Leadership Lessons from the Dog Whisperer

Leadership Lessons from the Dog Whisperer

Those who know me recognize that I don’t particularly watch TV. But I do flip through the stations occasionally, and the other day I came across the “Dog Whisperer” show on the National Geographic Channel. This chronicles the work of Cesar Millan who is a dog trainer who bases his work on a very in depth knowledge of the natural behavior of dogs in packs. He takes on very extreme cases of dog misbehavior and it was amazing to see how quickly he could turn it around (and as I think we all knew, most of the “misbehavior” is actually on the human side, not the dog side).

But according to Spectrum Canine dog training is owner training and there was one point that he made consistently that caught my attention, though. He kept telling the people who owned these dogs to be “calm and assertive.” When the dog does something “wrong,” you need to move to correct it, but notice how we often do that: by getting angry. And if the dog doesn’t respond, we raise our voice and get angrier. This usually just agitates the dog, which is often the exact opposite of what we were looking for. In many of the cases on the show, the human needed to assert himself or herself as the “pack leader” for the dog, and that required the assertiveness—setting boundaries for the dog. But to be assertive AND be calm at the same time proved VERY difficult for people. And once they figured it out, the dog’s behavior turned around.

And that’s the leadership/conflict resolution lesson in all this. No, I’m not recommending you treat your co-workers like a pack of dogs (even if they sometimes resemble one!). The trick here is in remaining calm. We often need to be assertive, or argue for a point, or confront someone on a difficult subject. We can do these things while remaining calm, or we can do them with fear, anger, or frustration underlying our message. Can you guess which gets you better results?


  1. 05.04.2007 at 7:36 am

    I’ve always been surprised by how many of the lessons we learned when we were taking our dog to be trained still apply now that we’re raising children …
    I think there’s another lesson in your post as well: As you said, most of the real misbehavior was on the human side, not the dog side. How much more could we accomplish in contentious situations if we focused on what we are doing that is leading to conflict and what we can do to change that behavior? Instead, it seems to be human nature to focus on what the other person is doing wrong … which isn’t really under our control in any event.
    In other words, if I’m in a conflict with John at work, I could spend a lot of time and energy focused on all of the things that John is doing wrong. But if instead, I really confront myself about what I’m doing to contribute to the conflict, and work on changing that, I can make some real progress.

  2. 05.04.2007 at 11:09 am

    Amen, Lisa. I have to remind people all the time in conflict situations that the only thing they actually can control is their own behavior. Even when they recognize this, though, it’s not so convincing: “But the other side is WRONG! Why should I have to change?” It actually ties into my next post about feedback. Even if they are wrong, it doesn’t mean that you couldn’t benefit from changing your own behavior (even if the feedback is wrong, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it).