December 10, 2019

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Opinion

Ruff days at the office

Free Press project brings dogs into the newsroom while owners go hounding for stories

The Winnipeg Free Press is going to the dogs — and I mean that literally.

The newspaper is experimenting with a month-long project we’re calling "Newsroom Dogs," wherein editorial department employees are allowed to bring their canine companions to the office.

As a crusading columnist and responsible dog owner, I’ll be chronicling the results of this experiment weekly as we explore a trend in which a growing number of companies are waking up to the benefits of allowing dogs at work.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Oliver, a dog owned by graphic artist Leesa Dahl, at the Free Press office.</p></p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Oliver, a dog owned by graphic artist Leesa Dahl, at the Free Press office.

"I just thought of this as a cool, original idea that would be interesting for our readers," Free Press editor Paul Samyn told me as he unveiled the idea. "I hope this pet project will not only lead to content readers appreciate, but also gives our growing audience a look at our newsroom that allows them to have a better sense of our personality, via our pets."

For the record, we are not turning the newspaper into a doggy daycare. So far, about 15 employees in the editorial department have signed up on a schedule designed to ensure there is only one dog — at most two — scampering around the newsroom on a given day.

The idea is to find out for ourselves whether — as a number of recent scientific studies have already shown — dogs have a positive impact on the work environment, reducing stress and improving productivity.

Think we’re barking mad? The truth is, the Free Press is far from the first large-scale organization to test the value of going to the dogs.

Last week, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the start of "Doggy Days at Interior," a program that will allow employees at his agency’s Washington headquarters to bring their dogs to the office on two Fridays in May and September.

Not only will the new policy make Interior the first U.S. federal agency to go dog-friendly, it will mark Zinke as the Trump administration’s most visible animal fan. In contrast, President Donald Trump is currently the first U.S. president in 150 years without a companion animal in the White House.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Dahl’s dog Oliver joins Winnipeg Free Press editor Paul Samyn (left) with city editor Shane Minkin (centre) and night editor Chad Scarsbrook during a handover meeting.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dahl’s dog Oliver joins Winnipeg Free Press editor Paul Samyn (left) with city editor Shane Minkin (centre) and night editor Chad Scarsbrook during a handover meeting.

In a survey conducted last year by Banfield Pet Hospital, the largest chain of veterinary clinics in the U.S., the vast majority of employees and human-resources managers at pet-friendly firms said office dogs improve morale, lower stress and decrease guilt about leaving pets at home.

A pack of scientific studies has howled about the benefits of canine colleagues in the workplace. A study at Central Michigan University, for instance, found team members of groups with dogs rated each other more highly on measures of intimacy, team cohesion and trust than members of groups without dogs.

"First, dogs lower stress, heart rate and blood pressure, and make individuals who work alone feel less lonely," Stephen Colarelli, a psychologist at Central Michigan, told the British newspaper the Guardian. "Second, people are perceived as more friendly and approachable when a dog is present in the office. Finally, it’s likely to increase co-operation and other positive behaviours among members of work groups."

The rules for dipping Free Press paws into the newsroom are simple: Employees are responsible for the safety and behaviour of their own pets, and have to bring along all the necessary supplies to make their animals comfortable — everything from dog beds, leashes, chew toys, water dishes and treats to cleaning supplies for wiping up spills.

Our office-canine experiment began March 20, the first day of spring, when I arrived at the paper with my emergency backup dog, Bogey — whom I frequently identify in my columns as "Mr. X" — in tow. For the record, Bogey is a little white dog with a large Napoleonic complex.

The drive to the office had been moderately stressful as I was worried about potential pet-related disasters, and Bogey clearly thought he was being taken to the vet.

Our first task was to set up Bogey’s base, which I achieved by tucking my best buddy’s little bed under my desk, the top of which was soon covered with a container of wet wipes, a roll of super-absorbent paper towels, and a large box of tissues.

Bogey’s first foray into journalism involved attending the morning meeting of the editorial board, where he was introduced to another rookie canine employee, 11-year-old Norman, another white dog barely the size of a loaf of bread that belongs to Free Press perspectives and politics editor Shannon Sampert.

The meeting went off with only a minor hitch — as I held Bogey in my arms, I apparently touched a sensitive area, which caused him to yelp at the volume of a heavy metal drummer, causing me to plop him down on the floor.

"I’m a little stressed because I’m worried Norman will do something that he shouldn’t," Shannon confessed later as Bogey and Norman explored the boundaries of our newsroom.

"It’s very weird to have your dog in the middle of a big editorial board meeting," she said. "But I think it will reduce stress. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you have a dog begging you for food.

"It’s a nice chance to show that side of yourself that you normally show to your dogs. It’s just a nice feeling."

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Free Press humour columnist Doug Speirs with Bogey in the newsroom. The Free Press is starting an experiment, allowing employees to bring their dogs into work.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Free Press humour columnist Doug Speirs with Bogey in the newsroom. The Free Press is starting an experiment, allowing employees to bring their dogs into work.

