Dogs are amazing animals. That’s why around 39% of all households around the world have at least one. But for people with disabilities, they are more than just wonderful pets. Dogs enhance their lives in extraordinary ways. They guide an individual with impaired vision. They alert an individual with impaired hearing to various sounds and intruders. They pull a wheelchair, help someone get up from a fall or retrieve dropped items. They can even alert and protect a person who is having a seizure, remind a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, and calm a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack. Therefore, it’s understandable that this remarkable animal must be allowed to stay by its owner’s side in both the workplace (as a reasonable accommodation) & marketplace (as a modification of policies). Service animals are not pets; they are working.
Recent changes to the ADA clarifies that a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. In rare situations, a miniature horse may also qualify, but I’ll address that in a separate blog). Service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work (retrieving a dropped item) 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.
Lawyers of course, should know this. Yet, a lawsuit was recently filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York against a Law Firm for twice refusing to let a client enter its law offices with her service dog. This clearly violates the ADA.
When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only two questions may be asked: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff 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.
OK, you’re concerned that others may have allergies or fear dogs. These are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service or employment to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at the workplace, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility. It’s important to engage in the interactive process to figure out a reasonable way to resolve the issue.
Our marketplace is diverse. People in our workforce and workspace are increasingly diverse. Diversity may mean that we don’t share similar views about the role dogs can play in a person’s life. When appropriate, make sure your company’s materials and orientation/training programs address why others may see dogs in their space.
This information should not be construed as “legal advice” for a particular set of facts or circumstances. It is intended only to be a practical guide for participants familiar with this subject. Users should seek appropriate legal advice tailored to address their specific situation.