Five things Dogs teach us about Leadership

Sarah Schubert

I have two chocolate Labradors who are 6.5 years old and for the last 12 months I have been fostering local Singapore dogs, three in total so far. So, I have had the pleasure of observing dogs for a number of years now and couldn’t imagine a life without them. Clearly I am no Cesar Milan but I am naturally interested in how dogs think and their behaviour and over the last few years, I have learnt some valuable lessons from them.

There are five things that my dogs and the foster dogs (whose behaviour is quite different at the beginning) have taught me about leadership:

  • Be present, live in the moment
  • Know your environment
  • Be observant of behaviours and respectful of boundaries
  • Loyalty & trust
  • Protect what is Yours

Let’s look at the first two in more detail.


Be Present, live in the Moment

My dogs (like all dogs) have a memory and thankfully remember who I am, where they live and a (small) portion of the training they received as pups. What I love about them though is that they don’t dwell on things that have happened in the past.

They are 100% focused on the now.

Buddy and Holly test my patience at times and get a telling off but when it happens they just get up and move on. They don’t sit and ponder and mull over the rights or the wrongs, they ‘accept’ it and they move on. They are as equally excited to see me the next time I walk through the door and just as excited about their walk.

They don’t let that one event dictate the rest of their day and I admire that.

Obviously, some events do change how a dog reacts and behaves, especially if there is abuse or danger. We have had a foster dog that was traumatised at an early age and resorted to biting when she felt threatened or cornered. She couldn’t move on from that event and as a handler you need to know how to manage that. But for most well-adjusted, cared for dogs the events they witness or are part of are not scarring.

So, how many times have you sat and ruminated over the meeting you had yesterday, the way the client behaved last week or the mistake you made last year and still not quite got over. I know I have and I am trying to stop doing it because it adds no value to the “now”, in fact it saps my energy and brain-power and generally puts me in a bad mood.

I do appreciate the importance of learning from mistakes and events, so what I now do is keep a journal that logs my ‘Lessons Learnt’. I answer these three very simple questions when something happens that I know will stick in my mind:

  • What triggered the event / mistake?
  • What did I contribute or not through my behaviour / actions?
  • What would I do differently next time?

Just the act of thinking about what happened and writing down my learning, takes it out of my head; it’s dealt with and I can free my mind up for the next challenge.

So, be a chocolate Lab and practice getting over things so they don’t dictate the rest of your day, week, month, or life!


Know Your Environment

Whenever I walk Holly I am convinced she will walk straight into a wall, tree or car because her nose is fixed to the floor. She literally sniffs her way round the park, taking me (and Buddy) on a magical mystery tour of the smells of Kent Ridge. She also is very eager to meet other dogs we pass, no matter how near or far away they are. I am glad she is well socialised and friendly but not every dog is the same way and not every owner wants their dog to meet Holly, so we sometimes have issues.

Basically, Holly is totally immersed in her environment at that point in time.

The same is true for the foster dogs: when they first come to the house they spend the majority of that first day sniffing and exploring the environment. They stay outside initially and rarely sit still. I always take them on a walk round the neighbourhood and a short 2km loop can take up to 1 hour but afterwards they are more relaxed because they have the ‘lay of the land’, they are more familiar with the new environment.

I used to find all the sniffing very annoying and would drag Holly away, muttering to myself about running late and not having time for her to sniff everything. I then read an article about why dogs sniff and one thing stayed in my mind. The article mentioned that a dog sniffing the ground is like us reading a morning paper and catching up on the news: they are catching up on what has happened in the neighbourhood since they were last there. And that got me thinking…

As leaders, we need to know our environment: who’s there, who’s new, who’s not been around for a while, what dangers are out there, what do we need to be aware of.

Quite often things sneak up on us: employee issues arise seemingly out of nowhere, a competitor gets in before us, a new competitor enters the market. The list of how quickly the environment changes, is endless.

Unless we ‘sniff the ground’ and spend time exploring what’s out there, what’s happening, what’s potentially coming, then we will be caught short and either miss opportunities or be reacting as opposed to initiating. The world is a small place these days so finding news and knowing what’s happening in the industry is just a click away. Knowing the environment at work is more difficult and requires a bit more intimacy and time.


Having regular, simple conversations is the key:

  • Have lunch once a week with at least one member of your immediate team, away from the office and don’t just talk about work,
  • Check the ‘temperature’ at each team meeting – ask people to describe how they’re feeling this week, use imagery such as weather symbols or pictures,
  • Go ‘cross-country’ and meet with a peer from another function, either for coffee, lunch or just a regular meeting; find out what’s hindering them, how you can help them and how they can help you,
  • Know who is new to the business, make a point of meeting and greeting and introducing yourself;
  • Regularly attend networking events that are either linked to your industry or area of expertise; join an organisation that will link you to competitors and collaborators.


