I love animals. And among those, I love dogs and horses the most. I also love cats. But there is a very distinct difference between a dog and a cat. As someone said, ‘A dog looks at you and says, ‘He must be God because he is looking after me.’ A cat looks at you and says, ‘I must be God because he is looking after me.’ Dogs are beautiful, responsive, and completely unconditional in their love for you. A dog will love you whether you are good or evil, beautiful, or ugly, rich, or poor. For a dog, you are the center of his life, and he/she will stick with you to the end. That is the only thing about dogs that I totally, and completely hate. That they die. There is nothing more tragic than that. Ask me. I suffered that over and over until the day I decided that I would not have a dog again.
In my early years 1968 – 1977, when I was at school and college, I had the good fortune of meeting one of the greatest dog breeders and trainers in the world, Nawab Nazir Yar Jung. He was an icon in the world of International Dog Shows and Field Trials. When I expressed my love for dogs and demonstrated that I was good with them, he allowed me to work with him caring for and training his dogs at his home in Hyderabad and accompanied him to some Dog Shows that he was judging. In those years, I learnt more about myself than about the nuts and bolts of dog rearing or training. I learnt that when you work with animals, dogs in particular, your own sensitivity and communication improve. Language is useless as the animal is only responding to to the tone of your voice, facial expression, and signal. So, the importance of being precise not only in what you say, but in how you say it and being aware of your body language when you are giving that command are essential to get the instant obedience that only a dog can give you. Dogs are so incredibly sensitive that they will pick up your facial expression or the way you hold your hand when you give a command. And the next time you don’t give it in that exact way, the animal gets confused. It is always essential to be extremely self-aware to be a good trainer. On a side note, owners sometimes complained that the dog had not been trained properly because it was not responding to the commands that he had been trained for. But when they brought the dog back to us and we commanded it, it obeyed instantly. The reason was not the dog’s training but the way the owner was giving the commands. That’s why we insisted that the owner or handler spent a few days with us and his dog and learned how to give the commands that the dog had been trained to obey.
I realized that training dogs was equally if not more about training myself in how to communicate effectively. It was hands-on experiential learning in being intensely aware of myself, my posture, facial expression, tone of voice, mood, and overall disposition. I learnt all this training dogs, but over the decades since then this helped me in communication, public speaking, negotiating, and coaching people across three continents. All this and more, I learned from my dogs and applied successfully in some very difficult situations in my life and work. It is this special capacity of the human to learn something in one situation and apply it in a totally unrelated situation that sets us apart from animals. Animals also learn, but they can’t conceptualize and so their learning is very topical. Ours is applicable across boundaries.
Dogs anticipate you to such an extent that to see a highly trained dog and his handler at work is to witness magic. That is what we saw when we saw Nawab Saab working with his dogs. The dog seemed to be doing everything on its own whereas he was doing nothing without his handler’s command. But the commands are so subtle that they are invisible to all but the trained eye that knows what to look for. There is a wonderful program on British Television which shows sheepdog trials. You see the handler standing a long way off in the field directing his Border Collie (the favorite breed for these trails) entirely by hand signals. The dog goes to the flock, cuts out precisely the number of sheep that he is ordered to cut out, and drives them into the pen all on its own by responding to signals that are invisible to us.
I had for my own trainer, the best in the world. A man who had trained everything from sheep dogs to tracking dogs, gun dogs, hunting dogs, and guard dogs. And I learnt from him. I hope I learnt well.
To test how well we had trained the dogs to track, we would stand on one side of a wall that bordered a large area of scrub forest. We would give our dog a ball to hold in his mouth and smell. Then we would command him to sit and stay and throw the ball as far as we could over the wall into the forest. The dog would vibrate with excitement, yearning to go for the ball. We would count to ten and then say, “Get!” And off he would go. A big Doberman would fly over a six-foot wall with inches to spare. A Labrador would scramble over it. And then a few minutes later, back it would come over the wall with the ball in its mouth, circle the handler, and sit on his right side. Then on command it would drop the ball and take the piece of dry meat that the handler would give him as his reward. How can I describe the excitement of testing your skill in the performance of your animal? The lesson learnt – you stand or fall by how your trainee performs – as valuable a lesson in corporate or any other area of leadership as in training animals. A good coach after all is not the one who has the greatest knowledge, but the one whose team wins. If your dog fails, you carry the can. You can’t blame the dog. It is how well you trained it. Same logic in leadership anywhere else.
