The Year of the Dog(s)

Bear

Anyone who knows me knows of my dogs. Knows of my obsession with dogs. Our furry family at the start of this year consisted of five furry children: Cheyenne, Lobo, Holly, Sunshine and Bear. I say “started” because we are ending this year with only three: tragically, we lost our two “middle aged” dogs, Bear and Holly, to rare medical conditions, just three weeks apart. Bear had developed something called insulinoma, caused by a tumor that caused his body to product insane amounts of insulin, which in turn caused seizures. With Holly, we have no idea what happened, other than that something caused serious internal bleeding that could not be stopped. We don’t keep any sort of poison around the house for just that reason. Nothing was thrown into our yard by some crazed person, and nothing showed up in the multiple tests conducted by her vets. In three short weeks, we went from a boisterous house to one that is very, very quiet. Bear and especially Holly could be counted on to make the house sound like a kennel whenever we got home.

Holly

What does this all have to do with communications, or even writing this blog? Totally aside from the fact that I’ve just been too heartbroken since we received Bear’s diagnosis in early May to do any of the things I normally enjoy this year – like writing – I’ve discovered since we lost our fur kids that communicating with my remaining dogs closely parallels the work I do in developing PR campaigns to communicate with stakeholder groups. My husband grumbles that the dogs look to me for permission before doing something he tells them to do, but in reality, it’s just that I’ve learned to communication with them in a way that they understand what I want clearly. Of course, since two of them are Siberian Huskies, whether or not they do what they’re told also involves them deciding whether or not they want to make Mom mad at them. They know Dad is a softie and they can get away with almost anything, so that doesn’t worry them so much.

Think about it – the principles of training your dog work with your PR efforts as well (although I don’t equate dogs and people – sometimes I swear dogs are much smarter, and the rewards are much better with dogs than with people. After all, dogs love you unconditionally, want to make you happy and are often just more fun to be with):

  • Focus on the behavior you want – Have a clear idea on the results you need to achieve with your communication and then build your communication with that end goal in mind. Work backward from where you want to end up to to structure your strategy and tactics. When we no longer had Bear, we no longer needed to crate him and our other male whenever we left the house. But when circumstances changed, we had to deal with changed behaviors from our dogs. Lobo, our other male, kept searching the house and backyard for his missing pack members. Cheyenne, one of our females, began spending hours lying in a cubbyhole in our upstairs closet and refusing to come downstairs. Our third fur kid, Sunshine, would shake in fear whenever we’d put her collar on to go for a walk, terrified that she’d go wherever Bear and Holly went and never returned from. We had to figure out how to reassure all of them and convince  them to abandon these behaviors and return to normal.
  • Reinforce that behavior – Whenever the dogs acted in a way that we wanted, we reinforced that behavior with plenty of praise, attention and high value treats. We stocked up on a variety of what’s called “high value” treats by dog trainers – the kind of goodies they normally don’t get except rarely. Pupperonis, Beggin Strips and cooked chicken chunks showed up a lot more than they normally would. If you want people to behave a certain way, you’ve got to make it worth their while, with something they valued. Early on in my career I worked for a blood donation center, and since legally we couldn’t pay for donations we would give out small token gifts to donors, whether they successfuly donated or not. Our most popular  was an old fashioned replica toy of a small ball attached to a handle with a string. On the end of the handle was a cup, and you were supposed to flick the ball upward and catch it in the cup. For whatever reason, this became so popular with donors that when we ran out, donations declined because people really wanted that toy. When we reordered more and word got around that they were back, donations picked up again.
  • Don’t force the dog to behave the way you want – Coercion may temporarily get you what you want, but it won’t last. Initially, I had to make Cheyenne come downstairs and go outside before I left the house. But unless I put a gate at the bottom of the stairs to prevent her from going back upstairs, she wouldn’t stay. The more I tried to make her come downstairs, the more she tried to hide from me. The only thing that worked was to break out the fancy treats, and make it as loudly obvious as possible that she was missing out on some goodies that the others were getting. Before too long she couldn’t resist temptation and started spending more time downstairs. Forcing people to do what you want with restrictions on products or paywalls just drives people away. Entertain them and they’ll remember you.
  • Keep your commands clear and consistent – This is probably the most important rule: Be clear and consistent. My husband can’t remember which command he wants to use to get the dogs to do what he wants, so he ends up using 2-3 different commands at the same time, with the wholly expected result that the dogs are confused and don’t do what he wants – they wait for me to tell them what to do.  The command isn’t “get off, lay down, off!” it’s “off!” Nothing more, it’s not “off-off-off-off!” The principle for working with humans is the same. Be clear and consistent with your key messages, and repeat them throughout all your different communication vehicles to reinforce what you want your audience to do, and you’ll avoid confusion and, ultimately, inaction on your audience’s part.
  • Make the learning easy and fun – Bore a dog and pretty quickly they’ll tune you out. Bore humans and the same thing will happen, even faster these days than with a dog. Entertain your audience and they’ll be more amenable to your persuasive efforts. There’s a reason why actors and sports heroes are paid millions more than such vital professions as teachers and first responders – we as people value our entertainment. We remember and actively participate more in things that are fun.

Granted, this is an overly simplified explanation of something I was thinking about long before we lost our fur kids, but at some point I have to stop wallowing in grief and get back to the business of living a professional life, and thinking about all the richness and joy my two “office dogs” brought me made me think of the times my husband expressed his frustration that the dogs responded so much better when I told them to do something than when he did. It all boils down to structuring your communication in a way that worked for them.

Bear and Holly 2010-2018

 

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