You have been randomly selected to serve on the next Dog Tribunal!


That’s what the recent email in my inbox said. I was randomly selected as the director on the dog tribunal for this January. It’s the SparkFun equivalent of jury duty, and it saved our dog privileges.

Many moons ago SparkFun was a lot smaller. The first dogs began showing up at work casually around six years ago. At first it was an entirely casual affair. A few dogs came in, their owners (guardians if you prefer) cleaned up after them and kept them out of trouble, and people enjoyed the furry friends hanging about.

Pete from QC and his dog Choppy - one of SparkFun's original dogs (an OD, if you will)
Pete from QC and his dog Choppy - one of SparkFun’s original dogs (an OD, if you will)

But SparkFun grew. Jobs were created, people were hired, and those people wanted to bring their dogs too. It became a documented perk and it started to have rules. Like other perks, such as an employee discount or some free SparkFun swag, it was earned after six weeks on the job.

While dogs are generally kind and good-natured creatures scaling up the numbers exacerbated small problems. There were poops and pees in the building. Sometimes dogs got in fights, or a dog would go roaming where it shouldn’t be. For all the happiness the dogs brought there was an undeniable toll it began to take on the employees of SparkFun.

Mike in Production's dog Lucky leveraging his namesake to throw caution to the wind
Mike in Production’s dog Lucky leveraging his namesake to throw caution to the wind

When there were around two dozen dogs coming to SparkFun managers and directors still handled issues in their department directly. Human Resources provided assistance where needed. But this didn’t work. Each manager had their own brand of dog justice and what vague policies we had were applied inconsistently.

There were blind spots that grew into real problems. For example, not all dog owners were diligent about cleaning up after their pups around the outside of the building. The groundskeepers that come around to keep the place looking good complained that it was impeding their work. No one dog owner could be reprimanded, so weaker blanket reprimands happened and the problem didn’t go away.

Cora, who comes to work with Tony in Production, learns how a camera lens smells
Cora, who comes to work with Tony in Production, learns how a camera lens smells

HR valiantly stepped up to be the central group to handle dog issues. Some serious incidents took place during this time, like bites. Most of the bites were workers from other companies onsite to do their normal rounds, like delivery drivers. Fortunately no serious injuries ever materialized, and the offending dogs were ultimately banned from coming to work.

The official dog policy became a topic of debate at monthly directors meetings. Such gatherings are valuable for hammering out big picture strategizing outside the box and whatnot, but frustration became palpable when a dog debate would slip into hour two and bump much more important stuff from the agenda. Meanwhile HR was feeling the same exhaustion dealing with petty offences of the now thirty-some dogs coming to work.

The Night Crew: six humans and three dogs (October 9, 2013)
The Night Crew: six humans and three dogs (October 9, 2013)

The worst of it was back in 2012. It was the height of the anti-dog cacophony. Debate percolated over whether the dog perk should be eliminated completely. Polling across the company of the day revealed a broad spectrum raging from total dog prohibitionists to fervent pro-canine anarchists. In the middle sat a large disgruntled bloc who just wanted to talk about something else for a change.

Somewhere in all that noise, though, the idea for the Dog Tribunal was born. It used the classic jury-of-peers model. The tribunal would meet monthly and its members would be randomly selected each time. The tribunal had a simple job:

  • Assess all anonymously filed dog complaints and issue warnings or punishment as determined by the Dog Policy
  • Ammend the Dog Policy if necessary
  • Add a summary of the meeting to the Dog Tribunal History

The Dog Policy and Dog Tribunal History are documents on our internal wiki site. HR was free from handling minor dog incicents and the directors were free from setting dog policy. The SparkFun dog experiment had transitioned into its current form.

Several dogs and owners play out back at a SparkFun BBQ. The two white dogs, Sophie and Freckle, are sisters.
Several dogs and owners play out back at a SparkFun BBQ. The two white dogs, Sophie and Freckle, are sisters

The transition to the Dog Tribunal model turned down the heat of the dog debate considerably. Things got more fair and more efficient, allowing those concerned with dog issues to focus on more effective solutions to problems. SparkFun had doubled down on its commitment to having dogs at work and other changes appeared.

My personal favorite change, as a dog owner, was the company’s decision to provide poop bag dispensers around the building. This minor expense for the company eliminated any excuse a dog owner had to not curb their companion but did so by attacking the root of the problem: the fact that humans are forgetful and wouldn’t carry little baggies around. We still organize a mass cleanup day every six months or so but this problem, once thought impossible to crack, has largely dissipated.

