Staff dogs in the veterinary practice – yes, no, maybe? - Veterinary Practice
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Staff dogs in the veterinary practice – yes, no, maybe?

The benefits of staff dogs in the workplace have been well documented, but what about the other side of the coin – what are the challenges and welfare impacts of bringing your dog to work?

The notion of taking our pet dog to work is attractive, and it is estimated that 20 percent of UK office workers do so (The Canine Times, 2022). In fact, the RSPCA encourages employers to allow dogs at work to improve the opportunities to rehome dogs with working people and the welfare of dogs who are left significantly longer than the charity’s recommendation of four hours at a time.

In 2022, the Dogs Trust launched its Dog Friendly Workplaces programme to help employers consider ways to allow dogs in offices. It also aims to help owners prepare their dogs for the workplace or to be relaxed when home alone. There is also an annual “Bring Your Dog to Work Day” fundraising for UK animal charities, though there is no data on the challenges that may arise from this one-day outing to the workplace.

One might wonder what these “challenges” are. After all, assistance dogs have legal dispensation giving them (and their owners) access to places where pet dogs cannot go, so why not allow pet dogs at work? This article explores some areas of potential concern for people, pet dogs and organisations (Cunha et al., 2019) relating to welfare and well-being, employee relations and legal and cultural sensitivities (Foreman et al., 2017).

What are the challenges of bringing your dog to work?

Owner-perceived benefits of having their dogs at work include reduced stress, creating a friendly atmosphere and more frequent breaks to take one’s dog out or for other interactions with it. Other staff may also gain some of these benefits, but not everyone does (Hall et al., 2017) – some may suffer degrees of allergy (Allergy UK, 2021). Others may be anxious around dogs in general or due to particular characteristics, eg size, colour or bounciness (Doogan and Thomas, 1992; Boyd et al., 2004).

Dogs can be a distraction, even an irritation, due to the increased chatter as colleagues interact with the dog or the noise when dogs wander around, play or even sleep

Dogs can be a distraction, even an irritation, due to the increased chatter as colleagues interact with the dog or the noise when dogs wander around, play or even sleep. What might be the peaceful snoring of a brachycephalic dog to one may be an irritation to another, and the effect of canine flatulence is dependent on whether you are up- or downwind!

What should I consider when deciding whether to bring my dog to work?

The evidence

Research into dogs in the workplace is limited in quality and amount. It is dominated by small-scale, self-report studies that rarely consider the benefits and drawbacks for staff, animals and organisations and how this is perceived by the organisation’s users and clients (Perrine and Wells, 2006; Foreman et al., 2017). Further, it does not reach across different work environments – offices are not the same as shops, beauty parlours, factories or building sites.

The environment

This brings us to the veterinary practice: deciding whether to have dogs in your practice and how this would be managed requires consideration of the pros and cons for all involved. Stakeholders include the staff members bringing their dogs to work, other staff and clients, not to mention the animals themselves – an individual dog coming to work with its owner, dogs coming with other staff members and your patients, whether canine or other species.

The veterinary practice is a complex, busy, hybrid environment which comprises spaces used for very different purposes: offices, staff rooms, waiting rooms, clinic rooms, operating theatres, dispensaries, kennels, catteries and exercise areas. In many practices, these spaces are closely co-located and connected by quite narrow corridors, with various corners and doors along the way. Extra “staff members” of the four-footed variety may provide physical challenges and increased risks, such as trip hazards as they lie in a doorway or move across your path as they play while you navigate.

The animals

So, on to the dogs themselves – how does bringing your dog to work impact the animals you encounter on a daily basis? (Please note that this article focuses on behaviour and does not address physical issues, such as transmissible diseases from patients.)

Let us consider the differences between a pet and an assistance dog. Ideally, assistance dogs are “reared for the job”. They are bred for robust physical and mental health that is enhanced by extensive socialisation, training and a high requirement for reliable obedience, together with lifetime welfare monitoring (Bremhorst et al., 2018). All this means they should be able to cope and thrive when exposed to a range of experiences and contexts.

The same cannot be said for a significant number of pet dogs who may have inherited conditions that contribute to anxiety or reactivity, including low-level pain that can interrupt sleep patterns. Many pet dogs do not receive sufficient or appropriate socialisation or training (McBride and Hinde-Megarity, 2022): a situation evidently exacerbated for dogs growing up during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a rise in numbers that are more anxious and potentially aggressive around unfamiliar things and unknown people or dogs (Hargrave, 2020; Sacchettino et al., 2023).

