Man’s best friend also a good co-worker

Dogs greet customers, learn how to socialize


Pippen, a 5-year-old Great Dane-mastiff mix, enjoys riding around in the Targo Woods work truck with his owner, Ahmani Johnson.

Elwood’s job is simple: greet people as they walk into Backcountry Essentials, a downtown outdoor store.

He loves coming to work and never complains about staying after closing time. In fact, store owner Chris Gerston doesn’t even pay him. But that’s because Elwood is his dog.

“Dogs are great greeters,” said Gerston, who has been bringing Elwood, a Lab.-retriever mix, to work ever since he opened shop in May 2006. “We get people who come in just to say ‘Hi’ to the dogs.”

Elwood isn’t the only canine at Backcountry Essentials. Employees Danny Ozmet and Lani Forster started bringing their pooch named Bella into the shop earlier this year when she was merely 10 weeks old.

“Bella is the shop dog in training,” Ozmet said proudly as Bella gnawed on a bone behind the counter.

“And Elwood tolerates her,” Forster said. But that could just be because Bella is still tied to the front counter. “Eventually we’ll let her off the leash once we know she won’t chew on anything. She’s in the teething phase now.”

Raising a puppy can be hard enough, let alone teaching it to behave in public and not chew on expensive backpacks. The challenge is not for the faint of heart.

But the appeal of a “shop dog” strikes a primeval chord: Man and his best friend work well together. And it’s not just on the farm — even a semi-urban setting like Bellingham has numerous examples of dogs in the workplace.

“People seem to be used to it in this town,” Forster said. “It’s an enjoyable part of the shopping experience.”


Good for business?

But is having a dog around good for business? Some customers may have allergies or aversions to dogs and there is always a liability concern that a dog could bite someone.

The only restriction that the Whatcom County Health Department has for dogs in the workplace is that they are not allowed in food establishments. Beyond the law, a dog just may not be right for your business.

“I think it depends on what your business is,” Gerston said. “It fits for us. Outdoorsy folk usually like to have dogs around. It gives the shop that homey feel and people like that.

“Plus we have easy-to-clean floors,” he added.

Allowing dogs in the workplace can also be a perk for employees who might otherwise have to leave their canine companion at home all day.

For Forster, who also works at The Big Fat Fish Co., being able to bring Bella to work was a deciding factor in taking on a second job at Backcountry Essentials.

“When we (Ozmet and Forster) first came to town we made sure we had alternating schedules so we could be with Bella,” Forster said.

Having a dog around can be a draw for a business too. Ahmani Johnson of Targo Woods, who is in the process of taking over the business from his parents, said he often gets repeat customers who just want to see his dog Pippen.

“People come in just to see the dog,” Johnson said, adding that Pippen has become the company mascot. “Some people even call in and say ‘If Pippen’s not there today I’ll come in tomorrow.’”

It’s hard not to notice Pippen, a 130-pound Great Dane-mastiff mix, lounging out in front of the business. Like Elwood, Pippen greets customers and walks them into the shop.

Each dog has his own unique style, though. Elwood saunters up to customers and quietly seeks pats on the head. He may follow you around the store and if he really likes you, he’ll roll over or sit on your feet.

“He’s an attention-seeker for sure,” Gerston said.

Pippen is more direct in his greeting. He walks right up to customers unafraid to burst your personal bubble to get some attention. Beware: Pippen likes to lean. And for a dog his size, that’s a force to reckon with.

“His size can cause some people to pause, but then they see how nice he is,” Johnson said.

Pippen is also adept at riding in the company delivery truck, which is similar to a UPS truck. He rides shotgun on the freeway and likes to sit on the step near Johnson when cruising around town at slower speeds.

“I like to drive with the door open and as soon as I open the door he sticks his nose out and starts sniffing,” Johnson said.


Bella, a 7-month-old Rottweiler-mastiff mix, is the “shop dog” in training at Backcountry Essentials, a downtown outdoor store. For now, Bella is leashed to the counter until she learns not to chew on anything but her bone. Having dogs in the shop helps gives the business a “homey feel” that many customers enjoy, said business owner Chris Gerston.


Socializing is important

Socializing around the water cooler or in the lunch room isn’t just for humans. Dogs need it, too.

Bringing a dog to work can be a great way to introduce a dog to more people. A dog that is not afraid of people is more likely to behave well in public, said Sally Lewis, who owns Ruff Day Doggie Daycare with her husband, Larry.

If bringing your dog to work is not an option, Lewis recommends taking your dog to busy areas with lots of people, such as a park or out in front of a grocery store.

Socialization was one of the main reasons that Ozmet and Forster began bringing Bella in for “shop dog” training.

“All training for dogs recommends a lot of socialization. That way they’ll be a lot more mellow when they grow up,” Forster said.

Plus, because Bella is half Rottweiler/half mastiff and has the potential to look like a big, scary dog, the couple wants to make sure that Bella develops a good temperament — one that people will be able to instantly recognize.

“People know that if you have a shop dog then it’s obviously a well-socialized dog,” Forster said.

Beyond training, another benefit to bringing your dog to work is that you avoid the potentially negative side effects of leaving your dog at home: chewing on furniture, digging up the yard, escaping, leaving a “present” on the kitchen floor.

“He (Elwood) would much prefer to be here than anywhere else,” Gerston said. “Dogs want to be with their owners.”

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