Lessons from Puppies: Letting Go to Embrace More

When you adopt rescue puppies, you get used to some weird emotional issues. My two dogs, Zoe and Fiona, are both special snowflakes. Favorite dog activities currently include:

  • Eating oatmeal off the toddler’s face, 
  • Lovingly licking one another’s ears for awkwardly long periods,
  • And chasing a tennis ball endlessly at dog parks.

These sweeties are always there to make sure the toddler doesn’t climb the stairs or face plant off the couch. They also loudly alert us when any stray squirrel attempts to compromise the safety of our porch. Always good for a snuggle, they are kind, sweet dogs.

But they have a quirk. Since Fiona joined us as a puppy two years ago, she’s had issues with treats. I’ve trained them to sit and lay down and roll over (sort of), and I trained them to gently take treats from my hand. They even stand next to each other at attention waiting for the treats to arrive. But then Fiona short circuits. At the arrival of the first treat, she is sent into a tail spin.

She won’t eat the treat she has, because she’s panicking that she’ll lose it. Instead of waiting for the next trick-and-treat offering, she’s standing with the cookie in her mouth, staring panicked at both of us. I’ve even tried moving on without her, hoping she’d down the small biscuit and realize that there’s more to come, but she just gets more anxious as she sees her dog-sister getting her next reward. Sometimes she’ll leave the room altogether, avoiding the scene and hovering over the tiny prize so that no one will take it.

Rescue dogs can have issues- maybe food scarcity was a problem for her in her early weeks. Regardless, every time she has something she loves, her biggest worry is keeping it. And the trouble with that is that she’s so afraid of losing it that she’s missing an opportunity for four or five other nice things.

I’ve seen this attitude in our peculiar human behavior more than once. But you know what,  nonprofit leader? We’re the worst at this! What do I mean?

Remember that fundraiser you’ve thrown every year that steals tons of time and doesn’t actually yield much? You know that program that isn’t quite effective but has reliable funding? How about the board member who drags the team down but always shows up to meetings?

Whenever we leave well enough alone, investing effort in maintaining a sort of good thing, we could be robbing ourselves of the better or best thing. The time it takes to excite people about that imperfect appeal, the work to keep peace on the team after more hurtful words, the staff time spent running an imperfect program… all of that time keeps you from building better.