LIKE MANY NONPROFIT workers, Michelle Foncannon has had her share of disheartening days at the office. As a campaign assistant for the puppy mills project at the Humane Society of the United States, the 25-year-old is often faced with difficult animal cruelty cases. But rather than depending on happy hour beers to dull the disappointment, she counts on comfort from her cube mate. In her case, that means a furry hug from Maxwell, her 4-year-old cocker spaniel-poodle mix.

“With the nature of our work, it’s good to have a happy dog running around,” says Foncannon, who lives in Columbia, Md. “He’s such a bundle of happy energy — he boosts morale.” Though Max’s therapeutic role is a welcome perk, the pup isn’t at the office on official business. Rather, he’s just one of many four-legged friends who commute with their owners to the Humane Society’s headquarters each day.

The Humane Society may seem like an obvious workplace to welcome pets, but the Gaithersburg-based organization is just one in a pack of Fido-friendly employers across the Washington region.

According to a survey by the Connecticut-based American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, more than 50 million Americans think having pets in the workplace leads to a more creative, amiable environment and decreased absenteeism. The APPMA study also found 46 million people who bring their pets to the office work longer hours. “You get a more content, more focused workforce,” explains APPMA President Bob Vetere. “They’re not worried about getting home to let the dog out.”

At Zcomm in Bethesda, that added convenience led to an informal pet policy. The small marketing company organizes occasional all-office pet days and also participates in the annual Take Your Dog to Work Day, a national event sponsored by Pet Sitters International (set to take place June 25 this year). And if an employee needs to bring in his or her pet on another day for any reason, that’s allowed, too, provided he or she gets permission first. Both pet parents and their pet-less colleagues delight in the policy.

“Having dogs around lifts my mood,” says Paula Malozowski, 28, the manager of radio promotions at Zcomm. “I consider it a really nice perk — even though I don’t have a pet, I like working for a company that understands people are happier when pets are in the office.”

On dog days at Zcomm, you’ll find plenty of wagging tails, too. “Dogs and cats are social animals. For them, it’s kind of like going to Disneyland for a day,” Vetere says. When the initial thrill wears off, though (for, ahem, colleagues of both the two- and four-legged persuasions), the office settles down to business as usual. “Once they get into the routine of the day, they just hang out and mellow, curl up with different people and check the trash cans for food,” says Joan Carrese Sineni, 48, the executive vice president at Zcomm, who frequently brings her two Weimaraners to work.

After all, pets are creatures of habit just like their human counterparts. The Humane Society thinks establishing routines is an essential element of a successful pet policy, requiring a minimum commitment of three days a week for employees who wish to bring their dogs to work. They also implement doggie gates on cubicles and strict dog-free zones. “The dogs fade into the fabric,” says Jennifer Fearing, who led the pet initiative at the Humane Society three years ago and wrote a book on the process called “Dogs at Work: A Practical Guide to Creating Dog-Friendly Workplaces” ($22, Humane Society Press). “If you went to one of our offices, you would have no sense of how many dogs are there. You can’t hear them, and the people who work there are used to them being there. It’s a very calm environment. The goal is not to have a dog park.”

While dogs’ being neither seen nor heard might be ideal for an office setting, some workplaces that host dogs allow for an all-paws-on-deck approach. Personal trainer George Kassouf, 53, runs a fitness studio on the first level of his Shaw rowhouse. His assistants are Buddy, a 63-pound hound mix, and Logan, a 40-pound Labrador retriever mix. Though the pooches laze on their dog beds for the duration of most sessions, they offer encouragement, too, like the occasional face lick while clients stretch on the floor post-workout.

“One client told me, ‘The only reason I like training with you is your dogs,'” Kassouf laughs. “It makes the whole experience a little more personal. When dogs walk into a room, your blood pressure tends to lower — it has a calming effect on your system.”

That soothing power canine companions can provide is fundamental to the ministries at St. Columba’s Church in Tenleytown, where the staff counts four dogs among its ranks. Two pooches — a standard poodle and border collie — help out at St. Columba’s Nursery School.

“Having animals in a program like ours — with young children — teaches so much about how to read the emotions of other living creatures, including their friends, by watching their bodies and seeing how they express themselves non-verbally,” explains nursery director Julia Berry, 55, who says she recently looked out her office window to see a few kids had buried Stella, her border collie, shoulder-deep in the sandbox. Stella patiently sat still “like a sphinx.”

Indeed, a pet’s good-natured appeal can offer social capital, according to Fearing. She says co-workers’ chatting about pets often leads to new professional synergies that never would have been made without a cuddly icebreaker.

And at the end of the day, a pet’s loyalty and patience are contagious, no matter the venue. “Dogs really have a way to pick up on tension,” Fearing says. “In this era of layoffs and budgets, work can be stressful. Being able to reach down and pet your dog, or being able to be around dogs, has a tremendous calming, softening effect on the workplace.”

Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photo courtesy Regan Kireilis