"My work feels like home": a post dog study


"World Animal Day today; Just in case for those who leave home for work: stroke your dog again," said radio voice Xavier Taveirne at around 8.58am on 4 October 2019 - long before there was even any talk of COVID. Perhaps Xavier, like many others, did not know that more and more people simply take their dogs with them to work. Even more, every year on the first Friday after Father’s day, it is international "Take Your Dog to Work Day". Although this may initially seem like a strange idea to some, it is not a surprising one. After all, in 1/5th to 1/3rd of households, a dog is part of the family. Moreover, since the rise of COVID and the accompanying lockdown restrictions, there has been a worldwide explosion in companion animal adoptions. As we are more likely to be at home and less able to fall back on distractions such as holidays, many experience a positive feeling when in contact with animals who, living in the moment, are straightforward and kind and often bring us back to the "essence". They distract from omnipresent screens and are the antidote to digital fatigue. Biologist Edward Wilson's "biophilia" hypothesis - or how we as humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with our living environment - permeates our daily lives. Knowing that roughly half to three-quarters of people between the ages of 20 and 64 are employed, taking a dog to work can be a godsend for owner and dog alike.

On the one hand, organisations are hoping to improve the work-life balance of employees with dogs:  millennials surpass baby boomers as the largest dog owning generation ever since and will make up for no less than 75% of the workforce by 2025. We know that they highly value work-life balance and flexibility when it comes to work benefits. Organisations need to respond to this reality if they are to maintain a competitive advantage in the increasingly raging "war of talent". On the other hand, research shows that dogs at work can significantly improve the organisational climate, working atmosphere and even cooperation between team members - even for non-dog owners.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, already noticed these effects in his therapy sessions, where his dog Jofi was always present. Beneficial effects usually occur through an increase in positive emotion or the emergence of spontaneous situations and the associated connection and psychological safety - the strongest predictors of job performance (!). By allowing dogs at work, organisations can also "brand" themselves and thus not only retain current talent but also attract external talent. Successful big-tech giants such as Google, Uber and Amazon have long since convinced: their dog-friendly headquarters have become a fixture in the organisational landscape.

But there is a flip side to the coin. Negative reactions from colleagues or the work environment can neutralise potentially beneficial effects. It is therefore extremely important to also listen to colleagues with concerns (e.g. fears, allergies or simply not wanting to have animals around) and to properly assess the conditions for either beneficial or adverse effects. Only by taking a risk-based approach can the potential of these new working practices be properly and honestly assessed. Psychological safety and the right not to be disturbed should be there for all concerned: dog owners, their colleagues and, last but not least, their dog.

This trend can improve dog wellbeing by reducing the time dogs have to spend alone during working hours. However, benefits for the dog depend on (personality) traits of the dog or on the situation (such as the ability of the dog to predict whether he can come along or has to stay at home); not every dog is comfortable in the workplace. When dog-at-work practices become more common, cooperation between informed owners, dog behaviourists and employers is a must. From a "one welfare" perspective, we know that the wellbeing of the dog, the owner and the environment affect each other - also negatively! Instead of taking dogs to work, we can therefore also look at the impact of dogs in the home-workplace. If there is one thing that research about telework has taught us, it is the disadvantages of too little physical exercise and the loss of social connection. And these are precisely the aspects that we know from anthrozoology (i.e. the study of human-animal interaction) that dogs counteract. But there again, it is important to dare to look at whether, when and why dogs are more likely to act as "disturbance" during telework.

We are only at the beginning of this more than ever timely research about the intersection between companion animals and the new world of (tele)work. There is therefore no better timing to try to answer fundamental questions about effect mechanisms (how exactly do dogs influence workers?) and determining factors (when and for whom do they do so?). Thanks to funding from the FWO, we will be doing this in the coming years. Within a cooperation between KU Leuven and Ghent University, we will study this phenomenon via longitudinal survey research and smart wearables (smartwatches and smartcollars), both at home and at work. Because if we want to truly optimise new work environments, the solution might just lie right at our feet. 

Dr. Joni Delanoeije (KU Leuven), joni.delanoeije@kuleuven.be

In collaboration with prof. dr. Marijke Verbruggen (Work and Organisation Studies, KU Leuven), prof. dr. Christel Moons (Ethology and Animal Welfare Research Group, Ghent University) and prof. dr. Geert Van Hootegem (HIVA-KU Leuven)








Are you interested in this research and fascinated by human-animal interaction, (tele)work and/or smart wearables? Come work with us! We have an open PhD vacancy at Work and Organisation Studies (KU Leuven) for this longitudinal project. Start of the position is in October (discussable) and application is possible until (including) 27 July. Depending on the expertise of the candidate, it is possible (thus, not obligatory) to work with smart wearables (synchronization of smartwatches and smartcollars) and its analysis. Candidates who will graduate in June are encouraged to apply. All information can be found at https://www.kuleuven.be/personeel/jobsite/jobs/60036766. The vacancy is only in Dutch since the data collection and communication takes place in Dutch.