How a service dog forced me to be honest
Two years ago, my graduate school held a reunion. I went back to see the progress the program had made and to reunite with many of my colleagues and former professors. One of the professors I was excited to see was one who trained dogs to become service animals. She did this while I was in grad school, and I was thrilled to learn she was still doing this. In fact, she had her latest trainee with her: Luke. I am a sucker for babies, kids, dogs and kittens. If I see one, I will be front and center - interacting and playing with them. Luke was in harness, so I asked the professor’s permission to pet him. She said it was fine and Luke and I became fast friends.
I started talking to the professor about how she went about training service animals. First you spend years working with the dogs – and then you work with the humans paired with the dogs. It is a fascinating process. Luke was becoming a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder service animal. Which I learned meant he would be able to detect when the owner was stressed, in a medical crisis, and needed support during treatment. The dog’s main role is to help calm the owner, make sure s/he was safe, and get him or her past the episode.
As we were talking, I was petting and scratching Luke all over. Including a good belly rub and the ever-favorite scratch that makes a dog’s leg twitch. As I stopped petting him and was getting ready to move on, Luke sat up and looked at me with the saddest puppy eyes. Then he put his paw on my hand. I thought “Awwww, he doesn’t want me to stop. How can I say no to that face?” And my professor touches my arm and says “Oh my gosh! He is telling me something with this. He is telling me that he loves you...” I think “of course he is, I am a master belly scratcher.” I smile and I go back to scratching him. But she wasn’t done. She then says “…and he’s telling me you are stressed.”
“He’s telling me you are stressed, that he is picking up on it.”
“So, these puppy eyes he is giving me ... and the way he is asking me to pet him isn’t for him…it’s for me?”
“But I’m not suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress. In fact, I’m having a nice time.”
“Sure, but are you stressed? How are you doing?”
“Well, things have been stressful, but I'm fine, and I’m taking care of myself.”
I left that session pondering what had just happened. Things had been a bit stressful. But I had been making sure to take care of myself. I was eating well. I was exercising regularly. I was running half marathons. I was getting eight hours of sleep each night. Heck, I was even drinking eight glasses of water a day, taking a multivitamin and flossing daily! I was doing all the things you should to take extra care during challenging times...and probably should be doing all the time.
I joined my sister at the lunch break and told her what had just happened. She immediately started laughing. That night there was a reception. The professor was there with Luke. My sister saw them, said “I’ve got to see this” and took me across the room to them. There was already a small group circled around them. Luke was sitting upright, and different people were petting him. To my sister’s amusement, as soon as he saw me, he immediately laid on the ground and offered me his belly. Me – not the other 200 people in the room.
Now, do I think that Luke thought I was super stressed out or in a crisis? No. I do think he really liked my master belly scratching ways and was happy to offer his belly to me. I also don’t doubt that he picked up on my stress, even though I thought I had mastered putting on a good face. What was most interesting to me is how different I felt. Not just from petting Luke. But from acknowledging that things were stressful and being asked how I was doing by the professor. Even though I was doing all the right things to take care of myself, slowing down enough to acknowledge “yes, things have been stressful lately” helped. That then allowed me to think about things I could do to make things better.
There is an anecdote that says if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water (and let's pretend we have a logical reason to do so), it would immediately scramble and jump out. However, if you put a frog into a pot of cold water that is slowly heated, it doesn't notice the temperature rising and won't ever jump out... ultimately dying. What I realized for myself is that I started in a pot of cold water that was gradually heated. I hadn't noticed how hot it was getting, I was just plodding forward. The water wasn't boiling, but there were bubbles - and that dog helped me pause long enough to realize it.
I remembered this story when talking to a team yesterday that is experiencing the largest change they likely have faced in their career - and were at the point of their pots in a strong simmer. We were talking about how to navigate that change and how to help others navigate through it. I told them the power that acknowledgement and empathy can have. We abandoned the agenda and spent the first 20 minutes of the meeting focusing on empathy and acknowledging their situation. By the end of the meeting it had made a difference. The room was a bit lighter – and they decided to meet up again to spend more time talking through how they were dealing with the challenges. People can tolerate change and even make it through quite successfully. Most people appreciate those moments where someone can empathize “hey there is some tough stuff going on, how are you?” If you are a leader and you are feeling stressed, don't assume you are alone. Use that as an indicator that your team is likely feeling the stress as well - and would really benefit from you giving them some empathy.
And by all means, go pet a dog!