The Office That Became a Circus of Barking Dogs

“Bring your pet to work” might seem like a great company perk. But it can tear workplaces apart.

Photo illustration of dogs. Lots of dogs. Dogs running, dogs barking, dog in an office chair, dogs with playful expressions. They're all good dogs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

Of all the perks employers offer to entice employees to stay at the office longer—free food and drinks, foosball tables, nap rooms, laundry service—there’s one that tends to provoke stronger emotions than all the rest: dogs at work.

Dog owners, for obvious reasons, love being able to bring their pooches to work with them. It is a perk to be able to easily walk your dog during the day and not worry about said dog getting hungry when you need to work late, as this person who wrote me explains:

I work at a company that tries to have a strong culture and provides some cool perks. I’m not really interested in most of these—things like unlimited vacation, free food, etc. The only one I care about is being able to bring my dog to work … This is a huge perk for me. I live alone, I commute about 40 minutes each way, and I’d hate to leave my dog alone for hours every day. I also really enjoy having her in the office.

Or this person:

I couldn’t have gotten a dog if I couldn’t bring her to work. (I’m gone 12 hours/day including commute and can’t afford dog-walking or day care every day.) She’s a total vegetable and just sleeps all day. She has a few beds around the office and visits them all during the day. Not really a distraction except that we all pet her from time to time, which is a huge stress reliever.

It is theoretically pretty awesome to have a beloved pet snoozing away under your desk while you crank out reports or soothe jittery clients.

But there are plenty of people who decidedly do not appreciate a canine presence in their workplaces. Sometimes that’s because their office doesn’t enforce sufficiently stringent rules about the dogs’ behavior, as with this person writing about a colleague’s disobedient puppy:

We have an open office plan, so I can’t avoid her. She barks, whines, plays with loud toys, steals food, chews other people’s personal belongings, and rummages through trash in ways that are incredibly distracting for much of the work day. Even worse are the days where the boss brings in his dog, which is about once a week. Then much of the day the office becomes a complete circus with both dogs barking and chasing each other and rough-housing.

How well it goes often seems to depend on how much energy the workplace is willing to put into monitoring dog behavior and kicking out unruly pups, as this person describes:

I worked in one dog-friendly office that worked well and one that did not. The one that worked, you had to get permission from your manager and the people sitting near you to bring your dog and have the office admin sign off on it. The admin was a complete hard-ass about dogs behaving, so if your dog made messes or was disruptive or bothered people or got bitey or was loud, you were told not to bring them back. And the admin was some kind of demigod so no one crossed her. Dogs had to be confined to your desk area somehow (crate, pen, leash tied to something, whatever) and were not allowed in conference rooms or common areas.

At the office where it did not work, people brought their dogs in if they felt like it and there were no rules. Several people had obnoxious dogs that were pushy and/or noisy and they let them run all over the office bothering people. If someone got annoyed they would call their dogs and the dogs ignored them. I actually didn’t bring my dog in because I couldn’t stop him being harassed by other people’s dogs. It sucked. If that had been my only experience with a dog-friendly office, I’d probably be blanket against them.

But even with all the right rules in place, some people can’t be around dogs because they’re allergic or afraid of them. One person who wrote to me who was wondering if she’d even be able to accept a job she really wanted:

I am going to have an-person interview with a company that would be a great fit for me, and me for them. When I did research on them, I found out that they have a work environment where dogs are brought in daily. I am allergic to dogs … I am worried about my health if I work there. If I talk to them about this, would they change their dog policy and sanitize their office? Would they pay for allergy shots? What if those didn’t work? Would they not hire me because of this? How would I even bring this up without affecting my chances?

Legally, if someone’s allergies are severe enough to be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the employer would be required to accommodate the person. Depending on the job, that could mean allowing the allergic employee to work remotely or, in large enough companies, having them work from a dog-free part of the building. But in other cases, the only practical option would be banning dogs from the office, and it can be tough to be seen as the person who caused others to lose a perk they loved. That happened to this person with severe allergies after she asked her employer for help:

HR bought me a HEPA air purifier for my desk and announced that dogs had to be washed regularly to cut down on dander. I’m not sure how they planned to enforce it, but one woman who is very well-liked announced that her dog had a skin condition that meant it couldn’t be washed often. HR told her that the dog couldn’t be in the office for “medical reasons,” and EVERYONE blamed me. People made comments to each other as I walked by about how I “discriminated” against a dog with a medical condition, how much I must hate dogs, how selfish I am. After a week, one person came into my cubicle where everyone could hear and demanded to know why I worked here when I clearly wasn’t a cultural fit.

That office sounds particularly awful, but it’s not an uncommon sentiment that if you can’t be around dogs, you shouldn’t take a job in a dog-friendly office. And it’s human to be upset that a perk you were promised when you took your job is being discontinued. But asking someone to self-select out of a job because of a medical condition that doesn’t interfere with their ability to do the work is … problematic at best (not to mention often prohibited under federal law).

The reality is, unlike other perks, bringing your dog to work can have a significant impact on other colleagues, and so it needs to be handled differently. If you take advantage of another perk—the company gym, say, or free soda in the kitchen—it’s not likely to cause much disruption to your co-workers’ day. But when bringing a dog to work means that some of your colleagues can’t breathe easily or are scared to walk by your office, the calculus has to change.

Companies would be doing everyone, including their dog-loving employees, a favor if they thought through those possibilities before saying yes to dogs at work, and made it clear that allowing dogs now doesn’t mean they’ll allow them forever. It’s easier to lose a perk if you were warned from the start that it was impermanent, and it would likely make it easier for the dog-averse to speak up when they need to.