We stand in front of a crowd. My dog lays quietly at my feet, the words “Do Not Pet” printed in bold on her working vest, doing their job to keep onlookers away. I glance over at my colleague, former Navy SEAL Eric Davis, and give him a sly smile. No one in the audience knows that my dog is actually a social butterfly – all they see is gnashing teeth and flying saliva as she barks, her display instilling fear as Eric begins his lecture.
He looks down at his notes and reads a paragraph aloud as the crowd is instantly hushed.
“They have extremely high drive and are excessively exuberant and playful. This level of energy often spans from their youth into adulthood. They can act out, be destructive and develop bad behaviors if not given enough stimulation and exercise. This often causes problems for owners who are not familiar with such a breed.”
The crowd glances at the dog. He then announces, “This is the breed description of the Belgian Malinois, some of the most elite K9 performers in the world.
The crowd nods in agreement.
“Now,” he pauses for dramatic effect, “what would we say about humans possessing the same traits? What would we say about a high energy, driven individual who acts out, is destructive or develops bad behaviors when not given appropriate stimulation or exercise?”
The participants look befuddled now.
“Maybe we would call it a disorder…,” he continues. “Anxiety? ADHD perhaps? OCD?
In K9s, these are our top performers – the ones we select to do the most difficult jobs. In humans, however, these are typically categorized as flaws…..”
The room is silent now.
“How many of you….,” he pauses as he scans the room, “can relate to any or all of those descriptors?”
Hands shoot up as the room of high performing executives instantly latches onto the parallels.
“This isn’t a disorder….,” he continues, “we are simply a different breed.”
Smiles flash across the faces of the participants as they now understand why we are standing at the head of the boardroom with high performing security K9s at our feet. And from there, now that he’s cemented their attention, Eric begins teaching the group about leadership development, teamwork, and communication through a handful of expertly trained K9s.
I’ve heard this speech countless times as we’ve visited team after team of executives, teaching them about human psychology and behavior through basic principles of training high performing K9s. Typically, I bring a handful of my K9s and perhaps a second professional handler to demonstrate the effects of different training styles.
I know Eric well. And I’ve worked alongside several of his Navy SEAL colleagues for years now. After spending time with him and his former teammates, I can honestly say without a doubt that their personalities mirror that of the working Belgian Malinois more closely than just about anyone I’ve met. Driven, intense, athletic, protective, exceptionally loyal, a little mean, and a heck of a lot of crazy would be a solid and interchangeable description between these men and the Malinois.
And as I listened to the speech for the umpteenth time, I had never drawn parallels to myself or my own life. In fact, rarely had I looked at any of the talks from a personal perspective. Perhaps I was too busy thinking about the talk I was about to give on Operant Conditioning. Perhaps I was worried about my dogs behaving. Whatever the reason, I never drew personal comparisons when he gave his talks. Never, that is, until the other day.
A Different Breed
If you’ve followed my blog at all, you’ve met K9 Shank, my little riot dog who I purchased to train as my executive K9 after he was returned to his breeder at 4.5 months old due to his unruly aggression. He is a handful to say the least, but I think the challenge is typically what I am after in life, and for that reason, he and I are the perfect match.
Just yesterday, Shank and I ventured out on our daily walk. His excitement was off the charts as we exited the house and ventured off into the the surrounding neighborhood. Christmas decorations regularly caught his attention, and at one point, he lunged across my body, grabbing a life sized Boxer in a Santa hat that barked the tune of Jingle Bells fortuitously as we passed.
Just about everything set him off that day. Passing cars were too much to bear, and a child on a skateboard whizzing by just about sent him into a fury. I’m used to pristine focus out of my guy, but that day, I had lost him before we even started. He was out of his mind, and there was not much I could do to get him back.
The next day, we headed up to training. I watched the other handlers as they paraded their dogs onto the training field. Calm, cool, and collected – their dogs maintained laser focus as they pranced perfectly alongside their handlers. I took note as a young puppy, all of 6 months old, laid quietly in a down stay as his owner talked to another club member, never budging to explore or investigate his surroundings.
Then, it was our turn. Shank was a different story. While his obedience was pristine, and he maintained a perfect heel with left and right hand turns that were flashy and on point, he lacked the quiet patience the handful of dogs that preceded us had shown. He was headstrong and ready for something….anything fun to happen. And you could see it in the gleam in his eyes. He was impatient, but he wasn’t barking. In fact, he wasn’t doing anything terribly offensive. He just had a different look than the other dogs. Always at the ready, always watching the world out of the corner of his eye and desperately waiting….no….begging, grinning manically as if trying to manipulate me into a game of tug.
