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December 1, 2003
Treat 'em like dogs....
By Chief Ronald Richards
If you look at the people that comprise your organization, you'll notice they come from various backgrounds- some are highly educated, while others have trouble reading;some come from a home with two parents, like the Cleavers, while others grew up on the streets in a chaotic environment.

As a fire service manager, you have the challenge of bringing together a group of individuals with diverse backgrounds to somehow get them to work toward a common goal, the delivery of emergency services.

While there are countless books written about organizational structure, motivation, and other tricks of the trade promising to provide the miracle cure. But when it comes to making your organization run like a well oiled machine, we are making a suggestion: Treat 'em like dogs....

WHAT??? How can you even suggest that? They're human beings.... not animals...well sometimes....  All joking aside, if you take a hard look at man's best friend, that four legged creature, the dog, you may see some strong similarities!

Dogs are strongly pack oriented animals
...so are firefighters. They prefer to be with their pack whenever possible. If you are inside, they will want to be inside with you. If you are outside, they will want to be outside with you. Firefighters want to belong to the group. They eat together. They train together. They watch TV together. Then again there are those who are loners, but they are the exception to the rule. The dog's home is his "den." Your fire station is the "den" to those work or volunteer there.

Dogs prefer to be closer to the center of the den
The center of the den is the place where the pack's smells are most acute. Some dogs are happy to stay outdoors during the day while the rest of the pack goes to work. A great many dogs develop behavioral problems as a result of daily "expulsion" from the den. Firefighters will often have their "own space", that personalized area they retreat to when they want to be alone, maybe to make a phone call or to read a book.

Undesirable behavior
Undesirable behavior is in the eye of the beholder. To the dog, it's perfectly all right to dig, to bark, to chase after other dogs, etc. This doesn't mean you can't control these behaviors, of course, but it does mean that the dog isn't doing them "to spite you." The dog hasn't a clue that it's not to do these things unless you train it not to. 

Firefighters are no different. To many of them, telling colored jokes, smoking where they please, leaving the day room a mess is acceptable to them. Maybe that's what they do at home. If that's the case, then to them that is acceptable behavior. As long as it is your fire station, is undesirable behavior. Establish rules, regulations, and guidelines to let them know what is acceptable behavior.

When dogs start undesirable behavior, its best to try to understand the source of this behavior. Often it stems from the frustration of being left alone. Dogs are very social animals. One positive solution is to make sure your dog is properly exercised. Exercise is a wonderful cure to many behavioral problems and dogs just love it.  Firefighters are no different. When we are bored we will do things to break the boredom. Maybe a prank or possibly some other disruptive behavior may break the monotony, but it will cause havoc for others.

Like our four legged friends, chances are, if your guys exercise, that excess energy will be burned off. Think about when you've returned to quarter from back to back working fires. Everyone just wants to get cleaned up, get something to eat and relax. Why? Because that excess energy has been burned off. Chances are there will be few problems with horseplay now. Next, recall your last shift that you didn't turn a wheel. Horseplay, childish behaviors and other problems to deal with? I'll bet the answer is yes!

Does your dog look guilty?
Many times a dog merely reacts to your body language and emotions. When you come in and see the toilet paper all over the floor, you get mad. The dog can tell that you are upset and the only thing he knows how to do is to try and placate you, as the alpha. They try and get you out of your bad mood by crouching, crawling, rolling over on their backs, or avoiding eye contact. You interpret the dog as acting "guilty" when in fact the dog hasn't the faintest idea of what is wrong and is simply hoping you will return to a better mood. The important thing to remember is that if your dog finds that it cannot consistently predict your anger or the reasons for it, it will begin to distrust you -- just as you would someone who unpredictably flew into rages.

Screaming and yelling at the dog, or punishing it well after the fact does not tell your dog what is wrong. You may in fact wind up teaching it to fear you, or consider you unreliable. You must get your dog to understand you, and you have to work on the communication gap, as you are more intelligent than your dog.