This sign, designed by our own designer Pete, accompanies a poop bag dispenser in a high-traffic area
This sign, designed by our own designer Pete, accompanies a poop bag dispenser in a high-traffic area

Today SparkFun employs around 150 people. According to our records about 50 are active dog owners. Our human:dog ratio isn’t quite 3:1, though. SparkFun has a handful of couples where both halves work under the same roof and, for whatever reason, most couples are also dog owners. There are around 45 dogs that can show up at SparkFun on any given day and probably around three dozen dogs actually show up every day.

Dogs are a firmly ingrained part of SparkFun culture. Only on special days like Inventory Day or the AVC do we not see a bunch of dogs in our building. They even popped up in the planning for our new headquarters.

As you might have heard, we’re building a new building. Projected move-in date is in July of 2014 and currently they’re about to tilt up the walls.

Freckle, who comes to work with my wife Amanda and me, surveys the new building site long before any groundbreaking
Freckle, who comes to work with my wife Amanda and me, surveys the new building site long before any groundbreaking

SparkFun’s staff has played a huge part in contributing to the building’s design at all levels. At one point Nate and Trevor were talking HVAC with an engineer who was calculating the new building’s requirements. People per square foot, staff growth projections, heat-generating equipment, and building sun exposure were all gauged and documented. “Oh, and about 50 dogs” was mentioned and the engineer took it as a joke at first. It turns out that dogs can generate more heat than humans, and as about a third of our workforce, they absolutely needed to be in that critical calculation.

Also in the planning phases a specific dog yard was briefly considered and ultimately scrapped. The land on which the building will sit, though, is a larger lot that will have more undeveloped open fields adjacent, lending more room for dogs to chase sticks and balls and frisbees.

Rosie, who comes to work with Matt in Production, was the only dog to ride along on a leg of the National Tour
Rosie, who comes to work with Matt in Production, was the only dog to ride along on a leg of the National Tour

Considering dog owners that have since left SparkFun for greener pastures and the few SparkFun dogs that have sadly passed on, all time there may have been over a hundred dogs under SparkFun’s roof. Our record keeping isn’t that strict, and certainly wasn’t all that robust until recently.

The Dog Policy includes the Dog Agreement, an affidavit that an owner will abide by the policy and accept any disciplinary action meted out by the tribunal. All dog owners must sign the policy prior to bringing in a dog, and doing so grants the owner a special SparkFun dog tag. This is intended to identify the dog and owner as being legitimate participants in the program.

The Dog Tribunal page in Sparkle, where dog management is somewhat automated
The Dog Tribunal page in Sparkle, where dog management is somewhat automated

Our system for tribunal management has also grown more sophisticated over time. Above is a screenshot (with last names and emails obscured) of what I see right now by visiting the Dog Tribunal page in our internal ERP system, Sparkle. A link to the Dog Tribunal page is available for all employees and at any time will show who is on the current tribunal and how to access the two big doggy documents and the dog owners mailing list.

I’m the current sitting director on the tribunal (each tribunal is one director and four non-director dog owners) and so I have the big button to make a new selection. I’ll click it after I organize this month’s meeting and document the events on the Dog Tribunal History page. In the system that tracks Sparkle accounts we can specify who is a dog owner, and to keep tribunal selection fair we also track how many times each person has served. All of this was born out of necessity (for example, Ray once served three times in a row and it became clear the old selection method wasn’t fair). It shows how far we’ve come in streamlining the process of corporate dog management, and perhaps shows how far we have yet to go.

Tesla, who accompanies Evan in Tech Support, tries to relax on the Tech Support couch
Tesla, who accompanies Evan in Tech Support, tries to relax on the Tech Support couch

On occasion I’ve had guests ask if there are any cats in the building. While plenty of other fauna has appeared from time to time (including but not limited to: a bird, a scorpion, a tarantula, and a chinchilla… also Pete says he wants a hamster), to my knowledge no cats have ever been brought in. Don’t get mad, internet! There are still tons of cat people at SparkFun. I actually wrote most of this post working from home next to these two. Honestly nobody has tried to bring one in yet. And with all the dogs in the building it may not be the best idea. Cats and dogs don’t always get along.

Overall, since the Dog Tribunal became the law of the land and the Dog Policy has evolved the drama around dogs has diminished a great deal. It’s more bureaucratic now and still far from perfect but at least we have a framework for dealing with any issues that come up, foreseen or otherwise. You can read the current Dog Policy in full here, provide your own suggestions, and even adapt it for your own use. It’s open source!


Comments 46 comments

  • Then maybe there should be canine oriented SF Swag? maybe a Frisbee, or a bowl, how about a blinking collar?

