When there is a puppy in the office, there’s no stalling—you rush to pet it.
It didn’t take long for Ashley Fry to realize this workplace axiom could be the key to stress-management success. After working in corporate health and fitness for several years, convincing employees to take a break from their desks to participate in some stress-relieving exercise, Fry found that even free workout programs weren’t enough to break the cycle of burnout. In 2018, Fry founded Paws In Work, a company that hosts puppy therapy events in offices throughout the UK to promote employee wellbeing, and today has a full-time staff of six, with a number of freelancers.
“There’s a real difference between pulling people away from their desks and actually pushing them,” he says, noting that virtually any type of worker will take a pause when a velvety puppy in need of a belly rub is just a few feet away. One of the main goals of Paws In Work, which operates out of WeWork New Kings Beam House in London, is to help people fully step away from their work so they can return feeling recharged. “Having a sandwich at your desk—that’s just staying alive, that’s just fuel,” Fry says. There are researched-backed benefits associated with disengaging from a task and focusing on something non-work-related. Studies have found that breaks promote creativity, productivity, and improved learning.
When you add puppies to breaks, the health benefits skyrocket. “The scientific studies around this are just scary,” Fry says of pet therapy. (That’s “scary” in a good way.) Just being close to an adorable creature can decrease a person’s blood pressure, lower their stress levels, and boost the production of oxytocin, a hormone closely linked with happiness. In 2016, the health insurance company Aetna launched a pet therapy pilot program in eight locations in the U.S. in an effort to reduce employee stress. Ninety-nine percent of employees who participated in the program reported an improvement in their mood, and the same number also reported feeling more productive after spending time with the dogs on-site. The findings led Aetna to expand its program nationwide.
A Paws In Work puppy therapy event is a full-on stress-relief package, says Fry. “We bring a litter of puppies to a place of work and set up a summer garden getaway,” he says. “We fully transform a room with artificial grass, beanbags, a picket fence, and cushions,” along with lavender aromatherapy and soothing background music to relieve all senses. Fry has hosted dozens of Paws In Work events at WeWork locations around the UK, and most recently Google, Coca-Cola, and Pret a Manger have signed on for events.
To add to the warm fuzzies, it’s not just employees and their employers who gain something from these events. “The benefits to the puppies heavily outweigh the benefits to the humans,” says Fry. “Puppy socializing is vital for their temperament issues and for fear periods.” He says that in their first few weeks of life, puppies go through several fear periods in which they can react negatively to something new, be it a camera in their face or a car ride. When puppies are introduced to new experiences in a positive way, they are less likely to be fearful and will be better adjusted when they are taken to their new homes.
The Paws In Work puppy litters mostly come from breeders, though they are sometimes supplied by adoption and rehoming services. “Logistically, it makes sense to work with a breeder,” he says. “There’s one owner and the dogs are comfortable with each other. You don’t have to worry about different temperaments or dogs meeting each other for the first time.”
Fry acknowledges the stigma associated with breeding, and has made education about “ethical breeding” one of his company’s missions. He will only team up with ethical breeders that prioritize the health of the dogs over the sale, and he works to raise awareness around what prospective dog owners should look for if they are planning to buy from a breeder. Fry advises asking questions about the health of the mother of the litter and how much socializing the puppies have been exposed to. He’ll often go into more detail when hosting a Paws In Work event with anyone interested—and, yes, he has facilitated a few puppy sales, although that’s just an added bonus. Ultimately, “raising awareness will help prevent people from going to puppy farms,” he says.
Paws In Work has been running for less than a year, and Fry can already tell that the need for office pooches is no flashy trend. “[The] puppies are the tool to get people talking and actually breaking down barriers,” he says, noting that everyone from CEOs to interns makes time for a puppy session. “Sometimes you just need to help people get into the state of mind where they feel comfortable opening up.”
Fry has found that these sessions often lead people to open up and talk about any obstacles they may be facing. He says he’s committing all of his staff to become trained mental-health coaches, so that the 30 minutes spent with puppy energy might serve participants beyond returning to their desks feeling refreshed. “People literally say when they’re sitting in a session, ‘I really needed this today’ or ‘This couldn’t have come at a better time,’” he says. “Let’s be honest, it’s not every day you get to go and sit in a room full of puppies. And this is really powerful stuff.”