The biggest learning for me in these early years was the realization that no matter what you do, it is only worth doing if you aim at being the best in the world at it. And to be the best, it is essential to be passionate about what you do. I sincerely believe that it is impossible to excel in something that you do only halfheartedly or because you are forced to. It is impossible to be the best in the world in anything that you are not passionate about because you will never put in the heroic effort that is needed for you to succeed. Another realization was that when you are doing something that you are passionate about, you never get tired or stressed out. You are always fresh and full of energy and those around you also feel this. Passion is essential because it is the only thing which makes the heroic effort seem worthy of the goal. Only the passionate never compromise because compromise is the cancer which kills from within. Passion is infectious; so is compromise. Stress occurs when we do things we don’t really enjoy.
My learning is that if you are in a situation where you find yourself doing something that you have no passion for, then it is essential to do one of two things: Either kindle a passion for this activity by learning more about it and seeing how it is valuable or leave and find something that you do feel passionate about. It makes no sense to do something that you have no love for. Happiness is the result of doing something that is worthwhile, and which adds value and not of how much money you make or what rank you have. Interestingly, it is when the work feels worthless that people get overly concerned about titles, money, and perquisites. That is why I tell my clients who talk about compensation as an issue in employee retention, “Money problems are not money problems, even when they are money problems.” Most people complain about the compensation when they are uninspired about their work. The biggest proof of this are the many people in missionary and charitable activities who work all hours for next to nothing and are very happy doing their jobs. Happiness is therefore more about intangible rewards than about the tangible ones. That’s why I say, ‘If it can’t make you cry, it can’t make you work.’
Training dogs was a huge learning in human psychology. I learnt the importance of taking a stand and then remaining firmly on it without giving in to pressure to change. I learnt that dogs and people will test your limits to see how firm you are. This is especially true in raising children. Once they test the boundaries and find that you mean what you said and that the boundaries can’t be pushed away, they accept them. Firmness and consistency are critical. There is nothing more debilitating than a leader who is ambivalent and indecisive. I learnt the value of physical courage and how, if you stand with courage, you lend courage to those around you. I learnt the value of leading from the front and that there is only one leadership position – in the front – which is why those who follow the leader are called ‘followers.’ You can’t be a leader if you have no followers. I learnt the value of quiet companionship – there is nothing more relaxing than sitting on a hillside with your dog beside you, watching the world go by. With Nawab Saab, you didn’t chatter. If you had something useful to say, you said it; if you had a question, you asked; otherwise, you kept your mouth shut. The value of silence was appreciated. Without silence inside your head and heart and outside (not speaking), you can’t introspect or reflect. Silence has great value. We didn’t have intrusive gadgets to disturb our peace and so we valued silence. In the forest, silence also helps you to know who else is around. Knowledge that can be critical to survival and enjoyment of your experience.
