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Reuters/Petr Josek
Palling around with man’s best friend.
LEADER OF THE PACK

As a dog walker, pack mentality has taught me everything I know about working with humans

Ryan Stewart
By Ryan Stewart

I’ve lived through my fair share of setbacks over the course of my 45 years. I was given up by my first mother, left by my adoptive second mother, lost my father, and watched my dance career slip away after a cancer diagnosis derailed my dream. Yet I survived, found love with my fiancée, and ultimately launched what has become a six figure-a-year career as a dog-walking entrepreneur.

My work with dogs stands out in particular because it has become so much more than a simple profession. Like me, domesticated canines are adopted and over the years these animals have taught me more about success and social interaction than all of the human brainiacs I’ve met put together. Many of the tips may seem like common sense, and yet the fact that we haven’t all embraced them suggests there is often very little about our modern lifestyle that is sensible. Sometimes, the simplest pieces of advice are the ones that we need to hear the most.

As the year comes to a close, I’d like to share some of the wisdom gleaned from over ten years of daily work with man’s best friend:

Learn to read body language

We humans are masters of verbiage and often confuse one another with exaggerations and lies. Canines use physical signals to express themselves and read each other. When a pet is thinking of biting, the signs are real and apparent—so I back off.

Being able to accurately interpret body movements has proved to be an invaluable tool when working with people. For example, I immediately could tell that my fiancée was interested in me when we started talking about her new puppy. It was this realization that gave me the courage to ask her out. And the same principle applies in all sorts of scenarios, from your personal to your professional life.

Remember what you put in your body matters

Dogs react much more quickly to what’s put in their bodies, at least in my experience. Eating poorly or taking medication can quickly lead to intestinal distress or near-instant lethargy. In contrast, introducing healthier food into a dog’s diet has a rejuvenating affect on your pet—it can even clear up dry skin. The junk we humans put in our bodies does affect our quality of life, whether we acknowledge it or not. Just because you don’t get physically ill doesn’t mean those days of hot dogs and cheese fries are a good idea.

At the same time, we need to pay attention to how we eat. A problem pup (and person), wolfs down whatever is put in front of him (or her). Put three bowls down and he will eat them all. Portion control is a key aspect of healthy living, especially if you are trying to make a change in your diet or health. Know your triggers and weaknesses. Love potato chips? Don’t keep bags of them in the cupboard. It’s like leaving a bag of food on the floor where your dog can get it. Hunger can bring out the beast in anyone.

Implement positive reinforcement

Dogs in my care learn exponentially faster when given supportive and enthusiastic feedback.

Dogs in my care learn exponentially faster when given supportive and enthusiastic feedback. Yelling at them tends to create resistance and shut down the learning process. As a trainer, if I don’t like my pup chewing on my shoe, I calmly remove the object from her mouth and replace it with a more appropriate dog toy. As soon as she takes it I immediately shower her with affection or a treat. Over the years I have learned to also use this method with my employees, quietly correcting poor performances but openly celebrating good work with praise and monetary bonuses.

Exercise more, the right way

Dogs need at least three or four walks per day and it’s not just to pee. The physical activity keeps them from becoming frustrated and bored at home. Maybe humans won’t chew up the rug but there are plenty of other ways boredom and inactivity can lead to destructive behaviors; from eating processed food to starting a meaningless fight with a loved one or boss.

Hounds also have strong instincts about the correct way to exercise. The first thing a pooch does when it wakes up is get their “downward dog” out of the way. Stretching is the first thing humans tend to cut out of their own workouts when pressed for time, yet tight muscles cause more injuries than anything else. We would do well to copy the habits of our more naturally athletic companions.

Avoid the bad apples and find the good

I find walking a pack of dogs very enjoyable generally, despite the paparazzi tourist. The exception? When my group includes a troublemaker. It only takes one dog to shift the power dynamics. The behavior of a single nasty hound can be enough to spread nervous energy amongst the pack, causing the others to pull on their leashes and become less focused. If a friend or peer is being a jerk, a similar dynamic is likely to occur. Counter the problem at the source and cut that bad apple loose.

By the same token, optimism is contagious. “My dog hates the rain,” is a phrase I hear often from clients. However, since I witness many of these supposedly rain-hating animals walking with me through downpours, I tend to think it is the owner who dislikes wet weather rather than the dog. Hanging out with a bunch of complainers can drag the entire group down. An easy solution? Spend more time with your happier friends and coworkers.

Be straightforward 

Dogs cannot be anything but direct. They don’t attack each other from behind and they let you know exactly how they are feeling (see: body language above). Notice how well they sleep at night? It’s harder to carry around your anxiety when you’re more prone to express it in the moment.

If you never ask, the answer is already “no.” It’s a lesson many in the corporate workplace would be wise to remember.

On the flip side, you should never be afraid to ask for what you want. Hope springs eternal for your pet when you are eating delicious food like bacon. Our hounds come and drop that ball on your lap—perhaps you throw or perhaps you don’t have time. But if you never ask, the answer is already “no.” It’s a lesson many in the corporate workplace especially would be wise to remember.

Make the effort—life is short

My furry friends won’t ever learn English, but I am capable of learning their language. I feel it is my responsibility, therefore, to reach them, and not the other way around. Call your friend whom you haven’t heard from in a long time—even if they are bad at doing the same to you. This ultimately comes back to how you want to live your life. Do you want to dwell on the mistakes and shortcomings of others, or do you want to live in the moment? Canines aren’t preoccupied with events from five years ago—happy or sad, low spirits are easily forgotten with a game of fetch or a delicious piece of turkey jerky. There’s not always such a quick fix in the human world, but maintaining perspective is an essential aspect of self-care.

Seek out similarities

In the dog world, opposites do not attract. The low energy pooch would rather be left alone than annoyed by the spastic ones. The pups who like to play a lot and be constantly entertained can push their more mellow owners to the brink of a breakdown. Humans also go through different phases as they mature. It’s okay that you don’t get along with as many people as when you were younger—canines are like that too. (And if you find yourself short on buddies one day, you can always get yourself a new best friend at your local animal shelter.)

Ultimately, finding the right people to surround yourself with can lead to a much more relaxing life, and pay dividends professionally. Don’t waste precious time dealing with maniacs.