5 Easy Steps to a Great Partnership


by Kathy Kawalec

You might be asking yourself: "Why do I need to be concerned about having a great partnership with my dog or horse?" I believe the answer is cloaked in simplicity!

We can start with the one of the main qualities that we nurtured as our animal partners evolved: biddability. In other words: the innate drive to partner with a human, and to willingly accept leadership. If we as handlers, teachers and caregivers of our talented and biddable performance or service animals focus on the partnership that both parties long for...the mastering of the skills and the teamwork flows steadily in the direction of brilliance.

I like to think of this partnership in the terms of ballroom dancing.

The leader of the dance (in our metaphor it is the handler) has the roles of ensuring the choreography is followed, supporting the dancer’s awesome moves (in this metaphor it's the dog or horse), serving as the perfect backdrop for their partner's brilliance and beauty as they dazzle all onlookers with their skill and amazing physical abilities.

This leader is strong, calm, confident and understands that their role is crucial...and delivers their cues with respect and compassion. The dancer is strong, calm and confident and understands that their role is crucial...and willingly accepts the cues and support of their partner.

Now, in the beginning the dance is rough, not polished at all. Partnering is challenging, skill building is hard work and choreography is difficult. Sometimes frustration and anger sprout. The leader blames the dancer for not following properly or for not executing her moves correctly. The dancer feels her leader is working against her, or maybe she doesn't fully trust his ability to support her. But, if the dancers stay committed to working through this rough part together, a true partnership begins to grow.

OK - so that's why I promote partnership as the primary focus of building a great team.

Here's the how:

Step 1.  Pay attention to your intention.

This one is so easy! Are you intending to be a good partner? Can you see your animal as a good partner, now or someday? In a nutshell, what you focus on (or give your attention to) is what you will create more of.

So, if you are devoted to having a great partnership with your dog or horse, then simply decide to pay attention to how you are thinking about, speaking about and feeling about your animal and your partnership.

Once you are aware of your intentions and actions, you can then choose to BE a great partner, moment by moment. In no time at all, the seeds of a beautiful partnership are planted!

Step 2.   Learn from your animal.

In order to be an inspired teacher, one must first learn the art of being a good student. This applies to just about everything. Even if you are an "expert" at the many aspects of your sport or service...you must still learn how to best teach this animal this particular lesson by...you guessed it: learning from your animal!

Your student, in this case, your animal, will be the best teacher on how to teach. So: pay attention, listen, watch, modify, adjust, listen some more, then make more adjustments to the lesson. A good teacher understands that the "one-size-fits-all" approach to teaching is not effective, and may even dampen enthusiasm for further learning by the student.

The lesson in step two is to listen and learn from your dog or horse how to best teach...and in the listening, a new partnership is born!

Step 3.  Be a dedicated student.

There is soooooooooooo much to learn about skills, tasks, caretaking, trialing, handling, training, sportsmanship, (you get the picture!), that it would take a full set of encyclopedias, or an entire world of experts building a wiki to cover this topic with any depth or clarity.

So, the best we can do is to be a devoted student, learning every chance we get, in all possible settings and all available sources, in order to transform this gathering of information into personal wisdom. Then, over months, years, decades and even lifetimes, we actually accumulate enough wisdom to be able to effectively teach with ever-deepening understanding and clarity.

At some time along the way, our animals begin to realize that we *finally* have something useful to teach them...so they begin to look to us for advice...and a potentially great partnership begins to flourish!

Step 4.  Be a compassionate, benevolent, and clear leader.

Sue and Kat.

Have you ever noticed that the people we are most likely to consider great leaders are the ones who care deeply and compassionately about those they are leading?

Leaders who are courageous, strong, unaffected by peer pressure; leaders who can see the big, long term picture while they focus on the details of what is needed right now in the present. Leaders who inspire us to grow and be the best we can be...and through compassion for our present difficulties, support and nurture our evolution.

By choosing to be this kind of leader, and staying your course in spite of failures and bumps in the road, the partnership you yearn for will bloom into it's fullest potential. And it's a beautiful thing!

Step 5.  Embrace gratitude.

Here's my plan: start by noticing all the times you and your partner experience true partnership, no matter how small or brief. Smile, and feel happy and grateful...then share your happiness with your dog or horse, right then and there.

In that moment of feeling happy and grateful, you are giving birth to more of those moments. And because you are noticing those partnered times, and you feel good when you find them, you keep looking for more. (that's called positive reinforcement) And as you look for more times when partnership is flowing, and you will find them, you will have more and more happy and grateful moments that you and your partner are sharing together.

Every time you take your partner out to work, you start with remembering your partnership, you feel warm fondness for your animal partner, and you share a happy and grateful moment or two. Then you begin your work of learning and teaching, seeking out awareness of partnership when it happens...always doing your best to be a good partner and a good leader.

Yes, you will fail at that....Probably a lot. So, just pause, take a deep breath and be grateful that your wonderful partner will give you yet another chance to get it right.

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©  2010 Kathy Kawalec. All rights reserved.

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