Lessons on community building from the dog park…

I’ve been taking advantage of the time off and the beautiful weather of late to make sure that I get the dogs out for their daily romp and socialization. After all, they don’t like staring at the same four walls any more than we do. This year, I invested the requisite $25.00 per dog to obtain permits for the local Will County dog park that resides within a five minute drive from our home. I like it there. All of us, even the humans, have something in common as soon as we set foot inside the gate and remove leashes to let our dogs run free together within the eight acre confine. We all know that no one is going to get in our face about our dogs. I’ve had clothes slobbered on; I’ve been smacked in the kisser with big, wet dog tongues; I’ve had muddy paws reach up and give me a big hug. Since I’m a dog lover and I’m there with my own dogs, both of whom are capable of their own indiscretions, I’m nonplussed about all of those things.

Watching the dogs interact at the dog park has allowed me to draw some parallels between the canine world of interaction within that eight acre environment and organizational environments I’ve either bench-marked or  in which I’ve  practiced/preached knowledge management principles in attempting to evangelize communities of practice. Here are a few of the observations worth sharing:

  1. It’s all about trust. The other day, a couple brought their 6-month-old Husky to the park for the first time. At first, they were very nervous about entering with all of the “regulars” waiting at the gate to greet the newcomer. The Husky came in with his tail between his legs at first, cowering as he was sniffed and sized up by the pack. When they decided that he wasn’t a threat, they went about their usual business. The Husky, ironically, decided that my 10-year-0ld Rottweiler was the safest bet for this first visit, dancing around her while she stood in one place and accommodated him. Which brings me to my second point.
  2. It’s not about the size or breed of the dog. There are two sides to the dog park: One for small dogs, and one for large dogs. Many people with small dogs go ahead and bring them into the side for large dogs, because their small dogs don’t have any notion that there is a difference. They just come in and run with the pack and contribute to the fun like everyone else, despite what may at times be an 80 or 90 pound difference. There are dogs that people paid hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for, and there are lots of mutts and rescues that came to the area on transports just an hour or a day shy of being euthanized. They don’t seem to discriminate when it comes to interaction at the dog park; they are all well loved dogs who enjoy the companionship of their own kind. Communities don’t care about hierarchy either; they care about finding answers based upon stories and experiences.
  3. The pack will democratize the environment. When Cesar Millan has a dog that doesn’t want to learn its place, he carts it back to his “pack” in Los Angeles and lets the pack teach the dog a thing or two about basic operating guidelines. The regulars at the gate would have done this with the Husky pup had he shown aggression or dominance upon entering. Don’t get so caught up in trying to control the community that you kill the willingness to share – the community’s collective wisdom and experiences will auto-correct for the most part.
  4. Unnecessary restraint creates tension and breaks down trust. Occasionally, you’ll see the dog owner who comes into the dog park and tries to walk the dog on a leash within the fenced space. Naturally, the rest of the pack finds this curious, and will inevitably rush up to the leashed dog and try to figure out what’s up. The leashed animal feels confined and unable to defend itself, and signals this anxiety to the others, which can result in an escalation of dominance and an ensuing struggle. As Cesar says, “energy first with dogs.” Many of the savvy dog owners will encourage such a person to remove the leash to avoid such conflict. Communities need to be open to the sharing of new ideas, even though some will be far out there, in order to foster innovation. Be careful with the term “best” practice, and remember that practices are predicated on sets of varying circumstances.
  5. Everyone participates in their own way and at their own pace, and that’s ok. There is a path around the perimeter of the dog park. One day as I was walking the path, I heard a muffled barking off in a stand of trees along the side of the path. As I got closer to the noise, I looked closely and saw only the hind end of a Beagle, the rest of him head first and deep-down into a self-made hole, kicking up dirt and digging to China after something that he knew was down there. He didn’t care about running with the pack, he was off making his own discovery. A few other dogs, my own included, ran over and checked out the hole with the Beagle in it, then continued on their way and left him to his own devices. Forrester Research articulated ways in which we orient ourselves to technologies when they segmented consumer groups accordingly  in their book, Groundswell. Some of us will be Creators, some will be Joiners, and the majority of us will just be lurking around seeing what all the fuss is about and picking up a few tips along the way. They are all benefiting.
  6. If everyone brings a little water and is willing to share, there is plenty to go around. By the benches near the entrance and exit gates at the dog park, you’ll find a multitude of bowls and water bottles spread out, provided by the various dog owners present at any one time. There is no way to police or monitor the water in such a way that only your dog drinks your water, so we all bring a little and let them all have a go at it. There are labs that come up and try to make swimming pools out of the  bowls, there are dogs that cool their feet in them, and there are dogs that use them for their intended purpose. The point is, when everyone is willing to pitch in and share, there is enough to go around.
  7. The park isn’t just for sunny days. Sure, it’s wonderful to go hang out at the park when it’s 75 and sunny, but the dogs get just as much out of it when the snow’s a foot deep and the flakes are falling. Maybe they need it even more on the lousy days, just like we do. Knowledge sharing isn’t something we should be looking at only when things are rosy, either, because it’s when the chips are down that we need to learn from one another and our experiences the most in order to weather the storms together.
  8. Support is important. One day as I was relaxing on the benches, a gentleman who owns a very slobbery Mastiff named Otto was telling me that he had just had to put his Black Lab of fifteen years down. Now, if he had made that statement or shared that information in any number of other environments, he may have encountered any number of insensitive remarks – but he was at the dog park, and I am like all of the other dog owners who take the time to see that my canines are fulfilled and cared for, so my heart broke for him, and I invited him to share a few memories of that dog with me. Such is the stuff that community is made of, whether you’re talking about business practice areas, rock bands, ice skating, or dogs. There is an undercurrent of trust among members, and the sharing flows along that current. Which takes me back to Number 1: It’s All About Trust.

What lessons about community would you like to share?

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About diannawiggins

Information and Knowledge Management professional with experience from Fortune 500 and nonprofit industries. I exude a love of learning and
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2 Responses to Lessons on community building from the dog park…

  1. Love the analogies. I’d like to add one more which is along the same lines as #1.

    9. Conversations are important
    From many of your descriptions it shows how dogs talk to other dogs as well as to the people in the park and also about how the people relate/talk to the dogs and the other people in the park. From the context of your dog park, you build the relationships that creates the trust. 😉

  2. Susan Reed says:

    Loved your insights. Reminds me of the 12-Step Community. Thank.

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