'Ruffing' it: How one work perk benefits employees, pets and businesses

August 17, 2019
Ed Kane, PhD

Ed Kane, PhD, is a researcher and consultant in animal nutrition. He is an author and editor on nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine with a background in horses, pets and livestock. Kane is based in Seattle.

The science is clear: Canine companionship offer great health benefits. So its not surprising that more and more companies are allowing dogs in the workplace.

bernardbodo/stock.com

“Having my dog at work is the best work perk,” says Lindsay Bumps, CVT, public relations media maven and leader of the Canine Culture Committee at Ben & Jerry's in South Burlington, Vermont. “It's even better than the three free pints of ice cream employees can take home every day!”

Both major companies and small businesses alike have recognized that their employees are happier and more productive when they are with their canine companions, dubbed “K9-5ers” at Ben & Jerry's. According to its company code of conduct, Google's “affection for our canine friends is an integral facet of our corporate culture.” Amazon has a similar canine-friendly policy, with an estimated 7,000 dogs sharing the workspace at the company's Seattle headquarters. Other large companies with dog-friendly policies include Clif Bar & Company, Nestlé Purina and Build-A-Bear Workshop.

The favorable effects of canine coworkers

“Our knowledge of the beneficial effects of dogs on employees in the workplace stems not only from the results of our 2012 study,” says Sandra Barker, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of the School of Medicine Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), “but we also have extensive experience in the VCU Medical Center, where dogs from our Dogs On Call Therapy Dog Program are on hand just about every day. These dogs enhance the lives of our medical staff as well as our patients, their families and our students.”

According to Dr. Barker, being in the presence of dogs reduces the body's level of the stress hormone cortisol. When a person experiences any type of stress, the brain sends a signal to the pituitary, which emits a hormone through the blood to the adrenal gland, causing the release of cortisol. The effects of cortisol production are nearly instantaneous: Blood pressure rises and the heart beats faster, prompting the body's “fight-or-flight” response. But if the adrenal gland continues to release cortisol as a result of chronic stress, its effects will begin to damage the body. Chronically high levels of cortisol may cause stomach ulcers, depression, hypertension and diabetes.

“The take-home-message,” Dr. Barker says, “both from our studies and our experience, is that dogs' presence in the workplace may reduce stress and provide comfort to employees. We have documented patterns of physiologic stress reduction not only in the presence of one's own dog but also in the presence of unknown therapy dogs in the medical center. One study showed that our employees' salivary and serum cortisol levels were significantly reduced after as little as five minutes of interacting with a therapy dog.”

The VCU Medical Center frequently receives requests from staff for Dogs On Call visits, often after they've had a particularly challenging day. “Our team obviously recognizes the benefits of interacting with these dogs, even for a limited period,” Dr. Barker says.

She recalls one day when there were several deaths in one of the hospital's pediatric intensive care units. “The staff, of course, are impacted by these critical experiences, particularly when they work so hard to save lives,” she says. “They just put their arms around the dogs and snuggle with them, and you can see the relief. They profusely thank the dog owners and us for being able to provide them with this level of comfort.”

 

Where canine coworkers blossom

Ben & Jerry's. Bumps, a veterinary technician whose true passion has always been animals, says being able to bring her 7-year-old French bulldog Spock to work every day not only makes her incredibly happy, but allows him to thrive as well. “He's got his friends here, gets lots of treats and belly rubs and gets to take naps under my desk,” she says. “We both love it a ton!”

Ben & Jerry's has been dog friendly since it was founded in 1978. The company's employee-led Canine Culture Committee meets several times per year to reinforce the inclusiveness of all in the office. “We make sure that our K9-5ers get along well with their two-legged coworkers,” Bumps says. “We have an office of 80 to 90 people, along with 35 to 40 dogs. We make sure not only that the dogs are comfortable, happy and well cared for but also that all of our employees are comfortable with dogs in the office and that the dogs are not being distracting.”

