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Service Dogs in the Workplace: How to Make It Work

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Employers often don't have the necessary information on how to deal with employees who require assistance dogs. In addition to needing to understand how to integrate the dog into a work setting, employers have concerns about how other employees will react. What if someone is allergic? Fearful of dogs? What if the dog is too distracting?

These issues and more were discussed in a live webinar produced by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the Office of Disability Policy, U.S. Department of Labor on August 5, 2014.

The purpose of the webinar was to explain best practices (and legal rights of both employer and employee) of integrating a service dog into the workplace. Interest was high: 500 locations signed up in advance, completely filling the live event.

To provide the needed information, Anne Hirsh, co-director of the Job Accommodation Network was joined by Dr. Margaret Glenn, West Virginia University associate professor of rehabilitation counseling and a researcher who has conducted specialized studies on this topic, and Marcie Davis, an assistance dog expert and consultant and author of Working Like Dogs.

The event was held this week to help celebrate International Assistance Dog Week (August 3-9), which was created by Marcie Davis to acknowledge the hard work done by assistance dogs in the workplace.

Primary Concerns of Employers about Dogs in the Workplace
Possible dog allergies among other employees is one of the big concerns employers have when approached about an assistance dog in the workplace.

"The number of people who are actually allergic is relatively small--roughly 10 percent," says Dr. Glenn. "But if a workplace does encounter a situation where allergies must be taken into account, there are a good number of steps that can be taken to mitigate the problem." (JAN has produced a document with specific recommendations that can explain this process.)

"Some airlines have even come up with a way to manage the problem," says Dr. Glenn. "One Canadian airline has studied cabin air flow and exchange, and they have determined that a service dog should be placed no closer than five rows within range of a person who reports they have an allergy."

Is a Dog Too Distracting?
Another issue that Glenn and Davis hear frequently concerns distraction from the work at hand. Employers are afraid their office full of dog lovers won't work because they will pay attention to the dog.

"I always tell people, don't think of the person bringing in their dog; think of them bringing in an assistance device," says Marcie Davis, a paraplegic who is always accompanied by her assistance dog, Whistle. "The dog is there for only one reason--to help its master. The dog must not be played with or petted or talked to by anyone else whenever the dog is working. The dogs definitely know that."

Davis talked of one business meeting where she arrived with Whistle who followed procedure by going under the table where the meeting was to take place to lie quietly until the meeting was over. Before long, another person entered with a service dog, and that dog, too, took his place under the table. "If you had simply walked by, you would never have known there were two working dogs under the table," says Davis.

In contrast, Glenn told the story of one office of dog lovers where the group wanted the dog in the workplace but also hoped to spend a little time with him. They worked together to come up with a solution.

The dog needed to be walked during the day, so it was decided that different employees could be responsible for taking the dog out when he needed it," says Glenn. When the call went out that "Winston's naked" (doesn't have his service jacket on), employees took turns walking Winston and playing with him briefly before bringing him back on duty.

Assistance Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal
Questions from those on the webinar were answered, and one concerned the difference between assistance dogs and emotional support animals. The answer concerns the expected response from the animal. The service animal is trained to perform specific tasks if commanded or if the need is sensed by the dog. (A diabetic alert dog tells the owner of variations of glucose levels so it is the trained dog that recognizes the time when the task is to be performed.)

Or an assistance dog may be trained to help with a psychiatric issue (PTSD, a crowd phobia, etc.) but the assistance dog will have very specific tasks to perform when he or she senses the owner is becoming overly anxious. With PTSD, the dog may have certain behaviors to do to calm the owner, or the dog may be trained to help the PTSD sufferer remove himself from a situation in order to regain composure.

The emotional support animal is one who may provide great comfort to a companion but has no specific task to perform if the person is having an emotional reaction.

Must an Animal Be Accommodated?
Essentially, the federal law states that if accepting a dog in the workplace will provide a demonstrable hardship to the company, then an employer can provide a reasonable accommodation as an alternative.

Anne Hirsh of JAN reminded the audience that there may be state and city laws in addition to the federal regulations, and in general, it is very hard for a company to demonstrate hardship since there are so many ways to work around any issues that might arise. (For more information visit the JAN website.)

Hirsh reports that when she counsels employers who are reluctant, she generally suggests the employer and employee work out a trial period. "The arrangement should be put in writing, and a date to revisit the issue should be specified," she says. "In most cases the concerns are unfounded."

"But it is very much a two-way street," says Marcie Davis. "In order for my dog, Whistle, to be with me at all times, I have the responsibility of taking care of his needs---keeping him well-groomed and being certain that I review his training with him regularly so that he doesn't forget any of the behaviors I need him to do." (Whistle is actually trained to understand 100 commands. To read about Marcie's life with Whistle, click here.)

"We often say there are no bad dogs, but it is the responsibility of the handler to be certain the dog conforms to what is needed to be in that workplace."

Many Resources
The webcast will be available online, a few days after the August 5th event at http://askjan.org/webcast/archive/index.htm.

In addition to the webinar, here are a few of the resources that are available online:
JAN Resources on Service Animals
http://askjan.org/toics/servanim.htm

www.workinglikedogs.com

www.assistancedogweek.org

www.servicedogsintheworkplace.com

and for Dr. Glenn's scholarly work on successful dog partnerships in the workplace:
ISRN Rehabilitation, Vol. 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/278025.