Dog is an important part of the Alexian team

Most days, Mitzi, a mixed breed Cocker spaniel and Welsh corgi, spends her days quietly in Elk Grove Village happily living with members of the Alexian Brothers at their residence.

Once a week or so, however, she goes to work.

She reports to the office with Br. Jim Classon, provincial of the Alexian Brothers, who keeps towels draped over a chair in his third floor office for his companion, as well as a stock of furry toys.

Classon works at the Alexian Brothers Health System headquarters in Arlington Heights, home to more than 450 corporate employees from both Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village and St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates.

During a visit last week, Classon instructed a Daily Herald reporter and photographer to follow Mitzi, to see first hand the calming influence she has on the organization.

"Follow her," Classon says. "She knows the way."

Indeed, from his corner office, she winds her way into different departments, her tail wagging continually, drawing employees out of their offices and cubicles, eager to greet her at each stop.

"It's so different to be able to visit with a dog in the workplace," says Sandra Vilellard of the legal department, who kneels down to cuddle with Mitzi. "It just makes the whole place feel so more homey."

Employees regularly tell Classon how much the dog helps to relax them and relieve the day's stress.

Over in the Alexian Connects department, where a bank of employees sit in cubicles to schedule appointments, Manager Nancy Florio breaks into a smile as soon as she sees Mitzi.

"She brightens up the day," Florio says, "and adds a human element to the place."

The same response plays out in the managed care department where co-workers Cathy Gannet and Enilda Molina gravitate toward the dog.

"This is my dog-fix for the day," Gannet says.

"She just puts a smile on your face," adds Molina.

Once they make their way through the various departments, Classon and Mitzi head down to the first floor chapel for a prayer service held that day for Haiti relief, led by the Rev. Bill Veith.

Without missing a beat, Mitzi lays down in front of the altar and remains there quietly until the end of the service.

A little over three years ago, the Alexian Brothers adopted Mitzi from Orphans of the Storm shelter in Riverwoods. An older woman had brought her there when she no longer could care for her.

As fate would have it, the Brothers arrived the next day seeking to adopt a pet, and they were paired with Mitzi.

"It's obvious that she'd been well cared for. She's very gentle and never barks," Classon says. "And she loves people."

Classon, who spent 20 years as a nurse anesthetist, understands the value of a therapy dog in a medical setting, but now he is seeing their value in the workplace.

But Mitzi has come to play another important role, he says, to help humanize the Brothers themselves to their more than 8,000 employees.

As their health system has grown, it has become harder for the Brothers to maintain relationships with many of their employees.

"As a result, there are increasing misperceptions about who we are," Classon says. "Mitzi has helped us break down communication barriers and initiate hundreds of conversations with our employees who stop to pet her or see her on one of our campuses.

"In addition to all the joy she has brought us," Classon adds, "she has become our unofficial ambassador."