In the minds of many pet owners, there’s not much difference in terms of love and loyalty between an animal companion and a two-legged member of one’s family. Millennials are the largest generation of pet owners today and the largest generation in the workforce, so some employers have been reaching out to them with pet-friendly policies: SHRM’s 2015 benefits survey last year that 8 percent of US organizations allowed employees to bring their pets to work, while 9 percent offered veterinary health insurance. Even pet bereavement leave is catching on at a smattering of employers, though this benefit is much less common.
Letting employees bring pets—in most cases, dogs—to work may bring some benefits in terms of morale and employee well being: According to a recent survey of employees and HR leaders by Banfield Pet Hospital, a pet-friendly workplace is widely perceived as a boon to morale and stress reduction, as well as an attractive perk that makes candidates more likely to consider an employer. So what’s not to like?
Well, veterinary student Matt Miller argues at Slate, what’s good for the pet owner isn’t necessarily good for the pet, and your typical dog isn’t comfortable in an office environment:
“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.