Do pets perk up the office?

Filed under Management, Workplace

Tracey Schencker has built a dog-walking business downtown.

Joe Williams brings a goofy little dog name Squidge to work most days, to the delight of many co-workers.

“He gets rubbed by everyone, and he gets treats,” Williams said. “They love him.”

Williams, who commutes an hour each way from the suburbs to Tails Pet Media Inc. on Chicago’s North Side, appreciates not having to leave Squidge home alone for 10 hours a day. “I didn’t have him before I started here,” he said. “I had wanted to have a dog, so it worked out.”

These days, while many companies have cut out extras and trimmed raises, employers can make a job more alluring by simply allowing man’s best friend in the office.  Often, it warms up the office for everyone, creating a more enjoyable workplace.

“The employees love it,” said Janice Brown, founder and editorial director at Tails Pet Media Inc., which publishes Tails magazine in 14 cities, a lifestyle magazine for people and their pets. Brown brings her own two dogs, Luna, a white shepherd mix, and Maple, a hound mix, to the office and rarely receives a complaint. The company’s 12 employees are pet lovers or they likely wouldn’t be working there, she said.

But companies that aren’t in the pet business also can benefit from having pets in the workplace, Brown said. “It definitely adds humor. It adds a break from reality. It adds tolerance,” because accidents due occur, she said. “You have to be open-minded and understanding  that they are dogs.”

Studies also show pets can help build camaraderie among workers. In one study conducted this year by graduate-level researchers at Central Michigan University, teams who worked with a dog at their side gave teammates higher scores for trust and team cohesion than those work groups that were pet free.

A dog wagging its tail around the office can put a smile on workers’ faces, said Debbie Murray, director of operations at Tails Pet Media Inc. in Chicago, who has two cats at home but no dog of her own. “If I had a funky phone call and then have a furry being bobbing into my office saying, `Talk to me,’ it’s a nice little escape,” Murray said.  “It’s a stress-reliever.”

Yet the vast majority of employers don’t allow pets at work, citing the distraction of barking, allergies or the potential liability of a dog bite.

Baird & Warner’s Lincoln Park office recently instituted a no-pet policy during standard business hours after more realtors started bringing their dogs into the office and some people complained about the distraction, said Bill Stegeman, managing broker. “Having dogs barking in the background sounds unprofessional,” he said. “Even if it’s just one dog barking, it can be disruptive,” he said.

While many real estate professionals are animal lovers who support animal causes, they want a professional environment when they come into the office, he said. Most can set their own hours, often working evenings and weekends, and can leave during the day to care for their pets, he said. “If they want to adjust their schedule to spend time with their pet, they have the flexibility to do it,” Stegeman said.

Some employees thanked Stegeman after he created the new policy a few weeks ago. It wasn’t necessary before, he said, because few people brought their pets in. But recently, that changed. “Pets were coming in more frequently and more people were getting pets,” he said.

In fact, more households have pets today than a decade ago. More than 62 percent of all U.S. households owned a pet in 2009, compared with 56 percent in 1998, according to the National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association.

Pets and the money spent on them tends to be recession-resistant, and some experts suggest pampering a pooch can make people feel better. That might be why sales of pet products rose 5.4 percent to $45.5 billion in 2009 and are forecasted to hit $47.7 billion in 2010, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Realtor Mollie Rea had been bringing her three-pound toy poodle, Bella, to work with her and tried to lobby for an exception to the new policy based on Bella’s lap-dog size. “Dogs are a companion animal, so why not bring them in during the work day?” she said.

But some people brought large dogs in, and Stegeman said he felt he needed to treat all workers the same. “I have to do the same thing for everyone,” he said. “Most people understood.”

Now Rea uses a pet-walking service during the day so Bella is not alone for an extended period of time.

Concern over leaving pets alone all day is fueling growth of Tracey Gold Schencker’s dog-walking service, TS Dogwalkers, which charges $14 per 30-minute walk and $25 per hour walk. Schencker, who used to work for a kennel that allowed her to bring her dogs to work, now takes her own rat terrier on her walks. “I can’t imagine leaving him at home,” she said.

Architect Carl Hunter, principal at Doyle & Associates, can relate. He brings his two miniature dachshunds to work and often to client meetings as well.  “They’re our children and we couldn’t bear to leave them alone,” he said. The dogs, Ledoux and Scarpa, both named for architects, can be an ice breaker. “Clients enjoy it,” he said.

At the office, when the dogs bark at visitors, they’re put in an enclosed room, he said. More often, they sleep or pick up a ball and try to find a willing ball player. “They make the workplace much more human,” Hunter said.


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