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Creature comfort: Dogs go to work at some LI companies

Flexible Business Systems, an IT consultancy in Hauppauge with almost 120 employees, wanted to create a fun working enviroment, so the company began allowing employees to sign up to bring their dogs in on Mondays. Though typically only one dog is allowed on Mondays, the canines help alter the mood at work and bring a smile to everyone's face, says company co-founder Seth Belous. (Jan. 30, 2017) Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger

Long Island businesses are going to the dogs.

Companies and nonprofits, ranging in size from two employees to hundreds, are allowing workers to bring their dogs to work, sometimes as a perquisite, sometimes as an expression of institutional culture and often as a reflection of dog-loving top executives.

The employers range from Flexible Business Systems, an IT consultancy in Hauppauge with almost 120 employees, to North Shore Animal League America, a Port Washington nonprofit pet shelter with about 300 employees, to Impish Lee, a lingerie manufacturer in Sea Cliff, where the dogs of the two co-founders help to release tensions that arise in the creative process.

Data are scarce on how many companies welcome dogs, estimated to number 77.8 million in the United States in a 2015-2016 survey by the American Pet Products Association. But pet-friendly policies of high-profile companies such as Alphabet Inc., the parent of Google, and events like Take Your Dog to Work Day (June 23 this year) are nudging forward acceptance of dogs in the workplace.

A 2016 survey of almost 3,500 human resources professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 7 percent of employers nationwide allowed pets, up from 6 percent in 2011.

Humans’ bond with dogs runs thousands of years. One study published in Nature Communications, a scholarly research journal, suggests that dogs indigenous to China may have been domesticated as long as 32,000 years ago.

Other studies have pointed to psychological and physiological benefits humans derive from contact with dogs, including lower stress levels and increased levels of oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in bonding and is sometimes known as the “love hormone.” One study found that when a dog gazed at its owner, oxytocin levels rose in both dog and owner.

Those kinds of benefits can transfer to the workplace in the form of reduced stress, increased collaboration and more job satisfaction, said Janet Lenaghan, vice dean of Hofstra University’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business and a management professor who specializes in human resources.

Pet-friendly policies are on “an upward trend,” Lenaghan said, but employers have to weigh the costs against the benefits.

“You need a policy,” Lenaghan said. “You need to talk to your insurance folks. You need to talk to your lawyer. You [might] have someone highly allergic. You have phobias. You have basic sanitation issues. These are factors that have to be addressed in advance.”

At Impish Lee, sisters Kali Taylor Ventresca and Noelle Lee Ventresca field orders placed online for their custom-made lingerie. The business was launched with about $15,000 raised in a 2015 Kickstarter campaign. Their space in a squat brick building converted from industrial use is filled with dress forms, sewing machines, patterns, rolls of fabric and a cutting machine. Scrawled on a white board: “I (heart) my hips.”

Also on premises are Kali’s schnauzer poodle mix, Roxanne, and Noelle’s Wheaten terrier, Hutch (she also used to have a rabbit named Starsky). The dogs help the sisters deal with stress.

Kali said she and Noelle are close, but “sometimes there are disagreements and there’s no third party to resolve them, and Roxanne and Hutch help resolve the tension.”

The dogs come to work nine days out of 10, said Noelle. “It’s only when we have a meeting and we’re not sure [the visitors are] comfortable with dogs that they stay at home for the day.”

A side benefit: The dogs’ barking announces visitors.

North Shore Animal League, whose supporters have included Billy Joel, Beth Stern (wife of Howard Stern) and members of the New York Islanders, lets staffers bring their pets to work on a case-by-case basis.

At any given time there might be 10 to 15 dogs or cats in offices around the campus, said Sylvia Ottaka, senior director of operations. Some might be pets, and others might be shelter pets judged to find the cages in the adoption area too stressful.

Staff members who bring their pets to work must ensure they are friendly and current in their vaccinations, she said.

In the pets-at-work hierarchy, dogs are the dominant species, local companies say. Still, a few institutions, like North Shore, also allow cats.

At Canine Companions for Independence, dogs are both pets and workers. The Medford branch of a 41-year-old national nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, California, trains Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and mixes of the two as assistance dogs for children, adults and veterans with disabilities (other than blindness) including deafness and spina bifida, among others. The organization also places service dogs used to help children who are victims of sexual abuse get through forensic interviews.

