or, everything i know about leadership i learned from puppies
On June 24 – the same day as the Dobbs ruling – this cute little mutt joined our family. As of the time I’m recording this episode, it appears his name will be Archibald McBacon the VII, aka Bacon.
He’s our fourth dog. Our first dog, Abby, came to us 22 years ago this month. She was a beautiful American Foxhound who was found, with two littermates, surviving on a diet of compost and grass on a farm in western Wisconsin. The person who found her – I learned later that he was a beloved poet for whom I taught creative writing at UW – brought her to Madison because the local sheriff was known to kill strays. Cowering in the kennel at the Wisconsin Humane Society, my girl was grossly underweight, achingly skittish, and terrified of people. But one look into her eyes and I knew I had found my boon companion.
Training a feral dog was maybe not the best way to get started, but you know me – when I do a thing, I go all in. Abby taught me a lot about dog training.
The summer we rescued her I was also teaching a graduate-level course at UW-Madison, teaching graduate students from all disciplines how to incorporate writing into their teaching. It was my first time formally teaching teachers in a classroom (and not just in a workshop), and as I helped them understand how to help their students learn something that was totally obvious to them as teachers but was completely unfamiliar to the students, I kept seeing the parallels between dog training and teaching college students.
Later, as a parent, I discovered that the basics of good parenting are practically identical to those of dog training. Be consistent and clear. Be firm with your expectations and flexible with the pace at which the dogs, or the college students, or the toddlers, are learning. Be firm without being being scary.
I’ve thought a lot about those similarities over the years. Sometimes I mention this at work and I almost always get side-eye. I mean, I get it – nobody wants to hear that leading people is like training dogs. That’s a tough analogy.
But here I am with a 10-week-old puppy in the house and it’s staring me in the face all over again: Everything you need to know about leadership you can learn from raising puppies. Here are the 10 lessons I think are most important.
Some dogs hang out on furniture, some dogs sleep in their people’s beds at night, some dogs enthusiastically jump all over visitors, some dogs protect their pack by barking at every stranger who comes to the door. All those dogs are living within the boundaries their people have set.
At our house, we like our dogs to stay off the furniture, to speak (bark) on command, and to not chew soft things like stuffed animals and shoes. And so we’ve had to teach our dogs those rules. We teach the command “off” which we use generally to mean “whatever you’re doing? knock it the fuck off”; we teach “leave it” which means “quit paying attention to whatever it is you’re paying attention to”; we teach “drop it” which means “get that thing out of your mouth right now,” and we teach “speak”, which means “go crazy with your voice, you exuberant canine.” (We also used to teach “ssssh,” but Ivy is such a quiet dog that it’s been totally unnecessary. We’ll see with Bacon.)
One interesting thing about having a dog-sitting company on Rover was seeing lots of different doggy behaviors and getting lots of glimpses into the boundaries other dogs were accustomed to, and we had to learn to teach our guest dogs the important boundaries in our house, quickly and early. What really surprised me is that for the most part, every single dog adapted. This wasn’t about discipline and punishment – this was about establishing consistency, creating an environment where the dogs could be trusted to behave well, and keeping life harmonious for everyone. Sometimes it was easier and sometimes it was really hard. But we got really practiced at helping all dogs understand the boundaries at our house.
Having a puppy is a great time to set boundaries, because they’re not unlearning other behaviors. Setting boundaries that matter to you, with puppies, has two components: first decide what is and isn’t acceptable, and then teach the puppy how to live its best life within the parameters of your rules.
So too with people. There’s something relaxing about the consistency of knowing what is and isn’t OK. It’s stressful to go to work and be second-guessing yourself, or be wondering what standards you’ll be held to that particular day. You can avoid creating that stress for your team by deciding what boundaries are most important for your team to be happy and productive, and then establishing and maintaining those boundaries so they’re easy to understand and live with.
Start with the biggest, most important boundaries you need to establish. One might be time: if your team is in a visible, public-facing service role, one key boundary might be working hours. But if your team produces independent work, working hours might not matter a whole lot to you. Another big boundary is communication: how do you want them to reach you? Do you want them to drop by your workspace? Message you on Slack? Text your personal cell phone? Only use work email? Decide how you want to be reached and then make sure your team knows.
