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Top dog: Animals and leadership

Alison Coleman

Alison Coleman discovers how learning how to effectively communicate with horses and dogs can ultimately lead to success in managing people

They’ve probably heard the old saying; 'never work with animals', yet as leaders search for more effective ways of steering their organisations through turbulent economic times, some are turning into regular Dr Dolittles.
Modern leadership development programmes come in a variety of guises, from formal academic courses to informal leadership retreats, however one of the most fascinating concepts involves learning to successfully communicate with and ultimately lead animals – most notably, horses.    

The bond between people and dogs is also being explored as a means of enhancing the communication skills needed for effective leadership

 Lisa Brice has been a corporate trainer, coach, and consultant since 1994, and a passionate horsewomen for much longer, and has always been intrigued with the parallels that can be drawn between horse interactions and human interactions.
In 2003 she launched her Northampton-based training company Horses for Courses, one of the first in the UK to deliver equine assisted learning to help business people deal with a range of business situations, including leadership issues and challenges.
The course itself involves delegates spending time in the paddock interacting with the horses and encouraging them to do what they want using body language and energy rather than verbal communication.
Brice says: "Feedback is immediate; the horse will either follow you, or walk away. It is incredibly revealing. On one programme I ran for a sales company, the leader started working with the horses but kept losing his concentration, and when he did, the horses would also 'disconnect'. He was taken aback when the rest of the team who were attending the course told him that was exactly what he did when communicating with people at work. He later described the experience as the best lesson he had ever learned."  
Her clients include Carlsberg, Philips Electrical, Ellisons, and Ernst and Young, along with numerous smaller companies, and not for profit organisations, who have reported positive results when the skills acquired in the paddock are applied to the workplace.
Brice added: "Horses link trust and respect in their mind; if they can’t respect you then they can’t trust you to protect them or lead them from danger; remember these are prey animals. Horses equate consistency with integrity, and are stressed by ambiguity; they need to know who is going to 'push' who when danger is present. A core leadership skill is consistency; people want to know where they stand and what your likely response will be in a given situation."
The bond between people and dogs is also being explored as a means of enhancing the communication skills needed for effective leadership.

In 2007, business management and NLP coach Angela Watson left a 17 year career leading and managing teams in the NHS, to start her own business. At the same time she got a dog. Today she is the founder of Basingstoke-based Pawz4Thought, a new training concept designed to improve human interactions by learning how to communicate with man's best friend.
She says: "Away from work, I was getting involved in dog obedience training. Then I got a second dog, and we were winning prizes all over the country. I realised that these competitions taught teamwork, leadership, communication, and self-awareness. More importantly they also showed how the skills needed to get the best out of dogs, without dominance or coercion, were the same needed for getting the best from people."

Delegates on the 'Leadership Unleashed' workshop initially watch a demonstration of canine obedience by Watson and her two golden retrievers, Harry and Lucy, and then, assuming the roles of steward, judge, dog and handler, must complete a similar obedience course safely using the different levels of communication required by each role.
"The training takes a very different approach to encouraging people to do what you want them to do. It helps you to identify any areas of weakness, clarity of communication, the need to be more strategic, etc, but the real value comes from seeing how the skills you discover during the programme can be effectively translated to your business life," she adds.
Mike Peates, founder of business events company Yes You Can Events Ltd, who attended a recent workshop, said: “Having managed and led teams ranging from four to 40 members I wish this training had been available a few years ago. How we communicate to people is as important, if not more so, than the words themselves, and one of the key things I learned is that clear concise instructions given in the same manner provide an outcome in line with expectations, and as a result I am now more acutely aware of the need to be concise with instructions.”


  • Celia Bourne

    I attended a session working with horses at Leadchange in Checkendon, S Oxfordshire & I was fascinated at the possibilities it offers in terms of truly understanding the impact we have. I have been a professional trainer for +25 years & working with the horse I understood at a gut level what I had 'know' at a head level for years. There is no hiding with an animal be it horse or dog. I would highly recommend this type of training to others who what to get real understanding of personal impact.

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