Why More Offices are Going to the Dogs

Pets Can Reduce Stress in the Workplace



Periodic ‘Take Your Dog to Work’ days may remain special events for many workers, yet pet-friendly workplaces are on the rise. They’re part of a broader shift, as younger generations reject formal office culture in favor of more fun and fulfilling workplaces. But wider adoption of the benefit likely will depend on how companies handle issues relating to the comfort levels of other workers.

“There are more companies that are shifting toward offering dog-friendly work policies because they can use that to attract employees,” says Cameron Woo, publisher of Bark magazine. According to the Society of Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2007 Benefits Survey, 6 percent of respondents allow employees to bring pets to work, up from 4 percent the previous year. A new survey of 1,000 adults by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association found that 17 percent are permitted to bring pets to work.

Advocates believe the practice benefits both employers and employees. People working long days can bring an element of their home life into the workplace, while those who work regular hours needn’t get antsy about dashing home to walk the dog. Another plus: not having to pay for a dog-sitter.

But the biggest gains may be the effect on the work environment. At Web company Sermo, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the philosophy is that the office animals—which include a rabbit and iguana—encourage employees to get to know each other as individuals.

“We try to break down barriers between people,” says Alexandra LaMaster, the company’s vice president of talent. “So, when you come into conflict with each other, you resolve that in a better way and you’re more honest, in a direct manner. [Having] dogs at work is just another way of being more genuine and who you are, at work.”

The canine companions also offer a constructive form of stress release. “I’ll sit and play with the dogs for a few minutes after a hard meeting,” grins Jess Frykholm, a Sermo employee.

Tech firms like Sermo were among the first to turn office cubicles into kennels. These companies need to innovate, but employees can’t be creative if they’re unhappy at work.

For the most part, large, pet-friendly companies such as Google, Amazon, and Ben & Jerry’s aren’t the norm. The SHRM survey found that small companies were more likely to offer the benefit (11 percent), than medium companies (6 percent), or large companies (4 percent). Implementing procedures may simply be too daunting for big businesses, and there’s always concern that one of the animals will lash out at an employee, visitor or client.

It’s possible that an employer could be held liable for an attack, just as a landlord can be held responsible if he knew a dog was dangerous and didn’t do anything about it, says Juris Doctor Mary Randolph, author of Every Dog’s Legal Guide. But Randolph says she’s unaware of any trials over an attack in the workplace.

Still, that doesn’t quell the fears of Kelly Hoffman, an employee at a dog-ridden Web retail firm in Reading, Pennsylvania, who notes, “One person’s perk is another person’s nightmare.” Hoffman says the three or four dogs in the small office also make her “feel lousy,” because of her allergies.

Beyond that, she claims, they’re a nuisance and reduce productivity, because colleagues constantly take the dogs outside for potty breaks. “You’re on the phone trying to take a phone order, and all of a sudden there’s a loud bark in your ear and you can’t hear the customer trying to place the order,” she says. Her office has no formal guidelines, other than to keep the animal under control and ensure that it’s house-trained.

Policies vary among companies. Many are thorough and clearly delineated. (Sermo’s etiquette memo, for instance, stipulates that contract workers can’t bring their dogs to work, because they’ll disrupt the harmony of the established pack.) Others are vague, ad hoc, or not consistently enforced, if it happens to be inconvenient to the top dog of an organization, observes Jennifer Fearing, chief economist at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

That was the impetus behind Fearing’s 2008 book, Creating Dog Friendly Workplaces, which she co-wrote with renowned dog trainer Liz Palika. Fearing used the HSUS’s 200-employee offices in Washington as a testing ground for a model process. After 18 months, they’d had no issues with their 35 dogs. Among their procedures: an application process, probation period, and requirements that each cubicle be fitted with a baby gate, as well as a green, yellow or red sign, to indicate the degree of a dog’s socialization among strangers.

“Dogs went from being in the yard to in our beds. It’s too much cognitive dissonance to leave these creatures all alone all day,” says Fearing, whose book was sparked by an uptick in inquiries from human resource departments. “Companies ought to do this right, and that’s what we want to empower them to do.”


Source: Adapted from The Christian Science Monitor

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