift their leadership style to achieve greater success. Often the individuals being trained have been in the position for a while and have some bad leadership habits that need to be replaced with constructive techniques. In reading Ross and McKinney’s book I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between managing the behavior of a dog and managing employee behavior.

What Leaders Can Learn From Dog Behavior

  1. Communicate So They Understand: Ross and McKinney say that it’s easier to get your dog to do what you want when you learn to speak dog. That means a deep growl to show displeasure and a high friendly pitch to show pleasure. We’re not suggesting that leaders growl to show displeasure, although I have met a few aggressive managers who have come close! We want to communicate with words and tone that gets the message across clearly to employees. Get rid of the corporate speak mumbo jumbo and talk in plain language.
  2. Correction and Praise Needs to Come Immediately: Conventional dog training would say if you come home to discover that Rover left you a present on your carpet, you should bring him over and rub his nose in it so he knows not to do it again. Unfortunately Rover doesn’t link the punishment with the crime. Instead Ross and McKinney say to offer immediate feedback (and they mean immediate) so the dog understands the difference between right and wrong. Similarly some managers and supervisors wait too long to express their displeasure with employees who are not performing; the behavior continues, the manager gets more frustrated and often the employee is oblivious. Similarly immediate praise for a job well done helps increase the probability of repeating the success. Even though Dundee was 18 months old when we brought him home, he was not housebroken. By watching him closely and catching him before the act, we got him outside and gave lots of praise when he “did his business”. There have been no accidents since his fourth day in our home.
  3. Structure and Routine is Important: As pack animals, dogs like structure and discipline. Employees also appreciate knowing what’s expected and enjoy a degree of predictability. Even in a rapidly changing environment, create structure to allow employees to perform to expectations.
  4. Learning Through Repetition: Breaking an 18-month old dog of bad habits can take as long as he’s been alive. We were lucky to solve the housebreaking issue so quickly. Teaching the basics of sit, stay, lie down and come are more challenging with an older dog than a puppy. Using a combination of compelling the behaviour, and inducing the behavior is the best strategy for success. For “sit” that means lifting the collar at the same time as pushing down the back side, and using a treat as a reward. Similarly employees need to be trained to do what you want (likely more than once) and they need to be praised for doing a good job.
  5. Fitting In Is Important: Dogs are pack animals and they will jockey for position within the family just as they do with their litter mates as puppies. In our home Dundee finds it easy to dominate my 11-year-old daughter with her higher pitched voice, but he is leery of my 15 year old son (perhaps the shaggy hair throws him off!). Showing the dog who’s boss means making sure he knows that he is not the pack leader. One of the prime motivators for employees is the desire to be part of the team. Employees tend to establish their position on the team including the troublemakers who decide their role is to aggravate the boss and humor co-workers. Help employees feel part of the team by keeping them informed, not playing favorites and not talking behind people’s backs. Help troublemakers find a constructive role in the team by building on their strengths.

Even though human beings are higher-order mammals, we share many behavioral traits with our canine cousins. Leaders who consistently apply fundamental leadership principles will enjoy success.