  • Do any dogs have a title in the company? If so, can we see some of the titles? Cause whenever I stop by SFE, I see a bunch of dogs and I wonder what their titles are. I mean, working for a company and having no title is a bit odd…

  • Can’t wait for the first ‘Child Tribunal’

  • “The canine-ical form of this document lives in SparkFun’s internal wiki site.”

  • Maybe pets in a smaller setting is OK, but I think there’s no room for it at a huge company like SparkFun. I don’t think people should be bringing their pets to work. I don’t care what the dog owners say. Every minute that’s spent tending to their pups is time taken away from work. I for one would not care to work in an environment where people were allowed to bring their dogs to work. There’s just no place for it. I think you guys have gotten lucky up until now. You should ban dogs at the workplace before you end up with a lawsuit. Are you guys ISO 9000 certified? How does that play into things? I can’t image any company getting any kind of decent cert while they have dogs roaming around the place. I don’t know, but I feel a little weird about getting my electronic components from a company that has 30 dogs running all over the place. It may not be “rampant” like I imagine, but you can’t deny the public’s perception. And sometime perception is everything. Facts don’t matter once the perception has been made. It might just be bad for business. I’d love to work for SparkFun, but putting up with 30 dogs would be a deal-breaker. Have you guys lost any good talent because of the dogs?

    • I don’t know, but I feel a little weird about getting my electronic components from a company that has 30 dogs running all over the place.

      If what the discerning customer truly seeks is an electronics company without dogs running around, it’s probably a safe bet that most of the market that isn’t SparkFun already meets this constraint.

      If we don’t fill this niche, then to whom is the dog-oriented electronics enthusiast to turn? What we have here is, in words an MBA might recognize, a competitive differentiator.

    • There are plenty of studies on how amenities in the workplace affect productivity. I’m sure the pets do wonders for morale and health and, as a result, actually increase productivity instead of decrease it as you assert. I applaud SparkFun’s desire to be different. If you want stuffy corporate slave-driver culture, there are plenty of options for you.

    • Honestly most dogs sit quietly under their owners desks most of the day, or for the more mobile people quietly at their heels. All employees get 2 15 minute breaks as well as up to an hour for lunch. That’s more than enough time to take your dog out, get some play time in and feed yourself. While not everyone one is a dog lover, I love dogs and love being able to go play with a dog for a few minutes when I’m having a rough day and need a break. All in all it is pretty low key, and tends to be a big moral booster (read ‘increased productivity’).

    • Please, don’t ever even consider getting ISO 9000 certification. That is the single most certain way of destroying any known form of creativity know to man.

      • But isn’t there an ISO standard for creativity, and a rubric, and a fill-in-the-blank official form?

    • You are worried about dogs? I guess you missed this from some months past.

      How do I beer?

    • Who would want to work for a company that is not Dog friendly !!! IF RyeMac3 is so worried about a snoring dog taking so much of your time, maybe RyeMac3 should remember that in the US, people are suppose to take 15 min breaks every so often, which could be used as quick walkies. Dogs are great way to get people to exercise. Dog reduce stress. And sometimes people need a cold nose in the right place to get them motivated. I am just surprised that Sparkfun new building does not have a Doggie day care next to it. Anyway, I use to do business with companies who were ISO 9000 certified- you know what? I could not stand them, also they are no longer in business. Their priorities were in the wrong place, and you could see it in how their employees conducted themselves, and how they handle their customers. If having a dog force at work makes you more human, then that’s who I want to do business with. Learn something from a Dog: Take the time to smell the roses, you might find something that might not have expected.

    • Actually, the allowance of dogs is one of the reasons WHY I want to work at sparkfun. Nice to see a place that is not 100% procedure and rules but actually allows a bit of leeway in things. Would I want to work at a place where everything has a rule? Not really. Anyways, dogs are so lovable. :P

  • That picture of Cora has me rolling! It’s a perfect combination of pooch snoot, lens, lighting, background, etc. I love that pic!

  • Our office has an outdoor doggie daycare within a mile of the office and offers a 40% reimbursement just like with child care. It’s great because there is a nice trail to and from doggie daycare which I typically will run to pick him up and drop him off from the parking lot. It also allows the pooches to be integrated into the environment before and after work with other co-workers and their animals.

  • Ms. Kitty Meow came for a morning visit once, but was evacuated before any dogs arrived.

    • I had no idea, and I would have loved to meet her. Because cats are awesome (I’m assuming that’s a cat…)

  • Anybody notice that you can email the dog owners?

  • Do you guys have any husky’s?

    • Do you guys have any husky’s?

      Here’s a video of Coda saying hello from SparkFun’s Maryland branch.

      • Wait – SparkFun has a Maryland branch?!

        From the video, looks like it’s maybe just someone working remotely, but I’d love to know otherwise.

