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Managers – Use Your Dog Training Skills

Bert Troughton, MSW, Director, SFSPCA / ASPCA Strategic Alliance

Managers: Use Your Dog Training Skills

Some of the best supervision and management practices can be found in the emerging field of humane dog training. While there are obvious differences between humans and dogs (and in most cases we’re asking for far more complicated behaviors from the people we supervise than we do from our dogs) the basic principles of humane dog training are not only applicable, but highly useful and effective in management.

First, the basics. Behavior is the result of learning. When staff perform well, it’s because they’ve learned the right way to fulfill their responsibilities and they experience sufficient rewards for doing so. When staff do not perform well, it’s either because they haven’t learned the right way to fulfill their responsibilities (which could mean they didn’t get enough instruction or they got the wrong instruction or the instruction came at a time or in a way that made it hard to learn) and/or because they are not experiencing rewards for fulfilling their responsibilities (which could mean the rewards they’re receiving are insufficient for the job and/or the rewards of not doing the job are greater).

Humane dog training focuses on simple, practical ways to make learning positive and successful for the trainer and the trainee. Let’s look at some “best practices” in humane dog training and how they apply in managing or supervising a staff.

I) Create A Safe Learning Environment.

People, like dogs, learn and perform best when they’re in a space that both accommodates their physical needs and poses minimal distractions. Physical needs for staff include things such as sufficient light, comfortable temperatures, tolerable sound levels, and space adequate to perform required functions – such as desk space for paper work, sink space for washing dishes and hands, and examination space for safe handling of animals. While these things may be difficult to achieve in some shelter buildings, it’s good management practice to consider what basics employees need to get their jobs done, to make reasonable efforts to provide those basics, and to acknowledge deficiencies. One of the clear advantages of working with people rather than dogs, is that people can understand concepts such as “temporary financial constraints”. Additionally, staff generally benefit from knowing that their supervisors recognize and are working on changing some of the obstacles to doing their job.

You may have been tempted to laugh at the concept of “minimal distractions” in a shelter. But consider getting creative with your team to figure out how you might achieve this. For example, if you’re finding it difficult to provide good customer service to your visitors because you’re constantly interrupted by phone calls, consider training a volunteer with good phone manners to answer calls during your busy times, fielding the simple questions such as hours, directions, and adoption fees and taking messages for more complicated questions that someone can respond to during a lull. You can also minimize distractions by managing time so that you and your team perform certain functions during specified blocks of time, and direct all other tasks to their own specific time slots. Arguably, many things in shelters are unpredictable by nature, but not everything needs to be dealt with as if it were an emergency.

Other important aspects of creating a safe learning environment have a lot to do with the manager’s tone and attitude, and the boundaries you establish. You probably encourage adoptive families to set their rules with their new dogs and then be consistent starting from day one. Because, for example, you know that if they allow the dog on the furniture on her/his first day home, s/he will have a tough time figuring out why the furniture is off limits on day two or three. It’s the same with people. If your expectation is that staff will arrive on time to work, then it’s your job to state that expectation from day one, and to talk with the employee the first (and every) time that expectation isn’t met. People are no more comfortable at guessing why you’re behaving differently from day to day than dogs are. If your staff know the rules, then they know what’s expected of them and there are no negative surprises. Eliminating surprises goes a long way to creating a safe environment.

Perhaps the most important element of a safe learning environment is respect. People, like dogs, are entitled to bodily integrity — this includes no hitting or unwanted physical contact of any kind, as well as no accosting of the senses with sharp voices, postures, and gestures. Respecting staff also includes accepting their level of knowledge and experience. It should be “OK” that people don’t come to us knowing everything we’d like them to know (even when we think it’s obvious), and that people learn at different paces. Indeed, as with good dog training, teaching isn’t a burden so much as it’s an opportunity for deepening the relationship between the manager and the employee.

II) Set Realistic Expectations.

