It doesn’t bite: Pets make workday purr

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Janalyn Oster of Huntingburg prayed with her puppy, Snicker Doodle, at Procol, a Jasper collections agency where Oster is the manager, last Wednesday. Procol owner Tom Birk allows employees to bring their pets to work as a way to decrease stress. Oster, who brings her dog to work every day, recently received a letter from the county attorney asking her to stop allowing her dog to relieve itself on the nearby courthouse lawn.

Herald Staff Writer

Tom Birk has let his office go to the dogs.

But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Birk, a Jasper attorney, encourages his staff to bring their pets to work, a trend that’s taking hold in offices across the U.S. Studies have found that pets reduce work stress and improve productivity.

“A pet at work can break through tension and ground somebody,” said Birk, whose cat, Truman, used to roam his office before being shooed away by employees with cat allergies.

Before being exiled, Truman would lie on a corner of Birk’s desk and sleep.

“It’s impossible to look at a cat that’s sleeping without somehow relaxing yourself,” Birk said.

Besides his law practice, Birk also owns Procol, a collection agency on the Square in Jasper where pets often clock in with their owners. On a recent afternoon at the office, Jillian Eckerle curled up with Auggie, a pug-beagle-poodle mix. If there’s a stressful phone call with an irate debtor, she reaches over and pets her dog.

“It is a big stress reliever,” said Eckerle, who also owns a tortoise, lizard, goat, rabbit, chickens and another dog.

“I’m so used to having an animal around me at all times, so when I come to work it’s nice to have her there,” she said. “It’s a calming comfort from home that you can bring with you.”

At another workstation, Janalyn Oster pecked at her keyboard while her 8-month-old puppy, Snicker Doodle, napped at her feet.

Oster, who stashes a bag of dog treats under her desk, said her Pekingese-poodle crossbreed is a diversion from the daily grind.

“She can be a pistol at times,” Oster said, “but for the most part she just sleeps back here — unless I’m eating.”

During her breaks, Oster walks Snicker Doodle around the Square. County officials have gotten complaints about the dog going to the bathroom on the courthouse lawn.

County Attorney Art Nordhoff sent Oster a letter asking that she walk her dog elsewhere. Last week, Oster asked Dubois County commissioners to reconsider, saying the lawn is the only green space within several blocks of her job.

She argued that she always cleans up after her dog, as required by city ordinance. Commissioners decided the issue needed more discussion, though it’s unclear when it will be revisited.   

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Sophie, a 3-year-old miniature schnauzer, sat on the lap of her owner, Bernie Messmer, in L.H. Sturm Hardware Store on the Square in Jasper on Monday. Most days, Sophie accompanies Bernie and his wife, Sharon, to the store.

Procol isn’t the only pet-friendly business in town. Sharon and Bernie Messmer own Sturm Hardware on the southeast corner of the courthouse. Most days, they come to work with Sophie, their 3-year-old miniature schnauzer.

Throughout the day, Sophie trots to the front of the store and watches as people shuffle in and out of the courthouse. She’s the first to greet customers as they come into the store.

“She’s just a joy to have,” Sharon Messmer said.

Sally Gogel Fischer, a Jasper accountant, feels the same way about Cena, her schnauzer-poodle mix. A few months ago, Gogel Fischer moved into a new office on Third Avenue.

Not long after, she began bringing Cena to work.

“He just takes it easy while we’re working,” Gogel Fischer said, pointing to a spot under her desk that Cena usually inhabits.     

More employers are allowing pets in the workplace. Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. workers brings a pet to work, according to a 2008 survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

The trend began in the 1990s at tech companies in Silicon Valley, where executives aren’t afraid to experiment. Over the years, it has migrated to places like Indiana, said Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Polls have shown that having pets at work boosts office morale and minimizes employee turnover.

“It makes the whole environment more positive,” Beck said.

There also are health benefits. Dogs have to be walked, for instance, forcing employees to get out from behind their desk.

But the benefits tend to be more psychological than physical. When people are with their pets, they feel less lonely.

Animals “hold your attention,” Beck said. “If you’re thinking and doing something in the present, you’re less stressed. Stress is worrying about the past or worrying about the future.”

Beck said being around animals also bring us closer to nature. If you’re stuck in a windowless room for eight or nine hours a day, it’s comforting to look across the cubicle at a fish tank or a dog. Birk, the Jasper attorney, agrees.

“Unless we maintain some harmony with the natural world,” he said, “we’re not going to be happy people.”

Contact Tony Raap at

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