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What Dogs Teach Us About Meaningful Work

by Dan King

man-80121_1280They act as eyes for blind people, ears for the hearing impaired, and helpers for the physically challenged. They help police officers catch criminals, find people lost in the woods, and sniff out drugs and explosives. They pull wheelchairs, protect during seizures, give reminders to take medications, provide therapy, even protect our national security.

They’re dogs of course.  And they absolutely love their jobs.

While many humans complain of “working like a dog,” bemoaning long hours doing something they don’t like to do, our four-legged friends don’t express a whimper of dissatisfaction.  “Working like a dog” may sound like a tiresome and joyless affair, without a hint of laughter, fun, or play.  But is it?

Dogs truly derive meaning from their work, approaching each new day with eagerness and anticipation.  No matter how simple or complicated the task, working instills a sense of purpose in their lives.

The notion of “working dogs” is not new. In 1888, an abandoned and freezing mutt named “Owney” actually accompanied postal workers on their routes in Albany, New York, in gratitude for taking him in and nursing him back to health. With nine years of service under his collar, trekking up to 140,000 miles in Albany, and later across the country as the U.S. Postal Service mascot, Owney can lay legitimate claim to being the first “working dog.”

And then, of course, there was Sigmund Freud’s faithful Chinese Chow, Jofi, that used to sit in on analytical sessions, putting nervous patients at ease and sometimes alerting Freud to those subtle points that his less sensitive observational skills may have missed. Today, we’re well aware of the wonders performed by therapy pets, whether speeding the recovery of seriously ill children or enhancing the quality-of-life for nursing home residents.

On September 11, 2001, search and rescue teams with special dogs worked around the clock to search for survivors and victims in the rubble of the World Trade Center– a very dangerous job. Yet, the dogs were eager to do it. And following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, a support team of comfort dogs helped bring a city back to its feet in the midst of unspeakable carnage.

There are about 2,500 working war dogs in the armed forces today, with about 700 serving at any given time overseas.  The SEALs brought a dog with them on the Osama bin Laden raid.  Dogs are used to detect bombs, weapons, drugs, and even attack the enemy.  Dogs and their handlers alike have been known to need therapy after losing their canine partners in combat.  Our service men and women bestow upon them the same respect as any other comrade — and mourn their loss equally.

Of course, not all dogs are trained for such heroic careers, but that doesn’t make their jobs any less meaningful.  As anyone with a dog knows, they relish their roles as welcoming greeters, home security guards, and sometimes hilarious entertainers and comedians.  They cheer you up when you’re down — and stand ready to protect you with their life, should your life be in danger. Their commitment to serving an important and meaningful role in our lives is undeniable.

“Dogs are great models for us to emulate in our own work lives,” writes Matt Weinstein, co-author of “Work Like Your Dog.”  Every day is new, every task is exciting, everything is fun. They approach their jobs not only with loyalty, discipline, sensitivity and love, but also with joy, enthusiasm, and a willingness to see their work as play.”

On the other hand (or paw if you please), we humans try to convince ourselves that “play” is a separate activity from work, performed solely for the pleasure of the activity itself. We tend to compartmentalize, believing that our passions are nurtured outside of work, by family and friends, creative endeavors, sports, or at play.  Then when Sunday night rolls around, our playful state of mind shifts toward thoughts of another week of work.

True harmony lies not in separating work and play, but in integrating the two.  There is a natural connection.  Dogs seem to get this instinctively, but we humans need to consciously work at it.

Try following your dog’s lead for once.  Your state of mind improves just by looking at your dog (try it and you’ll see what I mean).  If we human workers could sustain even one-tenth of that spirit, we would have much happier careers and more meaningful worklives — and truly comprehend the wisdom behind the adage “wag more, bark less.”

Created by Mark Guterman and Dan King, MeaningfulCareers.com works with professionals looking for meaning in their careers, an alignment of purpose, commitments and competence in the workplace, creating a better life and lasting value through their work.  For more information and downloadable resources visit:  http://meaningfulcareers.com


4 Comments » for What Dogs Teach Us About Meaningful Work
  1. Thank you for acknowledging the contribution that the canine community makes in the lives of human beings. I cannot imagine life without my furry friend. If there is one lesson that I have learned over the years from my pets, it is not to sweat over the small stuff and a round of playing with their toys or going for a walk is a great stress buster. 🙂

    Season’s Greetings!

    • Dan King says:

      Thank you, Vatsala. Dogs definitely enrich our lives. My 16 year old Springer Spaniel taught me to take one day at a time and find joy in the simple things. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. All the best to you and your furry friend for the new year.

  2. Linda LeNoir says:

    Hi Dan!
    Great article. Hoping you have a wonderful New Year ahead.

    Linda….former EACE merger committee colleague

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