In Michigan, dogs help humans be better bosses
Program begun to aid the blind branches out
DETROIT – Meet Coco. She’s a 2year-old yellow Labrador retriever raised in an Iowa prison – and she happens to be one of the best trainers of people in the world.
Coco is one of about a dozen dogs in Leader Dogs for the Blind’s executive training program, which teaches managers how to improve teamwork skills, clarify communication, build trust, do strategic planning, use creative problem-solving and ultimately become better bosses.
“It’s the best training for people you’ll find,” said Dave Bann, corporate engagement manager for the training program in Rochester Hills, Michigan.
Dog teaching man might sound as far-fetched as man biting dog. But not to those who have experienced the training course, such as Ginger Auten.
“It was amazing,” said Auten, manager of human resources and administration at Mitsubishi Motors research and development in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Auten donned a blindfold, took hold of Coco’s harness, used precise commands to communicate where she wanted Coco to go, then surrendered control and extended trust.
“Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and let yourself rely on help from others to guide you,” Auten said. “You’re still in charge, even if you’re the blind person guiding the dog, and with any leader and employee, it’s a give-take situation.”
Leader Dogs for the Blind started its executive training program about five years ago, with Purina as its first client. The idea for the program came out of repeated comments from Leader Dogs for the Blind’s clients who struggled to answer people who asked, “How does the dog work?”
“We realized a lot of our clients are executives and they’re successful,” Bann said. Leader Dogs for the Blind has put together about 15,000 guide-dog teams globally in its 80 years of existence. Participants “said they often used what they learned working with the dogs across the rest of their lives: in their marriages and at work.”
Bann decided teaching the lessons his blind clients learned by working with their dogs might be valuable to others.
One of those clients was Richard Brauer, 57, who lost his eyesight at age 14. Today he owns his own company that specializes in executive recruiting, development and diversity training. He also coaches the Leader Dogs executive training courses.
Brauer spent 36 years working for a plastics extrusion company in McPherson, Kansas, where in 1994, a colleague told him about guide dogs.
“I told her I didn’t need a dog and I walked away,” said Brauer, who admitted he had a chip on his shoulder then.
His wife felt differently. “My wife told me I had to do something different or we’d have to get divorced,” Brauer said. “The day my wife took me to the airport, I hadn’t been anywhere alone in my life since I was 14. Here I was getting on a plane to go to Rochester, Michigan, alone. I was deathly afraid of what I was about to do.”
The 26 days that followed changed Brauer’s life. He was given a 22-monthold yellow Lab named Monty, who “filled me with this level of confidence and gave me the tools to be a guide-dog handler, which are the same tools required to be successful in life,” he said.
How it works
Coco is one of the 12 “ambassadors” with Leader Dogs for the Blind. The ambassadors do events to showcase guide dog skills, promote Leader Dogs for the Blind and participate in the executive training courses.
The guide dogs are bred at Leader Dogs for the Blind’s facilities in Rochester Hills. They spend a year with volunteers and are exposed to a variety of environments.
About 400 puppies start the training each year, but only about half pass the rigorous four months ultimately required to be a guide dog, which are provided to blind people for free.
The executive training courses involve blindfold walks, a white-cane walk and team-building activities such as clicker training, in which participants must complete a task based only on cues Bann gives them by using a dog clicker. In short, they become the dog in an exercise designed to teach them how to give and receive instructions through cues. It’s analogous to how different parts of businesses often speak different languages yet have to learn to communicate so they can work together.
Overcoming fear, handing over trust and feeling “amazing” for doing it seem to be universal reactions from executives who take the course.
“When you’re in leadership, you want to control things. That took me out of my comfort zone. I had to purely trust the dog,” said Phil Bertolini, a local information officer. Bertolini and about 19 of his colleagues did the training last year. “It was kind of an amazing feeling.”
The tighter Bertolini pulled on the harness, for example, he learned, “The less the dog was able to lead you,” said Bertolini, who worked with Flaim, a black Labrador retriever. “If you do the same thing with your team, the harder you pull on them, the less they can help you achieve.”
“I wondered about the relevancy of this,” Amy Kopin, manager of regulatory affairs and vehicle emissions lab at Mitsubishi, said minutes after doing the blindfold walk that day.
“It’s very interesting to be totally in darkness, you feel like you’re not in control and it would take some time to develop some trust. It’d be nice if there were more of that trust to trickle down in the company.”
Ginger Auten, a Mitsubishi Motors executive, walks blindfolded with Coco and trainer Mike Toger during a Harness the Power of Leadership session in Ann Arbor, Mich. PHOTOS BY JUNFU HAN/USA TODAY NETWORK
The puppies are bred at the Leader Dogs for the Blind campus in Rochester Hills, Mich., and are raised by volunteers, some of them prison inmates.