According to Bumps, the general consensus of both employees and leadership at Ben & Jerry's is that a dog-friendly workspace not only boosts morale but also gives people time to take a break from work and recharge. “I'm essentially forced to stop my work and take Spock out for a walk. That's not only great for him, but it's a good practice for me,” Bumps says. “Mentally, it gives me a break and some fresh air. I come back to do my work a little bit more refreshed and more productive.”

The company is also proactive about bringing in veterinary professionals, behaviorists and trainers to make sure the company is offering opportunities for dog owners and that the dogs to have a more fruitful life, Bumps says.

“Here at Ben & Jerry's, we love our dogs almost as much as we love our ice cream … okay, maybe the same amount,” Bumps admits. “As any Ben & Jerry's employee will tell you, having their furry friend by their side during the day makes all the hard ice cream work all the sweeter.”

Clif Bar & Company. Jennifer Freitas, director of people, learning and engagement at Clif Bar & Company, raised her late dog Crash at her workplace and now brings her pit bull mix Prince to work occasionally. Dogs have been a fixture at the company's California headquarters since it was founded 27 years ago. Today there are about 350 employees and 20 to 30 dogs in the office on any given day.

“Having dogs at the office is embedded in our culture as a treasured aspect of this wonderful workplace we get to come to every day,” says Freitas, who has been with the company for 17 years. “It lightens the mood, helps us relax and brings a little joy, lightness and levity to our day.”

Having dogs on hand also helps employees connect with each other. “Dogs bring us together and enable us to get to know each other better,” Freitas says. “Having dogs in the workplace helps create the ‘family- and friend-inspired' culture that we have here, connected as ‘Clif-sters.'”

Chase Motley, manager of corporate finance, brings Walter, his 5-month-old Welsh Corgi puppy, to the office. “I've been bringing him to work for the last month and half,” Motley says. “It's been exciting having him here. As he's still a pup, he's still learning his manners, and for now I'm only bringing him in once a week. The ability to socialize my dog at work has been amazing."

Even before he started bringing Walter to work, Motley says it was great to have the other dogs there. “If I was working hard and I wanted to take a break, I'd just get up, take a lap around the office and say hello to a few dogs and their owners. It's a great way to destress and connect with other employees.”

Louisa Brown, internal communications manager, brings her 9-year-old Brittany spaniel Olive to work every day. “Having dogs at work was one of the benefits that drew me to Clif,” Brown says. “It's one of our folks' favorite workplace benefits, whether they're dog owners or not. Having Olive here, I can walk her easily every day. I don't have to worry about her being home alone or hire a dog walker.”

But it's not only the employees who benefit, Brown says. “Olive is just so happy. She dances around the house in the mornings, realizing she's about to go to work,” she says. “My most proud dog owner moment was when Olive got meeting requests, without me, from coworkers who felt that having a meeting with Olive in the room would be helpful.”

Putting policies in place

It is so important for any company that is considering having pets in the workplace to establish sound policies to make sure both pets and employees are protected, Dr. Barker emphasizes, such as proof of up-to-date vaccinations and flea/tick and heartworm prevention. “Pets must be healthy and well behaved, and have good temperaments appropriate for the workplace to minimize any disruption and maximize the welfare of the pets as well as the safety of employees,” she says.

Some employees may have allergies, be fearful of dogs or have cultural concerns. For these cases, Dr. Barker recommends establishing places within the workplace that are off-limits to pets. "On one of our units where our Dogs on Call teams visit, one employee is fearful of dogs. Therefore, before we have a therapy dog go to that unit, we always call to let them know," Dr. Barker says. "On the other hand, we also have employees who will schedule their shifts around when they know the dogs will be on their unit because the dogs provide such joy and comfort.”

Ed Kane, PhD, is a researcher and consultant in animal nutrition. He is an author and editor on nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine with a background in horses, pets and livestock. Kane is based in Seattle.