Dogs allowed: Creature comforts at the workplace

Dog-friendly policies that allow employees to bring well-behaved pets to work are popping up in many offices and, by all accounts, the downsides are minimal.

"We always say around here that dogs have never broken anything. People have, but dogs, never," says Jeanine Falcon of Replacements Ltd., the Greensboro, N.C., company that warehouses more than 13 million pieces of china, crystal and silver and ships out thousands of items every day.

"It's part of our culture here to have pets," says Falcon, adding that most days there are 20 to 30 leashed or crated or behind-baby-gates dogs in the building, and even the occasional cat or rabbit.

A recent survey by the American Pet Products Association Manufacturers found that 20% of companies now have pet-friendly policies (though experts believe most are smallish operations), and the Humane Society of the United States just released Dogs at Work: A Practical Guide to Creating Dog-Friendly Workplaces by California dog trainer Liz Palika and HSUS' Jennifer Fearing, who ushered in HSUS' dog-welcoming policy two years ago.

"We're not proselytizing that the whole world should have dog-friendly policies," says Fearing, but HSUS is easing the way for interested firms. Many companies inclined toward the idea have abandoned it when they realized how long it would take to establish whether there's sufficient interest and how to develop policies and sanctions. "We've done all that work," Fearing says, "removed the obstacles, created all the discussion points and presented possible forms so now they can have the discussions about whether it's an idea that is right for their organization."

Supporters say pets in the workplace reduce stress among owners who worry about home-alone dogs, are a calming presence for even the non-owners and help employees form relationships. And in these times of disappearing benefits, pet-friendly policies are a free perk. Companies with such policies range from edgy Newport Beach, Calif., cosmetics company Urban Decay to Healthwise, the Boise-based non-profit health information provider. Most allow only dogs, but some, like Replacements, allow all kinds of pets.

Not every dog has its workday

Many imagine that once the gates come down, offices will be overrun with creatures, but that hasn't happened at the dozens of companies Fearing and Palika spoke with. "Some owners realize their dogs aren't right for this sort of thing or they themselves aren't right," Palika says.

At HSUS, about 50 owners bring their dogs to their worksites every day. The number of times there has been a significant issue?

"Zero," says Fearing, though there have been a couple of times that owners have been called in and reminded of some of the rules. The success, she believes, lies in the fact that the policy is "a privilege, not a guarantee. No one wants to risk losing it," and "de-facto self-policing" operates at a high level.

Still, not all dogs are great candidates as workmates, including those that have shown aggression to people or other animals; dogs that are territorial, hyperactive or vocal, and dogs that are very shy or fearful. They must have decent manners, be house-trained and well-groomed, and they must not be "food thieves … have constant flatulence, snore loudly or be excessive droolers," says Palika. "The owner may not be bothered by any of this, but co-workers probably would be."

Most dogs need more training

Owners must be honest in appraising their pets, but many can't or won't acknowledge the realities of personality characteristics or behaviors that would make the animals an annoyance or distraction at work.

Palika estimates that only about one out of 50 or 75 dogs is already a perfect candidate for work detail. "The vast majority … need good, basic obedience training and better social skills," she says. About half of those, with training, can become office-appropriate.

And if the owners don't exactly get it?

"That's where the rules come in," Fearing says. Many companies form pet committees that can order inappropriate dogs off the premises; most have two- or three-strikes rules for minor infractions and a one-strike rule for major things such as aggression. Most have a probationary period for newcomers.

"No organization should go into this without being willing to enforce rules," Fearing says. But for those that have take talked through the details and taken the pet-friendly leap, "the payoffs are huge."

READERS: Are you allowed to bring your pet to work? If so, share tips below or photos here. If not, would you like to? Do you think he or she would behave?