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Canine Coworkers

7/25/2012-

by Alex Alusheff, for SIOP

Study shows companion dogs in groups stimulate cohesion, team satisfaction

By Alex Alusheff, for SIOP

In any organization, a new work group faces awkward small talk and introductions before getting to the task at hand. But if a dog is added to the mix, social interaction and cohesion might develop more easily, according to a recent study.

Past research has shown that dogs can facilitate social interactions and make people feel more comfortable and trusting, said SIOP member Matt Christensen, a doctoral candidate in industrial and organizational psychology at Central Michigan University.

“With the increasing level of interdependence in the workplace, people have to interact at a higher degree,” he added. “People can build trust up within a few weeks, but we wanted to see if we can get it right away.”

So Christensen, along with Chris Honts and Stephen Colarelli, conducted a study to determine the effects dogs would have in small work groups. They presented their research at the 27th SIOP in April.

In their study, 120 student participants were split into groups of four and tasked with creating a 15-second advertisement and slogan for a fictional product with or without a dog present to test behavioral levels, satisfaction, and performance. Groups with dogs present proved to have higher levels of interpersonal interaction and self-reported team satisfaction.

“You can build a stronger relationship with animals that you may not be able to with other coworkers,” he said. “And everyone can share the relationship with the companion dog.”

In the beginning stages of group interaction, there’s usually awkward small talk, but dogs gave the groups something to talk about and feel more comfortable, Christensen explained. The dog groups also had a higher frequency of discussion as well as a deeper conversation compared to the non-dog groups.

“When you have the ability to talk about something unique to the group, it creates a badge of identity and a stronger feeling of group togetherness,” Christensen added.

Dogs can also act as stress relievers to workers who may be experiencing burnout and positively affect moods throughout the group, he explained.

Although dogs have been utilized for their senses for decades by police and fire rescue, Christensen said he is aware of companion dogs that have been present at IT companies with more innovative and creative climates.

“To our knowledge, the practice of placing dogs in a work environment is still relatively uncommon,” he added. “However it appears to be increasing in prevalence. Additionally, quite a few companies that have been identified as top companies to work for, like Google, allow employees to bring their dogs to work.”

Although the dog groups had higher ratings of satisfaction and interaction, there was no significant difference in the quality of the advertisement produced by the two groups in terms of creativity and practicality. This result may be due to the distraction of the dog in the group at first, Christensen said.

At first, the dogs would be seeking attention, but after a while they calmed down and the group started to be more congruent, he said.

The initial work performance of the group may not have improved with the presence of a dog, but Christensen suggested that in the long run it might.

Because the group began to interact and become more cohesive quicker than without the dog, it could lead to better performance and work quality in the future, he said.

Because a dog can be distracting at first, Christensen suggested having the dog around the group before they begin their work, and if organizations are considering having companion dogs, to make sure they are well-trained.

The research did not test other animals, but Christensen said it is possible that other animals may have an effect on individuals in a work setting.

“Research studies outside the field of I-O have indicated that others animals can provide positive physiological and psychological effects for humans,” he explained. “However, interactions with dogs have yielded consistently larger and more differentiated effects than any other type of animal or inanimate object, such as a stuffed animal. The more intense effect may be due to the fact that, research suggests, dogs track and respond to human facial expressions and body language more than any other animal, even primates.”

So, should managers go out and adopt dogs for their teams?

“This is preliminary research, so managers should be careful how they interpret these initial findings,” Christensen advised. “However, if a manager has to deal with a newly formed team that needs to work together on a highly interdependent task, then the addition of a friendly dog could potentially aid in promoting higher levels of cohesion and intimacy.”