You’ll know what the big boundaries are that are relevant to your team. Start there. And don’t sweat the small stuff until the general outlines of your high-level expectations are clear.
This is where you need to get clear about your values and how those matter to your workplace boundaries. You might deeply value punctuality and meeting deadlines, and take great joy in timeliness. You might value autonomy, or an integrated work & home life, or shared social time at work. Your values are your values, and you owe it to yourself to identify them, name them, and use them to guide your decisions.
One of the most important reasons to set boundaries you care about is that you’re going to have to put your time and energy into maintaining them. If you value punctuality and timeliness, you’ll need to work with your team to support them in that area. If you don’t value it, though, but you set it as a parameter, you’re going to spend a lot of time discussing, supervising, and coaching your team’s punctuality…and you’re all going to resent it. The same is true for any boundary you set that doesn’t matter to you.
Don’t fall into the trap of accepting the status-quo boundaries that you see elsewhere or that seem “typical.” Be genuine about boundaries that matter, so that you time you spend helping folks work within the is time that feels meaningful and useful to you.
I offer two cautions to you as a leader: First, don’t set your boundaries in a vacuum. To the extent that your team is affected by the boundaries you set, involve them in the decision-making. (This is one way setting boundaries with people is VERY DIFFERENT from setting boundaries with puppies!) Second, don’t delegate boundary-setting to your team. Don’t leave it up to them to establish the boundaries. Setting boundaries is a crucial component of your leadership practice, and it’s a place where you actually need to lead.
Those are two extremes: doing it all by yourself, or asking the team to do it on their own. Find a balance between those two: know what’s important to you, ask your team what matters to them, and set those boundaries together. This will make it easier to sustain those boundaries for the long-term, because you’ll all be in it together. Just don’t forget: it’s still your job to lead, so maintaining those boundaries is ultimately your responsibility.
Which brings me to…
When we rescued Abby in 2000 I really gravitated towards the training principles from the Monks of New Skete, Patricia McConnell, and Sarah Hodgson. One of the key things I learned was the importance of establishing myself as alpha. This sometimes involved activities that felt unnatural to me. One of them was the alpha roll: where you physically force your dog onto her side or back in a show of dominance. I alpha-rolled Abby once and it literally made me shake with anxiety. She bolted away from me and it took her some time before she was willing to get near me again.
Turns out the science behind the alpha roll was pretty shaky. And anyway, more recent advances in dog training focus on “reward-based methods” – essentially, rewarding the puppy for the behavior you want to see. Sometimes this means ignoring behavior you don’t want to see, so that the dog learns that that behavior gets no reaction whatsoever. Puppies are little vortexes of chaos, doing everything they can to get your attention. The things you don’t pay attention to are the things they’ll likely stop doing. Sometimes, reward-based methods involve distracting the dog – taking a “do this, not that” approach and giving the dog a toy it can chew on, or a blanket to rest on. We’ve been using the rewards-based method to train Ivy with the command “look!” when we’re out on walks, so that when she sees another dog she knows to look at us and get a treat, rather than stay alerted to the other dog, which sometimes escalates into situations we don’t like.
The beautiful thing about leading your puppy with kindness is that it still puts you in charge. The puppy develops trust and faith in you because you’re just so darn good to it, and spending time with you is wonderful and rewarding. You’re not scary, and you’re also 100% in charge.
Great leaders of people are also not scary. I don’t know about you, but when I encounter a leader who does the psychological equivalent of an alpha roll – someone who takes pleasure in putting me in my perceived place – I, well, I hate it. Sometimes I’ve had to tolerate it, other times I’ve tried to change it, I’ve even tried to ignore it. Each time I’ve worked for an alpha-roller, I’ve ultimately had to leave to preserve my sanity and career.
You know what works for me, though? When my leaders tell me what they want from me, reward me for doing it well, and redirect me if I go off-track. You can do the same for your team.
I am here to bust the myth of the nice girl. I am not telling you to be kind because you’re a woman leader. I’m telling you to be kind because it’s the decent thing to do for other people. What does kind leadership look like?
