PEOPLE | PETS | COMMUNITY

Sled Dogs and Working Relationships: Carmen Rowe, Gryphon Law Group

By Carmen Rowe, Gryphon Law Group

Running a sled team is like no other experience. You’re out there in the wilderness, roaming mountain trails, making your own, or navigating an urban trail on wheels. My favorite part is the snow. The swish of the runners, the dogs’ breath. That pure, silver silence of the mountains. Night sledding under the moon? Whew. Spiritual. It’s peace. It’s power. It’s watching your dogs do the job they were literally born to do. Thousands of years of genetic enthusiasm. It’s the unique joy of working as a team. Dog teams and human teams are similar. You may not enjoy moonlight runs with a dog team, but building a people team, it’s not so different.

Running a sled team is like no other experience.

Living with dogs and running a sled team reflects so much of life, and of running a business. Watching the dogs interact and then teaching them to work together on a team isn’t all that different than watching people interact and teaching them to work together, or learning how to work with your clients. Observing behavior teaches you a lot about the personalities involved and how they communicate. How personalities change in a pack. How they change depending on who is in the pack. How they interact when things get tough. How it can depend on the day.

It all boils down to some essential components. The first and foremost step is reading the signs to know what the dogs (or people) need to function well together. Including your own role. If you can read people and their interactions, what they tell you without telling you, you’re ahead of the game. Dogs are a little more honest in their interactions. Once you learn the signs, they’re easy to read. Humans are harder.

Or are they?

We are constantly communicating. Only about 10% of our communication is what we say. Over 50% is body cues; nearly 40% is tone. (And if you’re thinking maybe that’s a problem for email – you’re right.) Body language and tone reflect the true meaning – if they conflict with the words, guess which one is truthful. So the lingo to learn isn’t really words at all.

Things do not come “out of the blue.” Ever. The only question is if you noticed the signs. Observe, don’t judge – just watch. You’ll see it. You know when a client complains that they aren’t happy. But the signs are rarely so obvious. Learning to read the cues is a powerful tool (even for the upset customer or employee – as what they say may not be the real root of the problem). Learning the unspoken language opens up a whole new world and provides you a powerful tool in building strong working relationships. It is critical in building a good sled dog team – same for you. Because this “language” tells you what is really happening, thus giving you the tools to work with.

Living with dogs and running a sled team reflects so much of life, and of running a business.

Keep in mind pack dynamics. Malamutes never, ever forget where they are in the social status ladder. They may pretend they don’t care, but they do. Always. They pay attention to the signs, the daily interactions, the decisions of the others. They are really, quite nosy. They form opinions about individuals and situations, which then colors their interactions. Sound familiar?

I also learned a ton from mushing “boot camps.” A core lesson was to let go and let the dogs be, well, dogs. That doesn’t mean you don’t participate or responsibly manage. But you let each group find their rhythm. An important piece is letting the dogs – or, people – learn to get along and build relationships before they are put together to work. It’s a disaster to have these “sorting out” moments when the dogs are all tied together with short little lines. And when you do put them together, you guide, but also let each individual find their place. Not all that less traumatic to have it happen in a business situation.

Face-to-face contact, oh-so-different from hiding behind emails or Facebook. Dogs are funny. Isolate them from the others and you get aggression. You may have heard of “fence” or “chain” aggression? That’s the impact that separation has on our ability to work with each other. Take time to interact.

People’s basic needs are the same as dogs’. They need to be social, have order in the social dynamic, to participate and feel accomplished. What kills that is the same thing that kills the enthusiasm of even the best sled dog: pushing too hard. Not keeping it fun. Micromanaging. Not talking to them except to holler in frustration when they do something wrong (which is usually just something they didn’t understand to begin with – unless, being a malamute, they just decided not to obey, and really don’t care if it upsets you. They find that kind of fun.) The vast majority, be it dogs or people, don’t actually want conflict. Sure, there are those that thrive on conflict, but not most people. If there is conflict, find the REAL reason why. What does that involve? You guessed it: all those little clues. You are most effective when you use that 90% of real communication.

And like with a dog pack, methods of interaction constantly evolve, the pack changes. Embrace creative communication methods, suited to the unique group.

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Carmen Rowe is a business & real estate lawyer with 17 years’ experience representing animal-related businesses and agriculture. In addition to her small working farm, she has been actively involved with Alaskan Malamutes for 16 years, is general counsel for the National Breed club, has served as general counsel for various malamute rescues, and was a founding member of the Washington State Bar Animal Law Section, serving on the board for 10 years. Carmen is also an active member of the Community Associations Institute.