Leadership Lessons from My Guide Dog: Enhancing Performance with Dog Treats

I’m constantly amazed at the powerful leadership lessons my guide dog, Fiji, has been teaching me since we started working together a few months ago. Most recently, she has shown me how effectively appropriate rewards can stimulate good performance.

On one of our regular routes we need to cross a busy road at a pedestrian crossing where there is a robot to stop the traffic. When a pedestrian wants to cross, they push a button on the robot pole and a few second later the lights will change.

When we first learned the route Fiji had difficulty finding the right pole. Sometimes she stopped short, sometimes she overshot a little. We always got there in the end, but seldom did we walk straight up to the pole.

Every time she found the pole and stopped with her nose touching it like she was meant to she would be rewarded with a dog treat. And after a few days Fiji could find that pole perfectly!

You may be asking what this has to do with leadership. If we, as leaders, reward good performance our teams will quickly make the link between the good performance and the reward. And that will motivate the team to repeat the required performance.

We do need to bear in mind that not everyone is motivated by the same rewards – if I had tried using slices of apple to reward Fiji rather than dog treats, the results would not have been as effective. Mind you, she is a Labrador, and they will eat almost anything, so maybe my statement doesn’t work in this context, but certainly I wouldn’t be motivated by dog treats.

The other thing to bear in mind is that the reward should be offered as soon after the required performance as possible, so the link between the two is clear. If I had only rewarded Fiji for finding the pole after we had crossed the road she would probably think the reward was for crossing the road… in fact, rewarding her at that stage might undermine my effort to get her to find the pole because she would be rushing to cross the road so she could have the treat… bypassing the pole completely.

In case you think I’m insulting your colleagues and team members by suggesting you treat them the same way I do my guide dog, remember how important Fiji is in terms of what she enables me to achieve, and how necessary a part of my team she is… and know that I’m actually paying your team a huge compliment!

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