Memphis Rae, our newest family member, is an 8-month-old German Shepherd puppy who we found through the Georgia Shepherd Rescue. She’s a great looking dog, very bright and mostly friendly, and gets along with our whole family, including Monroe, a gentle, regal Shepherd also from Georgia Rescue, who is about 2 1/2.
But Memphis barks at strangers. That’s off-putting now; it will get worse if we don’t deal with it as she grows. The howl and snarl will make her look ferocious (though we know otherwise). She’s a pet, not a military attack dog (though she could be).
We’d been trying to correct Memphis’s barking. but when our makeshift remedies failed, we took her to an animal behaviorist, and my wife, Sharon, and I began reading an excellent training guide, The Other End of the Leash, by Patricia McConnell. We found that, despite our good intentions, we’ve been doing everything wrong. While Memphis is still a work in progress, we’re learning that the secret to molding her behavior starts with Sharon and me – not that either of us are barking at strangers or howling at kids on bikes. But as “leaders of her pack,” we need to train Memphis before she makes a mistake, not after. So the first issue is us, not Memphis.
When I see what we need to do, it’s ironic that key principles from the canine world also apply to how we change behavior in us, our own species, and what we’ve been communicating to leaders in our own ELI courses. Here’s what we’ve learned we must do to run Memphis’s pack at home – and how the process parallels what we need to do in the workplace as well:
First, we need to agree on what we want Memphis to do and how we will communicate it to her; we need to have a simple message that we communicate consistently in terms everything we both do and say. Second, we need to make sure we keep repeating the same key signals so they literally become second nature. As for Memphis, her barking is somewhat instinctual but largely borne of fear. To change this, we have to consistently reward Memphis with verbal praise and dog treats when she chooses not to bark so she learns that not barking has a bigger payoff than her high pitched yelp. Thus, unlike powerful docs and executives who “bark” at their team, there will be no reward for such behavior. The trick we have to learn is to consistently reinforce positive behavior as it occurs rather than punishing bad behavior when the bark or damage has been done. In no case can we let it continue – we’d be abdicating our leadership role while rewarding the unacceptable.
We’re still learning, as is Memphis, but it sounds a lot like how we’ve been advising our clients to deal with their own out of control “big shots.” Too bad they weren’t consistently taught and positively rewarded for good behavior when they were workplace pups.