Brush, Treat, Repeat.

Gwyneth Tripp

My husband and I recently became the people to two delightful and raucous puppies. I’ve never before had a dog in my adult life - let alone two - and learning to understand and relate to them has been a wild ride.

One of the things I was dreading most was brushing their teeth. I procrastinated until, one day, after their new teeth had come in, I decided it was time to be brave. I went the store to find what I needed and a salesperson approached me asking if I had any questions. Rather timidly I said that I needed to brush my puppy’s teeth for the first time ever, and asked for his advice. He lit up and said, “Well here’s what I would do”:

1. Open the package of cleaning tools and put all of the pieces in front of them. Give them a treat.

2. Let them smell and bite everything. Give them a treat.

3. Use the rubber thimble with some toothpaste and use it briefly on their teeth. Give them a treat.

4. Take one pass with the larger brush. Give them a treat.

5. Try a full brushing. Give them a treat.

I followed his advice and, lo and behold, it worked! The puppies were curious and willing and went along with every step. The process was delightful and also a bit messy.

Some reflections:

Starting was the biggest obstacle to overcome. I was sure that I was going to get it wrong and forever ruin the activity of teeth-brushing for them and for me, but eventually I had to take the first step.

Pay attention to resistance. On the third brushing, I got nervous again. I held one puppy firmly and I could feel her resistance. At first I held on tighter and tried to power-through as she recoiled. Some part of me realized that this is what I was dreading. I noticed that the other puppy was licking his lips and looking at me nervously, so I let go, and then everything shifted. She allowed me to continue brushing, I relaxed, and it became enjoyable for all of us again. I giggled. They wagged their tails.

Teeth brushing is an intimate thing. While all of the tools, special paste, and treats made things much easier, it was my growing relationship and burgeoning trust with them that allowed me to approach and stick with this peculiar activity, and for them to go along with me.

My hang-ups are not theirs. My dislike of brushing my own teeth and stories of other dogs disliking it didn’t necessarily have to be true for them as well. They each had, and will continue to have, their own unique experience. 

Vanilla-flavored toothpaste smells divine. They should make it for humans too. 

Learning can be fun and rewarding, and we know that it will make us stronger, healthier, and more agile – as individuals and as an organization. That said, it also takes grit and stamina, and willingness to seek guidance and advice. It also begs that we confront our assumptions, commit more of our time, exercise patience, try unfamiliar terrain, and allow for the possibility that the experience may look nothing like you envisioned it would, and that others will feel and understand it differently than you will. That is the gift.


Here at the Foundation, we’ve been building a learning culture and slowly finding our own best tools and tactics to always learn as we grow. We’ve developed frameworks, created learning-focused meetings, defined new questions for our grantmaking, and experimented with how best to design our work and disseminate its impact and outcomes. And yet, we often still feel like we’re coming up short. We are constantly reflecting upon what we could have done better in a meeting or a conversation or a presentation. Sometimes we hesitate or doubt our decisions; information stays locked in our heads; knowledge and data that we want to make meaningful doesn’t always get shared; interesting questions never get asked.

There is still much more that we can and will do, but at least we’re on the path and we recognize the value of the journey. We continue to test new approaches and ideas and evolve our human and operational systems to facilitate greater collaboration, openness, relationships, and reflection.  We whistle while we work… and find snacks along the way.

Throughout it all, we care as much about the people we work with and how we collectively do our work well, as much as what we do and why we do it.


As with me and the puppies - and our shared introduction to their dental hygiene – when we move towards the unknown, we open ourselves up to new insight… and, if we’re fortunate, transformation. Taking steps, even if tentative or sloppy, is the key to creating new experiences and igniting the magic in our work and lives.

Embrace the challenge. Show up. Notice when you tense up. Listen to what others are experiencing. Get it wrong. Laugh. Start again. Pay attention to what's happening around you, and remain open to something completely new that might reveal itself.  And always carry treats.

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