The Evergreen Health services facility in Buffalo, N.Y., is buzzing with anticipation several days before Stella arrives. Some staff even seek out Matthew Sydor, the director of housing and retention services at the health care agency, days ahead of time to confirm her arrival. Others have requested a calendar invite from him so they can plan their day around her visit.
The middle-aged golden retriever is a certified therapy dog, and her visits are a hit with employees.
Therapy dogs are common in what Sydor describes as the "helping" fields. Bringing therapy dogs into any workplace, he says, is an opportunity to break up the day for employees and give them something to look forward to at no cost.
"At our agency we work with many people who have gone through traumatic experiences. All work is stressful, but layers of stress are added when you are helping others to process their own emotions and hardships," he explained. "The compounding stress makes it difficult to best serve our patients at a high level. Having a therapy dog in the building helps staff to participate in a self-care activity."
Stella's owner, Krista Vince Garland, Ph.D., is an associate professor of exceptional learning at Buffalo State College. The pair specializes in animal-assisted interventions in educational settings but are receiving an increasing number of requests to visit local workplaces.
"Everyone who visits Stella has the same comments: 'I feel so much better. She's brightened my day,' " Vince Garland said. "Aetna also did a study in 2017 that shows tremendous promise on the benefits of therapy dogs in the workplace. Employee sick days were down, morale was up and interactions among co-workers increased."
Having dogs in the workplace isn't a new concept, but it's a concept that hasn't been widely embraced. Only about 11 percent of companies in the United States allow pets in the office, according to the Society for Human Resource Management Employee Benefits 2019 survey.
Paul LeBlanc is the founder and CEO of Zogics, a Massachusetts-based fitness, cleaning and body care company. S'Bu, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, was LeBlanc's first employee.
"When you look at [Inc. magazine's] list of best places to work, 47 percent of those companies allow dogs in the office," he said. "Studies have shown that petting a dog for five to 10 minutes causes a reduction of blood pressure and the dogs have calming effects on people."
But not all employers are ready to go "all-in" like Zogics. For these workplaces, therapy dogs are a viable alternative. Sydor and Vince Garland share insight into what has made their partnership successful and offer tips any business can use.
Communicate. No one likes a surprise, even if it's a friendly four-legged canine. Talk with staff first to address any questions or concerns. Arrange a quick meet-and-greet to give the dog a chance to get used to the environment before interacting with employees.
"This also gives the administrator a chance to touch the dog and make sure it is clean and well-groomed. Therapy dogs are required to have a bath within 24 hours of any visit," Vince Garland said.
Distributing a fact sheet helps with the introduction of a therapy team. Once a visit is established, send a reminder a day prior.
"I suggest telling your staff why you're bringing therapy dogs in and advertise it as much as possible to employees," Sydor said.
Verify credentials. Ask about the team's training. Certifications are not required of service dogs and emotional support dogs. However, therapy dogs must complete training. Stella is an American Kennel Club (AKC) Good Citizen and has earned certifications through Therapy Dogs International and the SPCA Erie County Paws for Love.
"There's a lot of fake information out there. If someone is shy about sharing that information, that's a clue that more discussion is needed," Vince Garland said.
Sydor added, "We found Krista and Stella through Erie County SPCA's Paws for Love, and it has been a great partnership. They hold liability insurance for any damage that may occur. All dogs are well-trained, and the handlers are consistent with how they conduct their work."
Acknowledge cultural differences. "Care must be taken to respect cultural sensitivities," Vince Garland said. "Some cultures regard dogs as unclean, others view dogs as nuisances, while others believe spirits may appear as animals."
Designate a point of contact. This person handles scheduling visits, interacting with the team, and confirming vaccinations and liability insurance. The ideal individual works well with people and is animal-friendly, according to Vince Garland.
Create a space for the team. Not everyone will embrace dogs. Designating space separate from the main workflow respects the space of those employees who choose not to interact with the dog.
"Evergreen has given us a room for visits," Vince Garland said. "By being out of the flow, we're able to meet with staff who are interested without making others feel uncomfortable."
Katie Navarra is a freelance writer in New York state.