Subaru dealership owner: 'Dogs help people relax'

Some stores see being pet-friendly as a plus

Subaru dealership owner: 'Dogs help people relax'

At Patriot Subaru in Saco, Maine, customers are encouraged to bring their pets when they shop.
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Automotive News -- October 17, 2013 - 12:01 am ET

Click on the "About Us" icon on Patriot Subaru's home page and you'll see a roster and photos of the dealership's 57 employees. But three, who work in customer relations, don't look or act like everyone else.

They tend to sit around a lot. They can often be found snoozing on their sides under a desk. And they answer to just one name.

The Saco, Maine, dealership is one of a handful of dog-friendly stores around the country. The job titles on the store's Web site for Colby, Subie and Licorice aren't posted just to be cute. Colby and Subie, golden retrievers, and Licorice, a black Labrador retriever, really do have jobs.

"Buying a car takes longer than it should," says owner Adam Arens. "Dogs help people relax. They tend to sit next to people who are tense. They kind of think that's their job," he said of the dogs, who are at the store most days.

The way Arens sees it, having dogs on the sales floor is not just a business strategy designed to give his store a leg up on the competition. The policy is consistent with Subaru's pet-friendly brand image, and it meshes with what he sees as Maine's affection for dogs. Many of his customers, he says, travel frequently with their dogs and take them to their jobs.

And, he says, being pet-friendly helps the store give back to the community. Patriot holds pet adoptions and sponsors fundraisers for pet charities, including the Animal Refuge League and Animal Welfare Society.

Several other dealer groups around the country are also pet-friendly, even if dogs are not yet welcome at work. The Yark Automotive Group in Toledo, Ohio, which had five dealerships on this year's list of the Best Dealerships To Work For, collects food and toys for pets, which it donates to its local partner, Planned Pethood. The company also supports 4 Paws Sake, a dog rescue organization.

Pet owners and their animals pose at the Friendship Family of Dealerships in Tennessee.

According to the American Pet Products Association, employees are bringing their dogs to work more often than in the past. Today, 17 percent of companies in America that the association surveyed allow employees to bring their dogs to work on occasion. And among those businesses that allow employees to bring their dogs to work, those employees who did so brought their dogs in to the workplace an average of 22 times during 2012, up from 17 times in 2008.

Pet ownership in the United States is at an all-time high, with nearly 68 percent of Americans reporting at least one pet. Among households with pets, 47 percent of those pets are dogs, the association says.

At the Friendship Family of Dealerships in Bristol and Johnson City, Tenn., owner Mitch Walters jokes that his dog, Tucker, a fluffy brown labradoodle, is "a general manager in training." Tucker, a mix between a Labrador retriever and a standard poodle, is by Walters' side daily.

"He's been in sales meetings. He's met with the Carfax people. He attends general manager meetings. He's very familiar at all the dealerships. Normally, he walks in and crawls under someone's desk," Walters said.

Friendship also encourages employees to bring their dogs to work at the group's stores. Friendship's brands include Ford, Hyundai, Volvo, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram. Walters says there have been as many as 10 dogs in his stores at one time.

"We enthusiastically support two causes: children and animals," Walters says. "I think it just sets the tone for the Friendship family of dealerships."

Mitch Walters, who owns the Friendship Family of Dealerships in Tennessee, jokes that his dog, Tucker, is "a general manager in training."

Many dealerships are open long hours, which makes it difficult for some employees to leave their pets alone during the day. Friendship's stores, for example, open at 8:30 daily and Saturday, with some staying open to 8 p.m. Dropping a dog off at a doggy day care business may be too expensive an option for some employees. Many of those businesses charge $25 to $40 a day to care for a dog.

"We want our company to be family oriented and to accommodate team members. They are productive and do good things for us, so we want to do good things for them." says Walters.

But not everyone can bring a dog to the job. Some jobs, such as technician or service writer, require the dog's owner to work in areas that could be harmful to an animal.

But salespeople and administrative personnel can bring their dogs to work as long as the animals are well behaved around strangers, especially children, and are not startled by loud noises and being around a lot of people.

Two legs or four, anyone who walks into Patriot Subaru is welcome. Dog treats are handed out, water bowls are on the floor and there's a special area where dogs can go and play when business is being conducted. There is the occasional accident, Arens says, but it's not a big deal.

Both Arens and Walters say it's possible that having dogs in their stores may have cost them a sale or two, because some customers don't like being around dogs and some are allergic. But they agree that having dogs on the floor often makes the car-buying process more enjoyable for the customer.

Arens is a firm believer in the calming effect dogs can have on people. He takes Colby to hospitals, schools and senior living facilities and sees faces light up when hands reach out to pet Colby's soft head.

Says Arens: "When my dog goes into senior living place, residents who've had their heads hanging 23 hours a day lift their heads up."

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.


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