Office Paw-litics

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

The front desk at RMD Advertising in Columbus bears a bowl of cookies for visitors, but they'd be wise not to take a nibble. The cookies are treats for Boone, the border collie who has been an office fixture for almost a decade. She expects a treat whenever delivery people come by.

Boone spends most of time in the 15-person office under the desk of her owner, CEO Sue Reninger. The dog also participates in the occasional staff meeting, barking supportively when cheering erupts, and generally helping create a mellow vibe in what can be a high-stress profession.

Boone is one of many pets around Central Ohio that stick to a 9-to-5 schedule. Dogs, in particular, can be found in law firms, printing shops and corporate offices-or anywhere people are looking for a furry bright spot at work. Roughly 60 percent of U.S. households have a pet, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Of those, approximately 40 percent own dogs and one-third own cats.

In a 2006 survey, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (now just the APPA) found that one in five companies allows pets at work. The annual Take Your Dog to Work Day, created in 1999 by Pet Sitters International, attracted about 300 companies in its first year and has since grown to include an estimated 10,000 businesses. (Animal lovers mark your calendars: The next day is June 24.)

Studies have shown that having dogs in the workplace can boost employee morale and productivity. But not every pet is cut out to punch a clock, and consideration must be given to whether the office can accommodate the needs of the four-legged. Is there easy access for outside potty breaks? Are furnishings and flooring pet-friendly? Can your business-and your staff-handle the inevitable accidents and distractions? Despite the potential pitfalls, pet proponents say having them around the office helps create a warm and fun work atmosphere.

Pet Perks

Not all offices are suitable for pets, and vice versa. The high-strung Chihuahua that yaps at strangers will be as unwelcome in

the workplace as a pit bull in a china shop. "Make sure it's a naturally mellow dog that gets along with all types of personalities. Dogs can have a lot of anxiety if you're not there, so make sure it's not a dog that needs you every minute," Reninger advises.

According to the APPA study, having pets in the workplace created a more productive environment among 73 percent of the participating companies and led to a 27 percent decreased absenteeism rate-possibly because owners aren't rushing back home to tend to their pets. Fully 100 percent of the respondents agreed that having pets in the workplace relaxes employees.

Reninger thinks the same about Boone, saying that her "old soul" helps the dog set a good tone. "To have a dog that comes up and lays their head on your shoulder during a meeting, it just strips all of the pomp and circumstance out of a meeting and gets it down to a real level," she says.

Boone is treated like a full member of the staff and even has her own business card-she's Director of Stress Management. "She reduces stress and anxiety. She's got a really important job and she does it well," Reninger says.

Jessica Hoffman, vice president of operations at family-owned Jellybean Junction Learning Centers in Dublin, practically made bringing her dog to work a condition of her employment seven years ago. "I asked if I started working with the family, could I bring my dog? And ever since then it caught on," she says.

Her parents started bringing their Rottweiler, Doogen, five years ago. And either Layla, Hoffman's 9-year-old shepherd mix, or 2-year-old Gigzy, an Australian/German shepherd mix-or both-make the trip with her every day. "It makes everyone happy, everyone enjoys having the dogs here," she says. "If you're having a rough day you can just turn around and get on the ground and pet the dog-because they're never mad."

Rudy, an Australian shepherd, has been making the trip to Hague Quality Water International in Groveport nearly every day for 10 years. His owner, David Hague, vice president and controller of the water treatment equipment manufacturer, says Rudy makes a good ambassador and is often a hit with international clients. "It makes people comfortable to have a dog there," he says.

Jennifer Joseph, a principal in the Downtown law firm Joseph & Joseph, wanted a dog that could travel to work when she got tiny 2-year-old Zoey; the five-pound Maltese commutes in Joseph's purse from Miranova to work in the nearby Waterford Tower.

The strict breeders in Pennsylvania from whom Zoey was purchased went so far as to make never leaving the dog alone a condition of sale. "Their entire life revolved around breeding dogs," Joseph explains. And so Zoey has been coming to work since day one. "It's just a nice distraction during the day to have a little animal that loves everybody so much," Joseph says.

At Color Design Innovations, a small graphics company on Columbus's Northwest Side, there's no mistaking the dog-friendly atmosphere. At any given time, as many as five dogs roam the office maze. But it's Megan, the 18-year-old terrier, who runs the show, according to her owner and company President Joyce Berlo. The pack also includes a German shepherd who "works" part-time, a collie and two others. They go trolling from office-to-office at lunchtime, looking for handouts.

The dogs, all of whom are rescues, used to share space with two office cats at the company's previous location. The cats fit right in, Berlo says, and even stayed overnight in the office during the week

before they were adopted into permanent homes. "They would come sit on your desk, and you'd work away and they'd just sit there. They just wanted to be around people," Berlo says. She'd consider having cats again, but with two new puppies coming to work, she says, the timing isn't right.

