Sunday, November 1, 2015

Leadership lessons from Riley the dog

So the blue one is my hunting share?
I got a call at 1030 on Saturday. I was in line at the NEX checkout with my three kids, but as my default is to always answer my phone, I did. It was my mom.

"Mom, I'm kinda busy, can I call you back in ten minutes?"

She sounded choked up a bit, so I hung on, until she said "Riley didn't make it."

My dog has been living at my parent's house since I moved to Hawaii. I went on leave these past two weeks to attend a wedding and visit my family back home. The last three days I was there, he wasn't feeling well. German Shorthair Pointers (or GSPs, for short) are supposed to be full of energy, even ones that are 7 years old. I left on 30 October...Riley didn't last but another day.

Despite having been separated for well over a year, it still hit me hard. I had started making plans to have him move back in with us as soon as we moved to Connecticut. I always felt guilty that my parents had taken him, since they have cats that live inside who were thus relegated to the basement. But I really felt guilty because Riley had been a good friend, or at least as much of one that a dog can be to a human. Leaving him with someone else just felt...wrong.

Riley also taught me a lot about leadership. The more I sat back and thought about it, the more I realized that many of the every day things I take for granted I learned as a dog owner. Thus it is only fitting that after his death, I ensure that Riley's leadership lessons live on.

1. Always find a reason to PT. GSPs love to run. They are bred as bird hunting dogs. I would take Riley hunting and he would run all day. Literally. In Georgia he was my running partner. My run time had stagnated, so I invested in a belt that had a dog leash on it and we both went running. Riley dropped at least 30 seconds off my PRT run time, which helped me kick start my weight loss program (that ultimately saw me losing over 30 pounds). It's made me a healthier person and a leader that can stand up and really talk about the challenges of living within the Navy's weight limits.

2. Let your good people run...they might surprise you. I took Riley pheasant hunting with my dad in Pennsylvania at a pheasant farm. Most pheasants will hold for a really long time, then bust straight up in the air when you darn near step on them. The dog's job is to find the bird and point to it so you aren't surprised. We were rocking our hunt when one bird, instead of busting up, busted outwards and flew away from us. Riley went chasing after it...causing a problem, since as I leveled my shotgun he was in between me and the bird. I started to call him back, and the guide stopped me.

"Just let him run a bit. That bird doesn't have enough air to make it, and your dog might surprise you."

Sure enough, the bird didn't have enough air and hit the dirt. Riley was right there, pounced, and brought him back alive. Had I called him off early, I would have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

3. The proper response to failure is more training. I took Riley to hunting competitions to get him his Junior Hunter qualification. I had two runs in the first event. In the first run, we (well, really he, since I didn't do much) totally rocked the course. He found two birds like magic. I was all smiles.
Julie reminding me that puppies can be trained.
Then on the second run he got distracted and chased some birds in a neighboring field. I couldn't get him to come back, and the judge failed me. I was disappointed. Julie Birdsall, one of Riley's breeders, came over and said "Look, your dog wanted birds. You can't train hunting desire, but you can train him to listen better." Sure enough, next time around, we smoked the runs and Riley qualified. A little bit of training took his innate skills and honed them into an awesome, bird finding machine.

4. Lots of noise is good, it means people are working. Anyone who has kids or dogs will tell you they get scared when everything is quiet, because it means something bad is happening. When Riley was focused on hunting, or making me run faster, or catching frisbees, or playing with my kids, he never got in trouble.
You didn't need to sit on the couch, did you?
I always had the most problems when he was alone and not caged. We had a party at our house and I was focused on my guests, not my dog. I bought two Papa Johns pizzas and set them on our kitchen island. When one of my guests went to get a slice, he told me "Hey, Papa Johns jipped you, they forgot to include the pepperoncini." I turned and looked at Riley, who was chewing on something. Then I saw the tiny green stem stick out from his teeth. Somehow he had opened the box, grabbed the pepper and shut the box in less than 60 seconds, which is pretty incredible since he doesn't have hands!

5. You can be talented, but if you don't play well with others, nobody will want to work with you. People loved Riley because he was nice to everyone. GSPs are bred to not be temperamental about new people, since you never know when you'll go hunting with a new person. Riley played well with dogs of all sizes, kids, adults, and even the occasional cat. One of my neighbors had a beagle that was loud, obnoxious and bit other dogs. She mostly kept her beagle at home because ultimately, nobody likes it when your dog bites another dog.
Who says pitbulls aren't nice dogs?
6. Instead of scratching your head, scratch someone else's head. So many times I came home from work pissed off at the world. I would sit down on my couch, normally with a stack of late EVALs and awards that had been dropped on my desk at 1630 as I was walking out the door. I would fume as I went through the stack with a red pen, wondering why English was a second language to anyone over the paygrade of E-5. And inevitably I would get stuck on a phrase, or an EVAL, or something that I couldn't find a good way to phrase.
Let's be honest, you can't NOT scratch this head.
Then Riley would come over and want his head scratched. Head scratching is required for dogs, sort of like getting a fix is for a drug user (without all the legal problems). You can't avoid them. Riley would stop short of the couch and stare with sad puppy eyes. Then the head would be next to my lap, then on top of someone's EVAL, then eventually in between the paperwork and my pen. And I'd relent and scratch his head. Funny thing is, helping Riley would always break my writer's block.

7. Discipline is built by positive and negative consequences. Just like Scooby Doo, Riley would do most anything for a dog biscuit. He also didn't like to be scolded. He needed both to have good discipline built. We too often either to focus on being only positive or only negative with maintaining good order and discipline, forgetting that just like most things in life, discipline require balance.
Learning to sit.
8. Learn to love where you are at and what's around you. I took Riley out hunting once for six hours and found nothing. No birds, no deer, no wildlife to speak of. I was frustrated. As I was putting Riley back in the truck, I saw a dog who was happy. Not a care in the world. He was enjoying the moment, loving whatever was thrown his way. It forced a smile on my face while we drove back home.

It's a smile, but with lots of tongue!
You would think with all the awards we hand out that we'd have plenty of reasons to celebrate, but all too often we just go through the motions from one command to the next. Officer clubs are closing all over the place because we stopped enjoying each others company. Heck, try breaking someone's gaze from a bloody smartphone anymore. Facebook makes us think others have it better, so much that I fear we miss out on all the good things around us. Riley would break me from the gaze, demanding attention and forcing me to actually live in that moment.

9. You won't realize what you're missing until it's gone. That statement is so cliche, and yet so true. You think you have it great when you live without your dog for a while. No crazy bounding dog knocking down kids to get to the door when you come home from work. No poop to pickup. No barf to clean. No midnight whining to go pee when it is down pouring rain outside.
Best friends forever.
Then when you get that phone call, telling you that the dog that was with you for a career change, three kids, two moves and two deployments isn't alive anymore, it all comes crashing down. You realize you miss the crazy greetings at the door, because it meant he was excited that you came home. You realize that poop and puke cleanup wasn't all that bad, since you would have scrubbed the floor at some point anyway. Besides, life wasn't meant to be clean. There isn't a medal for cleanliness.

And it hurts, and it makes you think about the good times, and it puts the bad times in perspective, and it makes you wish you had placed more value on the positive times when they happened.

Rest in peace Riley. Hopefully there are plenty of birds to chase where you're at.