Thank you Brene Brown. Clear is kind, especially when you need to be clear about something that is hard to say. Whether you’re setting boundaries, giving praise, coaching behaviors, or mentoring someone into an advancing role: be as clear as you possibly can. I used to have a professor who put on her syllabus “Never wonder or suffer in silence.” Uncertainty is a form of suffering. But clear is truly kind..
Generosity is an inexpensive investment with off-the-chart returns. If you’re generous with your feedback – you give it often, and openly, and without recrimination – your team will seek it more often. If you’re generous with your time, your team won’t be afraid to bring you big, knotty problems that will take time to untangle. Being generous prompts people to want to reciprocate, so literally the more you give the greater the bounty that comes your way.
And let me be clear: I’m not saying be generous at your own expense. Do not give so much to others that you don’t have the reserves you need to care for yourself. Generosity goes hand-in-hand with setting meaningful boundaries. Establish the boundaries that are important to you, and then be as generous as you can within them.
Hot tip: one of my least favorite leadership behaviors, but I see it a lot, is for a boss to say “let me know how I can help you.” This is inattention masking as generosity. As a leader, it is literally your job to know how to help your team. Which leads me to tip number 3.
I personally think nothing demonstrates kindness quite as well as curiosity. If you’re not curious about someone but you step in to offer help, advice, or directions, you’re kind of just being self-centered. In all your interactions, remind yourself to get curious. Is someone on your team upset? Ask for specifics about what’s bothering them. Are they struggling to finish a project? Ask them to show or explain to you what’s getting in their way. Did they say something you don’t fully understand? Ask them for clarifications.
And then take action based on what you learn. Curiosity is only useful to you as a leader if you use it as a way to provide solid, constructive, meaningful, and useful feedback to your team.
As I’ve been making the mental shift in our puppy training from alpha-leadership to leading with kindness I’ve been struck by the value of recognition. The alpha roll is one way to recognize a dog, for sure: it just instills fear and may actually create anxiety where there had been none. But rewards-based training means I see everything the puppy does because I’m watching and attentive, and I’m giving the puppy wonderful treats for doing awesome things, which is so exciting that the puppy repeats those great behaviors to get treats – and even more importantly, my attention and affection.
While I recognize the value of rewards in puppy training and I often yearn for recognition for my own work, I am not always a fan of organizationally structured recognition. I remember winning an award that I didn’t know about, and being called to a stage to receive the award in front of hundreds of people. Someone later told me that as my accomplishments were being read I was looking down at the stage and twisting my foot around – visibly uncomfortable. That feedback has stayed with me. I loved the actual reward, and I was so glad to have my work recognized. But the method of recognition caused me visible discomfort. I learned a lot from that.
So take this lesson from me, and think about how you can recognize your team in ways that feel authentic and meaningful, that don’t cause embarrassment or discomfort, and that don’t leave others feeling unrecognized as a byproduct. Recognition doesn’t have to come in the form of a plaque or a big public announcement. It can be a small gift, a handwritten note, an offer to take someone to coffee or lunch, or just a quick phone call to say thank you in person.
I really want you to think about breaking the organizational mold here. There are some institutional ways of recognizing folks that really matter: writing a recommendation for a promotion file, making sure someone’s recent publication is shared with the whole campus, rewarding extra work with a stipend, and so on. I still want you to do those things.
I also want you to get creative and find ways to bring recognition into your daily experiences so that truly seeing each other is normalized. I’ll share an example of one way someone else did this for me.
One day I came to my office to find a unicorn pinata and a bag of personalized goodies – foods someone knew I liked, plus some yarn for a knitting project – outside my door. The unicorn had a sign around its neck that said something like “Hello! My name is Lemondrop and I’m here to brighten your day. After you’ve enjoyed me for a bit, please pass me along to another person so I can bring them some joy too.” This wasn’t recognition for anything I’d done in particular, but it told me I was seen and appreciated, that I was on someone’s mind – it told me I mattered. It was meant to be anonymous but it wasn’t, only because I knew who knew I liked the things in the goody bag. But the spirit of anonymity and the impetus to pay it forward actually made it more meaningful to me.
