Addressing service animal requests

June 8, 2018


Young woman with dog in office

Employers are getting more and more requests from employees who want to use service animals in the workplace. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows for the use of service animals in public places like stores, hotels, and restaurants under Titles II and III. However under Title I, the employment provisions, there is no definition of service animal or any specific guidelines for employers to follow when an employee asks to bring a service animal to work. Rather, service animals are considered a “reasonable request.” This means employers must consider the request, but do not have to automatically allow employees to bring their service animals to work.

While allowing for a service animal for an employee who is blind may seem like a reasonable request, it may not be obvious when it comes to employees who don’t appear to suffer from any disability. Perhaps it’s an employee who suffers from MS or PTSD. Maybe an employee is asking to bring an emotional support dog.

Furthermore, what if other employees are allergic to certain animals? How should an employer address all these issues?

First, let’s define what a service animal is. According to the ADA’s website:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.

It may not be obvious what service an animal provides, however only limited inquiries by staff are allowed. According to the ADA, you may ask two questions:

Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

You “cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.”

Owner responsibilities
Under the ADA, service animals “must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.”

The pet’s owners are responsible for caring and feeding service animals.

Removal
A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove their service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.

Allergies
According to ADA, “Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals.” If a person who is allergic to dogs must spend time in the same room as an employee who requires a service animal, the employer must try to accommodate both employees as much as possible by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.

Emotional support animals
According to ADA, “Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.” In other words, you can say no.

But still, assuming you want to make your employees comfortable (which will make them more productive), how do you process this request?

Assuming you have a no-animals policy, this request falls under the category of modifying a workplace policy. To determine if you can modify this policy, in this instance you must consider if the employee’s position is able to accommodate a dog. If they work in the office, that may be the case; however, if they work in a dangerous or sterile environment, not so much.

Make sure the animal in question is trained to be in a work environment and will be under the employee’s control at all times.

Next you should talk with the other employees who share this person’s environment to make sure the animal will not pose an undue hardship.

If your other employees are comfortable and willing to accommodate this, you can allow the employee to bring their animal on a trial basis. It’s good to make a written agreement stating how long the trial will last and what factors might end the trial period early. For example, if the employee cannot control the animal, the animal shows signs of aggression, or poses an undue hardship on other workers.

For more information on service animals, visit https://www.ada.gov/. For help in accommodating the needs of your employees, contact Vanguard Resources.