Company Benefits: On Four Legs

Udupi one-earBy Lauren Penrod

Why is there an entire holiday dedicated to bringing your dog to work? Because it's good for the pets and the people. Having dogs in the workplace has been shown to decrease work-related stress levels and can even increase worker productivity.

That's because when people interact with dogs, it increases their levels of relaxing, calming brain chemicals like oxytocin. One small study showed that both people and their dogs had elevated levels of oxytocin when they interacted. But there are plenty of other studies showing that oxytocin goes up during positive social interactions with people, so why shouldn't it be the same with dogs.

What is rarely discussed, however, is the impact this can have on a business, particularly small startups to mid-sized businesses. Aside from happy workers, the benefits of animal-related happiness extend to the inner workings of the company. Allowing dogs in the workplace is pretty much a freebie to employers, while increasing productivity. How's that for ROI?


A recent study from the Virginia Commonwealth University found that employees who brought their dogs to work experienced:

  • Lower stress levels throughout the work day
  • Higher levels of job satisfaction and perceived positive organizational support: Employees feel that the employer cares about his or her personal and professional development.
  • Increased communication between employees: Dogs are an easy thing to chat about
  • Health benefits and decreased absenteeism.
  • Researchers found that groups with a dog in the room rated their group members higher on trust and team cohesion measures than those with no dog.
  • Increased productivity: Having a dog reminds employees to stand up and stretch, take the dog outside, and to take breaks every so often Studies indicate this increases productivity.

Not only are you increasing productivity and workflow, you are genuinely tricking the mind into increased levels of happiness, and satisfaction. Increased employee satisfaction means employee retention, and less money spent unnecessarily training to backfill positions of lost employees.

High Returns, and Low Costs

The average start-up has little to no expendable income for frivolous things like kegerators in the break room, popcorn stations, or free gym memberships. So if your company isn’t quite to the point where you can provide free birthday vacations, unlimited Apple products, or all-inclusive gym memberships, bringing a dog to work is low cost to the employer and has added benefit to both parties. No longer will the employee have to pay for puppy day care, or worry about hurrying home to let their dog outside.

When you compare the cost of allowing dogs in the workplace, with other stress-relieving benefits, such as paid or discounted health and fitness passes, the cost-to-benefit ratio is a landslide win for the dogs. For example, if you have 100 employees, and you provide each of them with a gym membership, the annual cost could range from $12,000 to $36,000.

The average cost of dogs at work is increased "break time." But break time can not only increase employee focus, but improve employees' overall health, lowering absenteeism and health-care costs.

Plenty of research has shown the ROI on providing benefits instead of cash to employees. Millennials are no longer looking for companies with the highest salary (although it doesn’t hurt either, let’s be honest). They are looking for benefits. And not the type of benefits our parents and grandparents were looking for, rather, work-life balance benefits, fun benefits that prevent us from feeling like a machine for the man- ultimately something that separates one company from another. Keeping goodemployees happy is pays off in improved retention, and it’s the continued ability to grow and become better with the help of invested employees.

Staying out of the Dog House

Preparing for potential issues and discussing them ahead of time is one way to reduce shock and over-excitement.

There are genuine concerns when inviting furry friends into the office space, so you may want to try to integrate this policy slowly by testing it out first.

Some things to be aware of and prepare for are:

  • Determine how many people in the office have allergies to dogs.
  • Determine whether this is a cultural office change that employees desire
  • Have specific requirements of owners:

○     Leash-trained

○     Well-behaved

○     House-broken

○     Owners must clean up after pets inside, and outside

○     All vaccinations up to date

○     Well-groomed

○     Gets along well with other animals

  • Determine how many pets are allowed in the office on a daily basis- and a maximum capacity for the animals.

Getting Started       

Keeping in mind that there are legal reasons for why someone would need their animal next to them at all times, such as the case with service, dogs. But for the remainder of the animals, there ought to be protocol when implementing this type of company benefit.

Here are a few ideas of how to launch a dog atmosphere in your office:

  • Have a test pet. Only one pet per week for 4 weeks. This could be used as a lottery system, and the winner gets to bring their dog.
  • Start with a manager's dog. This dog could potentially have less interaction with employees, but enough to test how productive employees would still react.
  • Each person can bring the dog on one 10 minute walk per week.
  • Start with hypoallergenic dogs. Determine if there are any people with allergies in the office.
  • Create pet-free zones, a few areas where the dogs are not allowed. Examples may be: bathrooms, a section of the building where those who are allergic sit, or in the break room.

Generally knowing whether this is a cultural shift your office is interested in should be relatively apparent. Companies that have integrated dogs into their office have reported a significant impact on the hiring process. Evidently many companies that have dogs in the office tend to hire individuals with the same interests and overall acceptance of animals. This has led to a better vibe, uniqueness, relationship building, and overall familiarity within the office- leading to higher retention of employees.

