Earlier this year, we got a new poodle puppy. Grunt, the chocolate brown miniature, is the 5th poodle to grace my world. Some think poodles are silly, but actually as dogs go, they are among the smartest, most versatile, and most loveable canines. One guy actually had them pull a sled for the Iditarod. In fact, they are so amazing, I have never really understood why people would bother crossing them with a Labrador to create the abomination called labradoodles.
Getting a new dog is great. Training a new dog is work. This time, my wife took on the task and worked with a wonderful trainer, Shelby Semel. Soon, we realized that Semel's teachings about being a dog boss apply just as well to interacting with people in the workplace. Acclimating a new puppy is lot like onboarding a new employee. You get excited at first, but somehow they don't quite meet the behavior you expect right away. Of course the sooner they know the rules, the fewer messes they will make. And when they do make a mess, it is usually the fault of the person in charge.
Try these 11 training tips to keep you and your staff out of the doghouse.
1. Don't lead with fear.
Shelby uses positive reinforcement with classical conditioning. So no more rolled up newspapers, no yelling, no punishing, and no scolding. But no treats either, until they show the appropriate behavior. If the dog associates you with fun and positivity instead of fear, he will be confident, happy, responsive, and constantly look to you for guidance and direction. The same applies with employees. Anger and punishment are the quickest ways to lead the best ones out the door.
2. Constantly reward good behavior.
If the reward for proper behavior is a simple "good dog," but punishment involves yelling or swatting, which will your dog remember? A focus on encouragement and reward actually helps minimize and eliminate bad behaviors. Reward employees for their strong behavior and contributions. Overcome challenges by emphasizing the positives to help them build confidence. Semel does caution about using rewards judiciously. "Once the dog understands the behavior, start weaning off treats by rewarding intermittently," she explains. "You don't want to take them away forever, though. Would you go to work if you were never getting paid? But you also don't want to be stuck with them all the time!"
3. Use different types of rewards.
There are low value, mid value, high value treats. Your dog probably likes rawhides, but loves bacon. The higher the value of the treat, the more your dog will be willing to do to get it. Figure out different treat levels for your employees and use them appropriately to recognize smaller and larger accomplishments. These need not be financial in nature. A Friday afternoon off, tickets to a favorite event, funding to attend a conference--all can be used as rewards.
4. Have social time and isolation time.
Our puppy needs time both to play and to rest. He didn't like being alone much at first, but he needed to get comfortable with it so he could learn to settle down, get sleep, and stay unsupervised when we need to leave the apartment. Do your employees seem to take pride in attending non-stop meetings all day long? Then they don't have much time left for quiet, solitary tasks like reflection, follow up, or report writing. Effective leaders need isolation as much as they need interaction to get work done. Workers who take no isolation time burn themselves out. Encourage them to schedule down-time along with meetings and committee work.
5. Structure plans and expectations.
Dogs need routine to feel safe, especially puppies being thrust into a new, strange environment. Life can be unpredictable and full of chaos, everyone needs a little order to be happy and relaxed. A structured schedule allows a dog some predictability. The same goes for employees. Make plans and constantly communicate your expectations. Guidelines create a sense of direction and assurance. This doesn't mean you can't allow for change or the unexpected; just aim for enough structure to let your pets and your people do their best work. "Routine will set you free," says Semel.
6. Stay present.
During training and playtime, Semel tells us to keep our full attention on the puppy at all times. So no texting, multitasking, or daydreaming. When meeting with an employee about anything important, make sure that you give them your full attention. Get all the distractions out of the way so that they feel that you really care about them and that nothing else is as important right then and there.
7. Be firm and consistent.
Using the same "cues" over and over is crucial to getting the dog to behave the way you want. If we don't always use the same words when asking for the same behaviors, Grunt will get confused and nervous. We have to stay consistent, and so do any guests who come into our home. If they are not able to remember and use appropriate cues, they won't be playing with the puppy. The same goes for employees. The moment your directives become unclear, confusing, or unreliable is the moment they will start losing respect for you.
8. Allow them to fail safely.
The dog will not always perform every new behavior I want from him right away. There's no need to freak out. He will sometimes fail, and we need to allow for that. He will start to understand the consequences, then attempt new strategies to get the desired result (a treat or affection). Your employees will also benefit from failure, if only to teach them what works and what doesn't.
9. Don't lash out under stress.
When the dog makes a mistake, gets confused, or does something naughty, the last thing we do is scream at him. You wouldn't scream at a baby, would you? We address the mistake, but try and combine it with more positive emotions. Humans should give each other the same consideration. For some reason, many adults yell when stressed, and direct that frustration at other people. "I can't think of a single time where I was stressed out and being yelled at or punished fixed the problem," says Semel. Even if an employee responsible for your stress, don't lash out.
10. Check in, check in, check in!
When we go on walks, our puppy is trained to not only to "heel" but to also look up and frequently check in with us. When he does, he gets lots of praise and intermittent rewards, which reinforce to him that checking in is rewarding and fun. This simple trick keeps his focus more on us, and less on the countless distractions on the street of New York City or the squirrels in Central Park. The same must go for employees. Check in often to make sure you are all working on the same important priorities. Check in to see if something about the environment is dragging down their mood. Or just check in to make them feel that you really care about them. Most importantly though, make sure that your check-in is fun and rewarding, not micro-managing.
11. Keep training short and fun.
"Training" should never be synonymous with "boring." In fact, the more enjoyable the experience, the more likely the information being presented sticks. This applies both to dogs and people, especially those who have long days in the workplace. The more engaging a training session, the more immersed they will feel. Semel also recommends taking breaks during training sessions to let the puppy relax and prepare for the next run of activity. And always end on a high note, leaving the dog wanting more. Giving your employees time to rest during a rigorous session will also ensure that they do not burn out, and that they give you top quality, while keeping them hungry for more learning.