UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


PhD Student and Future Service Dog Further Their Education

Theory & Practice


Virginia Kay and Worthy are both working toward their PhDs. Kay is a doctoral student in organizational behavior (OB) at UNC Kenan-Flagler, while her four-legged companion is earning a PhD, the highest level of dog training, in the Canine Life and Social Skills program. Kay is Worthy’s “puppy parent” and says that OB and training future service dogs have more similarities than you might expect.

She socializes the golden retriever as part of his training to become a service animal. She volunteers with Eyes Ears Nose and Paws, a Carrboro, N.C.-nonprofit that trains and places assistance dogs with people with serious medical conditions. She provides a temporary home to Worthy, gives him basic training and exposes him to a variety of public settings. Much of Worthy’s socialization took place at UNC Kenan-Flagler’s McColl Building, where he attended classes and meetings with Kay. His PhD certification will test his ability to follow complex verbal commands while ignoring distractions like crowds, food and other dogs.

In her research, Kay examines how teams respond to negative performance feedback. She hopes to discover which types of managerial interventions are effective at improving team dynamics and concrete performance outcomes. Teams tend to band together and shift blame onto external actors, so Kay is interested in finding managerial methods that encourage teams to reflect on their own performance, discuss what went wrong and find ways to improve.

“Virginia’s identified a good issue to investigate because project members say they need to have a better sense of how to hold people accountable and how to give them feedback,” said OB professor Ben Rosen, a member of her dissertation committee. “We’ve talked to project managers who said they’ve learned a lot of technical skills, such planning or getting the required resources for a project. Where they felt least adequate was in their interpersonal skills – how to confront team members who weren’t doing their job.”

Puppy parenting has a lot in common with good management principles, says Kay. It’s all about communicating expectations clearly and holding Worthy accountable for doing his job. “The biggest parallel I’ve seen is the importance of creating a situation that encourages the right behavior,” said Kay. “Managers create the environment in which their employees work by setting role expectations and designing the reward systems. And that’s exactly what I do as a puppy parent.”

She uses positive reinforcement and gentle corrections to prepare Worthy for his future career. “What motivates employees is knowing that they’ve done a good job,” said Kay. “Every time Worthy does something right he gets a treat, and his little tail starts wagging. He’s thinking, ‘I’m a rock star.’”

Puppy parenting isn’t always an easy job. Kay frequently has had to “play the bad cop” to keep people from petting Worthy (and distracting him from his training) and educate the public about service animals. While service animals are legally allowed in all public places in North Carolina, some business owners were skeptical that he was a service dog based on Kay’s healthy appearance. Kay helped them understand that service animals frequently help clients living with serious health condition, such as diabetes, that aren’t visible, and that public access also applies to trainers of service dogs.

Serving as a puppy parent has been an extremely rewarding experience for Kay. She has had the opportunity to meet members of the community beyond UNC Kenan-Flagler’s campus, add balance to her academic work and, ultimately, help improve the lives of the dogs’ future owners.

“This has just been a really wonderful way to give back to the community,” said Kay. “North Carolina is basically paying for my PhD by providing teaching and research fellowships and waiving my tuition. Being a puppy parents helps me give something in return.”

The UNC Kenan-Flagler community has supported her work, and the PhD program honored Kay with the M. Wayne Delozier Fellowship Award for her outstanding service to the School and the wider UNC community.

Kay hopes Worthy won’t be the business school’s last furry PhD candidate. In many ways, UNC Kenan-Flagler was an ideal training ground for Worthy, who experienced a variety of social settings, from the hustle and bustle of class changes to quiet time under Kay’s desk in the PhD suite, all the while surrounded by a friendly, supportive community.

“I definitely think someone else should pick up the leash,” said Kay. “It would be nice if McColl had another service dog in training after I left. I would love it.”