Train the Owner, Not the Dog

Treat your employees the way you would treat a dog. Through continuous
job training, positive reinforcement and acknowledgement of the pack hierarchy,
dogs … er, employees … receive the tools they need to be both happy
and successful.

A career for the dogs

This has been the advice of Russell J. Hornfisher, MS, director of sales
and marketing for Becker Orthopedics, for about 15 years. In addition to his
presentation at this year’s
American Academy of Orthotists & Prosthetists (the Academy)
Annual Meeting & Scientific Symposium
, titled “Treat Your
Employees Like a Dog,” Hornfisher also offers “How to Treat Your
Customers Like a Dog,” “Who Moved My Dog Dish?,” “You Can
Teach an Old Dog New Tricks,” and “Golden Retrievers and Overhead

  Russell J. Hornfisher
  Russell J. Hornfisher

“That one is about marketing,” he said.

Of course it is. But what does business have to do with dogs?

The principles of training a dog and running a business are the same, he
said. And he would know, because he has two Master’s degrees in business
and also owns a pet store.

Hornfisher’s wife has been training and showing dogs since she was
11 years old; after several years of trying to make a living in the corporate
world, she decided it was time for her career to go to the dogs, and the pair
opened a start-up pet store. Hornfisher said his wife never looked back, and
the business has continued to grow.

  Hornfisher’s dog Morgan, accompanied him to the Academy meeting to help Hornfisher explain the principles of better business management.
  Hornfisher’s dog Morgan,
accompanied him to the Academy meeting to help Hornfisher explain the
principles of better business management.
  Images: Russell J. Hornfisher

As part of his wife’s “love me, love my dogs” mentality,
Hornfisher agreed to take a dog training class, which taught him the same
principles he learned in 6 years of graduate school.

“It’s quite fascinating that managing people is about 50 years
behind training dogs,” he said.

Positive reinforcement

Hornfisher has gotten pretty good at training dogs over the years, and
even better at applying these principles to the lessons he learned in business

“It’s all the same,” he said. “Respect gets respect
and people tend to follow those who are confident and have leadership

For example, through the organizational behavior and development
research he completed for his thesis, he found that people will not take on
more challenging tasks for a greater monetary incentive.

“Most people will stay only in their comfort zone of what they feel
comfortable doing,” he said.

Instead, his research showed that specific training — and the
ability to successfully complete a project or job — made people far more
willing to take on those more challenging tasks. The intrinsic reward of
accomplishing something was the strongest motivator. Jobs without a clear end
tend to have the highest level of stress.

  Consistent behavior on the part of an organization’s leader and organization itself increases the consistancy of staff output.
  Consistent behavior on the part
of an organization’s leader and organization itself increases the
consistancy of staff output.
Photographer/Artist/Provider’s Name, Organization’s Name.

You can see similar behavior with dogs, he said. Dogs inherently want to
please their owners, and positive reinforcement for a job well done makes them
more likely to repeat the behavior. Applying this principle to employees, he
encourages business owners to use consistent praise. Even in situations where
reprimand is necessary, it is only successful if it is used five times less
than positive reinforcement, so stick to praise as often as possible.

Head of the pack

At any given time, three adopted dogs — give or take a fostered
stray — take up residence at the Hornfisher home. That particular stray,
depending on its personality, can change the dynamic of the entire group,
Hornfisher said.

One adopted dog has all of the personality characteristics to become the
leader but, because she was a runaway, lacks the self-confidence to assume the
role. On the other hand, a three-legged stray lived with the group for a short
time, and it became clear from the first day that she was the alpha personality
— she just exuded the confidence necessary to claim that position.

“Like dog packs, human organizations change every time a new member
is added or extracted. A new person is hired and the relationship among
everyone else in the organization changes,” he said. “What position
does this new person take, and who will move up or down in the hierarchy? Who
will become a mentor or role model, or an understudy? All of these things
happen each time an organization hires or loses personnel. Human pack dynamics
is an important component of the success or failure of every

Also, in any group, there are a formal organization and an informal
organization, he said. The formal organization is comprised of the people who
have the leadership titles, like president and chief executive officer. The
informal organization is where the real leaders come from.

“When a crisis happens on a Friday afternoon, who does everyone
turn to? Many times it’s the secretary or the foreman,” he said.
“Not necessarily the guy who’s got president or vice president on his
title. It’s the person who can handle stress and makes the right decisions
and people turn to.”

The important thing to remember about this theory is that Hornfisher is
not trying to change employers’ behavior; he simply wants to make them
more aware of their behavior. It is easy for people to understand the
principles of training a dog, he told O&P Business News, and
then apply those to their own behaviors in working with their employees.

The more consistent the behavior of the organization’s leader, and
the behavior of the organization itself, the more consistent the staff output.

“Most people want routine in their life,” he said. “The
majority of the population likes rituals. It’s calming. It makes it
comfortable, and they want that consistency.” — by Stephanie Z.


Russ highlights the importance of making people feel comfortable in
their work environment so that they may achieve their potential on a sustained

The O&P industry is unique in that we have to satisfy patients’
requests pertaining to the appearance, fit and functionality of their device
while at the same time complying with federal government regulations, state
government laws, insurance company requirements as to the way we provide and
bill for the device, and professional standards required by certifying or
licensing boards. In addition we have to fill a prescription produced by a
physician as well as accommodate therapist’s recommendations for the
performance of the device. On top of all this, O&P employees are part of an
organization that has to provide a service in the most efficient way possible
and be accountable to their managers or owners.

With so many “bosses” to satisfy we can easily lose focus on
whom we are to answer to.

However, in dealing with people in general, whether in our work lives or
personal lives, the rule that seems to work the most time is to treat people
the same way we would want to be treated in the same situation.

— Jon Shreter, CPO
President, Allied
Orthotics & Prosthetics and Practitioner Advisory Council member,
O&P Business News

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