After enjoying Lemondrop’s company for a few days, I gave serious consideration to where I should send Lemondrop next. I wanted her to go to someone who might be feeling invisible, who might need a boost, who would really benefit from the message “I see you and I value you.” I chose my person and then created a small gift package, and sent Lemondrop on her way. It was a small but meaningful token of recognition for me, AND it brought me great joy to play it forward. In fact, it made me feel so good that I created another little character with a note and a goodie-bag and sent HER out into the world as well. I don’t know where they are today, but I’m pretty sure they are somewhere on campus bringing people joy.
Puppies are adorably, maddeningly curious. They don’t understand how anything works, and so they spend a lot of time figuring stuff out – including you. How can they get your attention? Which behaviors do you reward? Are you the one with small bits of cheese in your pocket?
As they explore and come to understand the world, they also start to understand the people in their world. They want to feel safe, and happy, and they’ll feel both around the people they trust.
This has benefits for you as the human. A puppy who trusts you will listen better. He’ll respond more positively to your tone of voice, hand signals, and body language. He is more likely to come to you of his own accord, seeking you out for comfort as well as for play. This makes him easier to train and socialize.
All those behaviors set the foundation for true affection. I’m no expert on doggie emotions, but from my non-scientific observations I can say that a dog who knows and trusts me is more likely to snuggle, lick my face, and greet me with boisterous tail-wags. In turn I feel more affectionate toward the dog – it’s easier for me to be kind, patient, tolerant, and giving because my heart is open.
And all those good, two-say interactions build loyalty. The internet is full of stories of dog loyalty: dogs protecting children, dogs saving the lives of their owners, dogs finding their way home over hundreds or thousands of miles. Those dogs are loyal because they feel safe and loved.
Want a dog that loves you enough to prefer you above all other people and will go to great lengths to care for you? Build a deeply trusting relationship.
OK, duh, right?
If you’re a thinking human you will likely reject blind loyalty. If you’re anything like me, you’ll think less of people who ask it of you. Blind loyalty is nothing but fear and obedience masquerading as respect.
If you think about how dogs treat their people — minus the face-licking and butt-wiggling (or not…you do you!) you can get to the heart of loyalty and trust. You might not choose to build trust with your team by keeping a pocket full of cut up hot dogs or cheese bits – but again, you do you! – but there are some tried and true ways to build trust with your colleagues.
My favorite book on the subject is Stephen MR Covey’s The Speed of Trust. What I like best is that he offers a step-by-step method for building trust – how to build trust with someone new, how to repair things if someone quits trusting you, and how to talk to someone when you’ve lost trust in them. He names a list of 13 behaviors that you can pick and choose from, sort of like a cafeteria menu, depending on the situation. But underneath those behaviors are two basic principles: character and competence. For Covey, character is built based on integrity and intention, while competency is built based on capabilities and results. In other words – character is built on how others perceive your values, and competency is built on what you actually do.
Want to build trust? Set aside your ego and learn how others perceive you. You may know because people may tell you. If you don’t know, or if you want a wider dataset, ask around. It doesn’t need to be a big deal or interrogation. Tell some folks you’re doing a little introspective work and professional development and it will help you to know how people perceive you, then ask them to tell you what words come to mind when they think about you. Or, if it’s performance season you could conduct an informal 360, for your eyes only. Or if you’re a data nerd, go build a Qualtrics survey and go crazy. 🙂
Whatever your method for gathering info, your next step is to use what you’ve learned. For example, if you see a gap between what people say about you and how you are hoping to be perceived, figure out what competencies – what behaviors – you can change. And don’t tackle everything at once. Dog training is a long game, a lifetime commitment. So too is strengthening your leadership practice.
When we rescued our third dog, Ivy, our kids were 7 and 5. By that point Shannon and I had already trained two dogs, but this was our first time training a dog with kiddos around and that introduced some new, um, challenges. One of the biggest? Clear communication.
Puppy training goes faster when your vocabulary and expectations stay consistent. Consistency is not really a strong suit for the littles, especially when they’re excited to try new things and lack the patience to wait for the puppy’s training to kick in. We muddled our way through it, though, and we now have a very bonded, affectionate, and obedient dog in Ivy.