There is a certain amount of stress involved when you are the one bringing your dog to work. Working at home, I can just open the back door to let the dogs out to do their business, whereas it’s a bit more complicated in the office.

Then there’s the fact Bogey has two main hobbies: 1) Barking at things; and 2) Peeing on things. I was convinced it was only a matter of time before my pint-sized pet — a Maltichon, a cross between a Maltese and a Bichon Frise — would lift his leg and unleash a stream that would fry our computer system.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Wherever I went, Bogey trotted along at my side, sporting a huge doggy smile and glancing adoringly up at me every few seconds. When I worked at my desk, Bogey plopped down in his bed, patiently awaiting visits from co-workers, who dropped by in a steady stream.

While Bogey stuck closely by my side, Shannon’s dog, Norman, acted as if he was auditioning for the role of Adventure Dog, boldly strutting around the office and, with no warning, leaping onto the laps of writers and editors as they gazed thoughtfully into their computer screens.

"Having a dog in your lap is wonderful," laughed my buddy and fellow columnist, Gordon Sinclair Jr., as Norman scrambled up for an impromptu cuddle. "It might be because I just ate bacon. I can’t recall the last time someone crawled on my lap."

The real highlight came when Bogey and Norman paid a surprise visit to the office of our publisher, Bob Cox, who also happens to be my closest buddy and one of Bogey’s all-time favourite human beings.

As is his way, Bob jokingly scowled when the two white balls of fluff barged into his office. "When are we going to get some REAL dogs?" he jokingly growled.

Later, over lunch, Bob faced a trickle of employees from other departments, who, having heard of the canine companions on our floor, were champing at the bit to bring their dogs to work, too. "I can’t see why not," Bob sighed.

Traditionally, most companies don’t allow dogs at work and there are a host of reasons why, including employees with allergies, workers who fear dogs, insurance issues and the fact barking dogs can be distracting and disruptive.

But it was impossible to find anyone with a negative word to say about the first week of the Newsroom Dogs project. Even some of our veteran editors, who are famously crusty, were spotted getting down on all fours to crawl under desks in search of a little face time with a slobbery mutt.

I personally ducked under the desk of Wendy Sawatzky, our associate editor of digital news, in hopes of getting my face washed by her brand-new puppy, Walter, whose mysterious lineage she is hoping to determine by sending away for DNA testing.

At the centre of the newsroom, amid the daily chaos of putting together a newspaper, sits Mike Aporius, the Free Press’s dog-loving photo editor who typically juggles three high-pressure technical tasks at any given moment.

"It’s nice to take a break from the stress and seek out a dog for a quick cuddle," Mike chuckled, beaming as he watched one of our canine colleagues waddle by the photo desk. "It takes the edge off, definitely. I wasn’t expecting them to be this well behaved. There’s been very little barking and they’re not disruptive at all."

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Free Press perspectives and politics editor Shannon Sampert at her desk with Norman.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Free Press perspectives and politics editor Shannon Sampert at her desk with Norman.

Among the first dogs to (potentially) help boost our productivity was Spirit, a nine-year-old Karelian bear dog owned by longtime reporter Alexandra Paul.

"Spirit loved her visit to the newsroom, marking the territory within minutes of her arrival right in front of the paper’s editor (Paul Samyn), much to my embarrassment," Alex confided in an email.

"Finally, on his way out, my city editor came by my desk, not to see me, but to see Spirit, by then content on her makeshift bed. He got down and gave her a hug. That’s so endearing, and so unexpected, I can’t help but smile."

Later, as I pounded out a column, Alex strolled over to my cubicle and wrapped me up in a heart-felt hug. "Thanks for letting us bring our dogs into the newsroom, Doug!" she gushed with obvious delight.

Which is when I graciously informed her the real mastermind behind our Newsroom Dogs project is graphic artist Leesa Dahl, whose adorable and amazingly fuzzy five-month-old Lhasa Apso puppy, Oliver, was snoring contentedly at her feet at the end of the first week.

Armed with steely determination and a passion for pets, Leesa persuaded the Free Press’s powers that be that allowing dogs in the newsroom would be a shot in the arm for morale.

"I didn’t propose it as a story idea," the graphic artist explained as I gave Oliver a belly rub, which normally we can’t administer to fellow employees. "I proposed it as a way to make people happy, to make people laugh. I think it’s already made people happy.

"I wasn’t thinking about this being a story or that we would write about it. That wasn’t my plan. My plan was just to have a dog in the newsroom to give us something to smile about. Our dogs aren’t greeting customers; they’re just there for us."

With Week 1 of Newsroom Dogs under our belts, Leesa is hoping the project will become permanent. "I’m hoping this goes beyond a month," she confided. "Once we have the month behind us and we can prove it was successful, then maybe we can move forward."

It’s hard to say whether that will become a bone of contention, but it’s definitely a question the newspaper will have to chew on in the dog days to come.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
Columnist

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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History

Updated on Tuesday, March 28, 2017 at 7:54 AM CDT: Adds photos

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