Color Design's mostly repeat customers are used to the pooches. "They come to see [the dogs] as much as they come to see us," Berlo says.

Dianne DiNapoli Einstein, a partner at Einstein & Poling law firm in Dublin, also has found that a canine companion can be attractive to clients. Einstein originally brought her mutt, Maggie, to work four years ago because she liked having her around, but she's found that clients do, too. Maggie's picture is featured on Einstein's Columbus Bar Association web page and has turned out to be a draw for business. "I can't tell you how many people call because of that," Einstein says.

Pets and Clients

Of course, not everyone is an animal lover. Some people simply don't care for pets, while those allergic to four-legged friends may go into a sneezing fit or an asthma attack upon encountering Fido or Fluffy. As a result, business owners have to be sensitive to visitors' comfort levels.

Reninger says RMD checks with new clients before introducing them to Boone. People who love dogs head right in to pet her. Sometimes people not comfortable with dogs say they are, but then don't interact with the dog at all. "So you just learn to read people," she says.

Boone, whose border collie breed is known for its sensitivity, also seems to read people. She seeks out people feeling down and once served as a barometer for a bad business meeting. Reninger recalls the time a potential client, who had previously hit it off with Boone, came in for his third meeting and was greeted by a growl from the usually sweet dog.

Reninger admonished Boone and shut her out of the conference room, where Boone lurked outside and watched. The meeting ended up turning "ugly," Reninger says, with the man asking them to do some "unsavory things." Boone had never growled before, and hasn't done so since. "I think people come with a certain vibe that animals can pick up on," Reninger says.

Joseph, a divorce attorney, pays attention to the fact that not every situation is dog-friendly, even if the people are. "Make sure that you have people in the office that can take the dog and move it elsewhere," she says. "I don't want someone who's miserable and sobbing in the lobby to be greeted by a dog who doesn't understand their pain and agony, jumping up and down and saying ‘Love me, love me!' "

In those cases, Zoey stays in another room while Joseph meets with the client. "I'll see who is available to babysit. Everybody in the office has their own individual personality and relationship with her," Joseph says.

On the flip side, Einstein recalls a day when she was on the phone and Maggie left her office and went over to an upset man in the lobby. By the time Einstein found Maggie, she was seated happily on his lap, and he said she had helped cheer him up.

It helps if an office dog has his or her own space, often under or near the owner's desk. Zoey is allowed on the couches to lounge (how much damage can a five-pound dog do?), as are Jelly Bean Junction's three dogs. Hoffman says Gigzy is fond of sitting in the executive office chair across from her. "She just gets right up there and looks at me and tilts her head, ‘What are you doing, Mom?' "


In the case of both Joseph & Joseph and Jelly Bean Junction, there's less reason to worry about damage to couches, walls or floors because the tenants own their space. But animals don't know the difference between leasing and owning, and accidents do happen. Some offices choose to use a "three strikes" policy.

Noise is also a consideration. Jelly Bean Junction is the second-floor tenant, and if visitors make it up the stairs without a human noticing their approach, the dogs step in with a chorus of loud greeting. Hoffman says the neighbors below try to be good sports about it. Boone's herding instincts come into play if an unruly dog visits: She tries to bark the other dog into good behavior.

And even though Zoey doesn't cause much ruckus, she does need a watchful eye. She recently mistook a visitor's baby carrier for Joseph's purse and startled everybody by climbing in with the baby. Luckily, the mother was a dog owner herself and didn't mind the close quarters.

When shopping for a workplace pet, Joseph wanted a low-shedding dog such as a Maltese. According to the Humane Society of the United States, and contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a nonallergenic dog. Even hairless breeds may cause symptoms. An estimated 10 percent of the population may be allergic to animals, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology-all the more reason to alert visitors to a pet on the premises.

Employers advise those mulling the merits of workplace pets to think about the animals and the humans involved. After all, even pets have needs. "You have to have a little bit of time for them," Berlo says.

"I think you should be very aware of employees' feelings on it. If someone doesn't like dogs, that's OK," Hague says. "[Also] they should not disrupt an office routine. We're here to conduct business, not for me to have a place to keep my dog."

Einstein, who practices labor law, says that common sense is a good guide for anyone considering bring a pet to work. There are no specific laws governing the practice, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn't set rules either.

Einstein suggests an employer first check with employees to determine their comfort level with pets. In her case, both her law partner and assistant also bring their dogs several days a week; the dogs start each day running laps to the lobby.

The office joke is that the firm is "going to the dogs," or it's "going to be a ruff" day when Maggie and pals are present. But for many businesses, pets in the workplace can lead to just the opposite environment. "Overall I think it's just good for everybody," Einstein says.

Molly Willow is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the January 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.