What Training My Dog Taught Me About Managing People

We have been training our dog, Ru, with the trainers at Maligator Kennels for a few months now and I’ve learned a lot about working with and motivating dogs. In doing so I’ve learned many things that I think apply to working with and motivating humans.

First, I’ll talk about the most obvious one to me: If you reward people when they do good things, they will want to keep doing good things. When I’m teaching my dog to heel I am dropping treats down her throat (she’s not much for chewing when it’s good stuff) every few steps that she walks alongside me. I’m telling her in a happy voice how amazing she is the whole time. As the dog gets used to the task you don’t have to give treats as often.


Now, if someone gave me a Starburst and a compliment every time I did something they wanted, I would be more likely to keep doing the same thing. I would also enjoy being around that person immensely. Once this person gives me a Starburst I will continue to remember that even if the Starburst don’t come every time. I recently worked as an assistant for someone who told me every time we parted ways, “thanks for all your work today.” I felt good about what I had accomplished that day and motivated to come back each day.

With my dog I will sometimes reach like I’m going for a treat and she gets excited enough to keep behaving even if I don’t actually give her something. I do not recommend that with humans, they will almost certainly turn against you.

The Maligator Code, for dog training, is:

1. Honor the hierarchy
2. Maintain order
3. Obey the rules

Honor the Hierarchy

Film sets have taught me to love hierarchy. Things work so well when everyone knows who to report to and who has the final say. This does not mean bosses should be bossy and make all the decisions all of the time. Part of the hierarchy is delegation. When teaching your dog to “heel” the idea is that they will walk on a loose leash next to you. Forcing them next to you on a tight leash only teaches them to walk close when forced into it. The goal is to train them so they will walk next to you whether there is a leash or not. You have to motivate, not force, them to follow you. With humans, part of that is trusting them to do their job without being micromanaged. If you don’t trust them, figure out why and resolve that concern. If you are a leader you have to trust that the people you work with can follow you without you dragging them along. If you aren’t the leader, you want to trust your leader is capable and that they trust you.


Maintain Order

When Ru sees another dog she wants to play with we essentially lose all control. Her brain goes into “get candy, get candy, get candy” mode and she can’t be stopped. The only way we can compete is to be infinitely more entertaining or rewarding than the dog she wants to play with. What incentives are you giving people to stay with you? Is their job engaging? Are they being treated fairly?

Are you clear? Does everyone receive the same kind of treatment? Are some people allowed to do what every they want while others are punished for every little thing they do wrong? Are you paying people different amounts to do the same job? Is it obvious in meetings some people’s opinions are valued over other peoples?

“In those situations the employees believe they are being treated unfairly. So, they only perform the duties they are contractually obligated to perform. Teachers arrive exactly when they are required to and leave as soon as they are able. They do not engage in extracurricular activities or stay late to help struggling students. The community suffers, because the teachers have gone from treating the workplace as a neighborhood to treating it as a collection of strangers.

That is why it is so important to think about fairness. When the morale of an organization suffers, it is important for leaders to think about things they may have done that would push employees from thinking themselves as neighbors to thinking of themselves as strangers. At those times, it is important for leaders to hold out an olive branch and to do what they can to welcome disgruntled employees back into the neighborhood.” (read more here).

Dogs are known for their loyalty but they are not above leaving you for the owner across the field who has better treats. If given the choice between our bed and her bed Ru will always choose our bed. Work isn’t always a super-fun party but if you don’t give your employees a reason to stay they won’t stick around.We had to figure out what motivated Ru, was it toys? Treats? Ultimately we realized that as much as she loves food, she loves playing with other dogs more and letting her loose to play is the best reward we can give her. It’s not just being able to pay the highest salary, it’s providing opportunities to be creative or to grow and learn skills. (See also: 10 Things Employees Want More Than a Raise).




Obey the Rules

The dogs job is obey, but they can’t obey if they don’t know the rules.

Have you ever showed up to a new (or old) job and have no idea what they expect from you or if they even like what you’re doing? Most jobs I’ve worked have been pretty autonomous and there have been times where I did my job, got paid, and never heard from a supervisor. Having the healthy ego that I do, I just assumed they were loving my work but there was no way to know and at times the lack of feedback made me very anxious.

Positive reenforcement is huge and I think it’s far more motivating to people than anything negative. However, course-correction is also important when things start getting off-track. “No” can be a good word if it helps set boundaries. Boundaries are actually really great. They keep everyone on the same page and can help people do their job better. Example: I like cuddling with my dog. I do not like cuddling with my dog when she spreads out and gets her paws all up in my face. By telling her to move or go to her own bed when she’s taking up too much space our relationship stays free of scratched faces and dogs getting unkindly shoved off of the bed. Again, I do not recommend this one on humans because telling someone who wants to cuddle with you to go away and get their own bed will probably not go over well. However, established boundaries that are clearly explained are important in any relationship.

Everyone Has Their Limits

If it is too hot outside, Ru will find shade, lie down, and not get up again. At that point, she is done and will not be productive again until she cools off. Mike Scully, showrunner for Simpsons, Parks and Rec etc. talked about how he would send his writers home by 6 so they could be home with their families, have experiences that could inspire their writing, and come back refreshed. Many  writers rooms work for 12+ hours straight to get more work done but there becomes a point where productivity slows down. Give people breaks. When we let Ru loose to play with her best-dog-friend before class she would be better behaved, more relaxed, and ready to focus.


Learn How to Understand Individuals

Ru was three years old when we got her from Rescue Rovers Adoptions. We knew that we don’t know everything she’s been through and it’s been a process learning about her. Example: slippery floors freak her out. We figured that one out easily enough when we first walked into our building. Everyone is unique and what comes naturally to some people doesn’t to other. It’s easy to say, “I have no problem walking through our hallway, so why does she?” But if you pay attention you can see that stepping into the hallway strikes fear in Ru’s tiny heart. Hopefully, if you’re an employer, you’re employing people with different backgrounds and experience and part of that is learning people’s strengths and weaknesses and putting them in situations where they will be able to perform well.

Every company does things a little bit differently, so even if you hire someone who is an expert in your field, you have to help them understand how things work at your company. Help them understand workflow and procedures or you’ll be continually frustrated that they aren’t doing things “the right way.” Sometimes we assume someone is bad at their job when they just don’t know what we want from them.

Part of this is also understanding that, most of the time, no one person will have everything you’re looking for.

Ru is very smart when it comes to learning new tricks and very dumb when it comes to barking at her own reflection as if it is another dog. But I don’t care that she tries to play with her reflection because she does so much for me and her weird quirks are worth it. Even the geniuses of the world struggle at something in their life. The only perfect person I know of is Jesus and he’s not applying to be your salesperson any time soon. We can’t expect people to do it all and never make mistakes. Create teams that balance out strengths and weakness and everyone will succeed.

I really believe that if we see people for what they give instead of what they don’t do or can’t do, we will be happier. We will love and respect more and the people around us will thrive under our compassion and understanding.

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