Meet Coco. She’s a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever raised in a 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 the 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 Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan, executive training program.
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 of Mitsubishi Motors research and development in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“It was amazing,” said Auten, manager of human resources and administration at Mitsubishi, who did the training last week.
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.
The result was an epiphany: “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.”
The challenge of overcoming fear, handing over trust and feeling “amazing” for doing it, seems to be a universal reaction from executives who do 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, chief information officer for Oakland County. 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 Coco’s canine colleague 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.”
Leader Dogs for the Blind started its executive training program about five years ago with Purina as its first client. Purina is a partner with Leader Dogs for the Blind.
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,” said Bann, who said Leader Dogs for the Blind has put together about 15,000 guide-dog teams globally in its 80 years of existence. “They 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 plastics extrusion company Battenfeld-Cincinnati in McPherson, Kansas. He started there at age 18 on the plant floor, but in 1994, a colleague told him about guide dogs, he said.