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Loosening their collars: These Harford businesses have pets who ‘work’ in the office

Loosening their collars: These Harford businesses have pets who ‘work’ in the office
Chessie is a 19-year-old green wing macaw who lives at Chesaco RV in Joppa. Her main caretaker there is Don Olmstead, who is the parts manager. Chessie is a frequent visitor to Don's office, where she often sits on his shoulder while he works at his desk. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Sure, there are scientific studies that show the health benefits of having pets at work. (Who doesn’t feel the stress seep out of them at petting and playing with a dog or cat?) For these Harford County business owners, who talk about the camaraderie and joy that their animals bring to their offices, every day is take your pet to work day.

Mia

It’s Payday, Forest Hill

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On workdays, Mia, a 4 1/2-pound Yorkshire terrier, is so excited about going to the office that she’ll often jump into her carrier long before it’s time to leave home, say It’s Payday owners Kathy and George Heidelmaier.

Once they arrive at the payroll management company that the couple founded in 2008, Mia starts her work day: “As our employees get to work and open the door, she tears down the hall, rolls over and waits for a belly rub,” Kathy says.

At left, George and Kathy Heidelmaier with their Yorkie, Mia, and their daughter, Racheal Hresko, right, with Maltese-Chihuahua mix Bella.
At left, George and Kathy Heidelmaier with their Yorkie, Mia, and their daughter, Racheal Hresko, right, with Maltese-Chihuahua mix Bella. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Mia spends her days greeting customers, sleeping and sitting on a chair in the breakroom while the staff eat lunch.

The Heidelmaiers are active in several local nonprofits, including the Humane Society of Harford County. Recently, Mia has stepped up to play Toto in the “Wizard of Oz”-themed fundraiser for Harford Family House.

For the Heidelmaiers, Mia creates a congenial business atmosphere for customers and employees.

“It just helps morale,” George says. “Sometimes you are having a bad day and something is going wrong. It’s always nice to take five minutes and play ball with a dog.”

Max

John Carroll High School, Bel Air

Inspired by a professional workshop on pet therapy, John Carroll High School counselor Jennifer Behler thought of her dog, Max, a gentle, people-loving Australian shepherd/Lab mix who wags his tail even during veterinarian visits.

“I have had dogs my entire life, and I know what they have done for me as far as boosting my mood and bringing unconditional love,” Behler says.

John Carroll students Kiana Miller, right, and Garrett Phillips, left, with Max at The John Carroll School.
John Carroll students Kiana Miller, right, and Garrett Phillips, left, with Max at The John Carroll School. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

With the blessing of the school’s administration, Behler and Max became certified as a therapy team at Paws for People, a nonprofit that trains such teams around the Mid-Atlantic region.

Max joins Behler at school on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to provide comfort and companionship. Behler and Max work together with students and staff who want to spend time with him. He is usually in Behler’s office, and a sign on her door lets students know if Max is on duty. She always escorts him on a leash in other parts of the school and grounds.

Junior Kiana Miller stops by often: “Just seeing his cute little face always makes me happy, no matter what. When I am talking to Mrs. Behler, he’ll come up and lick my face. That warms my heart and I can just breathe. Everything’s going to be fine. Max is here.”

Chessie

Chesaco RV, Joppa

The office pet with the most impressive tenure might be Chessie, a macaw who oversees the comings and goings at Chesaco RV from her cage just inside the showroom entrance.

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General manager Mike Richards says that dealership owner Steve Shapiro, an animal lover, brought Chessie to work over 20 years ago. Though Shapiro now works in the company’s other locations, Chessie has stayed on, though often not quietly.

Chessie is a 19-year-old green wing macaw who lives at Chesaco RV in Joppa. Her main caretaker there is Don Olmstead, who is the parts manager.
Chessie is a 19-year-old green wing macaw who lives at Chesaco RV in Joppa. Her main caretaker there is Don Olmstead, who is the parts manager. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

“Just about every customer wants to stop and talk with her,” Richards says. “Sometimes she talks more than we would like. I have to close the door, because she will just go on. She barks like a dog, meows like a cat.”

Several Chesaco employees ensure that Chessie, who lives at the dealership, is well-cared for, gets fresh air and goes for regular medical care. Parts manager Don Olmstead carved a custom perch at home and set it up in his office so that Chessie could escape the showroom bustle and get some quiet one-on-one time.

Chessie knows who is in charge. “Yesterday, I wasn’t paying attention to her and she flapped her wings to move the papers on my desk,” Olmstead says.

Shorty

Big House Signs, Havre de Grace

Paula Casagrande has never been deterred by the costs and eventual heartbreak that come with adopting a senior dog. There has been a dog — all small, usually older ­— at work with her since she opened Big House Signs in 1996.

“That’s when they need the most care and love,” she says.

Paula Casagrande of Big House Signs in Havre de Grace plays with Shorty.
Paula Casagrande of Big House Signs in Havre de Grace plays with Shorty. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

After Casagrande adopted Shorty three years ago at age 11, the two bonded into a work team. He sat on Casagrande’s lap during customer consultations. He followed her everywhere and was fiercely protective, as if he didn’t know that he weighed just a few pounds.

As Shorty’s pace slowed in recent months, Casagrande made sure that there was a bed in all of the shop areas. Shorty didn’t stop following her until just before he died after a few days of illness in early April.

“A dog will love you more than anyone,” Casagrande says. “After I grieve a bit, trust me, I will be looking for another senior.”

Cujo

McCool Insurance, Aberdeen

More than anything, Docia McCool wants to change the perception that pit terriers like her office dog, Cujo, are vicious.

“He greets everyone,” says McCool, who owns McCool Insurance with her husband, Bill. “On the first day that we brought him into the office, we found him sitting on a customer’s feet. Now we have customers who bring in their payment, rather than mail it, just to see Cujo.”

Cujo the pit bull terrier mix plays with Docia McCool at McCool Insurance in Aberdeen as agent Christy Lewis watches.
Cujo the pit bull terrier mix plays with Docia McCool at McCool Insurance in Aberdeen as agent Christy Lewis watches. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Recently, the McCools organized an office donation drive for rescue animals.

“I’ve never seen an animal with its own rescue drive,” Docia says. “People donated food, blankets, toys and towels for cats and dogs. There was so much that we donated to both A Buddy for Life and the Humane Society of Harford County. We packed up the car and Cujo helped deliver it.”

The McCools originally brought Cujo to the office because he disliked being at home alone. Now, he is one of the faces of McCool Insurance.

“He melts everybody’s heart,” Docia says.

Blaney and Cale

Harford County Transmissions, Forest Hill

Chris Knopp, who owns Harford County Transmissions, never thought of himself as a cat person until his staff found three tiny abandoned kittens behind the shop.

“My niece was going to adopt them out, but they kind of grew on everybody here,” Knopp says.

Shop owner Chris Knopp, pictured with Blaney, whom he rescued.
Shop owner Chris Knopp, pictured with Blaney, whom he rescued. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

An employee took one home. Knopp’s children named the other two after favorite NASCAR drivers. Now, Blaney and Cale spend their weekdays in Harford Transmission’s front office and live with office manager Tasha Cavileer on weekends.

They wait at the door for employees to arrive and then spend the rest of the day rubbing against customers’ legs, climbing into purses, sleeping and overseeing Knopp when he is working at his desk. They leap onto the office printer when they hear its hum and bat at customers’ receipts as they emerge.

“Customers are often unhappy when they come in because they are having a problem with their car,” Knopp says. “The cats have a calming effect. It takes the edge off.”

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