Intelligent Disobedience Part 3: What we can learn from guide dogs

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This is one of a series of posts on Intelligent Disobedience  by Ira Chaleff.

Ira Chaleff uses the analogy of a guide dog as his model for Intelligent Disobedience. A guide dog is trained for months to be calm, patient and obedient. He is taught to guide a blind person safely through any environment while letting the person command his direction. The human’s job is to sense cues in the environment and give the dog direction; they stop at every corner and wait for the human to speak: “left”, “right,” or “forward.”

Training a dog to safely guide a human is a complicated process, and it’s one that coaches and managers would do well to adopt. When a dog executes a behavior, he’s given enthusiastic praise. When he makes a mistake, the trainer corrects his with a tug on his leash and a firm “phooey.” (According to Chaleff, “no” is too common a word to be used as correction; it would simply confuse the dog.) The dog is given three chances to correct a behavior by starting at the beginning and going through the whole sequence. After three tries, that behavior is dropped for the day, since continuing to fail will make the dog anxious. Chaleff writes that this is something humans often get wrong. “We are working toward competence, not failure and anxiety!”

Sighted actors often helped with the Intelligent Disobedience training. Trainers will put obstacles in front of the dog and handler and allow the dog to obey a “forward” order. The handler will do a controlled stumble with exaggerated noise of distress, pulling the dog with him. Chaleff writes: “No one gets hurt, but it’s unpleasant for both dog and man.”

The dogs learn how to prevent harm by solving problems – finding another way to go forward and avoid the obstacle or danger. And they must learn to make quick decisions – a dithering dog can also be dangerous for his human. Dog dithering often manifests itself as scratching, a behavior that calms the dog’s anxiety and puts off making a decision. Humans call this procrastination; “Instead of doing this uncomfortable thing, I’ll check my email and get more coffee.” Dog displacement behavior gets another “phooey” reprimand.

The dog eventually moves from seeking praise and avoiding punishment to actively protecting the well-being of his handler. The next level of reasoning is proactive disobedience – more than simply refusing to obey a dangerous order, a service dog learns to physically block his human from taking an action that may cause himself harm. (Preventing his human from going down stairs when the dog can sense a seizure coming on, for example.)

Dog trainers speak of times that they overrode this kind of Intelligent Disobedience and received a nasty thump (which they agree was well-deserved.) Chaleff says that leaders often have a map or plan in their minds.  They proceed on what they believe to be true (that’s the essence of leading.) When a leader encounters proactive disobedience, it should prompt her to stop and consider what they don’t see: something in the environment may have changed, making it unsafe to proceed. It takes great courage to stop and consider that you might be wrong; it’s much easier to proceed with a “forward” command. “If this loyal and competent employee is refusing to obey my order, perhaps we should examine alternatives before proceeding.”

Chaleff believes that we should start teaching Intelligent Disobedience to young students in school. If our children have the courage and tools to resist when an authority (or a peer) tells them to do something wrong, we can prevent many acts of evil, big and small.

“The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
― Albert Einstein




1 thought on “Intelligent Disobedience Part 3: What we can learn from guide dogs

  1. […] soft growl. Let the bad guys know that you’re not to be taken lightly. Here’s a post on why intelligent disobedience might even be your best […]


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