In Michi­gan, dogs help hu­mans be bet­ter bosses

Pro­gram be­gun to aid the blind branches out

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY - Jamie L. LaReau

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 find,” 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.”

Train­ing peo­ple

Leader Dogs for the Blind started its ex­ec­u­tive train­ing pro­gram about five years ago, with Pu­rina as its first 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 differ­ently. “My wife told me I had to do some­thing differ­ent 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 “filled me with this level of confidence 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 differ­ent parts of busi­nesses of­ten speak differ­ent 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 officer. 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 affairs 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.

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