15 Team Development Lessons Taught by my Dog – Short Version

The addition of an 18 month old labradoodle (pictured) to our family has taken us on a roller-coaster ride. The last 15 months have been an exercise in joy, commitment, frustration and persistence. When I think on the impact our new member has had on the rest of the family, I have realised that it is not very different to a new person entering a team in business. I have also realised that animals know an awful lot about being in a team – they have existed and survived in packs for thousands of years.


Here are some of the lessons learnt with Jake on being a good team member and being a good leader of a team.

1. The team rules need to be understood and applied by all members of the team / pack.

2. You need to protect your team from outside forces.

3. Listening and being present are important to your team.

4. Greet your team members like you are meeting them for the first time every day.

5. Consistency is crucial to trust and understanding.

6. Trust is built over months, not seconds.

7. Learn the things that you shouldn’t do in the team.

8. Remember that each team has different rules to live by.

9. Show respect for your team in ways that they appreciate.

10. Understand the unique behaviour and skill set you bring to the team.

11. Look after your team and they will look after you / You have to meet the needs of your team.

12. Breaks in discipline / performance can’t wait until later to fix.

13. Leading the team is not a half-hearted, part time responsibility.

14. The leader needs to guide the team clearly and precisely.

15. The leadership hierarchy needs to be understood by all of the team.


What are rules governing your team? Are they understood by everyone? Does everyone apply them? Consider the list and check to see if your team meets the criteria set out by Jake.


Lesson 13 – Team Development Lessons Taught by my Dog

Leading the team is not a half-hearted, part time responsibility.

Owning a pet, much like deciding to have children, is not a decision to be taken lightly. You are responsible for the welfare, care and protection of something / someone other than yourself. This task requires you to perform many different roles requiring many different skills – some of which are innate and others that you learn as you go.

Having Jake in the family has highlighted the significance of consistently providing him guidance and leadership. There are times when I get frustrated by his actions, yet I can’t let that frustration manifest into actions or words that he doesn’t understand or deserve. There are other times that I want to play with him and forget what an influence I can have over him.

A most recent example was playing with Jake on our wooden floor with a ball. Simple game – I roll the ball on the floor and he fetches it back for me. There is a twist though; the wooden floor makes it very slippery for a four-legged animal with claws. Jake was slipping and sliding and he went for the ball, which looked very funny and probably prompted me to roll the ball further and further away. As Jake built up speed to get the ball, he would slide further until eventually, he slid right into the wall (not enough to hurt him, but enough for him to notice). Involuntarily, I laughed out loud (I hear your scolding thoughts – I did feel guilty – but in my defence it was unintentional and it did look very funny).

It was at this point that I realised that this wasn’t the type of game I should be playing with Jake. Not because Jake slid into the wall, but because my laugh caused Jake to feel very embarrassed. I didn’t think it was possible before owning a dog, but I now know that Jake can understand my moods and will react just like a human would, and he does not like to be laughed at.

How is this story relevant for you and your team? A leader needs to realise that when you accept a position of leadership, you have undertaken a responsibility for those that are in your team. As a leader of team, you need to recognize that:

  • There are some things that you should and shouldn’t do (and those rules change from team to team).
  • Your opinion and mood has a direct influence over your team, whether that be positive or negative.
  • There are some things that you can do as a team member that you can’t do as a leader.
  • Even if you want to be recognised as ‘one of the team’, you are always recognised as the leader of the team.
  • Whether you want it to or not, your behaviour (good or bad) sets the example for the team.

Because of these points, leading a team cannot be a part-time responsibility. You are either committed to your team, or you aren’t. There isn’t a great deal of room for anything in between. As a leader you have influence, and it is your choice whether you want this to be positive or not.

This is probably the area that catches leaders by surprise the most. New leaders expect that there will be changes to what they have done before; they will work harder, they will have more responsibility and people will look to them for decisions. But the fact that the role is not 9 to 5 surprises many. Most leadership roles are not the type of job that you can ‘clock off’ from.

When you are interacting with members of your team, whether it is at work, at a social function, at a pub or a chance meeting shopping on the weekend, your team members will still ‘see’ the role that you fill at work and your behaviour will be judged accordingly.

It is probably for this reason that the motto of my last military unit has stuck the longest and for me, defines the role of leadership most clearly. Officers Training School has the motto ‘Accept Responsibility’. It is a simple statement but to be a successful leader, that is what you have to do. Assuming a role of leadership requires you to accept the responsibility of the role wholeheartedly. Your team expects nothing less from you.