Nawab Saab taught us to pay attention to the dogs and their highly developed faculties which warn of danger long before you would have been aware of it. This is where his storytelling really came into its own. Every lesson had a set of circumstances that it had been drawn from and that added value and meaning to it. This was not merely theory but hard-earned life experience that we were learning from. From my dogs, I learnt the value of unconditional love and complete trust in someone. When my dog got injured during training, I would order him to lie down and would then clean his wounds with hydrogen peroxide and stitch him up. The dog would lie there, sometimes whimpering in pain but never moving and never protesting or trying to harm me in any way. He trusted me completely and knew that what I was doing was for his good. There is nobody happier than a dog at seeing his master – no matter how ugly or dirty, poor, or hungry, unfashionable, or square his master may be. To the dog, his master is the best, most lovable, reliable, remarkable, and trustworthy human being in the world. And that has nothing to do with whether in fact this is true or not. The dog doesn’t care. Whatever the master may be to the rest of the world, to his dog he is the best in the world. And that is the secret of a great friendship and a great marriage. What you believe about someone and demonstrate in your dealings with them, is what they rise to embody. That is why they say, ‘Treat a man as if he is the best that he can be, and that’s what he becomes.’ Many years later I dealt with some of the most intractable and obnoxious union leaders with great politeness, treating them as if they were heads of state and all their nastiness went away, and I didn’t have to suffer any of it. People used to be surprised and asked me how I did it. I never let on the secret – that my dogs taught me this lesson. Some readers may not take kindly to being compared to dogs – but believe me, there is nothing more honorable in terms of friendship and loyalty. This is what Nawab Saab taught us, and we learned these lessons well, very enjoyably and lived to realize their value throughout our lives.
Nawab Saab was requested to train a dog squad for Thengakal Estate in Vandiperiyar, Kerala. I don’t know if you have been inside a cardamom estate. Almost 30 years after this story, I planted cardamom in the Anamallais and recalled those days when we were in that estate in Vandiperiyar. We trained the dogs in Vilayat Manzil and in the lands behind Yusuf Tekri in Towli Chowki. Today there isn’t an inch of vacant land in that place. In the early 70’s it was miles of barren land with scrub bushes, some Seethaphal (Custard Apple – Annona squamosa), some Lantana (Lantana camara), a sprinkling of Neem (Azadirachta indica), one or two Peepul (Ficus Religiosa) and an occasional Banyan (Ficus Benghalensis). We would load up the dogs in Khaja Nawab’s jeep and drive to Yusuf Tekri and then spend the day training the dogs. Since these dogs were being trained as trackers and guard dogs, the training was very intense. For tracking, we used Labradors whose sense of smell is more developed and keener than the other breeds we had. For guard/attack work, we used Dobermans and German Shepherds. But all dogs were taught everything, as a backup even though we used them, whenever possible, separately for these jobs.
It was fascinating to see how these different breeds worked. For a Doberman everything was a competition. The dog would get stressed out, angry and would bust his gut to do his best. A Labrador on the other hand took it all as a game and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was playing and having fun, whether he was following a scent track or attacking an intruder and dragging him to the ground. Temperament has a big effect on the trainability and steadiness of dogs and humans under stressful conditions. Nawab Saab’s training technique was based on gaining the trust of the animal and persuading him to work. Nawab Saab never used force or punishment which was very commonly used by other trainers. The result was that Nawab Saab’s dogs worked much better than anyone else’s. The only catch was that training took longer than it would have taken if you simply beat the dog to a pulp and then forced him to obey. Our dogs were our friends and beating one was unthinkable. The other thing was the knowledge that success and failure was really ours, the trainer’s. Not the dog’s. If the dog didn’t perform, it was I who needed to look at my training technique, relationship with the dog, consistency of command, and my own self awareness, and it was I who needed to work harder. ‘Failing’ the dog or punishing it was meaningless because the dog’s performance was an indicator of my success. Every dog was trainable and if it didn’t get trained, it was the trainer who was at fault. Nobody needed to point that out to me. I knew it. I held myself accountable for it.
Cut to our schooling technique today. Who passes or fails? Teacher or child? Who must really pass or fail? What would happen if we changed that to what really should happen and if teacher’s salaries were docked if children failed and they got a bonus if they excelled? Same thing for the corporate world. Companies succeed or fail because of what decision makers do. Not workers. But who gets laid off? Responsibility must lie where it belongs and those responsible must get the credit or pay the price. Not someone else, whose only fault was that they obeyed orders. Once again, sorry about the comparison, but it is precisely this ability to take learnings from one situation and apply them to a totally unrelated situation that distinguishes human learning from animal learning. That is what I learnt and that is how I learnt it. And that is why I say that I owe so much of my learning to the very unusual childhood and youth that I had and to mentors like Nawab Nazir Yar Jung, Uncle Rama and Aunty Mohini.
