Learning from life: What I learnt from parenting puppies

Puppies (c) Julie Drybrough

Michelle Parry-Slater shares puppy cuteness overload and also looks at the importance of knowing your audience, and guest blogger Julie Drybrough adds her experience about letting go

Puppies (c) Michelle Parry-Slater

A little over two years ago we welcomed two puppies into our family, Georgie and Elsie. Chaos. Cuddles. Cute.

A little under 18 years ago we welcomed six puppies into our lives as I bred my cocker spaniel, PIxie, to donate her litter to Hearing Dogs for Deaf People as they started their breeding programme. Again chaos, cuddles and cute.

To be honest though, those are not the three words my husband describes Pixie’s pups. Having puppies is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, my husband pretty much retreated upstairs for the duration, as yapping, wiggling and messing was more how he experienced the small furries.

He wasn’t wrong, but I remember those babies much more fondly. Where my husband saw chaos, I saw opportunity. We created life to help deaf people to live their lives more confidently. For the puppies it was just a question of finding their motivation. For the six of them that was food. They loved to eat, so training was straightforward.

Are things any different with learning? Without motivation, isn’t learning just chaos? There is so much information coming at us all of the time, how can we organise that chaos and makes sense of it? As an L&D professional, I genuinely see our role as curating to motivate. We need to sort through the noise, to offer our colleagues learning opportunities which meet their needs with ease. Serving them something they want will always be more welcome. But what if they are not motivated by what you offer?

Our new pet dogs, Georgie and Elsie, must be THE only spaniels in history who are not food motivated. I have had many spaniels in my life, but these two were a mystery. That is, until I discovered they will do ANYTHING for a cuddle. I’ve never known more cuddling puppers. Training them was hard, especially as they don’t much care for food. They never listened to me and they are siblings, so are well bonded (although they fall out about 60 times a day). I trained them separately, treated them as separate dogs, and gave each personalised time. I got to know their individual needs and personalities. Elsie is more independent than her brother, but less confident. Georgie is not overly confident but he is more curious. We have high trust and he likes to be near me. He follows me around, hence my kids call him my duckling. It is only by knowing them that I can teach them in a way that suits them.

Spaniels (c) Michelle Parry-Slater

Welcoming Georgie and Elsie into our lives was layered with assumptions; we ‘know’ spaniels (but we didn’t know those spaniels), we know how to train dogs (but not un-food-motivated dogs), we have had loads of dogs (but not had puppies for years). Assumptions litter our working lives. We assume we know what new starters need, what leaders need, what people want from our learning offer. It is not until we take time to know our colleagues that we can truly give them what they need in learning. We need to build relationships and have real understanding, not assumptions.

When we don’t assume, we ask, we are curious, we collaborate. Just like no two puppy experiences are the same, no two colleagues’ learning experiences are the same. Personalisation and variety are important to enable people to learn what they need to be productive in your organisation’s unique context. Asking people is key to effective collaboration. For this reason, I have asked Julie Drybrough what she has learnt from having bred puppies just this year. It is 18 years since my experience, so I should not assume things are the same. Was it all chaos, cuddles and cuteness?

Over to Julie to share what she has learnt from parenting puppies:

The house is rearranged by the presence of five initially tiny, then increasingly robust, new pups. Little palm-sized moles that turn into fat squishy Labradors. Adorable and challenging. They are individually quite different, one more adventurous, another more cautious, a third with a Hooligan Mode that is hilarious, but will require a lot of handling as she grows. As Michelle alludes to above, the dynamics in the litter are both predictable and erratic. You can’t assume. You hold to an overarching knowledge that if you wake them, then something will happen – but what? So you learn to tiptoe, when you don’t have time or energy to deal with consequence… and sometimes that still doesn’t work.

Puppies eating (c) Julie Drybrough

Each week brings firsts: the first time they open their eyes; the first steps; the first escapee from the pen. After the first there is no going back. They do not un-learn, they only develop and grow. Our role is to nurture and direct: Don’t chew the table, chew this tennis ball. I work with my dogs in a positive framework – rewarding the good stuff, ignoring or redirecting the bad, with the occasional loud handclap or “Oi!” if it’s all getting out of hand. It requires patience and self-control. When a marauding mass of 20 legs, five tails and hundreds of teeth are in full rumble-mode in your kitchen, your capacity to hold your space comes into question. It can easily feel too much. I educate myself, going to YouTube, talking to friends, finding ways through the emerging patterns. Through this, I can hold onto my belief that raising young dogs is possible. I can do this. No really, I can.

As week eight rolled around, they began to leave. People made assumptions, “oh, you’ll be heartbroken”. I say that I will miss each one individually, but I will not miss the collective. By eight weeks they not only had teeth, but they had ideas and opinions and were constantly annoying each other. Everyone was exhausted, including some of the quieter pups. The time to move on was evident.  It has been a lesson in letting go. We ensured each dog went to a brilliant home, with families and owners who also wanted to educate themselves and showed interest and curiosity in their new charges. The emotional tug of loss was softened by the thought of next-steps and bigger horizons for these young dogs.

I have learned so much, not least that there is limited wisdom in having puppies in the centre of Edinburgh. The experience has been joyful and consuming. As our last boy waits to find a new home and we consider if we could we keep him I know that he has to move on and we return to a home without mayhem. Which will be fabulous. And somewhat dull.

Julie Drybrough

Julie Drybrough is and Organisational Consultant, Executive Coach/ Supervisor, Writer and Speaker at fuchsiablue

Michelle Parry-Slater

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