Preventing your dog from unwanted behaviors coupled with properly timed corrections will go much further in eliminating the behavior from your pet than yelling at it.  In fact, you should not yell at, scream at, or hit your dog, ever. There are much more effective ways to get your point across. Try instead to understand the situation from your dog's point of view and act accordingly. The techniques in this chapter approach problems with this in mind.

Have you ever walked into the station and get the feeling that something is going on? Remember, it takes two to tango. You walked in, the firefighters were already there.  Are they reacting to how you look? Did you walk in and slam the door, mumbling under your breath? If this was the case, then the firefighters are automatically onthe the defensive. They will have the "Oh, know here he comes look on their faces..." You'll interpret that as they look guilty.

Don't show a dog "who is boss"  yelling at it or via other methods of punishment
You show a dog who is boss by being its leader. Show it what to do, how to behave. Most dogs are waiting for you to take the lead. There are actually only a very few dogs who will actively challenge you for "top dog" position. Rather, most dogs take the "top dog" position because their owners have made no effort to do so, and not only that, their owners don't recognize what is happening -- until the dog starts correcting them for their misbehavior!

Yelling and screaming will accomplish little except give you a sore throat. Your firefighters know you are the boss. You were appointed,  picked,  selected, knighted or somehow got the position you have. That does not mean that everyone will throw rose petals at your feet. They know your the boss. Your uniform probably looks different. How you act, how you treat them, how you behave will reinforce that you are the boss. They will trust you as you will make decisions in their best interest.

Interestingly, many forms of behavior that have been touted as showing dominance over a dog backfire badly. This is because in many cases dogs really aren't contending for the "top dog" position: applying techniques to "show him who is boss" in these instances results in the dog being alienated from you and distrusting you because you corrected it for no good reason.

While there are times that you have to correct inappropriate behavior, the simple principles of praising in public and disciplining in private will go a long way. Treat all your firefighter the same. No favorites.

Alpha leader
Your dog must consider you its alpha leader. This means that it considers YOU the boss. Most dogs are happy to be submissive: just be sure to show approval at the occasional signs of submission, and assert dominance if it tries to test you (most dogs will, in adolescence). Very few dogs may be dominant and continually challenge you for dominance, in which case you will actively need to assert and establish your position, but this last is exceedingly rare.

There will be problem children in your ranks who will test just how far they can push you. Like the dog, they really do what to have a leader. Without a leader there is no organization in the pack. A good way to see this in action is to have five or six firefighters, all peers, assigned to a task without a leader. There will be in-fighting and bickering. Eventually on of the individuals will rise as leader of the pack and the others will follow.

An alpha leader is fair. An alpha leader deserves its position. An alpha leader does not use fear, punishment or brute force to achieve and maintain its position. An alpha leader, instead, makes it crystal clear what behaviors it approves of and which it does not. An alpha leader expects its subordinates to follow its lead, it does not force them to.

Praise your dog when it drops its eyes first. Praise it when it licks you under the chin. Give it an enthusiastic tummy rub when it rolls over on its back.   When your personnel do things right, praise then. (I'd avoid the tummy rub!!!!)

Authors note: A special thanks to Cindy Moore who wrote the original article on dog behavior.
 
About the author: Chief Ronald Richards has over 28 years of fire service experience, both career and volunteer. He rose through the ranks in the Forest City Fire Department, in Forest City, PA and became Fire Chief in 1995 holgin that that position through 2000 when he retired. He currently serves as the Chief for Training and Safety for Browndale Fire Company in Wayne County, PA. Chief Richards has over 24 years of service with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, having served as a Fire Marshal with the Department of Public Welfare, a Fire and Safety Specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. He is an Assistant to the Superintendent within the PA Department of Corrections, responsible for media relations, litigation coordination, accreditation, and the writing of policies and procedures. Chief Richards graduated from the State University of New York with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Service Administration.  Richards is a PA State Fire Instructor and an instructor with Command School, He is the founder of WithThecommand.com.