Be observant of behaviours and respectful of boundaries

I learnt about this the hard way with the foster dogs, one in particular. It was early on in the fostering process so I was still very much learning the ropes. This particular dog had an issue with getting in the car and no matter what I did to coax her or treats I used, she wouldn’t budge. So, I got frustrated because I wasn’t able to manage her plus I had a time pressure, as I needed to walk the dogs and then go to an event. So, out of sheer annoyance, I bent down to pick her up and physically put her in the car. MISTAKE!! As you can imagine, as soon as I did this, she spun round and bit me. Not seriously, in fact it was more a bruise than a bite but it was enough to stop me in my tracks.

It was the first time I had been (what I felt at the time) ‘attacked’ by a dog. It wasn’t an attack, it was a warning to me to back off and if I had been observant of her behaviours up to that point (ears back, whale eye, licking lips) then she wouldn’t have felt it necessary to react in such a way. I couldn’t blame the dog, I needed to look a little closer to home.

If I had been observant of her behaviours up to that point she wouldn’t have felt it necessary to react in such a way

I realised I had become so complacent with Buddy and Holly who allow me to do almost anything in terms of touch that I failed to respect the boundaries of this new dog. I just applied what I do with them to her and clearly it didn’t work and I came off the worse for it. I also could have prevented it – she was giving me clear signs that she was nervous and stressed and yet because I was so fixed on what I needed to do and because I had become emotional about it, I didn’t take the time to observe and respond accordingly.

How often do you react to things versus taking time out to catch your breath and respond?

How often do you just apply the same management techniques to everyone in the team, regardless of background or where they come from?

How often do you take time out to just watch people, observe their behaviours and ‘listen’ to the non-verbal communication?

I have done these things too often and not enough. Not only have I made this mistake with dogs, I also made it early on in my career – failing to realise or recognise that different people need different things and not picking up on the non-verbal cues that were all around me. I was too much in my own head to see. With the foster dog, I was given the reminder in a very unpleasant way but it was exactly what I needed. It has fundamentally changed how I observe dogs’ behaviours and maintain boundaries until there is a mutual comfort level. I do it more so with Buddy and Holly as well because whilst there is trust and familiarity, they are still dogs and unpredictable. What I liked to give them i.e. kisses and hugs, turns out they’re not so keen and they had been ‘telling’ me this for years but I hadn’t noticed. Now I can still give them a hug but I know when they have had enough and I respect that.


So, to avoid the ‘bite’ here’s a few things you can do:

  • ‘Tune’ into your team, your Manager, your peers, your clients by observing their behaviours in meetings, during discussions, at lunch, at work gatherings (formal and informal) and see what it tells you.
  • If there’s an incongruence in terms of behaviour and what is being said, then try to understand what’s happening ‘behind the scenes’ that could be fuelling it. Ask questions, take time to help them surface it.
  • Don’t assume you know people, no matter how long they have been working with you or in your space. Spend time getting to know what they like, dislike, what motivates them and what turns them off.
  • Have regular Touch-Ins – doing it once is good but people change over time, life happens and new stressors emerge so at least twice a year have an in-depth discussion to really understand what’s going on for them.


Loyalty & Trust

 It is often said that a dog is a man’s best friend due to their loyalty, the unbridled excitement they show when you come home, even if you’ve only been gone 30 minutes and the desire to protect. But what is loyalty? According to one definition, it is the feeling of support or allegiance. I mention it in the next learning, #5 as well, and it’s the feeling someone has your back, they’re in the corner with you, you’re a team.

Buddy is a Healing Paws dog or a therapy dog and we go to care homes, hospices etc to provide comfort and warmth to people in need. He is brilliant at this because a) he loves treats and it is basically 1 hour of eating, b) he is very gentle and has a very gentle mouth and c) when he is way from home and his sister, he is the best partner to have. He’s calm, he’s obedient, he looks to me for guidance at the right times and he has just the right energy. We work really well together and I love those sessions because we can give back to people in need and it’s good, ongoing training for both Buddy and me. It really has strengthened the bond and trust we have with each other.

Loyalty goes hand in hand with trust: if you don’t trust someone then you cannot be loyal.

But as we know, trust is not immediate: it is like ice, slow to form and quick to go. I am reminded with the new dogs we take in that there is no trust at the beginning. It is disconcerting each time I have a new dog that the building of trust has to start over again but I know now what helps the process:

Consistency, care, respect and guidance.

It takes time and for the first week or so it can be difficult. But once you get their trust where you can stroke them freely, open a gate and know they won’t bolt out of it because they genuinely want to be with you, it is really fulfilling.

I had the best experience with our second foster dog. She was nervous at the beginning like all the others, she stayed outside a lot of the time, she would cower in the corner and never seemed to relax, to the point where she seemed to sleep with one eye open. Whenever we opened the gate we needed to make sure she was inside or someone had hold of her as she would generally run out. She wouldn’t go far but it’s a heart-stopping moment seeing a dog heading towards a road, off-leash. Anyway, after a couple of months, it all changed. Things had been getting progressively easier anyway but I knew we had accomplished trust and loyalty when the gate opened to let the car in, and rather than running off, she waited for the car door to open, and she hopped into the car to say “hello”! And she did the same thing, each time from then on. She was with us for nine months and it was very hard to see her go.

