Employees at Rebuilding Together, a city nonprofit agency,… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
Bonnie Bessor's job can take its toll after a while. As executive director of Rebuilding Together, she's responsible for finding ways to help low-income Baltimore residents with home repair, maintenance projects and money to pay for the heat.
But when work starts to pile up and her stress levels rise, all she has to do is head into her office for a quick snuggle. There she'll find her pit bull mix, Iggy, resting in his dog bed.
"It definitely gives you somebody with unconditional love to go to when you're feeling kind of down," she says. "Being a human service agency like we are, dealing with difficult stories and clients can get you down. Having an animal to go to who can bring you comfort can be really helpful. He's cute and he's funny, and he can get people out of their funks."
Fewer than a fifth of American workers are allowed to take their pets to work, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Yet that group may be feeling calmer, more content and more collaborative, according to a small but growing body of research.
A 2012 Virginia Commonwealth University study found having dogs at one workplace led employees to report feeling less stressed and more satisfied with their jobs. Researchers at Central Michigan University determined in a 2010 study that dogs fostered trust and collaboration among colleagues.
Allen McConnell, a psychology professor at Miami University in Ohio who was not involved in either study, theorizes that the benefits are a logical extension of other research showing pet owners are happier and healthier, have better self-esteem and suffer less depression than those who don't own pets.
"It seems to be predictive. People seem to get more benefits as they have more time with their pets. The more contact, the more benefit," says the author of the 2011 study "Friends with Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership."
Jean Waller Brune says her dogs have fostered a calm atmosphere in the 21 years she's brought them to work with her. The head of Roland Park Country School says her office receives frequent visitors not because of her, necessarily, but because of Penny, her 3-year-old chocolate Lab.
"She'll go sit at people's feet when they come in," Brune says, "and she'll play with her toys in here."
On a recent afternoon, Penny lay under Brune's chair as she finished up a meeting. Outfitted in an RPCS collar, the Lab cautiously sniffed at visitors before wagging her tail, submitting to some get-to-know-you petting and returning, satisfied, to Brune's side.
"She lays on my feet or puts her head on my feet in the office — it's very nice," says Brune. "Parents come in or someone might be interviewing, and I always ask if they mind having a dog in the room. She helps make people feel more at ease and calmer."
Kathy Harvey, president of H&D Branding in Sparks, brings her three dogs to work every day.
"My people work really hard, and the dogs are a great relief," she says. Her 13-year-old black Lab, Zeke, has free rein in the office, and some of her 30 employees have started stocking treats for him.
"Zeke makes his rounds of people who keep biscuits in the office," she says. "He'll go bark at them — 'Where's my biscuit?' — and then he'll [stay] with them for a bit after he gets his treat."
There's another benefit, says Harvey: Dogs "force me to go outside where normally I wouldn't. They're another reminder that I need to get up."
Yet pets in the workplace can cause problems and present liability issues if they're poorly trained or if colleagues have allergies or fear animals. Some experts advise against pets in the workplace.
Harvey says she's had many heart-to-heart talks with office landlords through the years and after a while wouldn't consider renting office space that didn't welcome her dogs. Several years ago, she bought her company's building to ensure that she could bring her dogs to work.
Organizations that allow animals — a group that includes Google, Amazon and "The Daily Show" — frequently set up pet workplace policies. The Maryland Institute College of Art currently has about 50 cats and dogs registered as part of its pets at school program. While the animals are welcome on campus, they are restricted to pet-friendly zones that do not include food service areas or offices where employees or students have reported allergies or anxieties about pets.
Separation anxiety was the original reason Bessor started bringing Iggy, who is nearly blind, to Rebuilding Together several years ago — to ease his stress. It quickly became apparent that he wasn't the only one to benefit when he went to the office.
"He can tell if somebody's having a bad day," says Bessor. "He'll go up to their desk and ask them" for a pat. "He invokes a lot of sympathy and caring among people."
A new addition to the Rebuilding Together pet family is Loki, a Labrador retriever that project manager Jim Diel adopted through Lab Rescue. On a recent Friday morning, both dogs were in residence at the renovated church that houses the nonprofit in Govans.
"He usually lifts everybody's spirits," says Diel of his pup. "Generally, that's really good unless you're in crunch time and he finds a squeaky toy. Then it can be a little challenging."
In fact, an initial meeting between Iggy and Loki had some of the drama one would expect from an encounter between a mostly blind adult dog and an energetic pup.
But Bessor says she absolutely sees the benefits of having dogs in the office.
"People come into our office just to visit with them," she says. "Iggy is very social, and he loves saying hi to people and seeing what's going on. The only downside to him being social here instead of at home is that there's no couch where he can cuddle up with somebody here."