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Service Animals in the Workplace – what you need to know

We see animals wearing “Service Animal” or “Therapy Dog” vests everywhere these days – restaurants, stores, airplanes and the office. There are people who have a legitimate need for a Service Animal, and those who unfortunately purchase a vest online and call their pet a “Service Animal”. While it’s perfectly acceptable to have a policy prohibiting pets in your place of business, it is not legal to ban Service Animals. How do you know the difference and what do you do if presented with this in your office or place of business?

In Your Place of Business….

According to the ADA, there are ONLY 2 questions which are acceptable to ask someone who enters your place of business with a “Service Animal” and the need isn’t obvious (as in a dog pulling someone in a wheelchair, or guiding a visually impaired person);

  • Question number 1 is “Is the animal required because of a disability?”

  • Question number 2 is, “What work or task has your animal been trained to perform?”

The theory behind this is that people who are faking the need for a service animal may lie and say “yes, my pet (dog, cat, rat, bird, ferret) is needed for a disability”, but the second question isn’t as easy to lie about and they should be able to tell you what task the Service Animal has been trained to provide to assist with that disability. And, if someone walks in to your establishment with their dog in their purse, stating it’s a “Therapy” or “Emotional Support” dog (or pet), and can’t provide satisfactory answers to the questions above, you are not required to allow the animal to remain in your place of business. There is no doubt that some animals provide emotional and comfort support and serve a legitimate need, however those needs are not currently granted access rights under the ADA. And by the way, a Service Animal is defined by the ADA as only a dog, or (believe it or not) a miniature pony (as it stands now!). *Local laws that prohibit certain types of breeds do not apply to Service Animals under the ADA. The business CAN assess the size, type and weight of a miniature horse to determine whether it’s practical to allow it on the premises.

Service animal owners have responsibilities as well and must have control of their dog at all times, not expect or require the facility to clean up after their dog, and if the animal shows signs of aggression, or disrupts other customer’s enjoyment of the facility (barking or jumping on people, etc), you can ask them to remove their dog from the premises. And it should go without saying that the dog must be housebroken! You should allow the customer or client the opportunity to remain without their dog, or take their food to go, reschedule an appointment, etc.

Service Animals and Employment…

The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) which governs employment provisions under the ADA, does not have a specific regulation regarding service animals, however, requesting the use of a Service Animal or “Emotional Support Animal” at work may be considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. If the need isn’t obvious (again, don’t ask if there is an obvious need as mentioned above), an employer MAY request documentation to establish the existence of a disability, and how a service animal will assist them at work with that disability. The documentation can include how the dog has been trained to behave in the workplace, and a specific description of the tasks the dog will perform. An employer can also require that the dog is up to date on vaccinations, and has the right to exclude both Service and/or Emotional Support Animals if allowing it causes undue hardship, or a direct threat in the workplace.

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