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Utah Business

Pet Project: How Local Companies Are Building Pet-Friendly Cultures

Friendly, loyal, cuddly—there’s a reason dogs are called “man’s best friend.” For many, the hardest part of owning a dog is having to leave it home or at a doggy day care during the workday. But a growing number of companies are adopting a pet-friendly policy as a recruitment tool and way to boost their company culture for dog owners.

 Part of the Company DNA

When Thomas Stockham founded ExpertVoice in 2010, he did so with his Japanese Water Dog, Blue, in mind, says McKay Orton, community manager and social media strategist at ExpertVoice. “From Day One, it was just like, ‘I’m going to bring my dog’,” she says. “It’s very important to him. He set the standard.”

Eight years later, being a pet-friendly workplace is coded deeply into the company’s DNA. Most pets are dogs, Orton says, although one former employee would bring in a cage of domesticated rats to sit on her desk. Four-legged visitors at ExpertVoice have to be well behaved and keep out of the kitchen and off of furniture, but other concerns are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

“As long as the pets aren’t bothering other people, I think anything is fair game. I think we just play it until somebody complains, and then we address it,” says Orton, noting that the company has not had issues with aggressive or obnoxious dogs. “It’s the owners who take care of their dog. There are a lot of dog owners who say, ‘I wish I could bring my dog to work but he’s not well behaved.’”

That self-awareness on the part of owners has gone a long way to helping create a harmonious environment. Some dogs follow their owners everywhere, while others take hours-long naps under their owners’ desks. For those dogs who wouldn’t do well in meeting settings—or whose owners are going to meetings with people less crazy about having furry attendees—nearby coworkers are often happy to “babysit” for the duration. Orton says the inclusion of pets creates another level on which employees connect and form relationships, strengthening the culture.

So far, she says, the company has had no problems with people suffering from severe allergies or an aversion to the animals. The pet-friendly policy is no secret—it’s touted in recruitment materials and prospective employees are given tours of the office upon being interviewed—and the company does make an effort to accommodate those who aren’t as fond of animals and their neighboring businesses in their Salt Lake City headquarters.

“It’s one of the things we’ll mention with recruiting. Also, too, if I don’t want to interact with a dog, I don’t have to. They might be on the other end of the meeting room so I don’t have to deal with them. If someone wanted to switch desks to get away from a dog, we would definitely facilitate that. There have been people who have asked if we can not have the dogs on the conference room chairs, so we’ll address those issues,” Orton says.

 Revising a Policy

Qualtrics has been dog-friendly since 2011, when one of the founders adopted a dog named Barnaby and didn’t want to have to leave it home, says Rachel Husberg, accounts receivable manager at Qualtrics. For the almost seven years, the policy was simple: pets had to be housetrained, be up-to-date on their vaccinations, and get along with Barnaby.

At the time the policy started, the company was small. Of the small staff, only a few owned dogs, and even fewer brought them. But the company has had massive growth since then, Husberg says, and some employees saw the pet-friendly policy as a reason to go out and get a dog of their own. Dogs were beginning to roam around the open workspaces and communal gardens, employees were starting to become lax in their self-assessment of their pets’ suitability for the workplace, and it was generally getting out of hand, she says.

An incident around the new year with one of the dogs was the straw to break the proverbial camel’s back. “The incident was enough that we asked if we should ban dogs all together, but we decided as a company that we could try one more time to have better etiquette in the office,” she says.

An eight-person committee, which included Husberg, representatives from legal and benefits, and a collection of dog owners and non-owners alike, began crafting a new policy. The dog owners on the committee owned animals of different breeds, sizes and ages to address a wide range of concerns and needs, and the non-owners made sure the policy was fair for those who may not want to interact with the animals. The new policy was unveiled at the beginning of May.

“There were some areas in which dog owners and non-dog owners didn’t agree; there were some areas where two different dog owners didn’t agree, so it was a good mix of people. I feel like what we arrived at was something everyone could commit to,” says Husberg, who herself is a non-owner who prefers to avoid dogs. “For people whose dogs are bad, they’ll think [the policy] is super strict, and for the good dog owners, it’s like ‘I was doing that already.’ We wanted to make sure the humans working here didn’t have their rights taken away.”

