Who are you?

This adorable exchange between Grace and Happy occurred on the morning that Happy was leaving — four days after his arrival. It looks like they are still trying to get to know each other. We can learn from their constant curiosity and exploration as opposed to thinking there is nothing left to learn.

I’m still reviewing and processing all the information I learned at Suzanne Clothier’s recent workshop on fearful dogs. The lessons most certainly apply to all dogs – and people.

She suggests that there are elemental questions that we should ask a dog when interacting with her. The first of those questions is: “Who are you?” It seems like an easy-enough question to pose. But like most “simple” things in life, they aren’t always easy and can require quite an effort to reach the quality of outcomes that are possible.

If indeed we do think about asking this question, it’s typically on the first time we meet someone. We try to assess someone’s appearance, demeanor, words, and actions. And we do this quickly. In fact, the Society for Human Resource Management Association produced a study that reported that hiring managers will make their decision about a candidate within the first 4.3 minutes that they meet. After our impressions are formed, we then start to justify how we feel rather than being open to new data points.

We had family visiting this past weekend and there was no better example of how we slide back (or stay) with old habits. I know I found myself getting impatient with patterns that I’ve experienced with my family versus being open to learning more about them. They brought their dog, Happy, and he and Grace were often sniffing and exploring things together and I think they were much better about living in the moment and staying with the present situation rather than relying on what they had experienced in previous visits with each other.

Suzanne’s point about this question is that in order to have a stronger, more meaningful relationship with your dog (which translates to higher compliance in training efforts, for example), you need to know how they sort out their world. Are they focused on auditory sensory stimuli? Or visual? Do they like people? Or just tolerate them? Do they enjoy physical activities? Or prefer mental games with puzzles and toys? If you were able to satisfy and/or work within their frame of reference, do you think you’d have a happier and well-adjusted dog? You bet.

When managers can build upon an employee’s strengths and natural work styles, everyone will benefit. When we don’t take the time to understand a person, we miss out on so much that they can offer. Suzanne was quick to remind us that we need to continue to ask the question, even when we think we know it all. Things change and the best relationships are built upon a solid comprehension of the situation – which can change under different circumstances. Have you ever had an employee who was exceptional in their job, and then was promoted, only to have devastating results? Career growth is important and should always be part of our plan, but we have to do it thoughtfully, with a strong understanding of who that person is at the core of those decisions.

Grace can stretch and learn new things, but she and I both have to work together to manage the best ways for her to develop. And I admit that asking the question [‘who are you?’] about Grace does not automatically come to the forefront of my mind. But when I do remember it, it helps me to stop doing things to her, versus involving her in the plan of action.

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12 comments

  1. If I take this advice apply it to someone whom I feel I allready know well… it does give a new apreciation for them. I would be interested to hear how Grace and you define the answer.

  2. didiwright says:

    Good question…It urges us to stop and view our dogs as who they are, rather than as who we would like them to be.
    As someone who relies heavily on first impressions, I completely agree that the first 5 minutes are crucial…Once this impression is formed, it’s hard to change, even when it’s obviously wrong.
    As for examples of people who were brilliant in one position and terrible when promoted to a new one, there are so many of them..My excellent head of department at the university where I worked years ago went on to become a bad dean with no management skills and dictatorial behaviour…Also, there are lots of former champion athletes who did no good as coaches, etc. As you say, when circumstances change, everything changes…

    • Great examples about how exceptionally skilled people can get lost in a position that isn’t a good fit for them. You mention the athletes and coaches and I can definitely see how those positions require unique traits. There are examples of football coaches (American football, not soccer) who tried to transition from professional to college-level — and visa versa — and then had poor results so went back to the other level. It’s great when we can determine why it didn’t work out and accept that rather than feeling that we did something wrong or weren’t good enough. We should play to our strengths as much as possible, then we can easily succeed! Thanks for your perspective, Didi, it’s always valuable.

  3. I take the phrase, “who are you.” and combine it with the phrase, “We should play to our strengths as much as possible, then we can easily succeed!” Then I apply it to a former boss of mine. As in Didis example, She became a tyrant upon promotion. Im asking myself, “could I have found a way to enable her to find success?” I ask.. “What were her streagnths?” But alas… Im stumped. I just don’t see any. I suppose there must have been a way. While I no longer have to deal with her, she still torments some very dear friends of mine. 🙂

  4. It is often difficult to see someone’s strengths when the situation is really bad. But my guess is that they existed, such as technical expertise or the ability to challenge a situation instead of being too meek. But it was likely too overwhelming for any one person, especially someone reporting into this person, to be able to make a difference. It would have had to come from this person’s manager, either to help her balance and adjust to a better leadership style or recognize that she wasn’t in the right job and make a change. Sorry that your friends are still dealing with it!

  5. Kas says:

    I am slowly catching up on your blog, and this post really hit home for me. As someone with fearful dogs (and they’re each fearful in their own ways), it really is important to not jump to conclusions but rather watch what they do and learn who they are. Thanks for sharing these lessons – sounds like a great workshop!

  6. Dog Maven says:

    I rehab shy/abused/fearful/practically catatonic dogs for Dog Star Animal Sanctuary, Noah’s Ark, and the Fairfield Iowa community… I take in one at a time, and yes, I do make assumptions based on the 1st 5 minutes, and am sometimes dumbfounded as the dog has a completely different cycle of healing/trust gaining than I/we had anticipated! I started with a Staffie that was abused & totally shut down. Tikva took 2-3 yrs, in many steps, to trust people. Moving furniture and blowing banners are still ‘evil’… but she was able to wear a money vest at a hugely crowded event, something none of us thought would ever be possible.
    Recently, we had a Catahoula that was trembling, dying to be petted, but wouldn’t let us close enough to catch her. She was at Dog Star. Sanctuary, on 5 acres, and would have stayed there, as a refugee from her past on a chain, had she not gotten out to hunt, and been in danger. I spent 3 hrs crawling in brush trying to get her w/no luck… So, Melody Coulter caught her asleep & brought her to my place in town. Utterly terrified, we carried her in. I thought this would be a 1 to 2 yr project, if she even got better. The next day, I had her out on a leash (always use a halter on fearful dogs, then a martingale collar— one time being afraid of a dumpster, slipping the collar, and they could be dead!) in front of my house. Four people unexpectedly showed up to see me @ once, and the Catahoula went up to them to Ask to be Petted! Who knew? She’s coming along, and I could place her with a dog savvy person now, only 6 wks out! So, yes, open your mind, when dealing with fearful dogs; don’t give up, don’t assume, try different strategies…. humans, I dunno, LOL!

    • Thanks, Dog Maven, for your interesting stories of such wonderful progress with fearful dogs. The point that resonates with me is to keep an open mind about the possibilities, not to be limited by what you think will or won’t happen. I do believe the same is true for humans! Thanks again for stopping by.

      • Dog Maven says:

        yes, telling ourselves “stories” with imagined outcomes very futile & mostly damaging…my comment on humans was meant to be tongue in cheek, bye the bye

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