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Dogs in the Workplace

A Paw-sible Solution

From the desk of Tracie DeFreitas, M.S., Program Leader, Director of Training and Outreach

Among trending reasonable accommodation issues, the topic of dogs in the workplace continues to rank among the most frequently addressed topics by JAN’s ADA Team. The number of requests to bring a service animal (SA) or emotional support animal (ESA) into the workplace as a form of accommodation continues to rise as more individuals with disabilities benefit from this type of support for various disability-related reasons.

The majority of accommodation requests related to animals in the workplace involve access for dogs and so this type of request is prompting an increasing number of employers to draft procedures for processing dog-related accommodation requests. Access rights for service and emotional support dogs in the workplace under title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are different than under titles II and III of the ADA – which means a request from an employee to bring a service or emotional support dog into the workplace can be processed like any other job-related request for reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Service and emotional support dogs serve and support people in various ways and for a variety medical reasons associated with physical, neurological, and mental health conditions. The important role of assistance dogs has expanded greatly from “guide” and “hearing” dogs to mobility support dogs, seizure alert and response dogs, diabetic alert dogs, severe allergy alert dogs, autism assistance dogs, psychiatric service dogs, wheelchair assistance dogs, emotional support dogs, and so on. The growing number of requests for access for dogs in the workplace may be in part due to the expanded purpose dogs serve for individuals with disabilities because more medical and emotional needs are being met through the assistance these dogs provide. Allowing workplace access for service or emotional support animals can enable individuals with disabilities to achieve successful employment outcomes by having access to the support needed to manage their medical impairments, engage in activities of daily living, and perform job duties.

Under the title I employment provisions of the ADA, there is no definition of service animal and there are no specific guidelines for employers to follow when an employee asks to bring a service or emotional support animal into the workplace as an accommodation. JAN suggests that employers process this kind of request in the same manner as other accommodation requests, but employers often have questions about how to procedurally implement and monitor SA and ESA accommodation requests. Why does the employee need the dog at work? What behavior can the employer expect from the dog? Who will be responsible for taking care of the animal? What if the dog is disruptive? A doggone list of questions come to mind and there aren’t many work-related resources to help employers get a leash on this accommodation situation. See what I did there? JAN helps employers navigate this type of accommodation situation by offering practical guidance on how to proceed with the interactive process.

It can be useful to follow a uniformly applied, interactive accommodation process for receiving accommodation requests and gathering information to explore and implement changes in the workplace that are reasonable and effective. When it comes to incorporating dogs into the workplace, this can be especially useful because gathering information in advance of the dog’s arrival and establishing expectations for its presence can create a smoother transition for everyone. What information may be useful when engaging in the interactive process? Consider the following:

  • Understand why the individual is requesting to bring a dog into the workplace. What is the disability-related need for the accommodation? To receive an accommodation under the ADA, an individual must have a disability. This means the employer may establish the individual’s eligibility to receive accommodation based on whether the individual has a disability and a disability-related need to have the animal present. If the disability and need for accommodation are not known or obvious, then the employer may ask disability-related questions to establish the need for the accommodation. If dogs are not allowed in the workplace, the employer may need to consider modifying a policy that prohibits dogs in the workplace as an accommodation under the ADA, if reasonable.
  • Understand what the dog does for the individual, and the animal’s relevance to the individual’s ability to work. For example, does the animal perform a task, alert the individual to a medical event, offer emotional support, etc.? Does the dog assist the individual in commuting to work by acting as a guide, or warn the individual during the workday that their blood sugar is dropping, or maybe focus the individual’s attention during bouts of extreme anxiety in meetings? Service dogs are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.  Tasks vary according to the specific needs of the individual and can include anything from pulling a wheelchair, opening doors, providing mobility support, alerting to sounds, predicting seizures, and stopping repetitive behaviors, to reminding the individual to take medication. Emotional support dogs are not individually trained to perform specific tasks, but do provide comfort and support through companionship. Employers should use caution in attempting to provide a substitute accommodation for a service animal. Service and emotional support animals often help with personal medical needs and provide supports that employers cannot offer as accommodation. Gather information about how the dog assists the individual in managing the symptoms and limitations of their disability in order to understand how the animal’s support enables the individual to work. For example, a service dog may enable an individual to independently commute to work by enhancing their mobility.
  • Learn about the dog’s training, behavior, temperament, and need for care. If the animal is a trained service dog, has it received formal training or was it trained by its handler? Is the dog housebroken, obedience-trained, and can it behave appropriately in the workplace without causing a disruption (e.g., not exhibit aggressive behavior)? How frequently will the individual need to take the dog outside? Is the employee’s work area spacious enough for the two to work together, and is it a safe environment for the animal?  Employers can expect service and emotional support dogs not to be disruptive or otherwise behave inappropriately. This does not mean the animal must be professionally trained, but rather, it must be able to behave appropriately in the workplace (e.g., be housebroken, respond to basic commands, not growl or bite, etc.). In order to evaluate the dog’s behavior and to determine if the accommodation is reasonable, it can be useful to allow the employee to bring the SA/ESA to work on a trial basis. This can provide an opportunity for the dog to demonstrate whether it can behave appropriately in the workplace.
  • Set some ground rules. When will the individual take breaks to tend to the dog’s needs? Where will the individual dispose of the animal’s waste? Are there environments the dog may not access in the workplace? Who will educate co-workers about the animal’s presence? What will happen if the dog misbehaves or becomes aggressive?  It can be useful to draft an accommodation agreement that documents expectations for implementing and monitoring the accommodation. This type of agreement will set expectations for what the employer will do to accommodate the employee, what requirements the employee will be expected to meet in order for the accommodation to be reasonable, and the expected behavior of the animal in the workplace.

Find more information about service and emotional support animals in the workplace on JAN’s A to Z By Topic: Service Animals.

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