More employees bringing dogs to workplace For some, animals appear to reduce anxiety on the job

March 29, 1998|By Tanya Barrientos | Tanya Barrientos,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Ajax is in the landscaping business, so her days start near dawn.

First there's some coffee and a drive to the work site. Later, there's a break for lunch, some sniffing, some scratching, and maybe even a little stick-chasing.

It's all in a day's work for the blond pit bull, full-time partner to Bart Sharf, owner of Budget Tree & Landscape in Bucks County, Pa., outside Philadelphia.

Dogs such as Ajax may be common companions in pickup-truck dogprofessions, but what about canine co-workers for the white-collar set? Water bowls by the water cooler? Lap dogs near your laptops?

Office dogs are becoming increasingly more accepted, especially in California, where software companies lure younger workers by promising that furry faces are welcome.

It might sound wagged-out to those who have no penchant for pups, but it sounds perfectly natural to Sally Sells, who owns a Philadelphia travel agency where a springer spaniel, a cocker spaniel and a wire-haired terrier put in their own 9-to-5s.

Liking puppy love

Francis "Fran" Bruno, an insurance representative, says he's all for the new trend.

He already takes Ashley, his cocker spaniel, to the office. He also takes her with him to the post office and to the bank, where the tellers keep a cache of doggie treats on hand for his floppy-eared friend.

And of course there's Philadelphia schoolteacher Martha Levy, whose dog, Barnaby, is the only member of her eighth-grade class who doesn't get a report card. The Lakeland terrier even tosed with students for this year's class photo.

Puppy love makes sense for carpenters, welders, landscapers and anybody else who usually works alone. Behavioral science experts say solitary workers find solace in four-footed company.

"They definitely provide companionship," said Aaron Katcher, a University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist and leading authority on animal-human behaviors.

"Put yourself in that spot. What if your best friend asked you to accompany him to work and he was a tree landscaper?" Katcher said.

"You'd be sitting on a stump all day, you'd get bored, you'd get angry," he said. "But a dog wouldn't. A dog is delighted to just be there. Dogs are companions in ways that human beings can't be. They can do without constant interaction; your presence is enough."

Sharf said he usually lets Ajax hang around the yards where he is working, "but if a client doesn't want her out, she's happy in the truck." It helps that she's not much of a barker.

Sharf adopted Ajax as a puppy and created his own sign-language to communicate with the dog, who is deaf.

A daily greeting

Now Sharf's favorite landscaping assistant is 9 years old, nearing retirement age in human years. But she still greets him each morning at their front door, ready for work.

It's the same for Joe Nangle, a builder from suburban Lansdowne, Pa., who never even liked dogs before inheriting Hobbit. Now he doesn't go anywhere without his beloved mystery-mix mutt.

"My daughter brought home this dog, and then three weeks later she took off to college," he recalled. "I was thinking, Uugghhh."

He began taking the dog with him to construction sites. They bonded.

"Do I talk to her? Oh God, yeah," he said.

"She is really a companion to me. She usually puts her little head in my lap while we're driving. It's hard not to love that."

Reams of scientific data have been collected about the positive impact that pets can have on the elderly, the disabled and the lonely.

But do dogs in the office have the same calming effect?

"The argument has been that if the dog is well-behaved, it won't do any harm in the office, and it might improve the atmosphere," said James Serpell, a zoologist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

"That's the general gist of the argument," he said. "But I don't know of any scientific evidence that supports that."

Sells doesn't need scientific evidence to prove what she already knows - dogs unleash happiness in people.

She's been bringing her pets to work for 30 years and can name, in a single breath, every dog that has sat loyally at the foot of her desk (Sadie, Rocky, Saki, Blue, Cleo, Henry and, now, Barney).

"I've had this business for 33 years, and we've always had a dog," said Sells, whose wire-haired terrier has been known to hide his bones in the office planters and even in the stacked-up paperwork.

Barney shares the office with Durban, the springer spaniel who belongs to Susan and Ron Ross, whose desks are on the second floor. Durban - who is kept on a leash until after the mail carrier arrives - usually spends the day hanging his head over the balcony, watching customers move about.

Downstairs, under Richard Bauers' desk, is Katie the chocolate cocker spaniel. She is skittish and doesn't come out often, unless one of the other 15 employees at Travel Anywhere offers her a treat.

All three dogs have luggage tags attached to their collars, listing their name and the business phone number. Just in case.

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