The new policy requires dogs—no other animals are allowed—to be at least nine months old, fully vaccinated and leashed at all times, with the exception of one off-leash area on the company’s grounds. Dogs must also be registered with the company and wear a red tag proving such. Communal water bowls are situated in designated areas and cleaned and filled regularly, and no food is allowed. In addition, crates, beds or other pet furniture must be “of a reasonable size” and placed on employees’ chairs every night, says Husberg. Anonymous surveys are sent to dog owners’ neighbors, teams and managers, and concerns about allergies or the dog’s temperament are addressed on a case-by-case basis. Anonymous complaints can also be filed on dogs seen breaking any of the rules, which are addressed by the committee. There are no restrictions on breeds and no set number of infractions before a dog is automatically banned. ADA-certified service dogs—not emotional support animals—are exempt from the rules.

“We’re not going to let someone have the benefit of bringing a dog that makes you so you literally can’t work because you’re allergic to that dog or you’re really scared or you don’t want to be bugged by it,” says Husberg, noting that the results of one recent survey resulted in the manager rearranging seating within the department. “Again, it’s a benefit, not an entitlement. That’s another thing to make sure the human people aren’t un-benefitted by someone else bringing their dog.”

Despite the recent problems, Husberg says, the company does still see value in being pet-friendly for its culture and recruitment. “It is a great pitch when you’re recruiting for people, especially because a lot of people in Utah like doing things outdoors so there’s a good chance you have a dog you do things with. If someone’s coming in from out of state, that’s a good thing to tell them. Obviously, people have owned pets and figured out what to do with them [during the day], but it’s been a good recruiting tool,” she says.

And while the success of the new policy remains to be seen, Husberg says she’s hopeful it will make for a more positive atmosphere for dogs, their owners and those who have to work with them alike.

“I have seen more people making sure more dogs are on the leash. I know which owners I saw frequently having their dogs off leash inside, and I haven’t seen a single off-leash dog since,” she says. “I think we’ll be able to see more when the weather starts getting warmer. I think that’s going to make the real difference, is if it works I’ll be able to sit somewhere else, with the dogs over there, and not even know there are dogs around.”

 Know Thy Dog

Dr. Pam Nichols, veterinarian at Animal Care Center and entrepreneur at Utah Dog Park, has a wealth of experience with pet-friendly workplaces, both as the owner of one and the doctor attending to the pets that might go to work with their owners. Her number-one tip for making the arrangement benefit both Fido and the person holding the leash is simple:

“The most important thing that I tell people is not every dog will be happy going to work with you. If you’re going to do it, do it from the time they’re little,” Nichols says.

Dogs who tend to be anxious will need more training and acclimation to the potentially bustling office environment than more affable pooches, whereas very friendly, energetic dogs will need to be taught to be quiet and still at the office.

“When I’m leaving my desk, my dog is tied up to my chair, not that she’d go anywhere—she’s been doing this this since she was 4 months old. But when I tie her to everything, she knows that’s where she’s supposed to stay and that’s where she needs to chill. If you have a dog who has problems—say, barks in a crate—you have to teach them not to do that,” she says.

One misconception many owners have is the amount of space a dog needs to be comfortable. A cushion, mat or crate are generally adequate accommodations for pets, says Nichols, and in some situations, fitting some kind of barrier such as a baby gate under a desk can provide a small, quiet space for them to stay. Creating a barrier between the dog and the office can also help those animals who tend to react to people passing by or nearby pets.

“You just have to know your dog. If your dog is reactive, get [an opaque] gate, or put a blanket over it so they don’t have to see everyone who walks by,” she says. “Some dogs are very friendly and love the people going back and forth, but you have to know your dog.”

Second to owners being familiar and honest about their dogs’ temperaments and needs is being mindful and considerate of those around them. “Sometimes they’re not suited to go into an office unless they’re habituated early on, and I truly believe if you habituate a dog to anything, it can be OK. You have to be mindful of your dog’s behavior and you have to be respectful of others.”

Companies should put a lot of consideration into their specific work environments, as well. Due to her working environment—and the number of animals coming and going inherent in her line of work—Nichols’ pet-friendly workplace includes a sign-up sheet for owners to take turns, so the number of visiting pets is kept at a limit. The sign-up sheet also ensures that specific dogs who do less well around each other are kept separate. “If everybody brought their dog to work and let them run loose, it would be chaos,” she says.

For owners unsure of their dogs’ suitability for the office—or with dogs whose quirks go beyond the reach of typical training—Nichols suggests a good conversation with the dog’s veterinarian. “Know that a dog that is typically anxious is still going to be anxious at work unless you put them through training,” or medication, she says. “If you have a problem, if your dog is whining excessively or crying or barking or naughty around other dogs, call your vet. They can help you. They can say, ‘Have you tried X, Y or Z,’ and you can fix that. We’re all about making your life great with your dog. If taking your dog is to work is best for you, we’ll help you figure it out.”