He was constantly thinking, his mind rushing at a mile a minute, and I as his handler was doing the same. It was only then that I heard Eric’s speech replaying in my head.
“We are just a different breed.”
Intellectual, analytical, over-thinker. Highly driven, incredibly stubborn and hard headed, loyal to a fault, persuasive, argumentative, sensitive (a bit of a pansy really), thrill seeking individual with a complete lack of patience and very few social graces who is a little angry and a little mean.
This perfectly describes both my dog and I. And along with the sweeping realization of it all, I realized I was in trouble.
I’m not sure how it happened. I’m not sure if I chose him because I saw myself in his angsty personality. Or if our spending so much time together created the monster I saw before me. But one thing was for sure….two wrongs definitely didn’t make a right, and now I knew I would have to work hard at changing some of my own behavior in order to help him change his. While I loved his edge, loved his angst, and loved his character, there were a few gleaming problems in my little mirror that needed fine tuning, and to accomplish that, I had to go against my own grain….this would be no easy feat.
Changing my game
The next day, Shank and I headed out for our daily walk. As is typically the case, my exuberant and lacking-in-the-patience-department pup was brimming with anticipation. He grabbed the leash in his mouth, finding any way possible to satiate his excitement. He bounced off the walls (literally) as he begged me to hurry up already. Typically I would comply. I was as anxious to go as he was! But today, I took a deep breath and waited.
Being the over thinker he was, he began cycling commands, trying desperately to find the one thing that would make me open the door so we could begin our adventure.
He grabbed the leash, running through the house, and landing triumphantly in a down at my feet, gazing up at me with a giant grin, knowing I’d cave to his cuteness.
But I didn’t cave (although I did laugh a little inside).
After what seemed like an eternity, he settled, and as soon as he was calm, we ventured out into the neighborhood.
I walked slowly and methodically, just as I had seen the other handlers do that day on the training field, a lightbulb going off that perhaps my movements were too quick and were in fact cueing impatience in my pup who was all too much like his owner.
As I moved at what felt like a snail’s pace, my body itched with frustration at the sheer desire to GO. And at that moment, I instantly knew how my dog felt. He lacked patience because I lacked patience. We were trapped in a vicious cycle, the two of us perpetuating the other’s faults. It would be a huge challenge, but in order for us to grow together, I knew we had to make a change.
My movements became calculated, my pace steady, and my turns quiet and well thought out. And as Shank pulsed beside me with frantic energy, trying desperately to get me to hurry up already, his frustration slowly began to subside. By the end of our hour-long walk, he was quiet and patient, defaulting to my side with calm and laid back energy, even passing up the offensive Boxer in the Santa hat that had effectively taunted him the day prior.
I can confidently tell you that without a doubt, having patience in my work with my dog and making my movements calm and calculated was one of the hardest endeavors I have had to face. While I love my dog’s powerful character, mean, hard headed, and argumentative nature for some applications, in others, it’s probably best for both of us to work against our grain.
By being patient, I was able to plan our next move. I was able to put my overthinking to use and assess my dog’s behaviors step by step so we could perfect our heel. In response, he stopped reacting to my jerky and quick movements. He sunk into his walk and moved quietly, confidently, just as those dogs had the day before on the training field.
Dogs are furry mirrors into our souls. Whether we choose our dogs because we consciously or subconsciously see ourselves in their personalities, because we see those traits we wish we possessed, or whether we grow and evolve together, our K9s can teach us a great deal about ourselves if we only have the humility to learn.
Next time your dog acts out, it might be worth your while to take a hard look at yourself. Perhaps there is something you might be communicating that is causing or perpetuating the behavior. Your behavior might be to blame, and if so, it’s time to make a change. Changing your behavior might be hard, and going against your own grain is even harder. But sometimes it’s for the best…. not just for your dog, but for you as well. Project those traits you want your dog to have, even if they go against your personality…who knows, your dog may just teach you a thing or two!
Oh, and next time someone tries to tell you that being an over-thinker, being hard headed, stubborn, driven, motivated, impatient, argumentative, or sensitive are negative traits, just remember…