MOORHEAD - In the somber surroundings of a funeral home, a woman enters the front door using a wheelchair, followed by her close friend. She's not here for the passing of a spouse, a family member or a friend. She's here to plan her own funeral before cancer takes her life.

The first face to greet her isn't a human, but a bright-eyed cockapoo named Barnabas (nicknamed Barney). He follows alongside her as she enters the funeral director's office in a deluge of emotions.

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Through the tears and grief, Barnabas sets his paws on her lap.

In this moment, he is a pillar of comfort and hope.

Comfort in their presence

George Korsmo, owner and funeral director at Korsmo Funeral Service in Moorhead, and his wife, Ruth, began searching for a resident dog after reading articles about other funeral homes with dogs.

"My wife wanted a very specific personality," Korsmo says. "We found Barnabas. In his puppy years, he was just a little too rambunctious to come to work. But, maybe eight years ago now, he started coming to work part-time and quickly told us he wanted to work full-time."

Korsmo Funeral Service is part of a growing number of businesses that allow pets for the benefit of both employees and customers. According to a 2017 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 8 percent of respondents reported that their workplace permitted pets.

Increasingly, younger generations are seeing pets as family, akin to starter children. The Washington Post reported in 2016 that three-quarters of Americans in their 30s had dogs and more than half owned cats.

The increase in pet ownership sheds light on the changing relationships Americans have with their pets, and bringing them to work is just one facet of that. Pets can provide a joyful and potentially therapeutic experience for clients and visitors alike, changing how employees feel about their work environment.

Adding a level of fun

Maria Bosak, owner of Eco Chic Boutique in Fargo, says on days when her pitbull-mix seems a little lonely, the dog gets to hang out in the back and watch the store.

"I think it just adds a level of fun," Bosak says. "It's fun to have a dog around, and it just makes the place feel more homey."

Korsmo notes how Barnabas is great for the staff in what can be a challenging work environment.

"We're in a very stressful occupation, but everyone can get a hug from Barney," he says. "They talk to him, they visit with him, he visits them and it gives them a source of affection to help relieve a lot of the stress."

Korsmo and Bosak's experiences are echoed in a report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where employees who brought their dogs to work were instructed to leave them at home two days a week during the study period. On days when employees did not bring their dogs to work, their stress levels increased throughout the day, matching the pattern of employees who never brought dogs to work.

Only the comfort a pet can provide

A funeral home isn't the place most would choose to spend a day.

"It's good for me to go to the dentist because it helps me remember what it's like for people to come to my office," Korsmo says. "I don't like the dentist, and people don't want to come here. When they walk in the door, Barnabas' first job is to be the greeter. He greets them at the door, and it takes their mind off what they're doing."

Bosak says most customers are also excited when they catch a glance of her dog.

"Usually they all just want to pet her," she says. "We've never had a bad experience."

Some customers even grow to depend on the dogs more than the employees. But like any employee, Barney isn't in every day of the week.

One Saturday, "a family came in and asked 'Where's Barnabas? We can't do this without him,'" Korsmo recalls. "I called my wife at home, and she and Barnabas trucked on down here. It was a very stressful time, and they just needed the comfort only a dog could give."

There are, of course, extra challenges in having a pet in the workplace. They must be fed, taken outside, kept out of mischief and above all, safe around visitors.

"Pets, just like people, are unpredictable," Bosak says. "So it's best to always err on the side of caution. Not every customer likes dogs. We keep it in a way where the customer can approach the dog but the dog can't approach the customer."

Korsmo echoes the same sentiments.

"We watch him carefully," Korsmo says. "But it does take more energy from my wife and I and one or two of our staff members to keep an eye on him. It's like having a little child here - I need to know where he is."

Office mates

Maria Bosak's female pitbull-mix Jules stays in her office at EcoChic, Fargo. Michael Vosburg  / Forum News Service
Maria Bosak's female pitbull-mix Jules stays in her office at EcoChic, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service
For anyone considering bringing their four-legged friends to work, Bosak and Korsmo share some tips.

"You have to know your pet very well," Bosak says. "You keep your pet safe which also keeps people safe. Make sure both the pet and the people are familiar with one another if you're just going to let them mingle. Otherwise, have it be a somewhat-safe environment where everybody is introduced slowly."

Before bringing a pet to work, Korsmo says to do a little prep work.

"Do some research and then determine what type of animal is appropriate for your business," Korsmo says. "You need to find the right dog."

Pets hold special places in people's hearts. In times of difficulty and pain, pets want to be there for employees, just like their owners are there for them. A quick hug from a dog during an off day may be just the spark to keep employees going. Along with the challenges, pets bring happiness, joy and an unconditional love that some workplaces are lucky to have.