The same way we build trust and loyalty with dogs: consistency, care, respect and guidance, can be used to build trust and loyalty in the workplace.

It is not easy and the people who master it are the Leaders, the rest of us, Managers.

I have been lucky enough to have Leaders during my career vs just Managers. For me the difference between the Manager and the Leader was the interest they took in me. There was no expectation or assumptions made, there was effort put in to learn about who I was and how I worked and there was consistency in their actions, I knew what to expect from them in situations. And there was the appropriate guidance at the appropriate times.


So, ask yourself these questions:

Are your team members loyal?

Do they trust you?

Have you created the right environment in your team?

How do you know?

Critically analyse how you build trust and loyalty. How much effort do you put in, what do you do when a new member joins the team?

Focus on these four things:

  • Be consistent in your actions – be clear how decisions are made in the team, treat each member of the team in the same way, have the same rules on leave or working from home, support each team member and deal decisively with problem behaviour
  • Care for your team – everyone has a life outside work so take time to get to know your team members, meet their partners, have family days, get to know their hobbies. Have fun with the team, show them your weaknesses, be honest and genuinely care for their wellbeing.
  • Respect yours and their boundaries – this is similar to the previous learning #4 where you need to appreciate and respect differences and boundaries people have. Don’t lose sight of your own preferences and wishes just to please others though and respect those of your team as well.
  • Provide guidance to your team – you cannot be a leader if you are not coaching; they are synonymous with each other. You don’t provide the answers though: you provide the environment, the thinking space, the opportunity for the team members to find their own way. Your guidance is to help them think through the dilemma by asking the right questions and listening.


Protect What’s Yours

 Both Buddy and Holly are friendly and well socialised, always a wagging tail and very rarely a growl. That does change as soon as anyone comes near the house though. And when I say ‘anyone’, it’s the ones of the canine variety that cause the most excitement. It sounds as if World War 3 has started but I imagine it just to be a series of “Hellos!”.

Thankfully a clap of the hands and order is restored, although a lot of pacing continues as they desperately try to see through the millimetre gap in the fence who had the audacity to come so close to Chez Schubert. And that’s what I like:

There is a burst of energy and a warning, but when the perceived threat is gone or established to not be a threat, it’s over, forgotten about as quickly as it happened.

My Grandad had an ex-Police dog, a beautiful Alsatian called Flash and he was one of the best-trained dogs I can remember. Grandad was his master and when we were out of the house on a walk, no one could come near him; Flash would make it very clear to people to keep their distance, unless there was a command from Grandad and he would back down. Grandad was an experienced dog handler so the protectiveness and aggression that Flash had, was always managed in the right way.

This protectiveness can sometimes be misguided and misplaced though, where it becomes more of an obsession. I had that just recently with the last foster dog. She took to resource guarding, which means fiercely protecting anything of perceived value – the sofa, a rug, food etc. She took a particular shine to a rug, to the point where if you walked passed her she would lunge and growl with some ferocity.

Clearly not well-adjusted behaviour and it reminded me of ‘turf wars’ in the office.

Seeing Buddy & Holly rush to the gate and gallantly putting themselves in what could be harm’s way, reminds me of the importance as a Leader, to protect your corner and the people in it.

I had a boss once, very early in my career whilst I was still in London, who protected herself before the team which meant we were all thrown to the wolves on more than one occasion, we had to be involved with everything that was happening to her (stuff we didn’t even understand) and left to handle issues without guidance or coaching. I learnt a lot with her as my Manager, and mainly what not to do!

If there is an issue with a team I lead, I will be the person to discuss it with; if there is an unusual request from another department, I will be the one to push back if it is unreasonable; if a new directive comes from the top or there are organisational changes, I will be the ‘shield’ for the team so they can manage the day to day and not be distracted by things out of their control.

This doesn’t mean I will fight people’s battles for them or withhold information but I will stand with them, I will protect them if necessary and by having seniority, I will take the responsibility to help resolve issues.

I am also not advocating ‘turf wars’ where people don’t allow others to be involved in something that clearly is their area of expertise or won’t give up control on a project or decision. Clearly, protecting what is yours has to support collaboration and productivity.

It’s about having the right balance: show people you have their backs and be confident in your beliefs but know when to back down and let other people handle the situation.

So, in essence, whilst dogs can be really dumb at times, eat poo, chew table legs and bark at nothing (Buddy and Holly do all these and more), they also have a depth and intelligence to rival our own. Here’s to all the dogs out there: thank you for the lessons and I look forward to learning more.

Any other dog lovers out there who would like to share their experiences with me?


You can connect with Sarah on her Website New Voice Asia or LinkedIn.


Five things Dogs teach us about Leadership | Asia Professional Speakers Singapore


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