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July 11, 2009

So, you feel like all you do all day long is herd cats?  This metaphor, once featured in a humorous ad campaign for consulting giant EDS, conjures up images of someone trying with futility to control a bunch of mangy, independent, and often surly felines that have little or no regard for authority.

Most of us have enough first-hand knowledge of felis catus to appreciate this simile while simultaneously recognizing that cats, whether of the house or alley variety, have many benevolent and often endearing qualities.  To “dog people” this metaphor may still resonate, but it probably does very little to motivate them to engage the unglamorous if not odious task itself.

For several years, I have happily shared my home with a New Zealand huntaway we picked up from an animal shelter.  The huntaway is an unrecognized but nonetheless distinctive breed of dog favored by pastoralists for its friendely demeanor, tireless work ethic, native intelligence, and resonant bark.  Like most dogs bred for shepherding and cutting work, you don’t need to teach a huntaway to work.  Instead, you have to teach it how and when not to work.

Shepherding breeds, even more so than other dogs, love activity and take pleasure in work for its own sake.  So dedicated to the task for which they were bred are they that good shepherding dogs will make up work even when none exists.  To illustrate, when my dog was still just a pup and my kids were only a tad older, she would run around them dodging, barking, and nipping at the cuffs of their trousers until she got them into a tight cluster so she could move them where she wanted.  They found this mildly amusing until they discovered they couldn’t budge without the dog countering their every move.

I have shared my home with both cats and dogs at different times for extended periods.  Likewise, I have spent a great deal of my working life in and around public service agencies.  It has been my experience, despite popular notions to the contrary, that a lot of public servants act more like shepherding dogs than cats.  Public servants are often deeply and innately committed to the tasks they perform, and many engage them diligently and persistently but sometimes for their own sake with little regard for some higher purpose or specific outcome other than the approval of their masters and perhaps an occasional meal.

Managers in public organizations have a responsibility, like good shepherds training a working dog, to teach the animal when not to work.  This always requires a healthy dose of respect for the dog’s intelligence and dedication.  Sometimes it means finding opportunities for them to burn off nervous energy in ways that do little harm and do not represent a waste of time or effort.

Effective training always depends upon a relationship of trust and respect.  A dog needs a master who confidently and consistently demonstrates and reinforces his expectations, and offers appropriate recognition and rewards for a job well done.  Public servants are not so different, and like my dog, I appreciate and enjoy their loyalty and companionship.

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