As Leaders, What Can We Learn from a Dog's Love?


It’s been more than four weeks since we said goodbye to our sixteen-year-old lab, Katie. Four weeks. Hmmm—if time heals all, why is this taking so long?

It’s interesting how in the days leading up to her death my rational mind gave such a valiant effort in an attempt to prepare me for Kate’s departure. She’s really Robyn’s dog—I kept telling myself. Or, even—It’ll be so nice to not have to vacuum her fur every few days. I sure won’t miss that.

What a crock! As convincing as my thoughts were at the time, today they are no match for the truth. Lady Katherine, as we sometimes called her, got in deep.


I understand that the sadness, the grief, and the apathy that I’m experiencing are all ‘normal.’ But, I’m still struck by what’s caused it—the loss of a dog. A dog! It’s not like she was my blood. And, I knew on the day that we brought her home, our time together would likely end with her leaving me and not the other way around. I was prepared and had accepted the rules of the relationship. Yet, this transition to a life without our little girl—I won’t lie—has been rough. 

Maybe it’s the sixteen years. That’s a long time for any dog to live, I suppose. Never mind a lab. When you live with someone for that long, you establish routines. Times of the day when you connect, interact and do stuff together.

With Katie, it was no different, our days involved lots of those moments. Depending on the time of year; runs in the woods, swimming in the lake, hiking local mountains, hanging out on the deck or cuddling on her bed on a rainy night. All of them special moments. All of them now special memories.

Perhaps not surprisingly, since Kate left, I’ve had my fair share of ghosting moments. Seeing her beside my desk on her bed. Hearing his nails clicking on the wooden floors above me. Still being aware of the time while away from the house with Kate alone at home. In the instant I catch myself and realize that she’s gone and that I won’t ever see, hear or have to worry about her again—it’s a heavy thought. It stops me.

In that quiet pause there’s one question that keeps presenting itself, ‘Where the hell did she go?’ In the second after she took her last breath, with all of us around her—where did she go? Katie—her being, her spirit—whatever term you’re comfortable with, where did it all go when she died?

That’s usually when the emotion comes rushing. It’s hard to stop it, and I’m actually trying not to this time. Stuffing unwanted emotion is an old habit that I’m determined to break with Katie. I’m trying to notice where the emotion comes from and where it hits me. And, perhaps most interestingly, why do those emotions still hurt so much?

My questions continue with the obvious, perhaps—can she see me? Can she hear me? Does she know how much we miss her? And, then the one that surprises me—does she know how much we loved her?


Maybe what I miss about Kate, isn’t the love that she shared with me, maybe, instead, it’s the love that she elicited in me.

When we talk of dogs and their love for ‘their people,’ we often hear it accompanied by the term unconditional. Simply meaning, that our dogs don’t need a reason to love us, they just do for no other reason than we exist.

Like most people, I think, when we’re REALLY honest we acknowledge that the love we share with friends, family, even life-partners has some form of condition. When I think of my wife and daughter, I can’t help but acknowledge that there’s some truth in that.

Do I love them? Of course. Would I do anything for them? No question. But, there’s a bit of Photoshopping and word-smithing that often edits my appearance, behaviour, and my choice of words. With Katie, that was never the case. When I was alone with her, she experienced who I really was in the moment—my truest essence. There was never an instant where I didn’t feel completely safe to reveal who I was being and what I was feeling. I was vulnerable. I was trusting. I felt safe.

As a result, the space that she held for me called forward my deepest and most honest expression of love. I had no reason to accommodate her conditions because she had none.

That’s what I miss. Honestly, that’s what I truly miss. Being able to love in a way that’s pure, and consequently fills me with joy.

Robyn, my wife, and I have talked about this at length since Katie’s passing. It’s inspired us to deepen our relationship. And, trust me, given our journeys thus far and how much we have been there for one another, I like to think we have an incredibly supportive and honest relationship. But, clearly it could be better, and we’re determined to make it as such.

Which got me thinking about leadership, about coaching, about education, family—hell, about any relationship that we experience throughout our lifetime. What if the space that we held for others resembled that of what Katie held for us? Imagine if we could create a container that was so safe—so trusting, that the people that we interact with could be their absolute self. Imagine what that would call forward in each of them.

Thinking as a coach, sure, would that same container elicit the best from our athletes. Of course, it would. People perform better when they feel safe to do so. When they know the relationship between their coach and themselves isn’t contingent upon how well they perform they thrive. I think we all get that.

Okay, what about business leaders? What about teachers? What about parents? The opportunities here are endless. You make people feel safe, they show up as themselves. Beautiful. Trusting. Honest. Capable. Why would we want anything else?

A wise friend shared this with me the other day. He said, “The measure of our love isn’t in how much we love, but in the love that shines from those around us.” Nice one!

Thanks, Katie—for everything.

Jason Dorland
Jason Dorland
Jason Dorland has dedicated his life to the pursuit of excellence for himself and those he supports.