'Shop dogs' are F-M's four-legged business ambassadors

Justin Blanford, general manager of 99 Bottles, and Pongo, seen Tuesday, July 21, are constant companions at the downtown Moorhead liquor store. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

MOORHEAD - Pongo isn’t what you’d call your classic booze hound, but Pongo is a very, very good boy.

The mellow mini Australian shepherd is the “shop dog” and chief greeter at 99 Bottles, equally happy to hoover up treats and accept ear scratches or belly rubs from whoever wanders in the door.

Like shop dogs - and cats - throughout the Fargo-Moorhead area, he’s a four-legged ambassador and sometimes therapist.

Justin Blanford, the general manager of the liquor store and Pongo’s person, didn’t think he’d be taking his dog to work at first.

Blanford and his wife had a toddler, got Pongo, then learned that they were expecting twins.


When the babies arrived, Blanford said his wife decided she couldn’t handle a 3-year-old, infant twins and a puppy at the same time.

Blanford decided to chance taking Pongo to 99 Bottles, where the doggie doorman wears a padded harness embossed with his name and covered with beer company patches.


“He hit it out of the park the first time I brought him. ... He’s really friendly and has a very calm disposition," Blanford said.
“We’ve got customers that come in and make a fuss over him. They bring him treats - bones and stuff,” Blanford said Tuesday, July 21. “I have a lot of people come in and say, ‘Oh, my God, he made my day.'”

Charley Hovde feeds Pongo, the four-legged ambassador at Moorhead's 99 Bottles, a treat on Tuesday, July 21. Helmut Schmidt / The Forum

One of those customers is Charlie Hovde, who lives with her husband, Peter, on a lake near Minnesota’s Itasca State Park.

As Charlie and her husband were getting ready to check out, she dropped to her knees and fed Pongo a treat.


“You are so beautiful you are,” Hovde said, scratching Pongo’s back and getting some love in return with a full shin rub by Pongo’s happy head.

Often, the 2-year-old pooch lies in the vestibule. Other times he’ll hang back inside the second door, quietly greeting customers and wandering in their wake, giving a discreet sniff or two.

When Pongo's ready to chill out, he’ll head behind the register to lie quietly at Blanford’s feet.

At 18 pounds, Pongo is small for his breed, but his heart is huge, Blanford said.

“He wakes up with a lot of excitement. He greets the first people with a lot of excitement. Then he calms down. He has a good life,” Blanford said. “He is so well known here in Moorhead.”

Pongo the shop dog at Moorhead's 99 Bottles was ready to greet customers Tuesday, July 21. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

Welcome to the woofice

To a certain extent, science backs up turning some offices into woofices.


A well-trained shop dog or cat - with the emphasis on well-trained - can improve collaboration, increase productivity and reduce stress, according to Erika Berg, an associated professor in North Dakota State University’s animal science department.

Critters can be “a social lubricant. They can ease tensions between individuals,” Berg said Wednesday, July 22.

But there are caveats.

You can’t have pets in a business setting that aren’t well-behaved. They have to be properly vaccinated and healthy. Having pet insurance is also a must, just in case an animal is spooked or gets hurt and bites someone. Your landlord should be on board. And critters need places to relieve themselves and a chance to exercise.

Plus, not every human loves a dog. Some are allergic or are fearful.

“I like the idea of them (dogs or cats) being there for a reason,” Berg said.

For example, bringing trained therapy dogs to a campus during finals to help students that like them to have a chance to de-stress. Or into a nursing home setting.

“It definitely can be beneficial for people, as long as people are on board with it,” Berg said.


And the feelings of the dog or cat can’t be minimized. Meeting strangers can be stressful for animals.

“It’s important to monitor the animal’s welfare. It’s really important for owners to understand and recognize” stress in their animals, Berg said.

“At first glimpse the idea sounds awesome and it can be” but all factors must be looked at, she said.

‘Part of our team’

VISIONBank in Fargo, has made dogs part of the company's culture.

The 25th Street South location is a case study in creating a successful lab-oratory.