This is all much easier with Bacon. The kids are familiar with the commands we use because Ivy is 8. They are accustomed to the family rules and expectations, and they know how to praise and how to gently correct a dog. The result? This time around the puppy training is exponentially faster.
Why is this so?
When a puppy is busily figuring out its new world it doesn’t understand much of anything you do or say. Puppies really do keep trying all the things in order to get the response they’re seeking. If they’re doing 50 different things, and you’re responding 50 different ways, you are just amplifying their little puppy chaos. But if every time they try those 50 things you have the same response, they quickly learn what to do, and what not to do.
And also, they’re learning…so part of being consistent and clear includes being patient. Give them time to understand you, and make it easier to understand you through consistent words, signals, body language, and tone of voice.
One of the most consistent complaints I hear people express about the leadership above them is the leaders keep changing their mind. Some people call this “moving the cheese,” others call it “shifting the goal-posts” – but whatever you call it, it’s a frustration that you’re doing what you were asked (or told) to do, only to have the desired end result changed late in the game. This behavior from the people above you will make it impossible for you to ever succeed, because the expectations are neither clear nor consistent. To the contrary: they are constantly changing and you are kept in the dark. This leadership behavior can look like simple or even innocent miscommunication, but it can also be driven by incompetence, fear, or in the worst cases, outright malice. It takes a strong and humble leader to genuinely want her team to thrive and to create the conditions that make it possible. If you’re in an environment where the expectations are constantly changing, that’s a pretty good sign that the leaders above you are not interested in your success.
I want to be clear that I’m not talking about people needing to flexibly adapt to a changing environment. I’m not referring to change management or preparing your team to be resilient. I mean, seriously: given what we’ve lived through since – let’s be honest here, since 2016 – we have all proven ourselves to be remarkably adaptable and tough as hell. Being able to handle change is essential to your team’s success – and if they’ve been around for the last half-decade, consider that they have already demonstrated their skill in that area.
What I *am* talking about is clear and consistent communication from you that establishes, and then reinforces, expectations; that provides feedback – both corrective and praising – so your team knows how they’re doing; and has a genuinely achievable end-point.
How to clarify your communications
A lot of the dog training books my family has read and videos we’ve watched recommend that you play with your dog before you begin a training session because puppies have a hard time focusing if they have energy to burn. Even more, puppies can gain a lot of knowledge through play: for example, we teach our dogs our names by playing a game called “Puppy Ping-Pong.” Playing this game, all of our dogs – well, not Bacon, at least not yet – have learned to willingly go to whoever in the family you tell them to go see. This is an exceptionally useful skill for dogs to have, and has created a lot of harmony in our home.
So play calms dogs down and prepares them to learn. Play creates a way to learn new skills. And play can be used to build bonds. Plus it’s just fun.
Play has been shown to release the “feel-good” hormones: endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Play at work can take lots of forms: silly fun banter, improv, board games, trivia, and so on. The pandemic introduced many of us to digital games like kahoot! that blend learning and competition. Game-based learning is a real thing: research shows that students who learn through games not only learn more material faster, they retain what they learned better than students who learn in other ways.
Please, whatever you do, don’t rely on carbon-copy team-building, pseudo-play activities. I may be an outlier, but I can promise you that if I don’t already know someone, I am NOT going to willingly fall backward into their arms. Don’t use play to pretend or force trust. Don’t make people play. If you do, it’s just another work assignment.
If you want to use play to build trust, start with low stakes activities. Ask your teammates what they like to do for fun, and see if you can incorporate that into your regular routine. Monday MadLibs could be a thing. Or Friday lunchtime trivia. Keep it real by keeping it grounded in what your team actually enjoys doing.
If you’re ready for higher stakes activities, ratchet things up by engaging in play that takes more time – for instance, my team recently had a 90-minute lego party – or play that calls for physical activity. A now-retired CEO I know used to play softball with her team because her team loved it and had a blast. Another treated his conference attendees to a night of bowling.
