Many employers find the world of service animals a challenge. It’s hard to know what your employee’s rights are, as well as your own as an employer. We review managing service animals in the workplace.
Americans with Disabilities Act on Service Animals
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities qualified under the ADA. Under this rule, employers may have to accommodate an employee’s service animal. Service animals are defined by the ADA as dogs that are trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability – the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) ADA regulations cover miniature horses separately.
Service animals are trained to help someone living with a disability to perform everyday tasks or alert them to danger or health problems. Emotional support animals do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
Initial discussions with the employee
It is important to note that there are laws regarding what you can ask an employee about their service animal.
When it is not obvious that the dog is not a service animal, employers may ask:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
As stated by the DOJ, “Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.”
Other staff involvement
Employees should be respectful of the employee and the service animal. If colleagues become too comfortable with the service animal they may develop a habit of seeking emotional support from the animal themselves. Not only can this disrupt the animal’s duties, but it can also become a distraction for others and cause productivity to dip.
Employers should first speak with the employee who has a disability about the interactions to identify what they are comfortable with and how those types of disruptions can be avoided.
Disclosing to other employees that an employee who uses a service animal has a disability that requires that the service animal not be distracted could lead to confidentiality issues. Employers could ask the employee with a disability if they are comfortable providing training on how to interact with the service animal and what appropriate interactions are.
AskJan has advocated that one solution may be to send a company-wide email that explains to employees that while they may see service animals in the facility, the animals are present for a specific purpose and should not be interacted with for any reason.
If an employee with a disability has the ability to bring the service animal in on a quiet day or after hours, it’s an excellent opportunity to train the animal in the layout and routines of the office. You’ll also want to do this on a typical busy day. Give your employee a chance to experiment with their new surroundings so they can adjust more quickly to their new workplace.
It’s also important to note that service animals do not require professional training. And while service animals in training are not technically covered by the ADA, it may be best not to make assumptions about the animal’s training as long as they are under control and are not a direct threat to the safety of others − however, note that this is a frequent catalyst for debate throughout the service animal community (what is considered adequately trained and what is not), it may be best to defer to the DOJ’s guidance on service animals when developing policy.
If your workplace contains any hazards such as dangerous materials, a service dog may need to wear special protective equipment. It’s worth checking with your employee to find out what their animal may need, especially in new settings or in places that pose obvious hazards.
Service animals − when properly trained, under control, and do not pose a direct threat to safety − are usually hard to upset, not excitable animals, and are friendly and well-behaved. And while they may initially surprise other employees who have limited experience with service animals, their presence is typically an easy accommodation to make.