Suave's lesson in 'soft skills'

The secret of success may be to act more like this Dominican street dog.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/File
A Dog watches a Palm Sunday procession in the Dominican Republic.

The welcome was mixed when my daughter Brennan came home from serving in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. We were thrilled to see our daughter, but what she brought with her carried an odor so toxic we could barely breathe.

My husband was furious when he saw the source – a street dog named Suave (SWA-vey), a dirty little puppy full of fleas and ticks that Brennan had found. She'd wrapped him in a newspaper and brought him home to live with us.

Once we got Suave shampooed, we looked around and asked, "What's next?" I was just retiring from the judiciary and beginning a new career as a lawyer, and my husband worked, too.

What did happen next was unexpected. Suave wasn't a little Yorkie waiting to be pampered and welcomed onto your lap. He was a tough survivor. And because of that, Suave soon underscored for me some important lessons about what it takes to be successful.

In the islands, Suave is known as a "potcake," a name that comes from what locals call the combination of beans and rice that is scraped from the bottom of cooking pots and often fed to strays. In the Caribbean, potcakes are very friendly. They have to be, in order to survive.

Whatever you feed potcakes – from leftover shrimp to leftover oatmeal – they accept with gusto. I've seen Suave devour both Science Diet dog food and white rice mixed with bacon grease. Either way, he was just a happy puppy.

Suave is the epitome of the truth that you can catch more flies with honey. I know this from observing him with his biggest challenge: my husband, who campaigned for more than a month to get rid of him.

The two were sequestered together most days at home, where my husband's office is. Haskell often called me at work to tell me to "come and get your dog," because he had no time to tend to him. He also texted me pictures of "the pooch's poop," as he called it, on my white carpet. And many days my husband e-mailed both me and the children long lists of duties that must be done by a family with a dog – as if we didn't already know.

For weeks, I walked on eggshells. I was already in love with Suave, and I did not want to lose him. And Suave never reacted badly to my husband's suspicion or hostility. He seemed to just be thankful for those hours spent sleeping next to the heating grate.

But then one evening I came home late and overheard my husband saying softly, "Come on, Suave, get in your crate. Good night, little fella." Two days later, Haskell took Suave to an expensive pet boutique for a "shopping spree." He also enrolled Suave in "doggie day care" so that he could "make friends."

Suave had turned my husband into jelly.

Suave is Spanish for "soft." With brown spots on his back and middle; almond-shaped eyes; and a soft, silky undercoat; he is a handsome dog. When I pet him, I always whisper to him how much I admire how he rebounded so quickly from all the shocks in his life. He's come a long way – from the poverty of the streets of the Dominican Republic to our spacious home in Atlanta – all because of his capacity for unselfish friendship and love, and his positive attitude.

I can't say the same for me in my early career. As an African-American woman in the early 1980s trying to break into a profession famously dominated by white men, I felt fearful, insecure, alone. At times, those emotions sometimes manifested themselves in a sharp tongue and negative criticism of those who annoyed me. Looking back, while my reactions were certainly understandable, they were ineffective.

Sometime in my 30s, I stepped back and took stock of what I was doing and what was and wasn't working for me. Like Suave, I found reserves of resilience, passion, fearlessness, and strength, qualities that moved me forward. Being dismissive of people who didn't see things the way I did had to change. The ability to serve and deal with people effectively are skills that are just as important, if not more so, than technical skills.

I eased up on myself and others, and made some compromises and some friends. It didn't happen overnight, but I stopped feeling that I always had to prove myself. Instead, I started to try to improve the lives of others.

Being friendlier was easier – and more effective – than I thought. Bringing in doughnuts or stopping to chat goes a long way to connecting with people. In school, you don't necessarily develop the "soft skills" you will need to succeed.

I was inspired to write this after a comment from my grown son. Addison is not a dog person. But after watching Suave win over my husband, he was impressed. "If we all could be more like that dog, we would all be more successful," he said.

Every day, Suave wakes up excited to be alive and excited to see others. He has succeeded by spreading friendliness, goodwill, and cheer wherever he goes. His attitude has attracted many who eventually became his staunch supporters. He is a "pawsitive" thinker – something we should all be.

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