Piper is a mellow black lab who is one of two canine ambassadors at Fargo's VISIONBank. In this undated photo, he poses with one of the bank's younger visitors. (Photo submitted by VISIONBank )


On Wednesday, July 22, it was a 5-year-old black Labrador retriever, Piper, who greeted customers at the door, her tail doing a steady, happy wag, her muzzle nuzzling to get a good sniff, and to perhaps elicit a couple good scratches.

Once the greeting ceremony is over, Piper heads back into the bank, ready to check on the staff or head back to her blanket, tucked behind a fireplace.

Dan Carey, president and CEO of VISIONBank, owns Piper and her smaller companion, 10-year-old Scout.

Carey, who is also an adept animal trainer, said Labradors are good-natured and great with children.

“They’re definitely hunting dogs, but black Labs are so friendly,” Carey said. “I’ve had them since Day 1. Dogs have been part of our culture. And the clients absolutely love them."

The labs lap up the attention, remembering all who bring treats, Carey said. And they are part of the bank’s marketing, appearing in advertising and on social media.

“We’ve just really had fun with it. The dogs go upstairs, they go to the branches, they float around. They know who the dog people are in the bank. It’s just a wonderful time being part of this whole staff,” Carley said.


The dogs are everyone’s best buddies, but they do have favorites among the staff.

Jenny Arends, left, sits with doggie ambassador Scout, and Dan Carey sits with Piper, at VISIONBank on 25th Street South in Fargo on Wednesday, July 22. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

For example, Scout is devoted to Jenny Arends,

“Everywhere Jenny goes, Scout goes,” Carey said. “Jenny goes home around five … and she takes Scout with her” so Scout can hang out with her pugs.

Carey then stops by Arends' place to pick Scout up when his day ends about 7 p.m.

Arends said the Labs are a touchstone for the bank’s community.

Staff members take them for walks and they’ll call the dogs to their desks when they need some critter therapy. They don't bark, and are always good canine corporate citizens, Carey said.

“Some people will come in just to have a cup of coffee, read the newspaper, and sit with the dogs,” Arends said.

“(Scout and Piper) come to our Christmas parties. They’re in all of our photos,” Carey added.

“Our dogs are part of our team,” Arends said.

Sheena, pictured Wednesday, July 22, has been working out just fine as the "shop dog" for Sheyenne River CrossFit in West Fargo. Helmut Schmidt / The Forum

‘She loves crossfit’

Several miles away, on the north side of West Fargo, Rhoda Christianson was stretching out at Sheyenne River CrossFit.

As she warmed up, Sheena, a 3-year-old, 70-pound golden retriever, was hanging out with Kiki Brophy.

“She started coming because she’s my dog. She kind of goes everywhere with me,” Christenson said Wednesday. “She loves crossfit.”

“She’s definitely spoiled. She definitely boosts everyone’s mood,” Brophy said.

“Occasionally other people bring their dogs, so there are three or four dogs here,” Christenson said. “She’s here all day.”

Rhoda Christenson poses with her golden retriever, Sheena, at Sheyenne River CrossFit in West Fargo on Wednesday, July 22. Helmut Schmidt / The Forum

‘The right choice’

Back at 99 Bottles, Pongo was ready to play.

“Hey Pongo, get me a toy. Get a rope,” Blanford said.

Pongo obliged, more than happy to take part in a tug-of-war, giving little grows of joy as he chomped down on his end of the rope.

When he’s very happy, Pongo’s tiny tail can’t convey all of his joy, Blanford said.

“He gets the butt wiggles. The whole lower half of him goes crazy,” Blanford said.

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pongo was kept at the Blanfords' home. They worried that constant petting might lead to accidental transmission of the novel coronavirus.

As more information came out saying that COVID-19 was tougher to spread by touching, Blanford decided to bring Pongo back.

As an added precaution, Pongo gets a soapy rubdown twice a day.

Blanford - and his customers - haven’t regretted Pongo’s return to the Moorhead business scene.

“I think it’s safe. Bringing him back was the right choice,” Blanford said.

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