Good, useful, rewarding play – the kind that leaves you flooded with happiness – is context specific. It’s tailored to your team, to their abilities and interests, and to their level of engagement with each other. Just like with puppies – start small and build up to something more complicated. No brand-new dog is ready to take a running leap onto your back and then spring into the air to catch a frisbee. The same is true for teams that aren’t used to playing together.
Sarah Hodgson, one of my favorite dog trainers, notes that “nobody gets a puppy in order to get more sleep.” My 13YO son already has a wonky sleep schedule just from being a teenager, and now he’s potty training a puppy which requires him to get up multiple times during the night. He is committed to being Bacon’s primary person, though, so he dutifully wakes up, carries the puppy outside, waits, cleans up, comes back in, puts Bacon back in his crate, and then struggles to go back to sleep.
A few days into this he asked me for some help. He told me that he loves the puppy but he’s starting to feel resentful of the puppy’s demands on his time, and he feels guilty for resenting the puppy, and he really needed a break. I asked if it would help him if I took a night shift so that he could sleep. He nearly wept with relief.
That night I took care of Bacon and my kiddo did two things: he spent some time gaming with his friends, and he slept for about 13 hours. The next day he woke up happy, giggling, and overjoyed to spend time with his puppy. The guilt and anxiety were vanquished by good old-fashioned rest.
Exhaustion is real and waaaay more than just being tired. Research shows that lack of sleep affects your judgment, the speed at which you think, and your memory. It also affects your mood, making you quicker to respond with anger or irritability. If you’re trying to support a team and lead from your values, sleep deprivation will prevent you from being your best self.
Nearly a full year before the pandemic, in May of 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon in its International Classification of Diseases. The WHO says:
Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
Clinical studies link burnout and sleep deprivation. One study found that insufficient sleep predicts burnout, and another study found not only that too little sleep predicts burnout, and *also* that burnout predicts insomnia. The link between your ability to work joyfully and productively is very closely tied to whether you are fully rested.
But too little sleep is only one way we experience exhaustion. We are also exhausted from constantly being on. From not getting time away from our responsibilities.
The WHO partnered with the International Labor Study to study the effects of working long hours. Listen to these findings:
“In a first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours, WHO and ILO estimate that, in 2016, 398 000 people died from stroke and 347 000 from heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42%, and from stroke by 19%.”
Here’s what the WHO published about their findings:
“The study concludes that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.
Further, the number of people working long hours is increasing, and currently stands at 9% of the total population globally. This trend puts even more people at risk of work-related disability and early death.
The new analysis comes as the COVID-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on managing working hours; the pandemic is accelerating developments that could feed the trend towards increased working time.”
So that exhaustion you’re feeling? It’s literally putting your life at risk.
First, I’ll suggest you take a lesson from my son: ask someone you trust for help. And be very specific in your request. Maybe, like him, you need an overnight babysitter so you can get a full night of rest. But you might need or want other things. Would it help you to have someone do something you’re normally responsible for – maybe a load of laundry, maybe mowing the lawn, maybe being the family chauffeur – for an afternoon, or a day or two, or even a week?
You might also consider using the resources that are already available to you. Do you have any unused vacation time you could use to take a day to yourself? Could you use sick pay to take a wellness day? Is there a long weekend coming up that you can use to fully unplug? Could you maybe – I know this is hard to contemplate – not answer work emails after, say, 5:00 pm? There are likely some spaces in your life that could easily be opened up to you for restoration and rejuvenation…you might just have to work a little bit to find them, and then convince yourself to use them.
I’ll also suggest a second lesson from my son: know what you’re going to do once you get the time to rest you need. He didn’t lie on the coach doom-scrolling. He didn’t spend it reading puppy training manuals or watching puppy training videos. He took actual time away from the thing that was exhausting him, and instead spent time doing things that make him happy. He connected with his besties in one of their favorite online games, and then he slept long and deeply.
So consider: asking for help, using your available resources, and planning ahead so that you don’t fall into the trap of doing the thing that is wearing you out even when you’re trying to relax.
When I was first learning how to train dogs I was very persuaded by the arguments against using food as a motivator. Essentially I believed that if I needed food to get Abby to obey me, then I’d be screwed when I ran out of treats, left them at home, or they were nabbed by the stealthy German Shepard at the dog park.
