What Fostering Greyhounds Taught Me About Compassionate Leadership

Coming Off the Track

When Greyhounds come off the track, their whole world is turned upside down. Racing Greyhounds have a very ordered life. It may not be the life we would choose for them, but it’s the only life they’ve known.

Most racing Greyhounds have never stepped foot inside a house. They live outside in a row of kennels – always in the same kennel with the same bed (and sometimes a fluffy toy), with the same kennel mates on either side. Their life is one big routine – walking, training, eating, sleeping, racing, repeat. This life makes most of them feel safe and secure.

When a Greyhound’s racing career is over, the lucky ones get adopted. While the people fostering and adopting Greyhounds have huge hearts, many of them underestimate the wrench experienced by the hound when it loses the only life it’s known. Imagine being taken away from your trainer, your kennel mates and your safe place (your den). Being taken by strange people into strange places.

I hear a lot of new Greyhound Mums and Dads despairing of their hound’s “bad behaviour” when they first arrive in the house – peeing on the carpet (hello, they’ve never been inside a house before), refusing to get into the car (because they’ve been lifted in all their lives), freezing on walks (everything is unfamiliar). Is it reasonable to upend a hound’s existence and expect them to simply slot into family life on your schedule?

Coping with Upheaval

It’s the same with people. When someone is going through upheaval, whether it’s a new job, a company merger or divorce, it’s a huge shock to the system. It takes time, effort and will to assimilate the change and transition to your new way of being.

I volunteered with the Greyhound Adoption Program for several years, fostered 11 hounds, adopted 1 (and very nearly 4 or 5 others!). I hang out with hundreds of them in our Greyhound walking groups and I cared for dozens when I had a pet minding business. I know Greyhounds. In fact, some of my best friends are Greyhounds.

At first, I found the ex-racers’ behaviour bewildering and frustrating. A kind heart and willingness to open my home to these noble creatures was certainly a great start. But it wasn’t until I put myself in their shoes (so to speak) and changed my mindset and behaviour, that their transition to life as pets went much smoother. I used strategies that set them up to succeed including:

  • Creating a safe space for them – a den where they could retreat from the hustle and bustle of the household.
  • Using what I called the “attachment method”. For the first few days, whenever the hound was inside, they were “attached” to me via a lead. This gave them a sense of security and reduced the opportunity to get into mischief.
  • Taking them outside every hour and praising them when they went potty.

When April (AKA “The Princess”) growled at my young daughter while she was sleeping on her bed, I didn’t punish April. I taught my daughter not to approach a sleeping hound.

I was the leader. I needed to step up and I did this through compassionate leadership. Dogs look to us for safety and security. And so do our staff. As leaders, it is up to us to care for those in our charge and create an environment where they can flourish and ride the winds of change without unnecessary stress and overwhelm. Change will always bring a certain level of fear and anxiety, but as leaders let’s not add to it.

You Set the Tone

Hopefully your charges don’t pee on the carpet when they’re stressed! But when one of your people “acts out”, rather than judging them, criticising them or punishing them, treat them with compassion. And look behind the behaviour. Find out what the need is that gave rise to the behaviour. Then, if it’s within your power, give them what they need.

I used to walk Rocky, my OCD Cattle Dog cross, past a house with two Dobermans. Every time we approached the yard, the Dobermans would charge the fence, barking and growling aggressively. My heart rate would spike, I would tighten the lead and move to cross the road. Rocky would tense up and lunge at the Dobermans before relenting and cross the road looking over his shoulder.

I met with a dog behaviourist, Gale, about Rocky’s “bad behaviour”. In no uncertain terms, she informed me that I was causing Rocky’s behaviour. I was meant to be the leader and Rocky took his cues from me. My tension was being communicated down the lead to Rocky. As leader, it was my responsibility to protect Rocky, but as I was nervous, he thought he had to protect me.

The next day, armed with Gale’s advice, as we approached the Dobermans’ house, I calmed myself, loosened the lead and kept walking along their side of the road like there was nothing out of the ordinary. Rocky looked at the Dobermans, looked up at me and seemed to shrug. If Mum’s not scared, then neither am I. We walked calmly past and did so every day until the Dobermans moved out. Instant behavioural change! I didn’t have to “manage” Rocky’s behaviour, only my way of being.

Leadership the Easy Way

Leadership is as much (or more) about who you are and your state of being as what you do. Consider what you might be doing (or being) that adds unnecessary stress to your staff. Rather than taking the hard way of “performance managing” your staff and fixating on getting the most OUT of them, let’s shift our thinking. Put yourself in their shoes and be the leader you wish you had. With compassionate leadership comes ease and grace. And when you do the best FOR your people you are equipping them to cope with life’s upheavals and they will walk through fire for you.

Di Krome is a Champion for Good Mental Health in the Workplace and founder of Wildfire Business Consulting. Di is on a mission to inspire business leaders to prioritise the mental health of their people and implement strategies to reduce stress and overwhelm so they can experience peace, joy and fulfilment at work.

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