Leadership Lessons from Adopting a Shelter Dog
What are the big take-aways?
On a cold day in early April, when there were still dribs and drabs of snow on the ground, my husband Chris and I decided to adopt our first-ever dog. After months of multiple visits to local rescue agencies, we met Ella at North Country Animal League. A “transport” from a New Jersey shelter serving the NYC metro area, Ella is a smart and resilient 2-plus-year-old mixed-breed who loves every person and every adventure she can get her paws on. We chose her because she was both young and uncommonly self-possessed (the only dog who wasn’t barking in the kennel), because she was goofy with tennis balls (she wanted to play but, poignantly, didn’t seem to know how), and because she pressed earnestly against her chain-linked kennel door for maximum contact with us until the last moment, when we finally had to peel ourselves away from her warmth. Chris and I knew at the time that we couldn’t imagine exactly what we were getting ourselves into by adopting a dog, and one of the most significant things we couldn’t have anticipated about Ella in particular – but has been evident since the beginning – is her intense motivation to learn. Which therefore makes her a powerful teacher.
Why do I like it?
I like that the process we’ve undertaken of training Ella (and vice versa), through “Good Manners” classes and private consults, has offered me an unexpected trove of leadership lessons from self-observation. Here are four examples, along with some questions they raise:
Focus. Under the guidance of our phenomenal trainer Tay Margison, we are working with Ella on managing triggers (Ella can be suddenly and inexplicably aggressive with certain other dogs) and increasing her focus. On walks, we try to spot distractions like chipmunks before Ella does so we can prevent derailments by redirecting her, and we ramp her down as swiftly as possible if she gets escalated. Walking Ella in downtown Montpelier at busy times of day makes me notice how frequently my own attention drifts! I need to maintain my situational awareness or else something bad, like a dogfight, could erupt with no warning. Ella senses when I am well-grounded and concentrating because then I’m consistently rewarding desired behaviors with her favorite little freeze-dried duck treats. Naturally, when I lose focus, so does Ella. Self-observation questions: How far ahead – as well as up, down, behind and sideways – are you looking? How do you know when your attention is drifting? What do you do to get your focus back? What’s at risk in the meantime?
Authenticity. Ella can be sly and inventive when it comes to food and other opportunities, around the house and on the leash, to test boundaries. (This is how Chris and I learn what our boundaries are!) Watching our every move, Ella exposes our unconscious assumptions and reveals our lapses by not hesitating to exploit them. She has a hound’s nose, a nearly prehensile knob on the end of her snout, and is easily sidetracked and stubborn when she smells something especially interesting (read: putrescent). If I move toward her to call her away, Ella ignores me, sniffing harder. And why should she heed my commands? My feet are not facing in the direction I’m telling her we’re going! It’s obvious to Ella when I’m literally not “walking the talk.” To her, I mean business only when my actions speak louder than my words. Self-observation questions: How authentic is your communication? Are your own feet pointed in the direction where you want everyone else to go? How committed are you to the next steps you’ve deemed necessary to take?
Accepting “What Is.” Unless she’s sacked out and having those mysterious dreams that curl her lips, twitch her legs or wag her tail, Ella lives fully in the present. She accepts me and Chris and our imperfect ways, perhaps because she has an adaptable disposition and no choice but to deal with her current reality as best she can. Ella’s embrace of her new circumstances is endearing and inspires me to practice more radical forms of acceptance, too. Humor and perspectivizing are my go-to strategies for working on non-attachment when I feel reactive. (I did not realize how ridiculously “Archie Bunker” I had become about my cherished TV chair until Ella chewed $500-worth of repairs out of it!) Also, when it comes to Ella, Chris and I humbly acknowledge our ignorance and offset our limitations by seeking support from dog-savvy friends and professionals like Tay. Self-observation questions: In your current reality, what are you accepting and what are you resisting? What would more humor and perspective help you let go of? Whom could you ask for assistance, if you need it?
Emergence. North Country Animal League possessed no background information at all on Ella, including the circumstances under which she had arrived at the original shelter in New Jersey. Ella is getting a fresh start with us. This has meant that, for me, over the past four months there has been a sacred element to our tender time of mutual revelation, emergence and transformation while the three of us have been discovering who we are – separately and together – in this tiny newborn constellation. I first became conscious of falling in love with Ella when, at some point early on, I noticed I couldn’t inhale enough of the sweet scent of her musky, vaguely floral scruff. Now, when my head hits the pillow each night, I can’t wait for the morning when she’s allowed on the bed to cuddle with us. My deepening gratitude for Ella is opening my heart, aligning me with a sharper sense of purpose, and inviting me to step into a bigger version of myself. Self-observation questions: When you are most enlivened, aligned and spacious, what are you doing? What does this tell you about your purpose? Who or what invites you into your bigger or higher self?
In what situations would this be useful?
Self-observation exercises of any kind are always useful to leaders committed to increasing self-awareness. (As John Whitmore wrote in Coaching for Performance, “I am able to control only that which I am aware of. That which I am unaware of controls me. Awareness empowers me.”) A tool I typically use with clients who want to achieve a breakthrough is to co-design a self-observation experiment together. I begin by asking the client, “What do you want to find out? What assumptions are you consciously making? How could you test those assumptions?” (Obviously, training Ella has been doing this for me a lot, lately!) Then, the client and I co-create a simple, targeted experiment that is likely to yield the data s/he is seeking. In short, I encourage my clients to get super-curious, and then to observe themselves in action without judgment. Not judging, and just observing, is key. One client quit interrupting his co-workers in less than 48 hours by deciding he would make a hash-mark in his notebook every time he noticed himself speaking over others.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
For more on self-observation exercises for leaders, check out Marilee Adams’s engaging corporate fable and self-coaching tools in Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library, or Carol Dweck’s Mindset if you’re into neuroscience. To learn more about the complexities of behavioral communication between primates and canines, I recommend Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book and blog by the same name, The Other End of the Leash.