It sounds like these policies will benefit everyone involved. Now go work like a dog!

Lauren Penrod is the mother to two poodle mixes and is expecting her first child in November. She is born and raised in Boise, Idaho and spends her free time freelance writing and planning too far into the future. 

Weird Animal Sex

I love all creatures, and I'm entranced by the diversity of how animals and insects look, act and reproduce. Two interesting stories popped up for me today, so I thought I'd share.

14971280454_8943eb3ccd_mFirst is an aquatic flatworm that can fertilize itself -- by injecting sperm into its own head. According to James Gerken of the Huffington Post,

Macrostomum hystrix, a transparent, aquatic, hermaphroditic flatworm, has a "needle-like" reproductive organ it uses to inject sperm into the body of its mate. But it can also stab its own head and self-fertilize. These creatures are simple enough that the sperm can be injected anywhere in the body and reach the eggs.

Steven A. Ramm, lead author of the paper on this, told The Guardian, "To us, it sounds very gruesome."

Must be something wrong with me, because I just thought, "Cool!"

Photo of Macrostomum hystrix from  Lukas Schärer 


Next up is the bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps), a popular pet among reptile enthusiasts -- and I am one. Whether a bearded dragon egg turns into a male or female may be determined after the egg is laid -- not by genetics but by the ambient temperatures in which the egg is incubated.

"There are lots of girls running around out there that are genetically male," one scientist told Kerry Grens of The Scientist.

Nature is weird, so no wonder we humans are, too.

How Birth Trauma Affects Mother and Baby Throughout Life

Mike recently shared his story in the comments on my post The Mother/Baby Attachment Gap. Physical trauma during a C-section led to emotional trauma for him and his parents that he still is dealing with.

His back was injured during the cesarean section birth. As I explained in my book, an infant's nervous system develops in part in response to the environment inside the womb, as the baby shares its mother's bloodstream, with whatever stress chemicals or calm chemicals -- including oxytocin -- are flowing through it. There's evidence that the actual birth process "sets" the emotional thermostat by influencing the reactivity of the HPA axis.

The HPA axis is the system composed of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. Some people react more quickly and more severely to stress than others. This is partly due to genetic predisposition, but also to epigenetics: genes that are "turned on" or "turned off" in response to experience and the environment.

As he entered the world, Mike learned that it's a very dangerous place: People came at him and his mother with knives.

Mike wrote: "I grew up unable to express, accept, or understand love, but I can't blame this entirely, or
perhaps even partially, on the C-section. My mother went into menopause immediately after my birth, and sex became painful for her. My father took this personally and basically lived his life away from home. Both of my parents independently told me they blamed my birth for the destruction of their marriage."

How brutal an experience to grow up like that! My mother couldn't express love and was very angry, but I wasn't forced to bear guilt for her life. I can't imagine what this would be like.

So we see that the physical and emotional trauma of Mike's birth had profound repercussions for his mother's body and emotions, as well as for his father's emotions.

Mike has spent several decades in therapy, which has gotten him to the point where he understands all this and, I hope, is beginning to take steps to heal.

I want to reiterate that we can change our bodies and our brains at any age so that we can begin to experience trust and connection. Sometimes it takes very, very small steps. Working with a therapist who specializes in dealing with birth trauma can be helpful.

Please take a look at the website of the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health. Some people think the idea of prenatal psychology is woo-woo. I don't. I think what science has learned about epigenetics supports their work.

Mike, I'm rooting for you to keep going on your journey.


Is Oxytocin a Pheromone?


Pheromones are substances that are released by one animal into the environment that other animals take in through the nose or mouth that "communicate" by changing the physiological state of the second animal (bugs, etc).

Animals have something called the vomero nasal organ that is a primary receptor for pheromones. Humans have this organ, but most scientists think it's vestigial. There is evidence that it is not. For example, women living together in dorms tend to have their periods synchronize. This could be due to keeping similar schedules or living in the same environment. But it could be due to them inhaling molecules of each others' hormones.

Oxytocin is both a brain chemical and a hormone. So it is possible that molecules produced in our bodies could be exhaled and then inhaled by other people.

Whether or not this is true, most things that trigger the oxytocin response (a positive social response to another person) probably come via facial expression, body language and tone of voice.

Here's a scientific paper (pretty readable) that examines the evidence that the human vomeronasal organ may be an organ of human communication.

The author, Michael Meredith of Florida State University, comes down on the side of no. But we continually find out more about the human body and what makes us tick. Scientists have discovered, for example, that what they used to call "junk DNA" -- because they didn't know what it did -- turns out to influence gene expression.

I think a lot of people, including scientists, get squeamish about the idea of humans sniffing each other like, well, animals. To me, the jury is still out.

