Q. An employee has requested that he be allowed to bring his Labradoodle to work with him. Do we have to accommodate this request?

A. Pets are accompanying their masters everywhere these days. It is not unusual to see pets in public areas, including restaurants, and even on airplanes. Likewise, more employees are requesting to bring man’s best friend to work. Whether an employer has to accommodate such a request depends on whether the employee is qualified individual with a disability, the request for accommodation would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job, and the animal is a “service animal” as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA defines a service animal as a dog or miniature horse that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Yes, you did read that correctly. Miniature horses are covered by the Act, although other animals, such as cats, are not. Examples of the type of work or tasks performed by service animals include: (i) guiding a blind employee, (ii) alerting a deaf individual, (iii) pulling a wheelchair, (iv) alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, (v) alerting a diabetic that his or her blood sugar has reached certain high or low levels, (vi) reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, and (vii) calming an employee with a mental health disability during an anxiety attack. The work or task the service animal has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.

When it is not obvious what service a particular animal provides, employers may ask the employee only the following questions: (1) whether the animal is a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task the service animal has been trained to perform. The employer may not require the employee to demonstrate that the service animal has been trained to perform a certain task. Moreover, the ADA does not require that service animals be trained by a professional training program. Instead, employees with disabilities have the right to train the service animal themselves. Likewise, the ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness, or require that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal.

Service Animals Must Be Under Control

Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work 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. The employer is not required to provide care or food for the service animal. Moreover, an individual with a disability can be asked to remove his service animal from the workplace if: (a) the animal is out of control and the employee does not take effective action to control it, (b) the animal is not housebroken; (c) the facility cannot accommodate the service animal’s type, size, or weight; or (4) the service animal’s presence will compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility.

Significantly, however, a coworker’s allergies or fear of dogs are not valid reasons for prohibiting service animals from the workplace. When a coworker who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility, or modifying work schedules.

Some state and local laws define service animal more broadly than the ADA. For example, the ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals, which are trained to sense an impending anxiety attack and take specific action to help avoid it or lessen its impact, from emotional support animals whose mere presence provides comfort. Under the ADA, such emotional support animals are not covered. However, certain state laws require employers to accommodate general companion animals.

Employer Best Practices

Employers should consider putting in place a written policy governing service animals in the workplace, including the circumstances in which such animals are permitted and the employee’s responsibility to care and feed the service animal. When an employee asks for an accommodation in the form of bringing his or her service animal to work, the employer may engage in the interactive process to determine if another type of accommodation would be as effective in enabling the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job, particularly if the use of a service animal would constitute a direct threat to the health and safety of others in the workplace.