In which Jill admits that everything she knows in business she learned from her dog.
As anyone who’s lost a loved one knows, the memories are bittersweet. Recently our dog Colby died from lymphoma, and I’m at once shattered by her loss and grateful for what she taught me.
I was Colby’s fourth owner. The prior three had various excuses for not keeping her. She jumped a 7-foot fence. She didn’t do well in an apartment. She didn’t get along with the pot-bellied pig. She wasn’t affectionate. She had epileptic fits. Most dogs in shelters are thrilled to be on their way to a real home, but Colby seemed indifferent. She’d seen it all before.
I soon realized that I was in over my head. Colby was impossible to walk on a leash. She didn’t come when called. She was food-aggressive with my other dog. Worst of all, as soon as we hit the hiking trail she would bolt. The first time I let her off the leash, she disappeared for nine hours.
But I’d made a commitment to her and I was bound to see it through. Through the rehabilitation process—hers and mine—I learned some lessons that I return to now in my work life. Here are some lessons Colby taught me:
Do what you’re good at. I’ve always rescued homeless dogs, mostly ending up with border collies and shepherd mixes, those loyal working types that gaze at you fondly while doing your bidding. But as anyone who’s ever had a beagle or a basset hound knows: hound dogs are special. They are beholden to every scent wafting through the air. So if it’s a choice between your redolent human pheromones or the scent of a squirrel or raccoon, well, the varmint always wins. Colby didn’t herd on command or obey a series of hand gestures. She’d just lift her nose, breathe in, and go. She could chase a single deer, sight unseen, for miles and be the happiest dog in the world.
Pick a team you work well with. Colby liked other dogs well enough. She’d greet them with a brief sniff and a raised tail and move on. But she had a special affinity for yellow Labrador retrievers. When she spotted a yellow lab Colby would play-bow and give chase. She and her lab friends would swat each other around, hunt for ground squirrels together, and generally tire themselves out, going home exhausted and anticipating their next reunion. Colby didn’t like every dog she met, but she definitely knew who she wanted in her circle.
Don’t let your weaknesses define you. We first met Colby at a pet adoption event in L.A. A man was walking her across the parking lot. “Is that dog up for adoption?” I blurted in spite of myself.
“You don’t want this dog,” the man replied. “She has epilepsy.”
Visiting Colby at the pound, I confronted the crudely-wrought sign on her cage that obscured the dog behind it. “EPILEPTIC!!!” The sign might as well have read, “Don’t Adopt Me!” She peered out from behind the sign and looked up at me as if to ask, “You up for it?”
We took her home anyway. Our vet prescribed a small dose of Phenobarbital. In the five years we had her, she never had a single seizure.
Remember who you work for. I eventually took Colby to a trainer, who set her up with an e-collar. She emerged a better-behaved dog, responding to the sound of a small beep from the e-collar. And by attaching a GPS antenna to a harness I could track her whereabouts on a hand-held device. Our hikes were transformed: Colby would hunt and I would hike, monitoring the GPS device and beeping her e-collar when she was out of range. We worked well this way, each aware of the other, checking in when necessary, doing what we were there to do.
Avoid the drama of others. Occasionally other dogs would try to pick a fight with Colby, but she was expert at avoiding eye contact while backing away from a brawl. Colby wasn’t interested in dog-on-dog rumbles, preferring the company of humans and assorted fleeing mammals. When she didn’t have a vested interest in the outcome, she just refused to play the game.
Ask for what you want. Colby was not a barker, but she made it clear when she wanted something. “Food” was a tentative handshake. “Ready for a hike” was a series of whimpers. “I smell a varmint” was a long, plaintive bray. And if she just wanted to hang out, she’d go sit on your lap on the floor, facing away from you as if announcing: “Prey vanquished!”
I did things for Colby I never thought I’d do for a dog. Shock collar? Never! A GPS? Please. Chemotherapy? Are you serious? But I did all those things and more for Colby and she paid me back in a thousand small ways. Colby taught me to stretch and adapt. She opened my mind to new ways of problem solving. I abandoned my bad habit of snap judgments. I learned my own capacity for patience. I’m a better dog owner because of her.
And I’m a better manager. Colby gives new meaning to Take Your Dog to Work Day. I know when to slow down and when to speed up. I know when to sit back and think. I know when to admit what I don’t know, and when to ask for help. And I know that even a crazy wayward coonhound can leave a lasting legacy.