What I learned about running a business, managing clients, and training employees from my dogs.

Cross-posted from AmandaFayeConsulting.com.

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to write about the congruence between leadership and dog agility. (And no, it’s not just so I can share pics and video of my two awesome canine teammates…Okay, maybe it is a little bit.) Over the years, working with multiple different agility trainers to prepare two very different dogs – different by breed, age, physical characteristics, and personality – has taught me a lot about leadership and mentorship.

What is dog agility?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the sport, dog agility is a sport where a human handler and dog work together so that the dog finishes an obstacle course in a set sequence within a specific amount of time. The obstacles include jumps, hoops, tunnels, a dog walk (like a tall plank), an A-frame, weave poles, and a teeter-totter. The equipment used depends on the venue (whether it’s AKC, ASCA, NADAC, etc.).

Astro, smooth coat border collie, 13 years old, A type personality, workaholic, highly intelligent, will do anything to please. Photo by Connor Archer.
Andy, mixed breed, laid back, only interested if the game is fun, takes 600 repetitions to learn something new, but clever when it suits his purpose. Also has his own fan base as the class clown of the agility ring. Photo by Connor Archer.

Cuing your dog around a course requires a lot of foundation training in obedience, groundwork/foundational training in handling skills, training for obstacle competency (believe it or not, dogs don’t just run into tunnels on their own).

Me, trying to lead Andy through an agility course called “Touch n Go”. Andy pretends to go in the tunnel then pops out. Video by Kathy Upton – AgilityVideos4U.

Eventually the idea is that you don’t have to babysit your dog around the course, but instead can call the cues from afar so you get out of the dog’s way so they can run at speed (and you don’t slow them down). Your job is to call out the next obstacle and direction in advance for the dog to go in the right order and make time.

So what, if anything, does this have to do with leadership?

If we look at these aspects: foundational training; obstacle competency; motivation/drive; and handling skills – they are direct analogies to skills needed both by leaders and their team members to successfully accomplish their goals or mission.

Foundational Training

Foundational Training is training in the shared language that your team speaks. It’s the “conversational domain” of the industry or field you are working in. If you don’t speak the same language or understand the terms, you cannot successfully communicate. If I cue my dog to “switch”, and we’ve never trained a switch command (a change in direction/flow), he’s probably not going to execute it well if at all. Similarly, if, as a grant strategist, I start to use words like FOA, case statement, budget justification, inclusion/exclusion criteria, and many others, and you have no training in grants, then you’ll probably just look at me with your eyes glazed over.

Andy responding to a “switch” cue in Novice Regular class. Video by Kathy Upton – AgilityVideos4U.
Astro performing a “switch” cue in Elite Regular class. Video by Kathy Upton – AgilityVideos4U.

It’s essential that a leader and their team speak the same language.

Obstacle Competency

Obstacle Competency is akin to not only training in specific skills but the actual tasks that go into completing the project. For example, it means not only knowing how to use a certain software program but using that software program in service of completing specific actions. It’s the ability to do the task and to generalize the task across projects. For a dog, it’s being able to complete 12 weave poles, entering in with the left shoulder every time from any entry path, on any course, no matter where the handler is standing. Obstacle competency, therefore, also comes at different levels.

Andy with 6 weave poles in Novice Regular. Video by Kathy Upton – AgilityVideos4U.
Astro with 6 weave poles in Novice Chances. Video by Kathy Upton – AgilityVideos4U.
Astro with 12 weave poles in Elite Regular. Video by Kathy Upton – AgilityVideos4U.

Here you can see Andy doing 6 weave poles at the Novice level, and Astro doing weave poles at the Novice level, as well as Astro doing 12 weave poles at the Elite level (NADAC courses, for those who care).

Competency is not just the ability to complete the task but to do so reliably and at an acceptable level of quality.


