Animals at work — Service dog or emotional support animal: Does it matter?

By: Darlene Clabault

Publication: Employment Law & Regulatory Alert

Date Posted: 04/22/2022

When an employee asks to bring an emotional support animal or service dog into the workplace, your ADA accommodation senses should start tingling.

You might wonder whether it matters how the animal is classified. Do support animals and service animals get the same treatment?

Accommodation in public places

The considerations given to these animals are different for workplaces and public places. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has some provisions that apply to employers, and some that apply to public places, such as restaurants and movie theaters.

Employer’s Guide to ADA
Employer’s Guide to ADA

This publication is designed to help you navigate the often-murky waters of the ADA. It takes you beyond the statute and regulations, and provides you with easy-to-read information on how to help ensure you are providing your employees their rights, and keep your company out of the courtroom.

For public accommodations, patrons must be allowed to have a service animal. Service animals are not pets. They are defined as animals that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, also known as the animal’s handler. Only dogs and miniature horses are considered service animals under the public accommodation provisions of the ADA.

Emotional support animals, which are pets, can provide aid to a person with a disability, but do not perform a specific task or duty, as they are not trained to do so. Therefore, emotional support animals do not meet the definition of a service animal, and do not have to be allowed in public places. Obedience training alone is not enough to make it a service animal.

Accommodation in the workplace

For employers, whether an employee requests to bring a service dog or an emotional support animal into work does not matter. Both are requests for a workplace change and, as long as the change is based on a medical condition, ADA obligations are triggered.

The ADA’s provisions for employers, however, don’t define service animal or emotional support animal. Asking to bring an emotional support animal into the workplace as an accommodation usually falls under the category of modifying a workplace policy (assuming a no-animal policy in place).

3 steps for handling a request for the accommodation of bringing an animal into the workplace:

  1. Establish the need for accommodation.Assuming it’s possible to modify a no-animal policy, ask for medical documentation if the disability and need for accommodation are not obvious or already verified. This step is optional, but you are allowed to request medical documentation when an employee requests an accommodation. You have to consider only those accommodations that are needed because of a disability. Documentation might include a detailed description of how the animal would help the employee in performing job tasks and how the animal is trained to behave in the workplace.
  2. Talk with the employee.Ask whether the animal is trained to be in a work environment and will be under the employee’s control at all times. You do not have to provide any accommodations that pose an undue hardship. One factor in determining undue hardship is whether the accommodation will be unduly disruptive to other employees or the ability to conduct business.
  3. Give it a try.Allow the employee to bring an animal to work on a trial basis and see if it works. You might want to have a written agreement with the employee outlining the trial period, how long it will last, and what factors might end the trial period early. If, for example, the animal shows any sign of aggression or if the employee cannot keep the animal quiet or under control, you will immediately end the trial period and deny the request.

Key to remember:If you do not have a no-animal policy and allow other employees to bring in animals, then you should allow employees with disabilities to bring in animals without going through the accommodation process.

About the author
Darlene Clabault - HR Senior Editor

Darlene is a Senior Editor on the Human Resources Publishing Team and specializes in employment law topics such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Forms I-9 and E-Verify.

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