How Running a Small Business Is Like Training a Dog

Lessons from celebrity dog trainer Tamar Geller that you can apply right now
As a good boss (or as a dog trainer) you have to figure out what your employees need and give it to them. (Photo: Tamar Geller)

Running a company is a lot like training a dog, Tamar Geller believes. And as a sought-after canine expert who has trained the four-footed companions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Charlize Theron, Jon Stewart and many other celebrities, she should know.

The author of “The Loved Dog: The Playful Nonaggressive Way to Teach Your Dog Good Behavior” and “30 Days to a Well Mannered Dog” manages a staff of 20 while training dogs at her home, owners’ homes and often on movie sets with celebrity clients like Ben Affleck.

“Dog training absolutely gives you training wheels to be a good boss,” says Geller.

As in dog training, “You’ve got to be a good coach to your company, to your team, to your children, to your spouse. You have to be on your A game if you want them to be on their A game,” said Geller, who shared five more lessons that business owners can benefit from.


Tamar with clients and her dogs

(Photo: Tamar Geller)

1. Small rewards get big results

“You have to have ways to reward your dog and ways to reward your employees. When a dog is performing at the lowest level they get one treat. But if the dog is surprising me, and they are doing something that I never expected they would do, they get eight, nine treats. You can give an employee minimum wage, but you can say ‘Here’s what you’re going to get if you’re going to reach this next level.’ You give them milestones to reach. And you give them rewards. I look to see what people are good at and I empower them to be what they thought they never could. My approach is to empower everyone. I believe in the power of the spirit, in the power of creating unbelievable teamwork.”

2. Tailor the reward to the recipient

“There are many types of rewards. You want to be as creative as possible with the rewards. Not all dogs like the same treat. Neither do people. Some get rewarded by money, some people get rewarded by recognition. Some people get rewarded by more responsibility. I’ve given a lot of things, anything from tickets to the movies to promotions or a bonus. Some have been allowed to come with me to a fun thing that I’m doing where I’m filming with celebrities.”

Tamar dogs sit

(Photo: Tamar Geller)

3. Be precise in your praise

“It’s important to acknowledge and thank people, but to be very specific. With dogs, I don’t just say ‘Good dog.’ I say ‘Good sit.’ ‘Good come.’ With my employees, I say, ‘Thank you for giving me the number I asked for’ or ‘Thank you for keeping the place so clean.’ And if I’m unhappy, I’m just as specific. I make sure they know that I might not like what they did, but I love them. I make it so that the relationship between me and my employee, just like the relationship between me and a dog, is never, ever damaged.”

4. Reward wisely and spread the word

“Some people are uncomfortable receiving rewards or compliments. As a good boss or a dog trainer you have to be a psychologist and figure out what they want or need and give it to them in a way that’s palatable for them. And then spread the word. You can tell another employee what a good job that person is doing, that you gave him the day off because of something he accomplished, and for sure the word will get around.”


(Photo: Tamar Geller)

5. Think big — but be smart

“One of the biggest mistakes business owners make is not thinking big enough, not innovating enough. You can never rest on your laurels. You have to always look for ways to improve what your clients will value. The other is innovating too much, being too much ahead of the curve and not reading what the market can handle right now. One of the biggest mistakes that I made was hiring a business consultant who convinced me not to franchise when I wanted to do it 20 years ago. Now the market is saturated and it’s too late.

When you’re a visionary in a new industry you need advice from visionaries, someone entrepreneurial who could walk you through the emotional and strategic challenges, not a corporate consultant. It’s not always easy to go with your gut, but it’s important, even when everybody tells you you’re wrong.”

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