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Moose, more than a guard dog, a welcome distraction.

 

Pets in the workplace
Stress-reliever, mascot, guardian, work-life balancer, welcome distraction, morale-booster, salesperson,
entertainer, work-culture augmenter, ice-breaker, comfort-giver ... companion.

By Daniel Schoonmaker
Photography by Jim Gebben


Standing tall at four pounds of brown fur, Moose takes his responsibilities as director of comic relief and occasional guard dog at Mills Benefit Group seriously.

“This is his office,” founder Jamie Mills said of the Yorkshire terrier. “If someone is staying late, he doesn’t want to leave until they do. If someone is having a bad day, he’ll camp out with that person for the day.”

And with health care costs rising, there have been some tough days and late nights for Mills, a designer and administrator of employee-benefits plans.

“Nobody is happy about health care. They’re not coming to see us because they’re happy; they’re coming in because something is wrong or there is an issue. But they do look forward to seeing Moose,” she said.

So clients come in with their problems — often significant, company-changing problems. They start petting Moose, and before they begin discussing the realities of employer-sponsored health care, they talk about the dog.

His story is quite the icebreaker. When Mills first brought Moose into the office, the puppy was sick as a … well, he was really sick. Within weeks of introducing Moose to her staff, a veterinarian recommended $8,000 of surgery and treatment at Michigan State University.

“By then everyone was in love with the dog,” Mills said. “They all wanted to chip in to pay the vet bill. But he didn’t end up going to Michigan State. We ended up nursing him from a sick, one-pound puppy. He survived, and now he guards everyone here.”

 

Mia, an important part of the company’s culture.

More than a guard dog, Moose is a welcome distraction. Most of the offices have dog beds beneath the desks. Many of the 12 employees have some role in his daily routine: Julie is the authorized treat-giver. April is the designated groomer. Melanie and Lindsey are walkers.

“I think he just gives everyone a break,” said Mills. “We’re a very high-stress office and he definitely is a stress reliever.”

Shelly Klein, principal of K-Studio, a Grand Rapids design house known for its boutique pillows, has a similar relationship with her dog, Sugar. Like many entrepreneurs, Klein is prone to excessively long hours. Sugar is her release.

“She is the most excellent distraction,” said Klein. “Sometimes you just have to go away and take a breath. When my brain needs a break, Sugar knows.”

A survey of businesses that allow pets in the workplace by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association suggested that pet-friendly workplaces benefit from increased staff morale, camaraderie and job performance.

Some 73 percent of responding companies said pets created a more productive work environment; another 73 percent believed that pets led to a more creative work environment. A third boasted a decrease in employee absenteeism and half said employees were more likely to stay late. Nearly all respondents said that pets created positive work relations.

The report, commissioned in support of Take Your Pet to Work Day, which occurs annually in June, concluded that by encouraging regular play breaks, pets are especially beneficial to workers who put in long hours or spend the majority of their time at a computer.

The study also suggested that a pet-friendly policy can benefit work-life balance by removing the guilt or anxiety that can come from leaving pets home alone. At Mills Benefit Group, Moose often is joined by other employee dogs for this reason. Klein cites difficulties with caring for Sugar’s predecessors as a determining factor in relocating her studio from a Heartside storefront to a space adjacent to her home.

Carl Erickson, president of Atomic Object, originally introduced Mia, his Siberian husky, to his local software development firm as a response to the dog’s severe separation anxiety. Since then, a second dog has joined the staff courtesy of co-founder Bill Bereza, and the pair has become an important part of the company’s culture.

“I think a dog is a really good indicator of an open, non-formal and friendly culture,” said Erickson. “I believe it indicates effectiveness in that, clearly, the company cares more about the work done than about following traditions or formalisms or structure. A company that puts the emphasis on people and collaboration and effective work practices does better work. It is not because you have a dog that you do better work, but it’s an indicator that you have a culture with a better work environment.” 

Coat of many colors’ Salespersons Ricki-Tikki-Tavi and Lady Troopah.

The dogs that found them
Matt Fowler, proprietor of the Wealthy Street thrift boutique Coat of Many Colors, often hears that he should change his sign to read “Vintage Clothing, Photography and Dog Rescue.”

“I’ve gone through 11 dogs in three years, finding them and giving them homes,” said Fowler. “I find them all the time. There are a lot of strays in this neighborhood.”

