10/29/2014 05:29 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Grooming Great Employees: What a Service Dog Can Teach Us About Developing Talent

There are at least a dozen dogs in my advertising agency on any day of the week. They run down halls, chase balls, gnaw on toys, snooze during meetings, and are eager for quick walks when their human companions need a work break.

Some months ago I noticed that Dreyfus, a Golden Labrador that has been with us since earlier this year, stood out from the canine pack in our Bluffton, S.C., office. Even though he was just 8 weeks old when a staffer brought him in, it was soon clear that Dreyfus was a little more mature than most of the pooches in residence at BFG. He reminded me of a talented intern with shimmering ambition and potential that makes others seem less remarkable.

Dreyfus, it turns out, is on the job. While alert and watchful, he stays close to Dan Comite, his human companion, and a sign that reads: "Service dog in training. Please refrain from petting." Dreyfus comes from the Canine Companions for Independence organization and Dan is a volunteer "Puppy Raiser" for the organization. That means he provides specific socialization and obedience training that will help Dreyfus ultimately master more than 40 specialized commands. This dog is being trained to make a world of difference to his next owner, who may be blind, hard of hearing, facility-bound or need help at home and in a busy work environment like ours. As much as we love having him around, Dreyfus has more important work to do after he cuts his teeth at BFG Communications.

Dog lovers know there is much we can learn from canine companions. And, as I watch Dreyfus grow and mature, his training with Dan reminds me of the importance of doing the right thing when it comes to grooming the best and brightest young human talent and preparing them for success in our office -- or in another part of the world:

  • First, tap the right talent. It isn't always easy to spot -- dare I say it?-- the pick of the litter during interviews. But there are ways to identify hidden talent in waiting. Good schools, summer jobs, first jobs, titles, growth, references and that certain "spark" of drive and eagerness to learn and do well mean a lot. It was not by random choice that Dreyfus qualified as an assistance dog candidate. He was selected based on strict criteria including temperament, trainability, littermate trends and the production history of the dam and sire. Only the "best of the best" are chosen as CCI breeder dogs, and only a few of their puppies ultimately qualify. While employers don't get or even need all that information, it is important to focus keenly on thoroughly vetting and selecting the best of the best for employment. A forced fit or a rushed hire usually doesn't work out.
  • Develop and assign mentors. Puppies in training require a safe environment and supervision throughout the entire day. We often hire young people right out of college and we give them as much responsibility as they can handle. Watching Dreyfus I'm reminded that on-the-job training only goes so far and it's no substitute for a strong mentor, supervision and regular progress reports.
  • Teach business-social etiquette. Dan spends a lot of his time with Dreyfus providing the puppy with age-appropriate socialization opportunities. I'm reminded just how important it is to get our less experienced talent in front of clients and comfortable in all types of social situations. It's important that rising stars know how to mix business and pleasure in a professional way. This is often forgotten.
  • Consistent feedback. One thing that stands out the most to me as I watch Dan and Dreyfus is the delivery of consistent rewards and recognition for a job well done. To be sure, Dan let's Dreyfus know when he has disappointed, but when Dreyfus performs well, he knows he will get a rewarding pat, verbal recognition and, very often, a treat. There are no mixed or ambiguous signals.
  • Work hard, play hard. Dreyfus doesn't work his entire day. In his first few months he had plenty of time to chase balls and tumble around with other dogs, even disrupt a meeting with an occasional high-pitched bark. Even now, when he seems most content working with Dan, he loves a brisk walk or a chance to romp outside.

Dreyfus, increasingly, stands out from the pack. It's obvious to us that he is meant to play a bigger role elsewhere. We'll be sad and Dan will certainly share a tear when it's time to say goodbye to this dog.

In this, too, there is a lesson: While I am often disappointed when some of our best talent leaves for other job opportunities, I hope I can learn to be more thankful for the time they were with us and wish them well. Who knows? Dreyfus is unlikely to find his way back to us, but sometimes good people do return to -- or, at least, remember fondly -- a place that helped them learn and succeed.