Dogs at Work – Are There Benefits in Group Work Settings?

I recently had the opportunity to visit a good friend who is teaching at a small liberal arts college. I was invited to speak about my research, which was exciting because several faculty at this college are currently teaching a “dogs and society” course and are actively working toward designing a human-animal interaction minor on campus. Their interest in and support of animal-human interaction work was further evidenced by the presence of JoJo (a pseudonym to protect the anonymity of the dog and her owner), a mixed breed cattle dog, who is one of three dogs that regularly come to work with their owners, all professors in a small department at this college. Being homesick and missing my own furry family which consists of two dogs and a cat, I was delighted when JoJo wobbled down the hall, tail wagging, and came straight up to me looking for affection and treats.

Although I had heard about JoJo from my friend, I was still surprised by how important JoJo is as a member of this department. For example, when she wasn’t there that morning everyone was asking about her. Additionally, more office doors remained closed than open. But that afternoon when JoJo arrived, the entire energy of the department seemed to shift: people’s doors stayed open so that JoJo could saunter in and out at her leisure, colleagues wandered the halls and stopped in to pet JoJo wherever she was, stopping to chat and check in with one another at the same time. It was clear to me that JoJo was not just a dog that comes to work with her owner, but an important member of their team who improves people’s moods, increases social interactions, and provides ample opportunity for oxytocin release through petting and eye contact (see Nagasawa 2015; Holt-Lundstad et. al. 2008; and Handlin et. al. 2012).

As I searched for an article this week to blog about, JoJo and her effect on her colleagues was  clearly on my mind and led me to choose a recently published article in Anthrozoos titled: “A companion Dog Increases Prosocial Behavior in Work Groups.” Bingo!  Here, I thought, is going to be proof that JoJo really is doing all the things it seemed so obvious to me were occurring in JoJo’s office environment. And while the strong research reported in this paper does indeed point to improved verbal cohesion, physical intimacy, cooperation, and trust among group members, it also leaves space for additional research to elucidate the actual effects of dogs on work environments, worker productivity, and co-worker interactions and well-being.  

The authors of this paper report on three separate studies they conducted with groups of people in which a dog was either present or not. In the first study, the group was asked to complete a group-based problem solving task while in the second they were presented with a situation and asked to choose between either cooperating or not with the others in the group –the situation being a modified prisoner’s dilemma. In the third study, which I thought was a particularly unique and interesting way to analyze the data from the first study, participants were asked to watch videos in which only the torsos of study participants from the first study were visible. Any dogs were cut out of the footage so that  viewers of the videos (participants in study three) could not tell if there had been a dog present or not. They were then asked to rate the group interactions seen in the videos for six indicators of positive emotion.

In study one, the largest effects were seen in cooperation, verbal cohesion (defined as speaking in a more friendly manner), and physical intimacy (defined as making more eye contact, leaning in, and touching one another).  There were no differences in blood pressure or heart rate in the groups. In  study two, increased verbal cohesion and physical intimacy were also seen, but instead of cooperation, interpersonal trust was on greater display. This may have been an artifact of the type of task in this setting which required more trust as opposed to cooperation, but still, with regards to the study hypothesis, this is an interesting and important finding. Again no differences in blood pressure of heart rate were seen in the groups. In study three, significant differences were seen in all six of the positive emotion categories, suggesting that dogs increase these emotions and are easily visible to outsiders even when a dog is not present.

Given these findings, the researchers concluded that even though there were some differences in outcome that were related to the type of task the participants were asked to do, a companion dog increases positive emotions among group members. They hypothesize that the dog stimulates positive behavior, intimacy, and trust among members of a group.

The authors note two main limitations of their work. First it doesn’t help us understand what characteristics of the dog him/herself might be influencing behavior in the human participants. This could be important as we all know not all dogs are created equal (or people for that matter!). Second, studies one and two were short in duration, meaning that participants spent on average about one hour with one another. This is important given that the variables being measured here are likely to increase over time, as cooperation and trust in groups of humans often takes much more time to develop.

I would also add that the fact that these individuals were unknown to one another (or at least I assume they were from the way the article is written) and to the dogs, could have been another factor in their results. Doing this study where team members already work together on a regular basis and know the dog more intimately could actually increase the strength of the findings seen here. There are of course methodological issues a study with that design would run into, namely sample size. Finding enough offices where dogs are present could pose a considerable problem in terms of statistical power to see effect sizes. Still, I think it would be fascinating and may be one way to really see the impact of a dog on the workplace.

The other odd factor in this research is the female to male ratio. In study one, 81 females participated compared to 39 male, and in study two, 82 were women and 38 men. Sex of participants was not reported for study three. I mention this because men and women differ in terms of how they express and display the key variables researchers were looking for in this study (cooperation, verbal cohesion, verbal intimacy, and physical intimacy). Additionally, I have to wonder if it isn’t possible that ratings of these observed behaviors couldn’t have been affected by sex in study three, i.e. females being more able to read these behaviors in their own sex and vice versa for males.

In sum, however, it appears that the “JoJo” effect I observed wasn’t all in my head. JoJo is improving the work lives, cooperation, social behavior, and connections of her office mates. Keep up the good work, JoJo!

 

Citations:

Colarelli, S. M. et. al. (2017) A companion dog increases prosocial behavior in work groups. Anthrozoos, 30: 1, pp. 77-89.

Handlin, L. et. al. (2012). Psychological characteristics of the human–dog relationship and oxytocin and cortisol levels. Anthrozoös, 25, 215–228.

Holt-Lunstad, J. (2008). Influence of a “warm touch” support enhancement intervention among married couples on ambulatory blood pressure, oxytocin, alpha amylase, and cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, 976–985.

Nagasawa, M., et. al. (2015). Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the co-evolution of human–dog bonds. Science, 348, 333–336.

 

 

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