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Service Dogs: Assistance Animals in the Workplace

“This is Mercy, my service dog, please ignore her she is working right now,” I say, after the normal pleasantries are exchanged.

There was a time when I would hesitate to take control of these situations, because of how people would respond. That ended after an incident where I lost the ability to function due to a PTSD episode where she was unable to alert me because she was distracted by a curious family. If Mercy was focused, she would have been able to warn me and I would have been able control my reactions before it was to the point of no return.

“Let’s go over what accommodations you will need for Mercy or other accommodations,” Beverly the human resource specialist asks me.

As we review what accommodations that I will need and some that would be nice, I feel more confident that this company understands me and the value I can bring to this role, even with accommodations. As a Veteran, having an assistance animal can be very beneficial.  Animals can be trained to help disabled individuals navigate their environment and perform daily tasks. In addition, studies have shown that interacting with animals can also help alleviate PTSD symptoms. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has been shown to improve social interaction and emotional control, provide a greater sense of autonomy and empowerment, decrease depressive symptoms and sleep disturbances, and reduce anxiety and blood pressure. In addition, service animals can assist with performing tasks during a PTSD flashback or dissociative spell, as well as serving as a distraction or tactical stimulation.

PTSD and service dogs: Beneath the surface | Shannon Walker | TEDxMtHood

According to Titles 2 and 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is a dog that has been specially trained to perform a function or job for an owner that directly relates to a physical, intellectual, or emotional disability. Service animals are covered under the ADA which permits them to enter virtually all public places and sit with their owners during flights. Service animals may also live with their owners regardless of residential pet policies under the Fair Housing Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Individuals who have been diagnosed with a physical disability, anxiety disorder such as PTSD, debilitating chronic illness, or neurological disorder affecting at least one limb, typically qualify for a service animal. To get a service dog, you need written documentation from your healthcare provider that you are being treated for a disability and require the assistance of an animal because of it, you also need to reside in a stable home environment with people who are able to help care for the dog, and you need to be physically and cognitively capable of participating in daily pet training.

For more information on how to get a service dog, click here.

For more information on your rights and responsibilities as a service dog owner, click here.

Emotional support animals provide their owners with support and companionship but are not specially trained to support a disability. Almost all types of domesticated animals can be emotional support animals including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, and more, but the animal must be easy to manage in public places and must not pose a threat to others. Emotional support animals are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so they generally cannot enter public establishments and places of business. However, they are covered under the Fair Housing Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, so they can live with their owners regardless of residential pet policies; they can also sit with their owners during flights. There is no official registry for emotional support animals. To certify your pet as an emotional support animal you must be formally certified as emotionally disabled by a psychologist, therapist, psychiatrist, or other certified mental health professional and receive an appropriately formatted letter from your health care provider, known as an ESA Letter, that you can present to landlords and airlines. For more information on emotional support animals, click here. For more information on the ESA Letter, click here.

While certification is free, service dogs and other types of assistance animals are not covered by medical insurance, so the cost of the dog, training, and care, comes out-of-pocket. However, there are resources out there to help. For a list of organizations that work to provide Veterans with service dogs, click here. For information on Veterinary Health Benefits offered through the VA, click here, or contact your local Veteran Services Center.

How veterans and dogs can save each other | David Shade | TEDxRoseTree

Animals in the Workplace

While the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, employers are not obligated to allow assistance animals into the workplace.

Title 1 of the ADA states that employers must provide reasonable accommodations, meaning that they must provide any modification or adjustment to job duties or the work environment that will enable an applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions, but it does not have specific guidelines for employers regarding service animals. Employers are only obligated to consider a request for a service animal, but they do not have to approve the request, especially if doing so would result in undue hardship on the employer or other employees. Instead of allowing a service animal, employers may choose to provide alternative accommodations, however, they do not have the right to tell employees how to treat their medical conditions, so this can be tricky. Employers typically adjust no-animal policies to allow service dogs in the workplace if the employee provides a letter from their healthcare provider stating their need for a service animal.

Unlike service animals, emotional support animals are not covered under the ADA, so there are no provisions or guidelines mandating a certain decision or process. Therefore, employers have no obligation to consider requests for emotional support animals in the workplace and have full authority to decide whether employees can be accompanied by companion animals.

For a list of pet-friendly employers that allow employees to bring their pets to work, or offer other pet benefits, click here and here.

Getting to bring your assistance animal to work is one thing, caring for it while your there is another story. Employers can provide certain accommodations, such as designating bathroom areas for service animals. However, service animal owners are always wholly responsible for their animal, including if the animal breaks or damages company property.

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