Bringing Dogs to Work Increases Social Cohesion

Study May Give the Term “Working Dogs” New Meaning

Originally published in slightly different form on August 25, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.

Take Your Dog to Work Day, Every Day

Have you ever wanted to take your dog to work with you, but couldn’t get the idea past your boss? According to an article in The Economist, you might soon have some ammunition on your side.

Christopher Honts and Matthew Christensen, under the guidance of Stephen Colarelli, Ph.D., at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, wondered if the mere presence of a sociable, well-behaved canine in the office might make co-workers more likely to co-operate.

It turns out that it very well could. At least that’s what their preliminary findings suggest. (The complete data should be compiled by year’s end.)

They set up two experiments.

The first brought together 12 groups of 4 individuals—who didn’t know one another—and told them to come up with a 15-second advertisement for an imaginary product. (Does that sound like something you’d see on NBC’s, The Apprentice?) Each member of a particular group was asked to contribute his or her own ideas, but ultimately the group had to make a joint decision, choosing only one ad.

The other experiment was a version of the classic game theory problem, “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” which shows ways in which two people might not cooperate with the authorities, even if it’s in both their interests.

For each type of experiment, some of the groups—both the “Madison Avenue” group, and the “Ocean’s Eleven” gang—had a dog hanging out with them while they either conjured up a 15-second ad or worked out a plea deal with the cops. In the other groups? No dog.

Would there be a difference in how each group behaved?

It turns out, there was.

Trust, Team Cohesion, and Intimacy

In the advertising scenario, once the project was finished, the volunteers were asked to fill out a questionnaire on how they felt about working with the other members of their talent pool. The researchers found that the groups who had a dog hanging around—wagging its tail and acting doglike while they wrote their mock ads—ranked higher on qualities of trust, team cohesion, and intimacy than the teams who were dogless.

In “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” scenario, all four members of each group were “charged” with a crime. They weren’t allowed to talk it over, and were given a choice of snitching on or standing tough. Each individual’s decision affected the outcomes for the other three as well as for himself. It turns out that the crooks who had a dog as a member of their gang were 30% more likely to stay in cahoots with their pals and not snitch.

Christensen told me via e-mail that he became invested in the study due to “the scant amount of research supporting/disconfirming the use of companion animals in the workplace. In many instances, the practices of organizations are spurred by anecdotal successes or failures and not by scientific inquiry.”

Christensen says, “I’ve listened to a wealth of arguments for (e.g., ‘I know I would work better if Scruffy kept me company’) and against (e.g., ‘What about people with phobias or allergies?’). To date, organizations have been making decisions ... based on these rational arguments. It was [our] goal to provide practitioners with scientific evidence.”

He went on to say that “Canines had a distinctive advantage for the goals of this study. They have over 15,000 years of shared [evolutionary] history with humans. As such, they have developed extremely adaptive characteristics. It appeared to us that dogs act as social catalysts. This is why we decided to utilize groups of [people] who had no prior relationship [with one another]. It was our belief that dogs would facilitate the development of certain interpersonal variables such as trust and intimacy.”

The Dogs Came Pre-Screened

Where did they get the dogs? Were they chosen for certain behavioral criteria, sociability, even-temperedeness, etc? And how, exactly, did they temperament-test them?

It turns out that there were 3 dogs chosen; Dillon (who appears to be a boxer mix), Marceau (a standard poodle), and Rudy (a Jack Russell terrier mix). Each dog possessed all of the qualities I had inquired about. And they had an even more important quality: each dog belonged to one of the members of the research group! Dillon is owned by Christensen, Marceau by Colarelli, and Rudy by Honts.

But wait a minute. Is this a good idea?

I think it is. First of all, it saved the researchers a lot of time in testing unknown dogs. A dog who isn’t housebroken or barks at strange noises, wouldn’t be a good candidate. But all of these dogs came “pre-screened.”

Christensen: “Our criteria were fostered by our desire to meet the requirements of our ethical review board. We needed dogs that were sociable, well-behaved, and hypoallergenic. Three dogs matched these criteria. We went through 3 rounds of pilot studies using the dogs before making our final decision. We had exit interviews to make sure [the dogs] were not (a) overly distracting and (b) did not frighten the participants.”

The Idea Came from Actual Dog Owners

But how, exactly, did the dogs behave? Which of their social interactions—play solicitation, asking to be petted, etc.—had the most impact on a group’s overall willingness to cooperate?

“We are examining the film of the experiments to determine the role specific behaviors of the animals had on the outcomes of the group, e.g., did one dog do tricks to get the attention of participants whilst the other dog sat in the corner?”

I also think it’s fitting that Honts et all used their own dogs because in my most recent post here I said that too many dognitive scientists started studying apes and monkeys, and not enough of them really “get” dogs; so, personally, I think the fact that the idea for this study came from actual dog owners, and that they used their own dogs in the study, may be one of the most important elements.

So why did the dogs foster trust and cohesion in the groups they were assigned to?

Dogs and Oxytocin

There are a number of studies showing that petting a dog, or even gazing into its eyes, can increase levels of oxytocin in human beings. Since I believe oxytocin could be a key agent in creating the social behaviors that enable wolves to hunt large prey animals by working in concert as a cohesive hunting unit I asked Christensen if he thought oxytocin might’ve played a part in this study’s results. He agreed that it was probably a factor.

What’s the next step?

According to Christensen, he and his cohorts “plan to continue, utilizing different control conditions (possible experimental manipulations: a fish, a cat, a robotic dog). We are currently in the process of rating task performance and non-verbal communication.”

Many modern corporations, such as Google, already allow (or encourage) their employees to bring their dogs to work with them. Many American Presidents have had dogs in the Oval Office. Sigmund Freud’s dog Jo-Jo was constantly on hand during Freud’s analytic sessions and may have been helpful in facilitating them!. On a personal note, David Letterman once hired a dog solely for the purpose of roaming around the studio during his show at NBC: that was my first dog, Charley! That said, there are obviously certain occupations—heart surgeon, chef, formula-one driver—where this wouldn’t be a good idea!

By the way, June 25th, 2010 was “Take Your Dog to Work Day.” Keep this article in mind when it rolls around again next year!

LCK

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