He launched the store in August 2006 as a way to combine his personal interests and his financial needs — an affordable antique and vintage clothing shop with the freedom to take in the occasional stray. His “keepers” are Lady Troopah, named for a dog he met while living in Jamaica, who wandered into his store, and Ricki-Tikki-Tavi, who was found two blocks away by friends of the store and brought to Fowler.

In the Uptown shopping district, former emergency room nurse turned shopkeeper Kathy Nagy had a similar experience at East Fulton Antiques and Art. She discovered store dog Ellie in the street outside her store.

“No collar. Very skinny, really timid. For the first six months or so she wouldn’t even eat,” recalled Nagy. Nagy also keeps a 15-year-old tabby at the store.

While not every store in Uptown has taken in a stray, it seems the majority have a dog or a cat. Among Nagy’s East Fulton neighbors, there is a cat at Blue Door Home Design and another at Mercury Head Gallery. A Jack Russell terrier camps out at the jewelry repair store.

In fact, four-legged staff members are incredibly common among boutiques in West Michigan, especially among galleries and antique stores, where it is difficult to find an establishment without one. Independent store owners have the freedom to bring their pets to work if they so choose — lease and health codes permitting — so they are much more likely to bring their companions to the workplace. But also, according to the APPMA, storeowners report an increase in sales when their pets are on the premises.

“It’s been the best business decision I’ve ever made,” said Fowler. “People remember my store because of my dogs. People stop in just to see the dogs.”

“It keeps the regulars coming in,” agreed Nagy. “And the kids of the regulars. They want to see Ellie and give her a treat, and then they come in and find something new. And they say you can always trust a shop with a dog.”

With the obvious caveat that every pet must be trained to function in the workplace, a companion animal can be great for business. At Jade, Julie Cronkright’s Rockford boutique, dog Barney entertains the men and children who come in with their wives and mothers. On the days he spends with Julie’s husband, Thomas Cronkright II, Barney entertains staff and clients at Sun Title Agency.

At Atomic Object, the dogs are included in the staff photo. Mills Benefit Group and other pet-friendly companies such as marketing agency Paula Scott Unlimited list their pooches on the company Web site with titles such as Mascot or Director of Comic Relief.

“It’s really good for business,” said Nagy. “But I wouldn’t care if it was or not; Ellie would still be here.”

Part of the Professional pack
On a recent morning, the Wodarek family was running late to open its Leonard Street shop, A1 Small Engine Repair, a nine-year-old business specializing in the service and resale of outdoor appliances such as lawnmowers and chainsaws. On that morning, Randy Wodarek was yelling at his boys that it was time for work, when he noticed that the family’s German shepherd, Max, was nowhere to be found.

“We looked all around the neighborhood, and after 45 minutes, we get to the shop and he’s sitting on the front porch,” said Wodarek. “He was the only one that made it to work on time.”

Max is a Leonard Street fixture. Every morning when the Wodareks walk to work, so does Max, and whenever there is someone at the shop, so is he. Most days he can be seen in front of the store, keeping watch over the rows of used lawnmowers and other equipment on display.

“He has a job and he takes it seriously,” said Randy’s wife, Jana. “And during the winter when Randy’s here by himself, I feel a lot more confident knowing that Max is there with him. He is very protective of Randy.”

But Randy is careful to add that Max isn’t at the store to be a guard dog. He’s there as a member of the family, and a well-liked one at that. Customers and neighborhood workers regularly drop by to say hello to Max or drop off scraps (a chef at nearby steakhouse Tillman’s Dining & Cocktails is a favorite).

“Max is really just part of the family,” said Randy. “He looks the guard-dog part, but that’s about it. He wouldn’t bite you if you stepped on his tail.”

 

SPIKE, the Bike-blesser and shop mascot.

Down the road at Freewheeler Bike Shop, another family-owned business, 20-year-old shop cat Spike is part of the clan.

“This is his place, this is his house,” said longtime staff member Tammi Brand, who is responsible for Spike’s daily care. “He grew up here and everyone loves him. People stop in just to see him. He’s a shop mascot.”

Although Spike does play the role of store bike-blesser (it’s a tradition to pet the cat for good luck when buying a bike), he primarily serves as a shared companion to the staff and clientele, as do practically all dogs and cats in the workplace, with the exception of “working dogs” employed for assisted living or search missions.

For humans, Mills explains, it’s a form of the “pet therapy” that is being increasingly used in health care facilities. For the animals, it’s something much more primal.

“These people are part of a social unit she fits into,” said Erickson of Atomic Object’s dog. “Mia looks at us as her pack.” GR

Dan Schoonmaker is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids.

   
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