Pets in the Workplace: Dog Day Afternoons

8 years ago

She's learned to sit in a chair...Years ago, I worked at a small town newspaper where "Office Dog" was a regular position on the masthead. (Including a dog named Do who was verbally hard to chastise: "Do! Don't!") Workplace pets are surely on the rise but working like a dog (or rather, alongside one) isn't for everyone. Nevertheless, 75 million Americans believe pets in the workplace make people happier.

Dogs, the most common workplace pets, have long been viewed as a social catalysts, greasing the wheels of friendship or at least happy acquaintance-ship. (Think about how many strangers you meet through your dog.) But supporters of workplace pets regularly cite stress reduction as the major benefit, particularly among pet owners who would otherwise worry about a home-alone pet all day long. In 2008, the American Pet Products Manufacturers conducted a poll on the topic, finding that 17 percent of Americans work at pet-friendly companies and 23 percent believe pets should be allowed in the workplace.  

"I would be sad if I thought I couldn't bring my pet to work right now because I've gotten so used to it. It's not just about having a pet. It really helps you to feel good some days when you need a soft hug."
--Wendy Wheeler, co-owner, New Moon Gallery

As workplace perks decline, pet-friendly policies can replace costlier benefits. Fido at your feet might not equate with free Diet Coke, but hey, it's something. Companies with dog-friendly policies include some major players, like Purina, Google and Amazon. But more often than not, it's the medium-to-smaller companies that indulge, such as cosmetics peddler, Urban Decay (based in Newport Beach, CA), and Healthwise, a non-profit health information provider based in Boise, ID.

"In fact, cubicles bear a strong resemblance to kennels. Dogs probably adapt better than we do to a cubicle environment."
--Jennifer Fearing, co-author of Dogs at Work: A Practical Guide To Creating Dog-Friendly Workplaces

Early last year, USA Today did a story on Replacements Ltd., a company based in Greensboro, NC that provides replacements for china, crystal and silver. Although there were 20-30 animals in the building (including cats and rabbits) nothing had yet been broken. Amazing but true.

There's even an annual Take Your Dog To Work Day (next up: June 24, 2011) created by Pet Sitters International in 1999. (Though they stole the idea from the Brits, who launched it in 1996.) Initially, about 300 companies participated and in 2004, approximately 10,000 companies opened their doggie doors. Have you heard of any companies participating in this?

“If you bring your dog in, you also need to keep an eye on Spot’s whereabouts during the day. So, having a marathon all-day meeting and having your dog here on the same day probably isn’t advisable. Someone’s Fido got into someone’s office on Friday and pillaged through a private stash of Pop-Tarts. (Yes, if your dog had crumbs on her muzzle, she is the guilty party.)”
--2007 memo to employees of Archer Malmo, a Memphis-based marketing agency

Of course, there are downsides to having a pet in the office, namely, allergies -- and that's a big one. Not to mention concerns about smell, bad behavior (unwanted aggressiveness or friendliness) and general distraction. A company should also be sensitive to the fact that some folks are scared of certain animals or just don't like them. Then there's the potential for an animal creating a hazard by being underfoot. A potential employee should be made aware of any animal presence in the office before being hired, that's for darn sure. And because this the United States of America, liability hazards abound.

An informal survey among my BlogHer colleagues brought some interesting perspectives:

"A woman at my old office couldn't have my dog in there due to allergies - no way I could have made it a common thing. And I learned from my ex who was dreadfully allergic to dogs (that was no faking) that it could really be an issue."
--Laurie White

"Yeah, gotta second that allergy concern being upper most in my mind. My second concern is grooming and natural doggy smells. Honest, I like dogs but not at the work place where I have to contend with aftershave, perfume, people's lunches and  "What the heck is coming out of the air vent?"

If it is an environment where everybody is on board and knows from day one this is a canine open work place it is ok. I'd have a choice to work there or not. Otherwise if a dog can come to work why not the pet python? Really, let's not open that door.  And recreation? Feeding? Elimination responsibilities? Nooo...Pets = home."
--Gena Haskett

"When I worked at Netflix dogs were allowed in the office and I loved it. I can understand allergy, dislike and fear issues but to Gena’s point – if those are issues for you choose not to work there. As a business owner you have to decide if you’ll attract more employees than you’ll turn away. However, these days the point is kind of moot since needing perks to attract employees is not necessary for most businesses.

"I tried bringing my two dogs to Netflix one day but it didn’t work too well. One was too eager to explore and meet people while the other was overwhelmed and clingy making it difficult for me to leave to go to meetings. They were much better office companions when I worked from home."
--Maria Niles

Last year, the Humane Society of the United States published Dogs at Work: A Practical Guide to Creating Dog-Friendly Workplaces by California dog trainer Liz Palika and HSUS' Jennifer Fearing. It looks like a great guide for any business owner considering a pet-friendly policy. Consider these points:

  • Poll employees beforehand
  • Write up a policy about pets, listing animals not welcome in the office
  • Establish a no-pets area
  • Demand proof of vaccination for each animal
  • Disallow noisy, destructive, stinky or messy animals
  • Insist employees keep control of their animals at all times
  • Check with the lawyer!

Of course, for small store owners, animals also provide another perk: customer connection. How many times you may have lingered in that quirky store to pet the dog or cat? Often times I have gone in to a store just to pet the cat I see sleeping the window, usually bookstores.

"They have a better following than I have in the store. With the dogs, you really feel at home. Anything we can do to make people feel relaxed and comfortable keeps them in the store longer, and the longer they're in here, the more likely they are to buy something."
--David Smotherman, owner of Winder Binder Gallery of Folk Art in Tennessee

The Economist recently covered a study on workplace pets presented at the International Society for Human Ethology conference. Researchers from the Central Michigan University studied work teams - some that included a dog in the room and some did not - and concluded that a mere canine presence made employees collaborate more effectively.

"Some of the groups had a dog underfoot throughout, while the others had none. After the task, all the volunteers had to answer a questionnaire on how they felt about working with the other—human—members of the team. Mr Honts found that those who had had a dog to slobber and pounce on them ranked their team-mates more highly on measures of trust, team cohesion and intimacy than those who had not."
--"Manager's Best Friend", The Economist, 4/12/10

I'm going to make a very unscientific conclusion and propose that when people observe how other people act around animals (and kids, for that matter), it can soften their view of them. Maria Niles related a story that demonstrates this hypothesis:

"One time I was conducting a telephone interview and the person I was interviewing opened up when he heard one of them barking her head off. Knowing I was a dog person helped him trust me so that day they were a business asset."

After all, if a person can be kind to a dog, how bad can they possibly be? I had a neighbor who used to drive me nuts until one day I caught her kissing and loving on her bird. I couldn't help but like her after that. It wasn't a decision it was more like an intrinsic reaction. Truth is, animals often have the power to make us better humans, especially 9 to 5.

Exhibit A: Joe & Frank, my favorite human-animal work partners of all time.


BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz

Photo Credit: Sarah Forst.

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