Other questions you need to consider when deciding how to bring pet dogs to work include:

  • Are the dogs in question suitable/properly socialised?
  • How many dogs can come to the practice on any given day?
  • Are all the dogs relaxed in the presence of each other, or do some need to be separated?
  • How will this be managed alongside working out a normal staff rota?
  • Who will be responsible if the dog needs a toilet break but the owner is in surgery or when the rest of the staff are also involved in tasks that cannot be dropped at short notice?
  • What does each dog require during the day, and can you provide for all their needs, whether physical, such as food, toys, blankets and leads, or emotional?
  • Who decides which dogs can come into the practice and how everything works?

Which dogs are suitable to bring to work?

Not every dog will be suitable to bring to work. Allowing some and not others may cause tension between staff and/or feelings of disappointment, frustration and lowered self-esteem for those whose dogs are excluded. So, how do you manage this, and what criteria need to be considered when assessing a dog’s suitability?

Socialisation, early experiences and training history are crucial in determining whether a dog is suitable to bring to work (Harris, 2023; Mackie and Patel, 2022) as these factors influence the individual’s temperament and can lead to possible trigger stimuli (McBride and Hinde-Megarity, 2022). A rescue dog’s history is likely to be incomplete, and if recently obtained, little may be known of its character.

Socialisation, early experiences and training history are crucial in determining whether a dog is suitable to bring to work as these factors influence the individual’s temperament and can lead to possible trigger stimuli

How well will the dog cope with stimuli common in the veterinary practice, such as patients barking in the waiting room or howling in the kennels, a meowing cat or the smell of a rabbit? Will it be relaxed and quiet when alone while the owner helps in surgery, attends to in-patients or goes to the loo (Hewitt-Watts, 2023; Taylor, 2023)? Are the dogs to be confined to the office or staff room, or allowed in the waiting room to lie behind the reception desk? If the latter, what happens if they are seen or heard? Will their presence affect patients that may be more or less friendly, anxious or reactive to other dogs; what about patients of other species? There may be a knock-on effect on a patient’s sensitisation level and behaviour, with implications for staff safety (McBride and Hinde-Megarity, 2022).

Thinking about the individual dog, is being at the practice really what it would choose to do, or is it more stressful than being at home? Let us just consider one factor: sleep. We know sleep is important to health (Ryan, 2022) for dogs of all ages (Kinsman et al., 2020). Adult dogs will snooze for a third of the day in addition to their night-time sleep and interrupted or lack of sleep can result in physical and behavioural issues. Ultimately, dogs that sleep undisturbed during the day are more relaxed (Owczarczak-Garstecka and Burman, 2016).

We may be able to pop on the headphones, lose ourselves in a computer task or operation and thus block out the general activity of the veterinary practice. Dogs, however, have far more acute senses and are not doing anything particularly engaging to take their minds off their surroundings while waiting to go home. Their rest may well be disturbed by hearing other animals and the smells of disinfectant and anaesthetics, let alone the stress pheromones emitted by your patients.

Final thoughts

So, while having our dogs in a practice may be great for us, it may not quite be the case for them. Their welfare would need to be monitored for signs of short- and long-term stress over the weeks and years we bring them into work (McBride and Hinde-Megarity, 2022).

While having our dogs in a practice may be great for us, it may not quite be the case for them. Their welfare would need to be monitored for signs of short- and long-term stress

We tend to overlook this possibility because we assume our dogs want to be with us. In fact, they just tolerate (rather than enjoy) accompanying us to places they find uninteresting or unrelaxing, and at times that do not fit their natural and preferred daily activity rhythm (Griss et al., 2021).

An alternative way to increase the well-being of staff and their pets is to consider ideas for flexible and hybrid practice management (Barton, 2023; Lord and Veterinary Practice, 2023).

What are the alternatives?

It may be that we can better serve our dogs by providing them with the wherewithal to be relaxed when left at home. As Griss et al. (2021) found (and as owners can testify), dogs are active in the morning, late afternoon and early evening. The rest of the time is usually devoted to snoozing, napping or sleeping deeply.

So, better welfare may be taking the time to provide that good walk/play session before leaving for work and ensuring they have some brain games (toys, puzzle feeder) to provide entertainment (Smith and Tessyman, 2022) and spaces for uninterrupted rest while we are at work. Dog flaps or a pop home during your lunch break can accommodate toilet needs.

This way, regardless of age (McBride, 2019), our dogs will be ready to take us on the exciting canine adventure that every walk should be – full of engaging sights, smells, games and interaction with their owner, who is surely not too tired after a day at work!

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