Wednesday, January 20, 2016

What impact do you have?

Author Simon Tyler’s latest book "The Impact Code" discusses the idea of impact; the impact we have in the world, in other people’s lives, and the impact we have on our own lives.

He defined impact as having five facets, or focuses. Those are, in his definition:


I was thinking about this as I drove and the way it might fit in with my work and life with animals. I realized that, when we train dogs, we use the same five factors to make an impact, a difference in the life of the dog and hopefully their owners.

First is visual. We, as trainers, are knowledgable in signaling and the effects of body language. We understand, and try to teach owners, about he mass of information transferred back and forth by body positioning, facial expression, and so forth. We use our body language to communicate with the dog, and we read their body language to help learn the root of their problems. They are trying to communicate: it is up to us to listen.

Our visual impact also includes the way we present ourselves to the client. If we show up unwashed and ragged our impact is not that of an expert that can be depended on. The dog we are there to work with needs us, or the owner would not have reached out. It can be critical that the owner takes us seriously and respects our experience and skills. If we don’t earn that respect the likelihood of them following our lead is slim.

Intimately involved in visual impact is presence, both for owner and dog. If your presence is calm, relaxed and confident (but not cocky or know-it-all) both dog and owner take your cues and relax. Tension, fear and worry tend to back off a bit. Both human and dog respond to the cues you give.

There is no spooky “energy” thing going on here. You are acting like a professional. There are plenty of times that I find myself in a situation that could potentially go very wrong. A professional and calm demeanor usually helps establish a similar response. It may be a case where I am truly concerned about getting bitten, but the professional in me is out front. I am not careless or reckless. I observe, make plans for what may go wrong, and keep the exit in mind, but you can do all that and keep a calm, professional bearing.

That calm, professional bearing, coupled with empathy and compassion, helps build connection. There are plenty of dogs out there that can kick my aging self all over the map. They have teeth and strength and are far faster than I. It is physically impossible - and foolish - for me to try and apply force to a dog that has size, speed, and has killed a human before I met them.

Instead I go the other way. I establish a connection, an agreement if you will, with the dog. They don’t hurt me and nothing bad happens…but they can’t drive me away either. I won’t  hurt them either, and when they give me acceptance signals I return them. We communicate. We build a working relationship, even if for just a short time.

This does not always work. Some dogs are too damaged to build such a relationship. Some take a long time and I have to be patient. I am not there to prove anything. I am there to assess or to help.

Likewise, I am not going to get compliance from an owner if we do not connect. Hearing and seeing what I have to say is not enough. They have to process the information, to take it in. They have to see how the answer fits into their lives, and my job is to help them see that. That requires a connection. Hopefully, once we connect and they start to see results I will have opened their minds enough for them to reconnect with their dog so they can solve problems together.

We, as trainers and behavior consultants, have to be masters of  communication. We have to have the owner take in and process the information we give them. We have to explain some pretty complicated concepts succinctly and clearly without being condescending. It is fine for us to sit around a table with a few beverages and debate +P, -R, classical conditioning and response time, but owners just tend to glaze over. They aren’t looking for a degree: they want Fritzi to stop pooping on the rug.

We may write blogs, or give handouts or book recommendations, but we must get the essence of our training to owners in quick, short and digestible chunks. We must use verbal and written communication skills to get through the haze.

Finally we have to consider our footprint. Not the ones that our boots make on the carpet (although avoiding those is part of being a professional), but our footprint as shown by the track of dogs behind us. Have we made a difference for the dogs? Have we made a difference to the owners? Did we leave a gentle trail that dog and owner could follow? Did we impact their mental surfaces with respect and kindness? Or did we kick a door in, stomp around, knock over the furniture, and leave chaos in our wake?

Impact is a better assessment of our abilities and our success than money or fame. As trainers we need to be mindful of our impact. We have the ability to make a big one. Make the best of your opportunity for impact.