Tim Burke: What I learned about people I learned from my dog!


Why does my dog do that? I wish I had gotten paid for every time someone asked me that question when I was conducting a K-9 training session.

My response is always “because it’s a dog”. That is part of the reason but it’s also because we haven’t taught the dog what behavior we are expecting from it or that there are consequences for incorrect behavior. That is often true with companies and how they manage employees. They don’t define the expectations and clearly communicate them to team members.

We naturally develop close personal attachments to our canine friends and often think of them as members of our family. Consequently, we start to believe that dogs think like we do. They don’t, because they are a dog. All a dog really cares about is its place in the pack, what is it going to eat, where is it going to sleep, and if it’s a male dog are any of the female dogs in the pack coming into season for breeding.

Everything else in their behavior is secondary to their instinctual behavior. Yes, they play, they interact, and they are very intuitive. Sometimes they are almost humanlike in their behavior. But dogs don’t spend endless hours thinking deep thoughts on how the universe was formed and instead live in the moment reacting to what takes place around them. Wait, doesn’t that sound just like millennials?

Dogs are taught by us the behavior we are expecting from them and therefore we must teach them what we want in a way that they can respond to. If we don’t teach them what we are expecting they we shouldn’t blame the dog if it has incorrect behavior.

Modern training methods for canines involves teaching the desired behavior using motivational techniques. It is often referred to as “operant conditioning.”.

Operant conditioning is a type of learning where behavior is controlled by consequences. Key concepts in operant conditioning are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.

In business, this same principle of operant conditioning has become the modern method of employee management. Since most of the behavior taking place in a business is learned rather than reflexive, operant conditioning can be applied to organizational management. Managers in today’s workplace are taught to use the four main psychological principals of operant conditioning to engage employees and to achieve the desired outcome.

The first principal, positive reinforcement is giving something pleasant after a behavior. This increases the probability that the behavior will continue. An example is having a job and going to work every day to receive a paycheck. That’s a positive! Negative reinforcement is taking away something unpleasant because of behavior that is acceptable. This is also meant to increase the behavior moving forward.

An example is a teacher exempts a student from the final test if they have perfect attendance. So, the teacher is taking away something unpleasant as a reward to increase positive behavior. The third principal, positive punishment is used to decrease a behavior and is presenting something unpleasant after the behavior.

An example of positive punishment is an employee who exhibits bad behavior at work and the boss criticizes him. The behavior will decrease because of the boss’ criticism. The last principle, negative punishment is also used to decrease a behavior and is removing something pleasant after the behavior. An example of that is an employee is habitually late for work so begins losing the privilege of listening to music while working. The behavior will decrease because of losing a privilege.

I am reminded of this theory of using motivation to teach behavior every time I step onto the field with my dog for training. Our canines are highly attuned to the total picture of the persona we present to our dogs. Yes, they listen to our verbal commands but they are also observing our behavior, sensing our moods, and keying on our physical presence. I learned that I must always be very clear in what I am asking my dog to do. It must be well-defined and “black and white” to the dog and not murky or gray.

The same can be applied to managing a company’s staff. The direction and goals must be well defined and not ambiguous. Employees and team members respond positively when they know exactly what is expected of them and how they can contribute to the company. Building cohesive teams in the workplace is based on the principles of everyone clearing understanding the expectations and clear communication.

By applying the principals of operant conditioning, a company can motivate team members to perform at their best. As a manager, it’s not enough to say what you want and expect a positive outcome. You need to present a professional persona that clearly reflects what is expected in the workplace.

Perhaps it might seem silly to say that managing employee teams and training dogs is similar but operant conditioning is already part of how we manage our daily lives. If you are raising children you are applying it when you reward your child for correct behavior and when you take away privileges for incorrect behavior.

A mentor once told me “training dogs is easy, it’s the people that make it difficult.” I suppose that is true in the workplace too but using motivation to help employees understand the expectation is far more productive than negative methods.

Tim Burke is a businessman, philanthropist, educator and Pahrump resident. Contact him at timstakenv@gmail.com