But Bacon is incredibly food-oriented – definitely the most food-oriented dog we’ve had. He will do anything if there is something delicious in it for him. And my faculty colleague in Animal Behavior explained to me that using food for training is natural for dogs and easy for humans. After they explained that to me I tried using treats to teach Ivy a new command and wow! It worked like a charm.
Since my colleague reframed my own thinking about using food for training, I have come to think of the arguments against using food for dog training as grounded in US moralizing over food choices. This moralizing is especially used against women to create shame and compliance. But there is nothing wrong with food. It sustains us. It pleases us. It provides pleasant ways to pass the time, and is a key feature of a vast majority of cultural celebrations. Clearly food *is* motivating.
I used to work with someone who was a strong advocate of what she called “food and fellowship” because she believed eating together can be a bonding experience. Another colleague taught me to begin faculty meetings with “Coffee and Conversation” – same idea. We like coming together and sharing meals.
Sometimes we treat food as a perk or even a bribe – as in, come to this meeting from 12-1 and we’ll buy you lunch. People even joke about needing food budgets in order to get anything done. But what if instead we approached food as life-affirming and culturally consequential?
Just as when you bring more fun and play to your team, approach using food in meaningful ways in the specific context of your team.
Begin, if you need to, by changing the way you talk about food in group settings. If you refer to it as a bribe to get people to show up, stop. If you randomly spend your food budget on meals in hopes of keeping people happy, stop that too.
Instead, treat food as part of a celebratory reason to be together. Don’t just add food to an event: plan intentionally for the role you want the food to play. If you’re hoping it brings people together, then organize it – its location, its placement, even the food choices themselves – to unite folks. If you host a continental breakfast before a early-morning meeting starts, make a point of sitting down with folks – maybe even working the room a little bit – so that you get time to eat and converse. If you’re hosting a meeting with lunch, don’t normalize working while eating: actually take a break, shift locations if you can by moving to a different space, and make time to enjoy your meal together. Treat food as a reason to gather and make that gathering intentional.
All our dogs have learned the same commands, but they haven’t learned them at the same speed or to the same level of perfection. Bacon mastered “sit” and “wait” at mealtimes before he was 10 weeks old; our feral Foxhound Abby took months. On the other hand, Abby had totally mastered the command “speak” within 3 months, but at 8 years old Ivy is like Why? Why are you telling me to bark? What is wrong with you?
You likely have an established baseline of expectations for your team. You can be equitable and hold them all to those expectations, and simultaneously be inclusive and acknowledge their different learning curves, their extenuating circumstances, their need for additional resources, and even their prior preparation, all of which will affect the rate at which they achieve their maximal performance. Your job is to watch, guide, coax, encourage, support, and lift up at every stage of their development.
I know I’m mixing metaphors here, but to be flexible, shift from boss to coach. When a competitive athlete is training, their coaches watch for everything: biomechanics, strength, changes in posture or speed or focus, and so on. The coach pays attention to the individual performance of each athlete, helping them fine-tune their skills, improve their stamina, increase their pace or accuracy – all in different ways, specific to each athlete’s performance.
So while a “boss” might give a rousing speech that ends with “go hit your targets!” a coach will already know, from watching and listening, not just whether but how her team is struggling, and she will reach out in ways that say “I see you, I believe in you, and here are some of the ways we can work on this together.” That coachee now has the tools and support she needs to go hit those targets.
Coaching your team is time- and labor-intensive work, and I know from my own experience leading through the pandemic that it is all too easy to drop this piece of your responsibility while you’re busy putting out all the fires everywhere. (If you’re on my team and listening to this? I. am. sorry.) My personal goal starting this past January was to make more room in my calendar both for myself and for my team. I’m not perfect but it’s getting better. As you prepare for the coming semester, consider spending time with your people an essential priority. It will allow you to coach them in ways that are specific, meaningful, and life-affirming for both of you.
The final way puppy training is like leadership? The rewards are endless. Treat your leadership practice like a lifetime commitment. Take the long view. Go into it with gusto, with optimism, and a vision for how happy you’ll be with these thriving new relationships in your life. And take some steps – any of these listed above – to bring that vision to life.
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