Meet Coco. She's a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever raised in a prison — and she happens to be one of the best trainers of people out there.
Coco is one of about a dozen dogs in the Leader Dogs for the Blind's executive training program, which teaches managers how to improve teamwork skills, clarify communication, build trust, do strategic planning, use creative problem solving and ultimately become better bosses.
"It's the best training for people you'll find," said Dave Bann, corporate engagement manager for Leader Dogs for the Blind in the Rochester Hills, Mich., executive training program.
Dog teaching man might sound as far-fetched as man biting dog. But not to those who have experienced the training course, such as Ginger Auten of Mitsubishi Motors research and development in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Auten donned a blindfold, took hold of Coco's harness, used precise commands to communicate where she wanted Coco to go, then surrendered control and extended trust.
The result was an epiphany: "Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and let yourself rely on help from others to guide you," Auten said. "You're still in charge, even if you're the blind person guiding the dog, and with any leader and employee, it's a give-take situation."
"When you're in leadership, you want to control things. That took me out of my comfort zone. I had to purely trust the dog," said Phil Bertolini, chief information officer for Oakland County. Bertolini and about 19 of his colleagues did the training last year.
The tighter Bertolini pulled on the harness, for example, he learned, "The less the dog was able to lead you," said Bertolini, who worked with Coco's canine colleague Flaim, a black Labrador retriever. "If you do the same thing with your team, the harder you pull on them, the less they can help you achieve."
Leader Dogs for the Blind started its executive training program about five years ago with Purina as its first client. Purina is a partner with Leader Dogs for the Blind.
The idea for the program came out of repeated comments from Leader Dogs for the Blind's clients who struggled to answer people who asked, "How does the dog work?"
The executive training courses involve the blindfold walks, a white-cane walk and various team-building activities such as clicker training, in which participants must complete a task based only on cues Bann gives them by using a dog clicker. In short, they become the dog in an exercise designed to teach them how to give and receive instructions through cues. It's analogous to how different parts of businesses often speak different languages yet have to learn to communicate so they can work together.
Training also teaches the power of strategically planning and intelligent disobedience.
For example, a person who is blind must plan a walking route and be ready to change course if an obstacle appears. The guide dog must be given leeway to disobey commands when the dog knows best.