PHOTO: Mark Watson

New Diet Plan Uses Oxytocin

8994313260_a2214a9e88_mDiet Doc, an online provider of medical weight loss programs, is offering a new program called the Emotional Eating Diet Plan. It includes inhaled oxytocin as part of the plan.

I spoke to Ryan Shelton, N.D., medical director of Diet Doc, about the plan and why and how Diet Doc is offering oxytocin to dieters in its program. He said that there are 16 or 17 scientific studies that support the use of oxytocin for weight loss. Some used human subjects' diet diaries and emotional surveys to find correlations between emotions like loneliness were correlated with eating more calories, and then saw a change after oxytocin administration.

In the research I scanned, administration of oxytocin reduced the likelihood of eating for pleasure (comfort) without interfering with normal hunger. (See the bottom of this article for a few studies supporting the idea of using oxytocin to help with weight loss.) However, our bodies are complex; note that in the study "Divergent Effects of Oxytocin Treatment of Obese Diabetic Mice," oxytocin seemed to increase insulin resistance, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Shelton told me that Diet Doc did not start out to create a diet plan that included oxytocin. Instead, he said, "The Emotional Eating Diet Plan was devised first, then we started looking at outside agents, natural and herbal or pharmaceutical, to complement the actual diet."

Assessment forms on the Diet Doc website help site visitors and Diet Doc personnel identify what type of overeater they might be. In addition to emotional eaters, the company has plans for sugar cravers and people whose weight loss has gotten stuck. Diet plans typically include consultations with doctors, supplements, prescription drugs, food plans and exercise regimes.

Prescriptions for inhaled oxytocin are provided through compounding pharmacies; these are pharmacies that can produce drugs in forms or doses different from how they are typically prescribed.

Diet Doc doesn't provide statistics about patient results, but it emphasizes that people have to follow their prescribed programs for quite a while. Shelton said, "We're interested in sustainable weight loss. We have no problem helping people shed 15 or 20 pounds -- that's quite easy. We're interested in helping them achieve those goals while implementing long-term strategies of promoting health and wellness -- keeping that weight off. The weight issue is secondary to more important therapeutic goals, insuring a healthier lifestyle, movement and healthy nutritional intake."

Does this mean that someone who succeeds in shedding pounds via the Emotional Eating Diet Plan will have to keep taking oxytocin for the rest of his or her life? Not at all, he said. "The goal is to achieve certain therapeutic parameters. We try as best we can to implement strategies that, when in place, are not dependent on external agents, medications or supplements."

He acknowledged that there's no information on the possible side effects of long-term dosing with oxytocin. The first experimental oxytocin therapies began only about 10 years ago.

There are some very important things to note about the Diet Docs approach:

  • Dieters are working under a doctor's personal supervision.
  • Oxytocin is sold via a doctor's prescription only.
  • Diet plans are customized for individuals.
  • Oxytocin is only one part of the diet plan; the Emotional Eating Plan also may include other supplements and/or drugs, as well as, most important, decreased food intake and exercise.
  • Diet Docs says that oxytocin isn't appropriate for all dieters.

In short, oxytocin is not a magic weight-loss potion. For people who eat for comfort, to reduce stress or cope with feelings of isolation or loneliness, it may really help.

It's also interesting to note that this is still another case of private companies applying scientific research to product development without going through all the hoops of getting FDA approval or doing clinical trials. Diet Doc's prescribing oxytocin is legal: Physicians are allowed to prescribe FDA-approved drugs for uses other than that for which they've been approved. This is called off-label prescribing. The company is, in effect, conducting its own, private clinical trial.

I haven't tried Diet Doc, nor am I endorsing them. I'm not an affiliate marketer for the company; I write about oxytocin therapies of all kinds on this blog. To find out more about the Diet Doc Emotional Eating Diet  Plan, follow the link.

PHOTO: Mayan Brenn

A few studies:

Peripheral oxytocin suppresses food intake and causes weight loss in diet-induced obese rats. Gregory J. Morton , Brendan S. Thatcher , Roger D. Reidelberger , Kayoko Ogimoto , Tami Wolden-Hanson , Denis G. Baskin , Michael W. Schwartz , James E. Blevins. American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism Published 1 January 2012 Vol. 302 no.  1,  E134-E144 DOI: 10.1152/ajpendo.00296.2011.

Divergent Effects of Oxytocin Treatment of Obese Diabetic Mice on Adiposity and Diabetes. Altirriba Gutierrez, Jorge et al. Published in  Endocrinology. 2014, vol. n.a., p. en20141466 

Sex Hormone Lessens Snacking. Meredith Knight. Scientific American Mind 25, 11 (2014). Published online: 13 February 2014 | doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0314-11a (subscription access only)

Oxytocin, Feeding, and Satiety. Nancy Sabatier et al. Front Endocrinology (Lausanne). 2013; 4: 35. Published online Mar 20, 2013. Prepublished online Nov 22, 2012.  doi:  10.3389/fendo.2013.00035