In dog-friendly Vancouver, some office workers ask: 'Who let the dogs in?'

Vancouver's dog-friendly status can pose a problem for people who are neither dog haters nor dog lovers, but don’t appreciate their presence.

Allergies, phobias and cultural sensitivities can pose a problem when bringing dogs to work

A visitor to Stanley Park rides his bike along with his dog in Vancouver, British Columbia on April 22, 2013. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

The smell is what gets to Taran Mavi.

When she catches the odour of a dog, Mavi's head grows heavy and a headache sets in. She's not allergic, but the nausea is reason enough to flee.

A frequent culprit was Mavi's former boss at an office-supply store. Her jacket was covered in dog hair, prompting some awkward moments.

"I always just wanted to get away from her because the smell was so strong," Mavi said.

Across Vancouver, workplaces and schools are contending with tricky human resources issues like this as they let more pooches into offices and classrooms.

Raises safety issues

Vancouver-based startups and tech companies such as Hootsuite and Electronic Arts rhapsodize about their dog-friendly culture when luring new recruits.

And pet therapy programs at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University regularly draw scores of students.

Dogs offer a host of benefits, from reducing stress to encouraging interaction between people, according to a recent study that examined the effects of dogs in the workplace.

But they can also raise safety issues, the study warns, including bites, phobia, allergic reactions and falls. And some people, like Mavi, are just plain uneasy around dogs.

"I'm such an animal lover that I forget people may not be," said Margaret Glenn, a professor at West Virginia University, who co-authored the report.

A customer pays for her books after stopping in while walking her dogs at MacLeod's used bookstore in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 20, 2012. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Speaking out at work

Workplaces should adopt "common sense" guidelines before introducing dogs, Glenn said, including assessing workers' attitudes and establishing a committee to evaluate concerns. 

SPUD — a Vancouver-based online grocer — hosts "Dog-Friendly Fridays" in its office, which draws up to seven dogs each week.

They're a big hit with staff and improve office morale, said Reza Bafandeh, vice-president of supply chain for SPUD.

The dogs are confined to an area of the office where the workers have all OK'd their presence, he said.

But the management realizes that not everyone might speak out, Bafandeh said. They encourage candid feedback through anonymous surveys.

"There's the concept of group conformity. Some people become a little more shy of saying their concerns. They want to roll with the group," he said.

"And sometimes people are more introverts. They might acknowledge it and deep down not like it."

UBC doesn't have a university-wide policy on pets, but it's up each department to decide whether to let dogs at work, said Linda McKnight, managing director of human resources.

Several departments at the university have implemented policies around dogs.

For example, the School of Population and Public Health requires permission from administration before a dog is brought in.

It also asks that staff post a photo of the dog in the workplace and confine the dog to a private office or a shared workspace.

Similarly, the Vancouver School Board forbids dogs from roaming freely in schools. TransLink requires pets to be placed in small, hand-held cages when taking transit.

Cultural sensitivities

There's an added layer for immigrants — who make up 40 per cent of Metro Vancouver's population — and whose attitudes to dogs can differ from the Western view of beloved domesticated pets.

In Japan, dogs are revered as family pets, but their presence outside the home is also rare due to the dense population, says Sophia Oh, 20, who moved to Vancouver from Japan in 2010.

"People don't really bring their dogs to cafes or stores," said Oh, who's been uneasy of dogs ever since a French bulldog bit her when she was younger.

A woman sits on a park bench with her dog along the waterfront beach of Ambleside Park in West Vancouver, British Columbia on February 13, 2013. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Mavi moved to Vancouver in 2009 from India, where stray dogs roam the streets and often bite passersby.

Despite having to plug her nose, Mavi said she can appreciate a certain type of dog.

"If the dog is well trained and can behave, I have no issues."

About the Author

Alex Migdal

Journalist

Alex Migdal is a web journalist for CBC News in Vancouver. He's previously written for The Globe and Mail, Guelph Mercury and Edmonton Journal, and most recently reported on the refugee crisis in Turkey. You can reach him at alex.migdal@cbc.ca.