About two weeks before Christmas I was adopted by a stray dog.
(Anyone who has ever rescued a stray animal knows that you don't
adopt them, they adopt you.) Even though I already had two dogs,
one of whom was in failing health, I couldn't walk away from this
stray and leave her on the street in the cold.
Once she got the all-clear from my vet and moved into my house, the
next step was for the pack to establish their order. If you've
watched the Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic
Channel, you should be familiar with the term "pack leader." As the
human, I am by default the leader over my canine companions (or at
least should be). However, the dogs themselves must also determine
the alpha or head dog among them. My dog pack at this point
consisted of Natale, a 10-year-old mixed breed, and Aly a
nine-year-old Pug. The new girl, Virginia (Virgie for short) is a
five- or six-month old lab mix.
Being the oldest and largest at 40 pounds, Natale was the lead dog.
I found it interesting watching her interact with the puppy.
Although Natale's liver and kidneys were both failing and she
didn't have the strength to assert herself physically with another
dog, she let Virgie know very quickly who was boss. I never
realized the power of attitude until this moment. To put Virgie in
her place, Natale only needed to raise her upper lip on one side of
her mouth. If that didn't do it, she would follow up with a barely
audible growl. That was it! "Wow," I thought, "That is confidence.
Knowing you are the boss and letting others know it by your
actions." Virgie quickly fell in line, and there was peace in the
Sadly, in a little over a week Natale's kidneys finally gave out
and we had to let her go. Although Aly is a Pug, she had challenged
Natale for the lead role right from the beginning. I assumed she
would naturally step up to the role now, being the oldest and most
experienced. Remember what they tell you about assumptions.
Creating new leaders
When Natale didn't come home with me from the vet, chaos broke out.
I had no idea how much peace a true leader can bring to a pack
until she was gone. Technically I am the pack leader, but Natale
was my second in command and I relied on her without even knowing
it. I assumed that because Aly had had the benefit of being with
Natale for the past nine years, she would know what to do to become
In most organizations, we make that same assumption. We believe
that someone who has put in time at a company is the logical choice
for promotion to a management position. We assume they have learned
what it means to be a leader. In the training world, we sometimes
refer to this as "training by osmosis." Unfortunately, there is no
such thing. Individuals must receive focused development, and it
takes more than just spending time with someone to build competency
Poor Aly made the same mistake most newly appointed leaders made.
She had tried to be Virgie's friend, not her superior. When she
tired of playing and wanted to stop, Virgie didn't take her
seriously. I realized that neither Aly nor I had prepared for this
shift in our organization. When we plan for a leader's retirement,
we need to take the time to learn from them before they go. We need
to be sure we understand all of their responsibilities and that we
train their replacement. I had not taken the time to prepare either
Aly or myself for this.
Some people would argue that I should let the two dogs establish
dominance. Perhaps, but in my eyes Aly is the natural successor.
She has lived here longer and knows the organization. Besides, she
is older, smaller, and needs to assert herself for her own
protection. It is my job as leader of the pack to intervene and
support her as necessary. Watching my four-legged friends reminds
me that few of us are natural born leaders and even when we are, we
need training, experience, and support.
Training the new kids on the block
As the new kid, Virgie also needs training, guidance, and support,
so I enrolled her in puppy training at the local pet store.
Remember assumptions? Well, they again got me into trouble.
Although I have -adopted -numerous strays in my life, I had some
incorrect notions about how to train a puppy. I had always heard
that rubbing their nose in it when they had an accident was the way
to housetrain them. Well, I have now learned that doesn't work with
dogs any better than with humans. I made this mistake with not only
housebreaking but in dealing with the destruction Virgie has
wrought upon my household.
It was after she ate the cushion on one of my antique dining chairs
that I lost it. She'd already destroyed my BlackBerry case and
buried the device under a kitchen rug. This time, I raised my voice
and Virgie cowered. But she hadn't learned that I meant business
and that she should never destroy anything again. Instead, I was
simply teaching her to fear the sight of me. I had not taught her
about boundaries, just that when she saw me she was going to get
Think about it. If someone new doesn't know what she is supposed to
be doing, then how can you punish her? I was reminded of the Mager
and Pipe Performance Analysis Flow Diagram. The first step is to
determine if an employee knows what she is supposed to do. The next
step is to find out if she knows how to do it. You have to teach
the expectation and desired behavior with positive reinforcement.
When you rub someone's nose in a mistake without setting a clear
expectation and providing training, then all you are really
teaching them is to be afraid of you.
There are also ways of making gentle course corrections without
being stern or hurtful. I have learned to clarify boundaries by
labeling them in terms Virgie can understand, with either bitter
apple spray or cayenne pepper. I have also learned that a gentle
stream of water from a squirt bottle is an effective and gentle way
to redirect inappropriate behavior without being too harsh or
hurtful. The key is to speak in terms others understand or we will
not be effective as leaders.
I think back to Natale and how she made her point quietly and with
attitude. She never raised her voice. She only growled when she
needed to and never bit. I guess if I am going to be the true pack
leader, I've got more to learn from my canine friends.