What motivates or drives members of your team will be unique to each of them. And what motivates one team member may demotivate another. One collaborator of mine was well aware that any time she mentioned standing up for the patients, no matter how late at night, no matter how tired I was, I would muster all my energy to get something done. Astro, my 13 year old border collie, follows my Type A personality to the T. He works for the “yes” and “good boy!” at the end of each run. He wants to know that he did it right, and I’m happy with him. He comes ready to work. And that’s part of his breed. Border collies are herding dogs, and working is in their blood. It doesn’t take much to motivate Astro. Sometimes he is so ready to work he can’t even wait for the “go” on the start line!

Astro breaking his start line in Open Regular class. Video by Kathy Upton – AgilityVideos4U.

Andy, my 3-year-old mixed breed, on the other hand, could care less about being right or pleasing me. Where Astro wants to know he did the job right, Andy wants to know I love him. Andy wants a relationship. Andy wants to play. With Andy, I had to figure out how to make agility into a game. So Andy’s foundational training was more extensive in a different way than Astro’s. Andy’s foundational training consisted of learning to retrieve and play tug, because Andy is motivated by the opportunity to play a game with me. It took time to figure out how to engage Andy’s drive.

We then had to translate games at the beach into games on the agility course. Then, if we want to actually compete, we have to transition the game into long sequences with play at the end.

Andy in Novice Changes, engaged and playing the game. Video by Kathy Upton – AgilityVideos4U.

The Leadership Triad

Whatever level your team is at within any component of this leadership triad dictates who you need to be as a leader, and, furthermore, your mission as team dictates what level of execution/excellence your team members must be able to function at.

The Leadership Triad is a play on the cost-quality-speed triad. The theory says that you can only have two of the points at one time.

The difference is that while the center of the above triad is impossible, with the Leadership Triad it is possible, with the right “handling” or leadership skills.

In leadership, achieving the “impossible” center becomes possible if being right is of no concern. If you can set aside your need to have everything “your way” and focus on the end result being what you want, you can achieve a lot. Astro is 13 years old and a veteran of agility and, importantly, a border collie with a type A personality. He likes to work, and he will do anything to hear me tell him “Yes!” He wants to do know he did it right.

Andy, on the other hand, could not care less about work or doing it “right.” Andy wants to play a game. Andy is motivated by my role in a game that he finds fun. When I started training Andy, I grew increasingly frustrated because I went through all the steps and exercises I went through in training Astro on foundations and obstacles, but Andy was just not getting it. And I didn’t understand because there were days when he was highly motivated, so I knew he could do it and enjoyed agility, but there were so many days when it was just painful for both of us.

I finally learned that Andy values things differently than Astro, and once I let go of “the right way” to train him, and focused on Andy’s specific needs, I was able to figure out how to give the agility “game” value for him and, therefore, how to motivate him and get really strong performances from him.

Andy having fun and doing great.
Photo by Clark Kranz.

As a leader, you have to be willing to accept mistakes and address them instead of continuing to make them while trying to make the mistake work.

Sometimes it’s not the right sport for you. Or the right job for them.

Ego comes out in many ways and not always how you think. Sometimes ego comes out in refusing to let go of that team member that is out of your skillset to motivate or out of your capacity to train in the foundation or task competency. Ego comes in when we are unable to admit that some members of your team aren’t up to the task/mission.

Absolutely, quite often we don’t have the skills as leaders, but just as often we get into a “My Fair Lady” mode and think we can miraculously transform a team member if we can just train them enough or motivate them enough. And surely, just as I had to figure out how to motivate Andy and get him interested in the agility game, some dogs have zero interest and never will. Just like some members of your team will never be a good fit for the team.

And sometimes, you may have to choose what level of performance you can accept and learn how to work with that as a handler. At 13, Astro is still a wonderful teammate to run with. But he can’t make time with me calling cues at a distance, so I have to run the course with him to support him to the finish line. We will likely never work at the distance I’d like to, but that’s a level of performance I’m willing to accept.

The way you achieve the impossible with the leadership triad is by learning when you’re acting out of a need to be right instead of the need to operate successfully as a team so that you can successfully achieve your goals.

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