Your employees may ask if Rex or Fuzzy is a service dog. If the answer is yes, however, their next words should only be, “How may I help you?” Employees may not ask about the nature of the disability or doubt its existence. In theory, they could ask about the tasks the service canine has been trained to do, but why would anyone do such a thing? You want customers, remember? Refresh your employees’ Americans with Disabilities Act training as necessary.
A report out of Houston suggests that we have not all moved into the 21st century at quite the same speed. No, not all people with disabilities wear dark glasses. Not all service animals are German Shepherds. No cool people use the term “seeing-eye dog” any more. In 2010, the Department of Justice clarified its guidance on access for people with service animals. In case you are still catching up, that may include handbag dogs and (surprise!) miniature horses. Follow along.
Where May a Service Dog Go?
Anywhere a member of the general public might go, and with pretty much the same restrictions. These rules apply to businesses, public transportation, and non-profit organizations. If you serve food, set aside your concerns about the Health Department unless there is another reason for concern.
If there is a reason to exclude a member of the general public — from the sterile atmosphere of a hospital's burn unit, for example — the service animal may be excluded also. A service dog, like a member of the general public, may be excluded because of unruly behavior or lack of housebreaking. Fear of animals or allergic reaction to dander is not sufficient. Think about gag-worthy perfume. Allergic individuals and those who are generally accompanied by service animals may require separate accommodation.
What Is a Service Animal?
Well, technically that statement about miniature horses is true. It got your attention, didn’t it? The applications seem to be limited to training facilities, so we’re really just talking about dogs – no bunnies, no lions and no service goats. A service animal is one trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability. We are all familiar with dogs who assist people with mobility. Service dogs may also be trained to alert individuals about impending seizures or calm anxiety in those suffering from PTSD, for example. Your employees have nearly infinite reasons not to ask, even if they believe that the animal is simply providing companionship, which is not covered by the law. Keep in mind that neither you nor your employees need to vet the credentials of the animal. (Sorry.)
Does this Apply to My Employees, Too?
Surely we're not discussing housebreaking. Perhaps you meant, "Do I have to allow an employee to work with a service dog?" The legal thinking about reasonable accommodation in the workplace is somewhat more elaborate. In a recent Texas case, a legally blind employee, returning from a medical leave complained that her employer unreasonably restricted the movements of her service dog. The focus was on the meaning of the term "reasonable accommodation," which is a different inquiry. There are some principles in common, though. An employer need not investigate and verify a disability. Obviously, in order to request accommodations, an employee must disclose something about the condition. The balancing test permits consideration of the employer's interest and burdens, as well. This is very different, and it is important not to generalize from one situation to the next.