Dogs are our teammates, not our subordinates

(Original post written December 2011)
So, what does this mean, exactly? What does a good teammate do and look like? Every year, I teach my undergrads and MBA students this stuff, and it dawned on me this morning, that the same principles apply to us and our dog teammates. Here’s my thinking…. The “older” training techniques have assumed the human = dominant pack leader, dog = subordinate. This was based on the belief that dogs have these types of relationships within their “packs”; however, more recent research has indicated this prior research was quite flawed. Canine relationships are a lot less adversarial, use a lot of calming signals, and that human/canine relationships don’t have to be based on putting the dog “in its place.”
This brings me to the team analogy. First, the definition of a team is, “Groups of people who are interdependent, interact with each other, and see themselves as a unique entity” (Whetten & Cameron, 2011). If we modify it to our context, a team is then a dog and handler, who are interdependent, interact with each other, and see themselves as a unique entity. This implies that a dog should see extra value in its handler, and show a preference to working with the handler and the handler also identify the team as a unique entity. (For example, my team with Baxter is a very different entity than my team with Kelsey.) The key characteristics of an *effective* team are the following: the members are interdependent, they are more efficient working together, they create their own magnetism, they do not always have the same leader, members care for and nurture one another, the cheer for each other, and they have a high level of trust (Whetten & Cameron, 2011). I will discuss how each of these applies to our human/canine teams.
The first key component is the interdependence between the team members. This means, that the dog is not independent from the human, nor is the human independent from the dog. Neither individual within the team is sufficient to meet the goals of the team. This makes sense as it takes two to complete an agility course. (Okay, granted I’ve seen a handler complete the agility course on their own, with the dog watching them from the sidelines, but I’m pretty sure the handler didn’t get a ribbon. Laughs, yes, ribbon, no.) It takes two to complete a flyball run. It takes two to complete the rally-o course, and it definitely takes two for search and rescue.
Similarly, it is interdependence, not co-dependence. This means that each member of the team completes his/her job as part of the team. The handler should not be micro-managing the dog to complete its part of the job. We see co-dependence between dog and human when the dog relies heavily on “in your face” cues from the handler (e.g., touch, blocking, excessive commanding), but we also see it from the human side, when the handler insists on getting in the picture of obstacle performance instead of doing their job of handling.
The second component, the members are more efficient working together, makes sense. For example, a human seeking to find a lost person on their own is a lot less efficient than the team. Similarly, a dog romping about on their own is less efficient at finding the lost person than working as a part of the team. We have also seen many runs where the team isn’t working together, and this leads to very inefficient agility runs. (Yes – we saw Baxter and I exemplify this with our snooker run today – whoops!) Effective teams create their own magnetism. You know it when you see it. Haven’t you ever just sat back and enjoyed watching a human/dog team work together. The joy the two express as they complete their task together is really pleasurable to watch. This is the team magnetism. Conversely, the human/dog combination that isn’t working together as a team can be quite painful to watch (either out of frustration, or sympathy), but it is clear the dynamics aren’t working in a magnetic way.
A particularly important part is the following: an effective team does not always have the same leader. This, I think, is a critical point for our training and relationships with our dogs. The past philosophy of Human = Dominant One, means that there will not be a shared leadership between the human and the dog. It is the human’s job to be the leader 100% of the time; however, for the team to be effective, there must be shared leadership. So what does this mean? How can the dog be the leader? The dog is a leader by identifying the “holes” in the training. To cite Susan Garrett, the dog’s mistakes are simply the dog highlighting the need for training in that area. The dog is the leader in often identifying the speed of training, and the speed to be run on the course (although both can be negotiated between the two team members, effective teams are those in which the human allows the dog to lead, particularly regarding the training side). The dog is also quite literally the leader in search and rescue, as the dog leads the human along the scent trail.
Members care for and nurture one another. Okay, we can take the literal meaning of this. Yes, the human member tends to the dog’s physical needs, but ideally, the human teammate will nurture the dog’s psychological and emotional development too. Again, to cite Susan Garrett, this doesn’t mean being overly permissive, but it does mean the human team member has the responsibility to do no harm to their canine team mate. We also know that it is a two-way street. Anyone who has lost a dog knows to their very core just how much the dog gives back to us. If we’re lucky, we realize it and cherish it well before that point in time too.
Effective teams have team mates who cheer for each other. This is perhaps the harder one to illustrate between the human/dog team. I know my Miss Kelsey cheers for me, when she ramps up and barks her pretty little head off at the end of a speedy and fun run! Baxter cheers for me when he makes his big ears curl up, and wiggles his full body. As a team mate, I hope I live up to those standards, and cheer for their successful choices in our training, and our little and big successes along the way.
Finally, effective teams have a high level of trust. In the past, I’ve done research on trust between humans, and while there are many bases of trust (predictability, knowledge of the other person, certified credentials), one thing is very clear, once violated, it is hard to get back. Dogs don’t care if we have a certificate on the wall, or what successes we’ve had with other dogs in the past. They don’t even care if another dog trusts us. What matters to them is how we treat them directly. To this end, the methods which we choose to use in training our dogs will have the greatest impact on the level of trust the dog feels with us. If we are abusive to the dog (and for some, that can entail a stern verbal reprimand), then we eat away at the trust, and limit our ability to become an effective team with our dog. Similarly, if we don’t trust our dog, then we will also limit our ability to become an effective team. I see this sometimes when the human isn’t willing to “let go of the reigns” and relinquish some of the control to the animal. This can be shown on walking the dog on leash (yes, this was a biggie for me and Brooke), letting the dog attempt to do the contact on its own (again a biggie for me and Brooke & Baxter), letting the dog show us the scent path.
A lot of “Yeah, but….” can be seen in reply to this challenge, but without trusting our dogs, the team will also be less than ideal. Again, the call isn’t to be permissive; rather, it is to challenge our assumptions of “what is going to happen when….” It is about providing the opportunities to our dogs to learn and to show us they have learned. Of course, serious incidents of true aggression are major flags, and should be examined for their true cause (e.g., illness/pain, major training issues). But outside of that concern, dogs make mistakes, but so do we. That’s how learning occurs. If the dogs can forgive our transgressions (like the correction made out of frustration or lack of knowledge on alternative training methods), then perhaps we can forgive our dogs’ mistakes. After all, mistakes by any team member are simply indicators of holes in the training and the lessons we still need to learn.
Anyway, I wanted to share this with you. The book cited is Whetten & Cameron (2011). Management Skills Development, Prentice Hall. Let me know what you think.
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