Business Casual Goes to the Dogs

If every dog has its day, that day may be now for thousands of dogs around the country, and all they're missing is a paycheck. Many companies have begun allowing employees to bring their pets -- specifically dogs -- to the workplace.

Some businesses find that not only are the dogs happier but so are their employees, who work harder and more productively when dogs are around.

One year ago Sarah Nagle arrived for her job interview at a New York architectural firm and was pleasantly surprised when she opened the door.

"I walked into the building and was greeted almost immediately by Larry, a four-legged regular at the Rockwell Group in Manhattan," she says.

Sarah immediately felt at ease when Larry came running toward her, wagging his tail and looking for a new playmate. She says the encounter offered her a glimpse into the company and its personality.

"I knew this was a place where I wanted to work. It felt like family with having dogs run around," she says.

Others at the company feel similarly toward the dozen or so dogs that frequently visit the office.

"The dogs serve as a stress relief and bring some fun to the long work day," says Richard Veith, an architect with the firm.

Rockwell Group is just one of a growing number of companies that give their employees this privilege. From Silicon Valley to New York City, companies all around the country in a variety of fields have opened their doors to animals. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, a trade group in Greenwich, Conn., recently found that one in five companies allows pets in the workplace.

Benefits for Businesses and Pets

The American Humane Association recommends that companies let people bring their pets to work at least once a week,

"We believe it is healthier for the employees, it lowers absenteeism and the animals benefit as well," says Bill Torgerson of the Humane Association.

In San Rafael, Calif., the software company Autodesk boasts hundreds of dogs at its headquarters. Human resources manager Denise Harvey estimates that a quarter of the company's 1,500 employees bring their dogs to work with them.

"We have so many it's hard to count," she says. Autodesk keeps pooper-scoopers and doggie treats at its reception desk. And to ensure the four-legged friends don't overstay their welcome, it has added rules to the company handbook. The rules include keeping dogs on leashes and out of the bathrooms, meetings and eating areas.

"We have a three-strikes policy. If owners violate our rules, they will lose the privilege to bring their pets here," Harvey says.

Harvey says the dogs have become an important part of Autodesk's culture.

"We think it's a great part of the work-life balance," she says.

Of course, there have been some problems with the dogs, but overall they have been pretty minimal, Harvey says.

"We had one situation where a dog had a loud cough that created a disturbing sound," she said. "But we do our best to accommodate whatever needs may arise."

That may include accommodating employees who are allergic to the animals or even worse -- animals that have (gulp) accidents.

"We've definitely had a few accidents," she says. "I remember walking by watching a dog owner scrubbing the floor … but the owners have always been very good about cleaning up."

Are the Dogs Just a Four-Legged Distraction?

But not everyone is joining the doggie parade.

"I'm a dog lover and dog owner, but I'm a firm believer that pets do not belong in the workplace," says Ethan A. Winning, a psychologist and president of EA Winning Associates, a management and employee relations consulting firm.

Winning says pets in the workplace serve as a distraction despite workers insisting they are more productive when their pets are around.

"If a dog comes up to you, you are going to stop what you are doing to throw a ball for it or pet it. It doesn't make workers more productive. What it does is put workers more at risk of getting sick," he says.

Eileen Keriber, the Business Manager at Rockwell Group, agrees that the dogs are a distraction, but she says they're a good one.

"I think having such lovable critters around keeps us honest and helps keep the humor and perspective in a stressful job. If I have a rough day/meeting/call, I just play with a dog for a minute, or go to the dog park across the street and am instantly reminded that for every complex stress in life there's a simple pleasure to balance it with," she says.