Program director Ellen Torop said the Medford unit places about 50 to 60 dogs a year. Each dog’s birth-to-death training and follow-up care, for which the nonprofit pays, costs about $50,000.

More than two-thirds of the 24 members of the full- and part-time staff, who work in offices and cubicles, bring their own dogs to work, she said. “We have dogs everywhere.”

The dog-heavy institution also keeps two communal rescued cats in the facility.

Torop said they appeal to the “cat people” in the office and serve as a test of the service dogs’ ability to focus on their tasks.

To qualify for the pet-at-work program, each dog has to be free of parasites, have up-to-date vaccinations and pass a “good citizenship test.” Dogs are disqualified if they are disruptive or jump up to greet people.

If the dogs pass muster, Torop said, “it’s fabulous. There’s no doubt that having dogs around brings people together. It’s great for morale. It’s a great conversation starter.”

At Flexible Business Systems co-founder Seth Belous takes a pragmatic approach to allowing his 116 employees bring in pets. To avoid a canine overload, the 33-year-old company lets employees sign up to bring their dog in on Mondays, when typically there’s only one dog at work. “We don’t want to have a whole bunch of pets here at the same time,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a pain in the neck. You’ve got to walk them. You’ve got to feed them.”

Still, Belous said that the dogs do alter the mood. “People are very proud of their dogs, and it brings a smile to everyone’s face. It’s like meeting someone’s kid.”

John Cunningham, president and chief executive of Vehicle Tracking Solutions in Commack, a provider of hardware and software for fleet management, used to take his dog (now deceased) to work after founding the company 15 years ago.

“It just became part of my culture,” he said.

The company has more than 50 employees with about 40 in the office at any one time.

Cunningham said that five or six employees have exercised their right to bring in a dog, though typically no more than two dogs are in the office at a time.

“There’s no posted schedule. If someone is working a long day, they’ll bring their animal,” he said. “We love seeing chew toys in our place.”

Austin & Williams, a Hauppauge branding, public relations and advertising agency, started letting workers bring their pets about a decade ago and hasn’t looked back, said president Eva LaMere.

The policy’s genesis came when LaMere and chief executive Rick Chiorando began bringing in their own pets.

“We’re both big dog lovers,” LaMere said. “We would bring them in when we were working late hours.”

“On average, we might have five dogs here on a regular basis,” she said. The agency’s 50 employees walk and clean up after their pets.

An employee’s request about three years ago initiated a dog-friendly policy at Melville advertising agency, The EGC Group, said chief executive and founder Ernie Canadeo. Typically the company has two dogs on site, two days a month. “It adds to a community spirit.”

To avoid triggering one worker’s allergies, “we just kept the dogs away from him,” Canadeo said.

Cerini & Associates hosts events at its Bohemia accounting offices for animal welfare nonprofit Bideawee, which has administrative offices in Wantagh. If an employee connects with a dog or cat, Bideawee initiates the adoption process.

Donaldson’s Inc., a Volkswagen and Subaru dealer with 65 employees in Sayville, also works with Bideawee and lets employees bring in their dogs in a pinch, such as when a dog is ill or no one is home to care for it, said Steven Fulco, general manager of sales operations.

For those companies that do elect to pursue a pet-friendly policy, Lenaghan said, it’s not one size fits all.

“Some say: ‘We want to be like Google,’ ” she said, “but it may not fit your company. A lot has to be tailored to your culture.”

What to consider before allowing pets in the office

Here are some points to consider if your workplace is thinking about allowing employees to bring dogs or other pets.

  • Real estate: If you lease, check if your landlord allows animals.
  • Phobias: Are any employees fearful of pets?
  • Allergies: Are any employees allergic to pets?
  • Floor plan: Use baby gates and other barriers to restrict pets.
  • Flooring: How will it stand up to an accident?
  • Elevators, stairwells and lobbies: Other tenants may not want to encounter pets.
  • Liability: Check with your insurer/attorney.
  • Vaccines: Require that pets be current and free of parasites.
  • Tags: Color-coded tags reflecting a pet’s temperament can avert confrontations.
  • Tethering: Dogs can be tied to hooks attached to desks.
  • Walking: Is there a suitable place nearby to walk dogs and dispose of waste?

Source: Dani Kahn, pet director at Seattle pet medical insurance provider Trupanion, whose 435 employees regularly bring about 300 dogs and cats to work.

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