If there’s a dog in the cubicle next to you, you’re hardly alone: About 7 percent of employers now allow pets in the workplace, reports NPR. Five years ago, that figure stood at 5 percent. That might not seem like a big jump, but once you remove jobs that don’t have offices from the equation—manufacturing and agriculture, for instance—that’s about a 50 percent increase. That rise is a victory for people who tout the benefits of inviting dogs and other furry friends into the office: It lowers the stress of employees, increases morale, produces tangible health benefits, and reduces turnover, all at no cost to the company.
But how do the dogs feel about it?
“Most people do not understand dog body language,” said E’Lise Christensen, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist in Colorado. One major concern she has with the rise of pet-friendly work environments is the corresponding increased risk for behavioral problems, especially dog bites. Since almost no one, not even many dog trainers, knows how to properly interpret dog body language, co-workers might interpret the panting of a dog in the office as a friendly smile, rather than a sign of nervousness. And in dogs, nervousness can lead to bites. “[People] can identify abject fear, and they can identify extreme aggression, but they cannot reliably identify things in between,” said Christensen. It’s in that wide middle area where we may not recognize pet discomfort.
Bonnie Beaver, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a professor at Texas A&M University, said in an email that dog bites are not the only behavioral issues that might present problems. Generally, dogs are expected to sit still in an office setting, which can be difficult for active dogs, leading to boredom (which, in turn, leads to problem behaviors like chewing up desk legs). These policies are also particularly hard on dogs if they’re taken to the office only occasionally, instead of regularly; dogs are big on routines, and uncertainty adds to their fear and stress.
Once you expand the conversation beyond our most domesticated companion, the prospects get even iffier. “Not all animals are comfortable with a very social setting,” said Christensen. Each new animal, like cats or pot-bellied pigs, brings its own social complexities, not to mention the possibility of contagious disease (it’s rare that employers require proof of vaccination). Rabies, ringworm, and parasitic infections like scabies are all potential health risks for humans that come into contact with pets that haven’t been properly vetted.
Of course there’s obvious appeal. Many people love dogs. They write whole articles gushing about a furrier workplace. (Dog skeptics, at least vocal ones, are harder to find.) When an employer is on board, the policy is often as informal as a person in charge saying, “Yeah, sure, whatever. Bring your dogs. It’ll be great.” Little or no oversight is applied to a matter that needs it in order to ensure the environment is conducive to pets in the workplace.
Christensen said companies should ideally hire an in-house behavioral expert to oversee at pet-at-work policy, especially in the initial stages, “but unless you’re Google, I don’t see that happening.” More realistically, she said, better awareness will go a long way. Employers should take care to craft a policy that works for dogs’ well-being as well as humans’. This can include requiring proof of vaccinations, as well as providing training for offices on dog behavior (which can be as basic as watching videos).
“It’s critical that people with dogs get special education, in at least body language, even if they think they know normal body language,” said Christensen. Given that most people can’t even tell the difference between a relaxed and anxious dog, this advice seems prudent. Before more offices throw open their doors to dogs willy-nilly and more pets start tagging along on the morning commute, we should learn how better to listen to them. They might be asking to stay at home.