Learning from life: what I learnt from a dog that picked me

Selfie of feet and arrows on road. Top view of person's shoes.

This month Michelle Parry-Slater reflects on what she learnt from the process of selecting a pet – loyalty kindness and how to be gentle

Anyone who know me knows I love dogs. Over the years I’ve had several dogs. Like people, dogs come and go in your life and each teaches you something. I learnt the most from Jabba, a rescue dog who taught me the value of loyalty, kindness and gentleness, which directly affects how I work with people today. Training with her led me to my profession in adult learning.

When I got married, I’d been without a dog for a few years. My husband was fed up of my mithering on about needing a dog in my life, so he agreed to go to Battersea for a new furry friend – on the proviso if the dog’s home said no to us because we worked full time, then that was the end of it. To my joy, they said they would have hundreds of dogs without homes if they turned away every full time worker. Instead they were VERY prescriptive about the dog we could have – over five years old, OK to be left alone for a bit, plus we must come home each lunchtime or have a dog walker. They were very clear on their parameters and true to their word, they didn’t deviate. They were experts and knew what they were doing.

No, you can only have a learning offer which solves your problem.

When stakeholders come to us as L&D experts, that kind of clarity can be helpful when people have a problem to solve. I wanted a dog, any dog. They said no, you can only have a dog that suits your circumstances. The same is true for L&D. I want a course, any course. No, you can only have a learning offer which solves your problem.

We visited Battersea several times over successive weeks hoping for the right dog. Each time we went home empty handed it was disheartening and harder to go the next time. We had to be patient for the right dog, but it was so heart-breaking to wait. I wanted a dog now. I needed a dog now. Being clear on what we were looking for, then waiting for that when waiting feels like an eternity, was the right thing to do. It was more important is that the outcome was right. So we waited, and Jabba could not have been more right for us.

Patience is a virtue

Our stakeholders in L&D are often not patient, and it is hard to wait. We live in a world of instant gratification. They have a problem and want it solving. Sometimes we need to be firm with kindness, knowing that we will get them a better result if we are clear on the parameters, the problem and the people. Speeding up the process by curating not creating a learning offer helps settle the impatience, but ultimately spending time gathering evidence is time well spent – look over a bunch of dogs before getting the right one!

I have always loved cocker spaniels so I was super happy to see a beautiful orange roan in a Battersea kennel. Not a typical inhabitant amongst the beautiful waifs and strays, I was smitten. He was young, he had separation anxiety, he was howling. He looked gorgeous. He was totally wrong for us. He would have given us problems not solve them. Just because something looks the part doesn’t mean it is the part.

Whilst I was mooning over the never-gonna-happen spaniel, my husband was looking in a kennel behind me. A German Shepherd Cross. “What about this one?” he asked. I glanced dismissively; “Too big”, immediately returning to give spaniel eyes to orange roan boy. He continued, “She was a stray, she is happy to be left alone, she is older, she is called Jabba…..” His voice trailed off because he realised he was not being heard. He was offering me the perfect solution but I wasn’t willing to listen. I was set on what I wanted. Many an L&Der knows this story.

Dog sitting on a sofa.
Michelle Parry-Slater’s dog Jabba

We went to the desk to ask about orange roan boy. I hadn’t even finished my sentence and was met with a flat no. No way. They are experts and they were firm. So my husband gentle ventured forth, “What about Jabba?”  Ah ha, they said she would be perfect. After my spaniel disappointment, my ears pricked up because the experts “perfect.” Who doesn’t want perfect? We went into the waiting room to meet Jabba. I had barely glanced at her in kennels. What was I expecting to come through the door? Certainly not a big ball of fluff who totally ignored me, much like I had her. She made a bee line straight to my husband. I wasn’t sure she was perfect for us. At the end of the meeting, she walked back to her kennel, pausing to look over her shoulder at me. Her eyes said yes, I pick you, you are my person. Anyone who has had a rescue dog knows that look.

Stepping into learning

And so the kindest, loyalist, gentlest bear of a dog came to live with us. I took her to dog training where she was quickly named ‘The Police’ as she kept all the dogs in line. I became a dog trainer as a result of her, which was my first step into teaching adults.

All actions have consequences. All choices have consequences. We sometimes only have a split second to weigh them up, to notice the eyes. Our stakeholders will dismiss our ideas. They will have fixed expectations. They will want the doe-eyed spaniel when we know that isn’t right for them. Be the expert your stakeholders need you to be and help them make good learning choices.

Michelle Parry-Slater

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