The Interior Department welcomed a new breed of visitor to its Washington headquarters on Friday, one on four legs, covered with fur and on a mission to boost morale at the agency in charge of public lands.
“We’ve become so polar on political issues,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Republican former congressman from Montana, acknowledged as his energetic Havanese, Ragnar, raced around his office sniffing both reporters and an English Lab named Daisy owned by acting deputy chief of staff Megan Bloomgren.
“This should not be a political issue,” Zinke said.
Zinke, who brings Ragnar to the office most days, hopes Friday’s pilot and another “Doggy Day” scheduled for September will catch on across the government and become a regular fixture at the Interior Department and its sprawling offices across the United States.
“I’m competitive,” Zinke said. “You may have heard the president is very competitive, too. We want to win.”
Zinke was referring to a race to be the first to have dogs in federal offices — a race he has won. President Trump, with no dog or other pet in the White House at the moment, could not compete in the “Doggy Days” sweepstakes. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is considering a similar policy, Zinke said proudly.
The Interior Department dogs — carefully vetted for vaccinations, behavioral problems and assurances that they were housebroken — spent the morning lying under their owners’ desks, sleeping, attending meetings (quietly) and walking along C Street NW when they needed to relieve themselves. They became new fixtures in the budget office, the office of congressional and legislative affairs, the cultural-resources office, legal offices and the inspector general’s quarters, too.
The dogs — on leashes and the small ones in arms — formed a line with their owners to enter Zinke’s carpeted suite, where the secretary shook hands and posed with them for the cameras. It was, for many employees, their first opportunity to meet the new secretary.
“This is pretty cool,” said Steve Farrell, an analyst in the budget office, after posing for a photo with his black Portuguese water dog, Annie. Lately, Farrell has been working long hours crunching numbers for Trump’s first budget, which proposed spending cuts of 12 percent at the Interior Department. “It’s been quite intense,” he said.
Tavish, a rust-colored Hungarian pointer standing patiently next to Annie, had already had a busy morning, standing by while her owner, museum curator Tracy Baetz, reviewed an introductory film under production for the Interior Department museum and accompanying her to pay the parking meter. Then, a nap.
Baetz said she was pleasantly surprised by how many fellow employees she spoke with for the first time because they brought their dogs to work.
Like Baetz, who drove in, many employees organized the day around their dogs, who can’t take Metro to the office. Caesar and Olive, two Yorkies owned by Carrie Soave from human resources, were getting ready to Uber home to NoMa with Soave’s husband after lunch.
The first pilot day was scheduled for a Friday when many people work from home, to allow employees who would rather not be around dogs to stay away. As with any federal function, an after-action report will be done on the dogs for lessons learned. “Doggy Days” will probably extend to Interior Department offices throughout the country, giving managers flexibility to decide when and whether to allow them.
Members of Congress have been bringing their dogs to the Capitol since the 19th century, but few other taxpayer-funded workplaces have allowed them. Private companies, on the other hand, are increasingly touting their dog-friendliness as an employee perk.
Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL, said his dog policy’s primary goal is to boost morale at the far-flung Interior Department, which comprises the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and six other departments. The agency ranked 11th in employee morale of the 18 largest federal agencies in last year’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey, with just 61 percent of its 70,000 employees saying they were happy in their jobs.
Several of the policies Zinke has pursued since taking office have rankled some of the more liberal career employees at his agency, including his support for reversing restrictions on oil and gas drilling in national parks and wildlife refuges, as well as a sweeping review of any national monument designated in the past 21 years that’s 100,000 acres or larger. Employees also are anxious about possible budget cuts and what they would mean for their jobs.
Asked whether “Doggy Days” are an antidote to these problems, Zinke said he wants his agency to be the “happy” department. Inattention by headquarters to the staff “on the front lines” is largely to blame for morale problems, he said, pledging to be “more attentive” to those employees. “Our front lines have gotten too thin,” Zinke said.
He also expressed confidence that despite impending budget cuts, employees can take heart that his department is working hard to increase revenue from oil and gas drilling that he said fell precipitously under the Obama administration. “Revenue — that helps morale, too,” Zinke said.
The celebration of “Doggy Days” against a backdrop of shifting environmental policies was not lost on critics of the new administration. Greenpeace, the environmental group, took the opportunity to poke fun at Zinke in a blog post, noting that he’s a dog lover “like most Americans.” It continued, “Unlike most Americans though, he’s also super into denying climate change, increasing carbon emissions, and selling off public lands to the oil and gas industry.”