Whether we’re talking about dogs or people, in general, learning takes place one step at a time. There are at least five steps to teaching a dog a reliable sit on cue; and we generally don’t try to teach a dog “sit”, “stand”, and “speak” in the same lesson.

Likewise, most shelter responsibilities involve long sequences of learning and mastery. For example, cleaning a cage involves learning what odors, bacteria’s, germs, and parasites we’re trying to kill or prevent, which chemicals and methods are effective for these, where the supplies are kept and how they are used and stored, how to safely and humanely handle and relocate the animal(s) during cleaning, and what to do if something doesn’t look right.

While time consuming, breaking every responsibility–such as cleaning, medical care, customer service, behavioral care, etc.–down into a sequence of tasks and competencies helps us in a number of ways. It gives us a more realistic picture of training and the time involved for the trainer and the trainee and helps us to monitor how many expectations we’re putting on people at once. Most importantly, it enables us to pin point exactly what hasn’t been learned when there’s a break down in fulfilling a responsibility.

III) Use Positive Reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is a fun, safe, & reliable technique for shaping behavior. It involves giving the dog or person clear expectations, showing or guiding them through the desired behavior, and rewarding them for accomplishing the behavior. Positive reinforcement is actually easier with people than with dogs in that the timing of your reward doesn’t have to be exactly perfect, as long as you tell the person specifically what you’re rewarding them for.

Rewards for people come in many forms: food (especially junk food & chocolate), money (in essence, the weekly pay check is saying, “you did good this week”), more responsibility, time off or time to work on a favorite project, and so on. But by far the single most important and effective reward for employees comes in the form of acknowledgment. We love to know that people recognize and appreciate what we’re doing!

There’s an art to acknowledgment as a reward. Be as specific as possible when acknowledging someone’s work: tell them exactly what they did to receive your thanks or praise, and exactly how their effort is contributing to your overall goals or mission. For example, “Sue, thank you for your patience with Mr. Smith and for hanging in there to help him complete that lost report [what she did]. I think you made him feel listened to, and I know that kind of customer service encourages people to come to us for help [how it accomplishes your goals].

IV) Give them the Benefit of the Doubt.

Early on in humane dog training we’re taught to trust that there’s probably a very good reason why a dog isn’t responding to something we’re trying to teach her/him. Hips could be too sore for a perfect “sit”, our hand signals might be confusing, the dog might be frightened by the surroundings or our tone of voice, or the dog may have been punished in the past for the very thing we’re attempting to teach.

We have a tendency to assume we know why people behave the way they do, but generally assuming isn’t a good idea. Here’s a short list of possible reasons why Jan didn’t clean Kennel 10:

  1. she didn’t hear you ask her to,
  2. she was breaking up a dog fight and the adrenaline made her forget the task,
  3. the hose broke and she’s in town getting a replacement,
  4. she’s afraid to handle the dog in Kennel 10,
  5. she was never taught how to clean a kennel,
  6. she was told by YOUR supervisor to do something else, or
  7. she’s afraid to tell you she can’t clean the kennel either because she’s afraid of you or she’s learned in past jobs or from past supervisors that it’s more dangerous
    to say “no” or “I can’t”, than it is to just avoid the task.

Obviously the hope is that you and your team learn to communicate so well with each other that any problem fulfilling a request is discussed when the request is made. But until you and your team reach that level of communication, part of your job is to teach people how to communicate directly by a) giving your staff the benefit of the doubt, and b) asking them “why” when something isn’t done or is done poorly. Then be prepared to help them create a solution so that you’re not inadvertently punishing them (with your tone or actions) for telling you the truth.

V) Practice Makes Perfect.

As with good dog training, lots of practice is required of both sides of the partnership: the trainer as well as the trainee. Learning something new generally requires at least seven successful repetitions. Practice is even more essential for learning complicated tasks or concepts, and especially in volatile learning environments. (Clearly the amount of activity and stress present on a day to day basis in a shelter constitutes a “volatile learning environment”.)

