Moose, more than a
guard dog, a welcome distraction.
Pets in the workplace
mascot, guardian, work-life balancer, welcome
entertainer, work-culture augmenter, ice-breaker,
comfort-giver ... companion.
by Jim Gebben
Standing tall at four
pounds of brown fur, Moose takes his responsibilities
as director of
relief and occasional guard dog at Mills Benefit
“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.
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,
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
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.”
of many colors’ Salespersons Ricki-Tikki-Tavi
and Lady Troopah.
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
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
“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.
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.
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.