The following overview of service animals was prepared by the Tennessee Disability Coalition in June 2011. While it is intended to address issues raised by all types of service animals, it does, nonetheless, provide a worthwhile set of guidelines regarding guide dogs used by the blind and visually impaired.
Linda Carter Batiste, J.D.
Carmen Fullmer, M.S.
What is a service animal?
A service animal is an animal that performs a task or tasks for a person with a disability to help overcome limitations resulting from the disability. Federal law defines service animal as "any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual's disability"
What types of services do service animals provide?
According to the Department of Justice (n.d.), "examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal's presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition."
What is the difference between service, therapy, companion, and social/therapy animals?
According to the Delta Society, a human-services organization dedicated to improving people's health and well-being through positive interactions with animals:
Service animals are legally defined under title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act and are trained to meet the disability-related needs of their handlers who have disabilities. The ADA protects the rights of individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals in public places. Service animals are not considered 'pets'.
Therapy animals are not legally defined by federal law, but some states have laws defining therapy animals. They provide people with contact to animals, but are not limited to working with people who have disabilities. They are usually the personal pets of their handlers, and work with their handlers to provide services to others. Federal laws have no provisions for people to be accompanied by therapy animals in places of public accommodation that have "no pets" policies. Therapy animals usually are not service animals.
A companion animal is not legally defined, but is accepted as another term for pet.
Social/therapy animals have no legal definition. They often are animals that did not complete service animal or service dog training due to health, disposition, trainability, or other factors, and are made available as pets for people who have disabilities. These animals might or might not meet the definition of service animals.
Service Animals and the Americans with Disabilities Act
Because more people are using service animals, employers are asking more questions about service animals in the workplace. The following is a summary of some of those questions. The answers are based on informal guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and do not represent the EEOC's formal position on these issues or legal advice.
Does title I of the ADA require employers to automatically allow employees with disabilities to bring their service animals to work?
Title III (public access) of the ADA requires a public accommodation to modify policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability (DOJ, n.d.). Title III also requires public accommodations to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse by an individual with a disability if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability.
What this means for employers:
Employers must consider allowing an employee with a disability to use a service animal at work unless doing so would result in an undue hardship. In addition, the ADA allows employers to choose among effective accommodations, although providing a substitute accommodation for a service animal could bring up other tricky issues.
What is the definition of service animal under title I of the ADA?
As mentioned previously, title III (public access) regulations define service animal as "any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual´s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal´s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition."
What kind of documentation can employers ask for related to a service animal? What if the employee's doctor was not involved in the acquisition of the service animal or the employee trained his own service animal and nobody else was involved so the typical kind of medical documentation that employers ask for is not be available? What might be considered sufficient documentation in this type of situation?
Under the ADA, employers have the right to request reasonable documentation that an accommodation is needed (EEOC, 2002). However, according to informal guidance from the EEOC, employers need to be aware that sometimes reasonable documentation is not always going to be from a doctor or some other health care professional. In some cases the documentation should come from the appropriate provider of a service. In the case of a service animal, the appropriate documentation might be from whoever trained the service animal.
The goal of an employer is to understand why the service animal is needed and what it does for the person, so the training is important. If an employee has a service animal in a workplace where there could be lots of different kinds of distractions, lots of things going on, the employer has the right to require that the service animal be fully trained and capable of functioning appropriately, not just for the employee with the disability, but also in terms of the setting. An employee who trains his or her own service animal needs to be able to document or demonstrate that the service animal is in fact trained and will not disrupt the workplace.
What this means for employers:
When an employee with a disability requests to use a service animal at work, the employer has the right to request documentation or demonstration of the need for the service animal, that the service animal is trained, and that the service animal will not disrupt the workplace. However, this documentation may not be available from a healthcare provider so the employer may need to consider other sources for the documentation.
Who is responsible for taking care of a service animal at work?
The employee is responsible for taking care of the service animal, including making sure the animal is not disruptive, keeping it clean and free of parasites, and taking it out to relieve itself as needed.
What this means for employers:
Employees are responsible for the care of their service animals, but employers may have to provide accommodations that enable the employees to do so. When an employee is allowed to bring a service animal to work, the employer should consult with the employee to find out what accommodations are needed to care for the animal. For example, an employee might need to adjust his break times to take his service animal outside.
