Life with a Canine Guides us Through the Re-Onboarding Process

Life with a Canine Guides us Through the Re-Onboarding Process

COVID-19, Leadership

I’ve had and trained dogs before, and I’ve on-boarded people before, but never have these two concepts collided SO HARD as they have in the last month.

Meet Otis, a 4 month-old Border Collie/Basset Hound mix we adopted in late March. For those who know dog breeds, you can probably guess his personality: really smart but kind of lazy and stubborn.

So, we started with the dog training, which is NOT about training the dog. It’s about training the humans to learn to think like a dog so we can better communicate with him. This is where these worlds collided…

Organizational training should not be ONLY about teaching employees about their job and their roles… leaders should also be LEARNING about the employees so they can speak their language.

In other words, training an employee should NOT be a one-way venture. BOTH sides should actively be in the learning mode. Ah-ha!

This is especially true now as facilities are anticipating coming back online in a post-COVID-19 world.

So what I have learned from “onboarding” Otis that would help you as you onboard or re-onboard your teams in the coming weeks and months?

  • Like I said above, let’s look at the training process as a two-way proposition. You WILL NOT be able to bring your folks in and tell them the new information and expect results. Just because I tell Otis to sit, that doesn’t mean he is going to do it. Your protocols are not the same, and I would dare to say that your teams are not the same. More than ever you will have to focus on how your employees are reacting to coming back to work and the “new normals” in order to get the best performance.

  • This means you’ll have to be even MORE diligent and consistent with your messaging. One day Otis may respond well to a command followed by a treat, the next day maybe not. Over time, the more consistent I can be with my expectations, messaging and communication, the better results we’ll get. If you do not consistently reiterate your standards and expectations (in a few different modes) the performance of your employees will be haphazard.  If you are promising your guests that you will be cleaning and sanitizing on a more aggressive schedule (for example), “haphazard” doesn’t jive with that.

  • Encouragement is KING. Do you have any earthly idea how many times I’ve said, “good boy” in the last 1.5 months? I don’t, but I know it’s a TON. Why so much? Because dogs respond to positivity and a friendly tone of voice. They also respond to firm reprimands, which we have had to do, but the scales have tipped toward encouragement SO much more often. Encourage the behavior that you want – where have I heard that before? As your employees come back, they may be scared, they may be apprehensive, they may be unsure if they should even be at work. This is your time to summon up as much compassion and empathy as possible and encourage the behaviors YOU want to see.  Will you have to correct people, sure. But do that in an encouraging way, too.  Focus on getting better in the future rather than reliving a mistake of the past. Leave the firm reprimands for the stuff that really deserves it – like if their safety is in jeopardy.

  • While you are doing all of this, you will need to re-learn (or learn) how your employees communicate and the best way to respond. When we first brought Otis home, we didn’t know his “tell” for when he had to go to the bathroom. We had a few accidents, so we started taking him out just about every hour or so until we learned what he was trying to tell us. When there was an accident, did we get angry and stuff his nose in his pee spot? No. We did our best to remain calm, we picked him up immediately and took him outside. We can’t get mad at him because he doesn’t know the expectation, so we have to A. be consistent with our reactions and B. watch more closely for his signals so we could avoid the accident in the first place. I know you are going to have a lot on your plate when you re-open, and watching, caring for and anticipating the needs of your employees should be at the top of your list.

In some ways, I think if you have had to shut down you are at an advantage over places like grocery stores who have been open this entire time. They fell into a new normal, you get to plan for it.

And plan for it you should! Plan for your guests and their experience, but also plan for your employee’s experience.

If you need help navigating any of these preparations, I’m happy to assist. You can call/text 407-435-8084 or email

Thanks for reading!

Matt Heller
Distinguished author, speaker, and industry veteran Matt Heller can sum up what he does in three simple words: Helping Leaders Lead.  Matt’s firm, Performance Optimist Consulting, has worked with some of the largest attraction operators in the United States, including Six Flags, Cedar Fair, Universal Studios, Apex Parks Group, and Herschend Family Entertainment, along with countless other parks, zoos, museums, and aquariums.  Matt focuses on leadership development, guest service training, eliminating employee burnout, and reducing turnover.

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