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Want to Be a Better Manager? Get a Dog.

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If you think about the way we talk about dogs, you’d think they have horrible lives: “It’s a dog’s life,” “I’ve been working like a dog,” “It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” and “They treat me like a dog,” to name a few.

Funny thing is, if they’re not mistreated, dogs actually have great lives. Not only that, they’re usually way better at their jobs and happier about their lives than we are.

No, I’m not smoking something, at least not today. I’m serious. I’ve had dogs my entire life. I’ve been trained by some of the best dog trainers around. Yes, I know how that sounds, but the truth is, training dogs is more about training their owners than the dogs.

If that sounds at all analogous to training managers so employees are more effective, then you’re beginning to see the analogy. In fact, there are lots of business and life lessons we can learn from dog behavior and our relationships with our best friends.

Dogs know the secret to personal productivity. They get tons of rest, yet they’re highly productive. If you need them, they’re there – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. That’s because they’re incredibly focused and disciplined. Dogs know their priorities and they stick to them. They keep it simple. And they’re happy, as a result.

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Entitled dogs are more trouble than they’re worth. Spoiled dogs are whiny, manipulative, over-protective and aggressive. If they don’t get what they want – what they’re used to getting – they act out. Entitled people do the same thing. They behave badly. In a hierarchical relationship, never let the tail wag the dog. 

Most dogs love to work and serve. The bond between man and canine evolved as a symbiotic working relationship. There’s actually an entire class of “working dogs” that includes Shepherds, Rottweilers, Boxers and Mastiffs. They’re at their best when they’re working and anxious when they think they’re not needed. The problem is that owners are often lousy leaders that don’t communicate what they want their dogs to do.

Dogs don’t overextend themselves. People often overpromise and under-deliver. Not dogs. They never bite off more than they can chew. If you give them too large an area to guard or more work than they can handle, you’ll quickly notice signs of stress, as in aggressive and unwanted behavior. There’s no hubris or Peter Principle with dogs.

When they’ve been socialized, dogs have successful relationships. When dogs aren’t properly socialized or allowed to spend time out and about with other dogs and people, they tend to be anxious and aggressive when they interact. People are the same way. Troubled working and personal relationships are usually a sign of a troubled upbringing.

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Dogs are direct and genuine. When they’re happy, they wag their tails. When they’re appreciative, they lick your face. When they feel bad, they drop their tails. If they want to play, they’ll get a toy and drop it at your feet. If they feel threatened, they growl. Their communication is direct and genuine. There’s no drama, hidden agenda or passive-aggressive behavior, as with humans.  

Dogs don’t sweat the small stuff. They have short memories. If they’re chastened for doing something bad, as soon as you forgive, they forget. It’s the same thing if you mistreat them. Say you’re sorry, scratch them behind the ear, give them a treat and it’s like it never happened. They’re great at letting go and never neurotic about things they can’t control.

Owners usually misidentify the culprit. When dogs misbehave, owners inevitably blame the dog. In reality, it’s almost always the owner’s fault (poor training, limited socializing, overextended domain).  It’s the same thing in the business world where 90 percent of problems are management-related. The only difference is dogs never backstab or point their paws at each other.   

Let me take this a step further. If you’re good with domesticated animals – and probably children, as well – I bet you’d make an effective manager with leadership potential. If not, you’ll probably benefit greatly from the experience. Instead of getting a coach, try getting a dog and a trainer. You’ll be amazed what you learn.

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Steve Tobak

Written By

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at, where you can contact him and learn more.