Learning to Adapt
What we can learn from man’s best friend By David Defilippo
David DeFilippo is principal of DeFilippo Leadership Inc., executive learning officer for Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business and an executive coach at Harvard Business School.

hange is the only constant” is often cited as the mindset shift leaders need to adopt with today’s rapid business cycles, burgeoning technological advancements and geometric power of social networks. Heraclitus’ quote is rooted in his theory that life is in flux and therefore constantly changing as a normal course. Contemporarily, for organizations this reality means adapting or risking competitive relevance, and for individuals the forces of change mean learning and adapting or being left behind in the workforce.

Given the enormity of these pressures on organizations, educational institutions and even government agencies to keep up, I was recently drawing inspiration from our family dogs, present and past. We are dog lovers — always have been — and I suspect we will always share our home with at least one or two canines by our side. Over the years, I have marveled at our dogs’ ability to adapt, internalize and live with significant change.

These adaptive traits are borne out of the history of canines, who diverged from their wolf origins genetically and behaviorally 15,000 to 20,000 years ago and began to be domesticated in Europe and Asia. This domestication process had practical roots in that dogs’ sense of smell helped with hunting for food, their thick coats provided warmth for nomadic hunter-gatherers who resided in camps (hence the expression “a three-dog night”) and they provided safety for humans among other animals.

This history and close relationship have made dogs “man’s best friend,” given that dogs are the one species that have most successfully evolved with humans. However, this close connection also provides insights into some differences between canines and the humans they cohabitate with, especially when comparing their respective responses to change. Let’s look at this phenomenon across three categories of change:

Structural: A few years ago we rescued a dog whose owner had passed away and integrated her into our home and our pack of two other males. This particular dog was a retired champion show dog with an alpha personality; however, it was evident that she was still confused and probably even grieving the loss of her owner. She assimilated into our home over the course of a month by first bonding with my wife and then having a few skirmishes with one of our two males who was equally dominant, all while ignoring me until she had established her ruling place in the pack. This has been the established order ever since.

We can learn a lot from dogs by embracing their adaptive traits and attitude.

Physical: Years ago, we had a dog who, at a young age, went blind very quickly, and we witnessed the incredible physical adaptability of the species. With eating and going outside being two established and important aspects of daily dog life, we worried that the new version of these routines would require intervention and be a difficult adjustment. So we marveled at how, with no formal training or direction from us, this dog figured out how to walk from room to room by hugging the walls to find his water bowl, navigate to the back door, and enthusiastically remind us that it was time for his dinner by showing up next to his bowl exuberantly tapping his paws.

Process: Our three current family dogs’ internal clocks run like a Swiss watch with respect to waking, eating their bi-daily meals and going to sleep, so each year we are amazed when daylight saving time arrives in the fall and spring and they adjust within a day or two. I, on the other hand, take about a week to get back into my daily routine and feeling like myself again.

With these three types of change, the constant pattern among our dogs has been their speedy assimilation, creative adaptability and ability to move forward without dwelling on the past. Given this resiliency, it makes me think we can learn a lot from dogs by embracing their adaptive traits and attitude in order to work through change, both as individuals and as part of teams in organizations.