THE BLOG
08/07/2013 12:03 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Starting a Conversation About Service Dogs in the Workplace

International Assistance Dog Week, August 4-10

Service dogs make the workplace accessible to many, yet not all work environments are welcoming to dogs.

Today, assistance dogs are being used in countless ways -- as PTSD dogs, as hearing alert dogs, as diabetic and seizure alert dogs, and to aid with mobility for those in wheelchairs and stability for people with an unsteady gait.

Most of these dog owners are perfectly capable of holding down jobs, and as a result, the Job Accommodation Network, a service of the Department of Disability Employment Policy of the U.S. Labor Department, is fielding an increasing number of questions related to service animals in the workplace.

"Because of an increase in disabled military veterans looking for work and the proliferation of types of assistance dogs now available, these questions are coming up," says Marcie Davis, an assistance dog expert and the person who successfully lobbied to establish the first week in August as International Assistance Dog Week. "Many employers have no experience with assistance dog teams and don't know how to respond to this employment issue."

Launching a Conversation
As a result, Davis and Margaret Glenn, an associate professor and researcher at West Virginia University, are using International Assistance Dog Week as an opportunity to open a conversation about assistance dogs in the workplace.

Glenn, whose specialty is rehabilitation counseling, says "This is uncharted territory for many, and we want to bring together experienced assistance dog partners, researchers, trainers, vocational rehabilitation professionals and others for a look at the issues involved: 'What do we need to know and do to make successful employment outcomes a reality for more assistance dog partners?'"

Glenn's study is in its early stages, and statistical data will be forthcoming, but Glenn has been visiting offices and talking to employers and employees, and she can describe what she is observing. The concerns range from loving ("We like dogs too much!") to potentially serious (other employees with serious allergies).

Staff Worried about Being Distracted
One office Glenn visited was staffed with people who described themselves as "dog lovers." Their issue was that they felt they would not be able to get anything done with a dog in the office.

"The solution was simple," continues Glenn. "When the service animal is working, other people are not supposed to interact with the dog, but dogs need breaks. The staff set up a schedule so they could rotate who got to take the dog out on a break and play with him for a bit. That was a help to the person with the dog, and the office of dog lovers were quite pleased with the solution."

First-Hand Experience
Marcie Davis, who has a service dog, Whistle (read more about their story here), says she sometimes arrives at business meeting and is aware that someone is put off or even annoyed by the presence of a dog. According to law, an assistance dog must be permitted to accompany its owner in all public places. A meeting at another person's office might not technically be defined as a "public place," barring a person with a service animal would raise the issue of discrimination.

"Generally, when they see that Whistle is trained to tuck underneath the conference table, people relax and later report to me they forgot the dog was there," says Davis who is a paraplegic and has been in a wheelchair since she was six years old. She has had service dogs for twenty years.

"Employers also worry about liability," says Glenn. "But we're talking about trained assistance dogs, and the employee with the animal is not only responsible for the dog but is well-trained to manage the issues surrounding dog behavior."

"Sometimes these issues are haggled out in court," says Glenn. "We're hoping that by opening the conversation, employers and employees can have reasonable discussions about how to accommodate all needs."

The Allergy Issue
As Davis says, "This is something that needs to be addressed. Just as I have a real need for Whistle to be with me, the person with allergies has a need to be protected."

While the guidelines for service dogs in the workplace specify that "the employee provides proper physical maintenance of the animal, to include grooming, bathing, and feeding to minimize smells and shedding," there may be more to consider than that.

"So many Americans own pets that it would be surprising if every workplace needed to address the issue of pet allergies," says Glenn. However, when another worker has a serious allergy to animals, it needs to be addressed.

Changes in office seating, methods for purifying the air, and figuring out what practices need to be observed so that dog hair and/or dander doesn't become part of the general office environment may be necessary. For example, the person with the dog and the person with the allergies might need to be asked to enter and exit the office using different doors to reduce contact.

Workplace Benefits are Real
One office manager reported to Glenn that she had the staff in a conference room with a tense discussion going on about how to handle a business matter. The person with the service dog came in to attend the meeting, and the manager said there was a palpable change in the room's atmosphere. "As soon as the dog and its partner arrived, it was as if people took a deep breath and calmed down. The discussion took on a new tenor."

In another business situation, a military veteran who suffered PTSD was greatly helped by having a PTSD dog with him. The dog was trained to poke at the fellow's wrist watch if he sensed his owner was getting anxious. The fellow could then look at his watch and say to the people surrounding him, "It's time to take my medicine. Excuse me for a moment." He had a face-saving way to extricate himself from an environment that made him feel concerned.

Dogs in the workplace can also be educational. One woman, a first-grade teacher, had a diabetic alert dog, and she needed the dog with her at all times. The dog was to nudge her leg and lie down if her blood sugar was going down; a nudge and the dog sitting meant her blood sugar was going up.

One day when Margaret Glenn was visiting the classroom, the teacher was trying to finish a lesson when her dog nudged her leg. She kept talking, and the dog nudged again. Finally one of the students waved his hand, saying, "You've got to check your blood sugar! You've got to stop and check your blood sugar."

That kind of first-hand teaching is not a bad lesson for any of us to learn.

For more information on Assistance Dog week, click here. To read about Marcie Davis' book, which is a guide to working with service dogs, click Working Like Dogs: The Service Dog Guidebook. Davis and Whistle also co-host a radio show of the same name on www.petliferadio.com

And for more stories of American dogs and other service dogs, click here.