In my case with Jake, that means not forgetting that he sees me as the leader, not one of the members fo the pack. My behaviour with him needs to reflect that.What does it mean for you?

Have you fully assumed the responsibility of your role? Do you understand the differences expected in your organisation between team member and team leader? Is the behaviour you exhibit the positive behaviour you expect of your team?


Lesson 12 – Team Development Lessons Taught by my Dog

Breaks in discipline / performance can’t wait until later to fix.

Discipline has become a dirty word. The word itself brings up connotations of punishment and detention (at least in my mind anyway!). A new dog in the house has forced us to look at discipline in its truest form, that it, correcting behaviour that is not at the right standard.

A new puppy brings all sorts of discipline issues: toilet training, feeding times, barking, sitting. All of these basic requirements didn’t come ‘built in’ with Jake – they had to be taught and refined over time, with many mistakes along the way.

During that process, Jake ‘pushed’ the limits many times and the standard expected needed to be reminded to him. No, rubbing the dog’s nose in his business is not the most effective way to get him toilet trained – but correcting behaviour as close to when it happened seemed to be the key.

The same behaviour change process applied with Jake is also used by successful leaders managing successful teams.

As soon as you put two people working together, there are going to be opportunities for differences and conflict. This is perfectly normal; differing cultures, experiences and expectations result in all of us having differing standards of behaviour that we expect to be ‘normal’. The opportunities for conflict increase dramatically when you have someone new in the team, whether that is a team member or team leader. Lesson 7 and 8 discuss team rules and setting expectations, but sometimes these rules get broken.

What often happens when this occurs is for the behaviour to be left and not addressed straight away. Have you said (or heard) these phrases before?

‘It was just one time’

‘I am sure he/she didn’t mean it’

‘He/she is having a bad day, it wasn’t their fault’

‘He/she has so much on their plate at the moment’

‘I should have done it myself’

One or all of these reasons could be true, but it shouldn’t stop us from addressing the behaviour. Not discussing a break in expected behaviour is the same as accepting it.

Imagine Jake has just done his business on the carpet in the lounge room (you have to imagine – I don’t). If I don’t take him to site of the crime straight away and express our displeasure at his actions, he will assume that it has been accepted as normal behaviour. From experience, it will take many more opportunities to correct the behaviour properly after the first time has been missed. You can almost see the thought and confusion on his face – ‘It was OK last time I did it, why not now?’

Knowing that an issue has to be addressed doesn’t make having the conversation any easier. It will always feel uncomfortable and awkward the first couple of times that you have to address behaviour that isn’t acceptable.

Here are a couple of tips that make it easier:

  1. Pick the Location. ‘Praise in public and criticise in private’. I was taught this very early in my military career and it has held true for over 20 years. Pointing out when someone has done something wrong or inappropriate should never be done in public or in front of others.
  2. Accept that Differences are Normal. Remember that misunderstandings and differences in standards are perfectly normal when working in teams – working out a common standard between people happens all the time.
  3. Don’t Judge. It is very easy when discussing discipline issues to focus on your judgment of what has been done rather than focus on the action that took place. You may think that missing a deadline is unprofessional, but focus on the missing deadline. Judgments won’t fix behaviour – they just create resentment and add to the emotion of the situation.
  4. Clearly describe what you want. Sometimes people fail to meet our expectations because we have not been clear about what we have wanted. Check to make sure that want you want has been clearly understood – this could involve getting the person to state what they need to do in their own words. Any misunderstandings can be clarified before the task has begun.
  5. Explain the Consequences. Why did you set the standard or behaviour in the first place? What will happen to you / the team if it is not done? Make sure you aren’t keeping these reasons to yourself. If your team understands the reason for having a standard or behaviour, and they also understand the consequences if it is not done, they are more likely to do what you want.
  6. Remember – you aren’t the ‘bad guy’. You have explained what you wanted clearly, it was understood, you explained the consequences of not completing and you have provided time to do it. If it isn’t completed or done correctly – guess what? – you are not the bad guy for pointing it out! You have provided every opportunity for someone to do what was required – they made a choice not to do it. That may seem harsh, but if all the tools were provided a choice was made at some point to miss the expectation. It could have been a lack of attention, a lack of time, a lack of effort or a lack of seeking help– none of which were your fault. When it comes to discussing the issue you are not being mean, you are merely discussing the differences between expected behaviour (what you wanted) and actual behaviour (what actually occurred). Addressing the gap between the two is a key role of every Manager.

What performance issues have you ‘let go’ recently? Are you judgmental when people don’t meet your expectations? Do you know what standards you expect?