        • Sorry, no official branch! Todd’s just working from Maryland these days.

        • Right?? I just flew back from there! Between radioshacks only stocking cellphones and the closest thing to a place to get a decent soldering iron being a mom&pop hardware store, MD could do with an SFE branch ;)

    • I don’t know of any huskies in the building now, though I haven’t met all the dogs so there could be one somewhere. There have been some huskies in the past though. One of our developers who now works remotely has a couple and one of them was a big lazy fluff ball that you just had to love.

  • What happens when someone with a dog allergy applies for a job? Or if an employee’s kid develops a dog allergy and goes into anaphylactic shock and dies when mom or dad come home with dog hairs on their clothes? Lotsa good lawyer bait here.

    • Lighten up, Francis.

    • All applicants are asked if they have issues with dogs, be it an allergy or something else that might adversely affect their ability to be around them. So far we’ve been lucky and no applicants have reported anything critical. Should we have a qualified applicant with a severe allergy or other issue with dogs, though, we could probably figure out the necessary segregation to keep that applicant safely removed without it affecting their work. I suppose we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

    • we have created all these autoimmune disorders by overly sanitizing our environment. The best thing you can do to promote a healthy immune system in your babies is to get a dog.

  • Sometimes dogs and cats do get along, especially if they’ve lived under the same roof for a while. A friend of ours had two dogs and three cats. Two of the cats always hid from the other cats and most people, but the thrid one wanted to be friends with everyone. She often went for a ride on the back of the Black Lab (who didn’t mind at all).

  • Does Tesla have trouble relaxing next to the jacob’s ladder? :)

  • Thanks for the insight. I’ve noticed all the dogs at SparkFun on visits before but never realized the evolution behind that part of SparkFun culture. Hopefully other workplaces can benefit from your experiences.

    PS: In the current version of the Dog Policy, there is an (apparent) typo: Under the heading for the “Running up to greet someone who has just walked into a common space” rule:

    “Second offense: Dog must be leased at all times for one week.” I really doubt SparkFun is interested in tenancy of dogs. Also, given it is at all times for one week it might be considered a violation of privacy (that my companion is leased while I’m not even at work!).

  • Having a read of your policy I’d suggest a few small changes. I’d allow people to bring in more than one dog (perhaps 2 or 3) provided they are under effective control of their owner, and don’t bother other people as group. IE all the same rules apply but the dogs are treated as one unit. I have 2 small dogs who go everywhere together, I’d hate to think how lonely one would be home alone all day if I brought the other to work. I can see bringing 2 St Bernards possibly causing a problem (well ok more of a problem than one St Bernard lol)

    I’d suggest that owners must be in effective verbal control of their dogs while they are playing in the off leash area, perhaps require this to be demonstrated? Perhaps also require this for the dogs “induction” IE the dog should sit when told to (by its owner). I’d also suggest that the dog be under the physical control of the owner when leashed, I’ve seen a german shepherd drag its owner around the dog park on his face because he wasn’t physically up to restraining it.

    I’d also allow roughhousing provided it is ok with the other owner. A husky and a boxer will play more vigorously than a pair of caviler king charles ;-> if its not OK then the owner of the bouncy dog should leash it. If a big dog “pounces” a small one that counts as an attack, they aren’t playing with a dog they are playing with food :-<

    As for non castrated animals needing to be on a leash at all times WTH man? My two are both “intact” males and we have no problems at the (off leash) dog park, There are plenty of castrated dogs that hump my boys (as well as everybody else) its part of normal dog behaviour though perhaps one we find hard to deal with.

    I would however suggest a rule of not allowing any dog in heat into the office as that will set everybody off desexed or not.

  • <hint>I can not find the sign: neither by looking under swag nor by searching (tried “bag”, “dog”, “poop”, and “sign”).</hint>

    (edited grammar for!)

    • we have the file for the sign on our downloads page ;) https://www.sparkfun.com/static/about

    • The signs were a custom job just for our building (and amusement). But if there’s interest…

      • I’d buy Spark Fun styled posters for electricity safety, soldering techniques, safe coding practices, or over-the-top technological like in Portal. But I don’t think I’m very interested in the pet waste genre.

  • Do you support a day care center as well?

  • Did the HVAC guy have to calculate farts per mammal? Because I know some dogs…

    • I heard something to the effect that they actually had to take number of dogs into account when speccing out HVAC stuff for the new building. Apparently they generate a fair amount of heat, if nothing else.

      (Edit: Naturally, this is actually covered in the post. Disregard me I am an idiot.)

    • Ya know, perhaps we could keep them all in one room and rig up some kind of methane generator. Go green!


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