Bringing Your Dog to Work: Service Animals as Disability Accommodation

The reasonable accommodations for an employee’s disability that may be required by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act can take many forms, including an employee coming to work each day accompanied an animal.

The ADA and the FEPA have two main components for persons with disabilities: protections for employees accessing the workplace and protections for members of  the general public accessing places of public accommodation (restaurants, hotels, theaters, transportation, etc).  Public access must be allowed for service dogs, which have been specially trained to assist their owners in overcoming the limitations of the owner’s handicap.  In the public access context, the ADA and FEPA only recognize dogs as service animals, although some states  recognize other animals, such as miniature horses.

The classic example of a service animal is the “seeing-eye dog,” but dogs can be trained to provide many other forms of assistance. They alert the hearing-impaired to the presence of people or sounds, they assist individuals who are suffering a seizure by retrieving medication,  they provide balance and stability to the mobility-impaired, they prevent or interrupt destructive behaviors by people with psychiatric issues.

Public access requirements do not extend to dogs or other animals, usually pets, which provide emotional support and are known as emotional support dogs or therapy dogs, but are not specially trained to deal with a disability.

With respect to employment, service and support dogs or other animals may be a form of reasonable accommodation, requiring the employer to consider an employee’s request for an accommodation to engage in the interactive process with the employee to clarify the employee’s needs and to identify the appropriate accommodation, and to provide a reasonable accommodation if it does not cause an undue hardship.  The ADA does not limit requests for such reasonable accommodations in the workplace to service dogs, so an employee’s request to be accompanied by a therapy pet must also be considered.

In assessing a request for an animal accommodation, the employer has the right to obtain answers to the obvious questions: how the animal is trained; how the animal assists the employer in overcoming a disability; where the animal will be located during the workday; how the employee will insure that the animal is clean, is  not disruptive, and will not make a “mess;”  how to protect customers or co-workers who may be affected by allergies.  However, the accommodation may include more than simply the permission to have the animal at work; for example, the employer may have to allow “bathroom” breaks for the dog as well as the employee, or allow a leave of absence for training the animal, provided that there is no undue hardship.

Remember that the most frequent pitfall for employers when faced with a request for an accommodation is a failure to engage in the interactive process.  An employee’s request to bring Fluffy or Fido to work should not be ridiculed or summarily rejected.  As a general proposition, there will be relatively few workplaces which could reasonably accommodate a dog or other animal for the full workday, day after day, without the presence of an animal  creating an undue hardship.  But where the accommodation is reasonable and no undue hardship exists, the employee should be allowed to bring a dog to work.