To return to our story, we finished our training and took the train with our dogs, to Cochin. The dogs were in the Brake Van at the end of the train. Every few stations, we would run to the back, unleash the dogs, and take them out on the platform to stretch their legs and greet telephone poles. Then give them some water and back inside the Brake Van and we would run back to our compartment. Eventually we reached Cochin where the estate transport met us and we drove for another six hours to get to the estate to meet the Manager, Mr. Rudy Bosen.
Mr. Bosen very kindly invited Nawab Saab, Khaja Nawab and me, to stay with him and his wife Dorothy, who some wonderful chocolate ice cream for us for dessert after a lovely dinner. The estate had a big problem with theft as cardamom is a very valuable spice and easy to steal. A cardamom plantation is extremely dense and very easy to hide in. Thieves would come into the estate across the boundary at night, with sickles and jute bags and simply cut the ripe bunches of cardamom and take them away. To catch them in the dark was completely impossible. That is why Rudy Bosen thought of using dogs and contacted Nawab Saab for help. The dilemma was, how do you publicize the fact that now there are guard dogs which can catch thieves. The challenge was to have the dogs merely as an effective deterrent. Rudy Bosen didn’t really want anyone getting chewed up by a dog because in Kerala that would likely cause a bigger problem than the theft.
Nawab Saab had a unique idea. He asked Mr. Bosen to invite all union leaders and whoever wanted to come from the village to a dog show and competition at the end of which they would be given a sumptuous meal and people could win cash prizes. People came in large numbers with great enthusiasm because there is nothing much to do in the plantations and any kind of entertainment draws big crowds. When everyone had settled down on the Muster ground under the marquee Nawab Saab, through an interpreter asked for volunteers to take part in the competition. He then picked six of the likeliest looking men. He told them to go and hide anywhere they wanted to, in the plantation. But before they went off, he took some item of clothing from each of them. He told them that he would give them half an hour to find hiding places and then the dogs would find them. Meanwhile we put on a show of attack training which looks very ferocious indeed. For that also we took volunteers, dressed them up in protective clothing and then the dogs took them down. For a grown man, who thinks that he is strong, armed with a knife or stick, to have a dog taking him down in one smooth lethal attack, is very unnerving. That is what our objective was; to put the fear of the dogs in the minds of the people and any potential thieves.
Once this demo was over, we got the tracking dogs out and gave them the clothing to get a good sniff of and sent them into the plantation. The dogs disappeared in a jiffy. There was initially some rustling of leaves. Then total silence. We waited with bated breath as this was the final test of the pudding. If the dogs missed even one man, our reputation would be shot. We were literally putting our honor on the line. Then suddenly there was a scream. We ran into the plantation following the calling of the dog. The tracking dogs had been trained to ‘speak’. They would bark at regular intervals of a couple of seconds and would continue for as long as it took for the handler to get to it. Bow-wow-wow-wow and on, it would go. That told us that the dog had ‘treed’ the quarry or had pinned him down and the sound would guide us to the animal. The long and short of it was that we caught every single one of the men. Then we all came out of the jungle to where everyone was waiting to see what had happened. The men looked very sheepish and down in the mouth at having failed to win the Rs. 1000 prize for the one who could escape the dog. In the 1970’s, Rs. 1000 was big money. But Mr. Bosen was a smart man and gave them consolation prizes for participating and then we all had lunch with the union leaders and all competitors. The result of this demonstration was that theft stopped on this estate as if someone had shut off a switch. The dogs had such an effect on the psyche of the people that nobody wanted to take a chance of meeting a dog in the dark of the night. As Sun Tzu says, ‘The wise general never fights a battle. He wins without fighting.’ Nawab Nazir Yar Jung was a very wise ‘general’.