Agility Training With My Dog Made Me a Better Leader

I planted smiling flowers along the border of my yard where Benny & I train. He loves an audience, and these flowers always smile back!!!!

Dogs are not my whole life, but they certainly make my life more whole. I never thought I’d become a dog trainer in my third trimester of life. I really didn’t have time for another hobby, nor was it something I was even interested in. That is until I met Benny, a timid little shelter pup we adopted during the Pandemic.

Serendipity always has a way of leading me to the best things, and my heart just won’t let me say no to a world in need. What can I say? I’ve always been a sucker for the underdogs, and the same goes for Jim, my husband. Benny had certainly earned his underdog status; he’d been returned to the shelter multiple times. After Jim made an appointment for us to go meet him, it only took one look, and we knew we were ‘home’ for each other.

It didn’t take long before Benny’s tricky side started showing. Benny was quick to demonstrate how fast he could run, or how sharp he could turn. One day during a  community gathering, he gave one of the children quite the scare after showcasing his agility, hoping for cheers and smiles. Instead, he got tears and a very annoyed mother. His spirit seemed broken after the incident, yet it made me think that with some professional training, he’d be able to showcase his incredible agility with confidence and control. I set out to find a trainer who’d coach him, only I found something even better! Once Lori, the trainer, saw our bond, she suggested I take the training too so that I could be Benny’s coach. Me, a competitive agility dog trainer? I had never imagined such a thing, but after one look at him, I said yes without hesitation.

Much to my surprise, I think I ended up learning more than my pup! Here are my best lessons learned on the agility course:

Observe & Learn: 

Everything in your environment is feedback, all of it. The way people behave, the way animals behave, and even the way pests behave. In one environment, a rat can be a warm, cuddly, loving companion; a bomb-sniffing detective; or a disease-infested scavenger. The difference is the environment, the conditioning, and the feedback shown.

As an inventor, a regenerative farmer for 18 years, and a child who went to a different school every year of my life, I’ve always been powerful at observation. I had to be for survival.

Likewise, you can always learn from those with deeper expertise and different experiences than you, like a pro dog trainer. Everything you do is a new opportunity to learn while applying prior lessons. Every lesson learned can uplift your environment, which in turn uplifts those around you. A leader is someone who learns from experience, and that requires the ability to observe.  Whether you’re working in an official agile shop and running a SCRUM team, or you’re developing a new methodology, there should be a place in your practice for observation and retrospection. As an added bonus, your ability for interpreting body language, and identifying the real meaning behind the words people choose will reach new heights! For example, when I hear the words ‘I’ll try,’ I know that person has no intention of following through. They’ve unconsciously given themselves an out, compared to a person who says, ‘I will!’ with conviction. That commitment is what signals our brains to become observant, so it serves that person’s will. Will always precedes skill.

Celebrate the Success, Don’t Punish the Failure

This is a habit that I learned on the ranch, training horses. Yet, I didn’t really think to practice it with people. After I started training Benny, I saw how quickly he learned, and how eager he was compared to other dogs who were bred into this sport. I asked my coach about it, she said:” If you stay connected with them, they will do what you ask them to do to the best of their ability. Honor that connection and commitment. High fives and positive feedback are perfectly appropriate as long as they’re not protracted.” I began to put myself in my coworkers’ place, much like Benny was under my charge. I began to express my joy at their progress, with cue words, and more consistency. Performance improved once my coaching improved. I couldn’t believe it. Despite countless leadership books and years of professional coaching, it was dog training with Benny that taught me to express the joy as a reward. I’d always felt it but seldom expressed it with emotion. Today, at work, I look for ways to celebrate success every day, and I’ve found that my own joy grows in tandem.

No matter how thoroughly off the rails things may go, at least something goes right, mark those things. Support them with feedback, support them with making process adjustments if they came from new approaches, and you’ll build an open and collaborative environment where everyone is encouraged to learn, grow, and adapt.

Leadership agility is 💯 required post-pandemic: 

Dog agility is a dog sport in which a handler directs a dog through an obstacle course in a race for both time and accuracy. Dogs run off leash with no food or toys as incentives, and the handler can touch neither the dog nor the obstacles. The handler’s controls are limited to voice, movement, and various body signals, requiring exceptional training of the animal and coordination of the handler.

Since agility involves your controlling a dog’s position and movement in response to a stimulus, it also calls upon the trainer’s cognitive functions, including visual processing, timing, perception, and anticipation. Not unlike like military training according to research published in the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health. By practicing agility drills, you’ll teach your dog how to properly and safely encounter a new environmental stimulus through the training you provide. When you think about, salespeople and entrepreneurs, they MUST be high-performance agility athletes and have trust and a strong connection to their coach, or supervisor. We began leadership agility training with a top-rated coach, Possible Conversations, LLC this year for everyone leading teams at EarthKind. It’s been transforming. To top it off, our team beat her lifetime team agility skill test- twice! I’d like to think that has something to do with Benny and the joy he’s brought into our life:-)

How are you helping your teams win in these super-challenging times through leadership agility? Please share, I’d love to hear.

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