The good news is, learning is accelerated by the presence of a trusting relationship with the trainer (supervisor/manager), by the use of positive reinforcement, and by the accumulation of positive learning experiences. In other words, every time you practice some of the techniques discussed here, you actually enhance the learning environment for your team and speed up the success of their learning.

Some Things to Try:

In the spirit of “reasonable expectations”, give yourself time to read and digest this article. Then make a plan to try one of these ideas for applying humane training techniques to your management style.

Idea #1: Create a Better Learning Environment:

At a staff meeting, conduct a brainstorm of all the things your team needs/wishes for to get their jobs accomplished. Be prepared with a few ideas to help them get started, such as “more light over the adoption counter”, “a phone closer to the kennels”, “a set of cage cards to indicate which animals need spay/neuter appointments”, etc.

Guide your staff through a process to select the team’s two to five favorite ideas. Have a conversation to see if the team can creatively figure out how to acquire/accomplish one of those favorite ideas. (Hint: start with something simple.)

Help your team put an action plan in place. Check back weekly until they’ve accomplished their plan. Celebrate!

Move on to another idea until you’ve successfully implemented at least three good ideas.

Note: Depending on the size of your group and the length of your staff meetings, you may need to split this exercise into small steps over several weeks. Don’t expect that your team will be able to implement all of the ideas from the brainstorm, but be supportive and positive about their progress and stop to celebrate (if only with a round of applause) every achievement. Check in with your team regularly to see how they’re feeling about the project, and plan to end the initiative after a few successes.

In addition to creating a better learning environment for your team, you’ll be working on communication skills, group problem solving skills, empowerment, and positive reinforcement.

Idea #2: Identify & Use Positive Reinforcement:

At a staff meeting, conduct a brainstorm of all the things your team would consider to be positive reinforcement. Be prepared with a few ideas to help them get started, and make them be as specific as possible, for example: Hershey’s kisses versus chocolate.

Conduct a second brainstorm of all the things they can do to “deserve” positive reinforcement. (People generally have the highest expectations of themselves.)

Create an action plan to have a supply of positive reinforcers on hand, and ask everyone to participate in handing out the positive reinforcement when they see someone doing something from the “deserving” list.

Check in with your team during staff meetings to see how the system is working and determine whether they’re enjoying it and want to keep it going.


Note: You need to exercise some managerial authority in two places: 1) be sure the “deserving” list is appropriate, and 2) pay attention that everyone is getting an opportunity to give and receive positive reinforcement.

In addition to achieving clarity on what your team considers positive reinforcement, you’ll be working on team building skills, giving and receiving positive feedback, and empowerment.

Idea #3: Practice:

If you’re brand new to or are struggling with managing a staff, or if your team has developed negative or destructive habits, your best first step is to focus on yourself and the kind of manager you want to be.

First and foremost, you can’t manage anything well if you don’t have any time to devote to the job of management. Use a calendar. Block off at least one hour every day when you will only do management.

Once you have this sacred block of time, spend the first couple of weeks thinking about and planning the following:

  • what do I need for a safe environment to learn and practice management?
  • how can I get those things?
  • what does my staff need for a safe learning environment?
  • how can I get those things for them?
  • for each of the people I supervise, what exactly are each of their responsibilities? (Break each one down into specific tasks and competencies.)
  • are these realistic? (can they be done in the time allotted? have they been trained adequately? etc.)
  • what positive reinforcers do I need?
  • how can I get them?
  • what positive reinforcers can I offer my staff?
  • what do I need to see from them that would merit positive reinforcement?
  • how can I remind myself to give people the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong?
  • what do I most need to practice?
  • what do each of my staff most need to practice?
  • how are we going to get that practice?

By the time you get through this list, you will be well versed in applying humane training techniques to your management style, as well as the art of scheduling and using management time wisely. In fact, at this point you will no doubt have already begun to map out things you need and want to do with your management hour (or more) hence forth.

Until next time, happy managing!

Suggested further reading: “Don’t Shoot the Dog”, by Karen Pryor.

© 2001 Bert Troughton
Re-prints with permission. Contact Bert at

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