Communicate, Don’t Dictate

Who knew Harvard Business School could provide salient advice on how to better communicate with your dog? Harley and I were walking together yesterday when I returned to a topic I try to keep at the front of my mind. What effect do my decisions have on his experience of a situation? Am I really considering his needs and wants in conjunction with my own?

In 2007, Harvard Business School Press published a book called The Opposable Mind, by Richard Martin. Geek that I am, I was intrigued by the premise of the book: brilliant leaders are able to hold “two opposing ideas in their minds at once and then reach a synthesis that contains elements of both but improves on each….” In English, they see a problem from both sides and reach a compromise that not only works, but makes each element work better. Successful leaders see And, not Or.

Why is that relevant to dog parents? Think about it. Your dog has his own set of needs, wants and desires. You have your own needs, wants and desires. Often these two sets of requirements don’t match. How do you resolve the conflict? You see the situation as a whole, not just one act at a time. You seek all the factors in a situation –not just the obvious ones–and consider how they are related.

Let’s use Harley and his tail as an example. Harley is a big guy and he has a fairly long tail. Because his size can be intimidating, I like to have him sit in public whenever possible, especially around folks who are not accustomed to large dogs. At first glance, I have two options: a) demand/enforce a sit command and b) let him do whatever he wants. Neither of those options will satisfy us both, however.

There is a third option that makes us both better. I learned years ago that one of the reasons he doesn’t like to sit in public is his fear of having his tail stepped on. How do I know that? When we first got together, we worked on the stay command a lot. I’d ask him to sit, walk away, return to him, circle behind him to reach the finish position. He broke his sit as I walked behind him every time until I figured out I need to make a larger arc so he would feel comfortable that his tail was safe from my clodhoppers. I now know that’s a concern for him, so I don’t ask him to sit in crowded situations or in situations where people will be walking behind him. I trust that the alternative (stand beside me) will match my wants (a well-behaved therapy dog) and his needs (tail security).

It’s important to me that I consider Harley’s strengths, weaknesses and comfort level in any situation and use prior interactions as my guide. I do my best to reach a compromise that will create the opportunity for him to present appropriate behaviors but allow for his natural curiosity and personality to shine through.

In theory, it’s not that difficult to consider your dog’s perspective. In practice, however, it takes attention, presence, and the desire to bring your dog deeper into your world. As with great business leaders, experience plays a major role in your ability to create innovative solutions. So the next time you and your dog go for a walk, watch and learn. Your dog always has something to teach.


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