Service animals can be trained to assist owners with conditions ranging from visual and hearing impairments to PTSD and diabetes. While these animals undoubtedly provide real assistance to their owners, workplace policies aren’t always clearly defined when it comes to accommodating workers with service animals.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is defined as an animal — most often a dog — that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The tasks performed by the animal must be directly related to the person’s disability. For example, a person with epilepsy may have a dog that’s trained to detect the onset of a seizure and help the person stay safe during the seizure. Or someone with posttraumatic stress disorder may have a dog who warns its handler of someone approaching from behind, as not to startle them or trigger an episode.

Contrast this with an emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animal — animals that provide comfort by being with a person. While they can certainly help the handler feel safe and supported, they aren’t trained to perform a specific job or task and do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

While the ADA’s employment provisions do define a service animal, it doesn’t provide guidelines for employers to follow when an employee requests to bring a service animal to work. Therefore, a request from an employee to bring a service animal to work can be processed as any other request for reasonable accommodation.

A service dog belonging to a member of the audience sits in the aisle behind Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase, as he testifies at a Senate Banking Committee hearing in Washington, D.C.
A service dog belonging to a member of the audience sits in the aisle behind Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase, as he testifies at a Senate Banking Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. Bloomberg

In recent years, more people have started using service animals so employers are starting to see more requests for accommodation. Here are some recommendations for employers.

Check your policies. If you have a no-animals policy in your workplace, the request for a service animal is a request to modify that policy. This should be done on a case-by-case basis and take into consideration other employees who may have a fear of or be allergic to dogs. If you allow other employees to bring animals, you must accommodate the service animal.

Request documentation. As the employer, you have the right under ADA to request documentation or demonstration of the need for the service animal, along with proof that the animal is properly trained. Keep in mind that while the employee’s medical documentation will come from a physician, proof of training likely will not. You can ask for a letter from the animal’s trainer to demonstrate what service it provides and that it will not be disruptive in the workplace environment. If the employee doesn’t have this documentation, suggest a trial period during which the employee brings the service animal to the workplace to demonstrate it is not disruptive.

Inform other employees. Because the ADA has confidentiality rules restricting disclosure of disability and accommodations, you want to be careful how you inform employees there will be a service animal in the workplace. I recommend having an open dialogue with the employee at the time of request about how they prefer to educate their colleagues. Most times, they’ll be more than willing to communicate this directly. Additionally, service animals are working, so the employee will want to educate his or her colleagues not to pet, play with or interfere with the animal’s work. This will assure a smooth transition of the service animal into the workplace and allow it to perform the job it was trained to do.

Make sure the animal is cared for. The employee is responsible for taking care of his or her service animal, including potty breaks, keeping it groomed and free of parasites, and assuring it’s not disruptive in the workplace. I suggest working with the employee at the time of request to identify where the animal will relieve itself, the number of breaks it will require daily, and any feeding schedules. Also set expectations with the employee about picking up and disposing of the animal’s waste. Most workplaces will have an easy-to-access outdoor area with grass, but if you do not, it is probably worth the investment to create a small area for the animal as to minimize time disruptions.

Consider other employees with allergies or phobias of animals. The clear majority of employees will be supportive of having a service animal in the workplace, but you may run into the occasional issue of allergies or a phobia. Once you’ve agreed to accommodate the service animal, there are some basic tips to minimizing allergic or phobic disruption.

· Move employees to different parts of the workplace
· Provide one or both of the employees with an enclosed workspace
· If possible, allow one or both to telecommute
· Install air purifiers at workstations to minimize dander
· Regularly clean carpets

Emotional support animals

If you have a no-animals policy, an employee asking to bring an emotional support animal to the workplace is essentially a modification of that policy. The ability to modify often depends on the workplace. A fast food restaurant, dangerous factory floor or emergency room will pose some obvious challenges. But if you can modify the no-animals policy, you should then ask for medical documentation of the disability and need for the animal. Once the need is established, talk to the employee about training of the animal, that it will be under their control at all times, and not cause hardship to other employees. Finally, set up a trial period for the employee to bring in the emotional support animal. If the animal is aggressive or disruptive, you have the right to deny the request.

These tips are meant to provide some guidance, but always check your state regulatory guidelines. As with many HR policies, those related to service animals are changing on a regular basis at a state, and even municipality, level.

A great resource of information on this topic and others related to labor issues is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). ODEP sponsors several policy development and technical assistance resources, which can be found here.