Do employers have to create a relief area for a service animal when an employee with a disability uses the service animal in the workplace?
The EEOC does not have any formal guidance regarding whether an employer must create an animal relief area for an employee who uses a service animal, but this should rarely be an issue because there is almost always a place outside, close to the work-site, where the animal can relieve itself. For example, the animal could relieve itself in an alley behind the work-site, a grassy area close to the work-site, or even close to a sidewalk leading to the building. Of course the employer could require the employee to clean up after the animal.
To date, the EEOC has not addressed what an employer's obligation would be to create a relief area in the event there is absolutely no existing place for the service animal to relieve itself.
What this means for employers:
From a practical standpoint, an employer faced with a request to create a relief area for a service animal might want to consider doing so even though it is not clearly required as an accommodation under the ADA because otherwise the employee is not going to be able to use his or her service animal at work.
Do employers have to allow employees to train service animals in the workplace?
Under the ADA, only employees with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations so if an employee without a disability is training a service animal for someone else, there is no accommodation obligation under the ADA. For employees with disabilities, an employer has a valid concern about the potential disruption a service animal in training might create so might not have to allow the employee to bring in the service animal until it is fully trained or at least until it can be in the workplace without disruption. Some states have laws addressing access for service animals in training, so employers also should check their state laws.
What this means for employers:
When an employee asks to bring in a service animal in training, the employer should check state laws first. If state law does not address access for service animals in training, then the employer should next determine whether the employee who is making the request has a disability and needs the service animal because of the disability. If the employee does have a disability, then the employer needs to get more information to determine whether the service animal will be disruptive (e.g., the employer could have the employee demonstrate the animal’s behavior and current level of training).
Accommodating Employees who use Service Animals
Note: People use service animals for a variety of reasons, so their accommodation needs will vary. The following is only a sample of the accommodation possibilities available. Numerous other accommodation solutions may exist.
Questions to Consider
- What limitations is the employee who uses a service animal experiencing?
- How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
- What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
- What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
- Has the employee who uses the service animal been consulted regarding possible accommodations?
- Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee who uses the service animal to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
- Do supervisory personnel and employees need training regarding the use of service animals?
Using a Service Animal at Work
- Allow the employee with a disability to bring his or her service animal to work.
- Allow the employee to take leave in order to participate in individualized service animal training.
- Provide the employee with a private/enclosed workspace.
- Provide the employee with an office space near a door and/or out of high traffic areas.
- Establish an accessible path of travel that is barrier-free.
- Allow equal access to employee break rooms, lunchrooms, rest rooms, meeting rooms, and services provided/sponsored by the employer.
Caring for a Service Animal at Work
- Provide a designated area where the employee can tend to the service animal’s basic daily needs, e.g., eating or bodily functions.
- Allow periodic breaks so the employee can care for the service animal’s basic daily needs.
- Provide general disability awareness training on the use of service animals in the workplace.
Dealing with coworkers who are allergic to the service animal
While this should not be a likely problem, the following are possible solutions:
- Allow the employees to work in different areas of the building.
- Establish different paths of travel for each employee.
- If possible, provide one or each of the employees with private/enclosed workspace.
- If possible, allow one of the employees to work at home or to move to another location.
- Develop a plan between the employees so they are not using common areas - such as the break room and restroom - at the same time.
- Allow the employees to take periodic rest breaks if needed, e.g., to take medication.
- Ask the employee who uses the service animal if (s)he is able to temporarily use other accommodations to replace the functions performed by the service animal for meetings attended by both employees.
- Arrange for alternatives to in-person communication, such as e-mail, telephone, teleconferencing, and videoconferencing.
- Ask the employee who uses a service animal if (s)he is willing to use dander care products on the animal regularly.
- Ask the employee who is allergic to the service animal if (s)he wants to, and would benefit from, wearing an allergen/nuisance mask.
- Have the work area - including carpets, cubicle walls, and window treatments - cleaned, dusted, and vacuumed regularly.
Interacting with a service animal
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- Address the person when approaching a person with a disability who is accompanied by a service animal.
- Remember that service animals are working and are not pets.
- Do not touch, pet, or feed treats to a service animal without the owner’s permission.