Service Animals in the Workplace

Here are some things you might need to know or consider when handling concerns or guidelines related to service animals in the workplace.

Brief History

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in the section referring to public accommodations (title III), “service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.  However, under the employment provision of the ADA (title I), there is no definition of service animal and no specific guidelines for employers to follow when an employee asks to bring a service animal to work.

  • Additionally, the ADA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees.  Businesses with fewer than 15 employees are NOT covered, meaning they do not need to accommodate service animals.
  • Title III of the ADA defines a service animal as: any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.  The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability.

The ADA requires accommodations that allow disabled individuals to lead normal lives; not just accommodations that ease the performance of specific employment tasks.  Reasonable accommodations expressly include service animals, and since Title I of the ADA has no limitation as to the type of animal providing support to a disabled individual, an emotional support animal (ESA) could also be deemed a reasonable accommodation in the workplace.


Once a request is made and the need for such an accommodation is not obvious, an employer may request documentation to establish the existence of a disability and how the animal helps the individual perform his or her job.

  • Can request that the individual provide reasonable documentation about the disability, functional limitations, and that the disability necessitates a reasonable accommodation.  May include copies of medical documentation from a healthcare provider.
  • An alternative to asking for documentation can be to ask for an employee to verify the existence of an ADA disability and the need for accommodation and then ask the employee the nature of their disability and functional limitations.
  • Documentation for the service animal could be 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.
  • A person seeking accommodation may suggest that the employer permit the animal to accompany them to work on a trial basis.

Overall, an employer can request just enough information to learn why the animal is necessary, what the animal does for the employee, that the animal is trained, that the animal will not disrupt the Overall, Overall, an employer can request just enough information to learn why the animal is necessary, what  the animal does for the employee, that the animal is trained, that the animal will not disrupt the workplace, and that the animal will be able to safely navigate the workplace.  An employee bears the burden of demonstrating that his/her requested accommodation is reasonable by showing that the animal would enable him/her to perform the essential functions of the job and that it is feasible for the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions regarding the proposed accommodation.  Both the service and emotional support animal may be excluded from the workplace if they pose either an undue hardship, direct threat in the workplace, or significant expense or burden-given the size and resources of the employer.  However, the employer must show that allowing the accommodation would impose a significant burden, or cost, given the nature and expense of the accommodation, nature of the employer, size and resources of the employer and other accommodation costs the employer is currently bearing.

When dealing with the question of allergies, if there are other employees or customers who have severe dog allergies there may be solution s that aren’t costly or disruptive, ex: providing air filters, moving employees/ customers away from each other or into private workspaces, arranging for the dog to remain elsewhere when employees/ customers interact, or creating a schedule for us of public spaces.  

    • The presences of allergic employees does not fall under the direct threat exception.  If there are other employees with allergies or asthma, then the employer must make accommodations for those employees as well.
  • However, where it is a hardship on other employees  with allergies or asthmas to have an ESA in the workplace, an you have offered other reasonable alternatives that the employee rejects, the employer can not be liable for failing to accommodate the employee’s disability.

As an employer, you are allowed to place reasonable parameters on the animal in the workplace, such as requiring the animal be fully trained and capable of functioning appropriately in the workplace.  Previous Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) decisions have established that a disabled employee is not entitled to accommodations of his choice, but rather is entitled to an effective accommodation.  For example, the EEOC rejected an employee’s claim that he was discriminated against because his employer would only allow him to keep his bird on the premises if the bird stayed in its cage (which he claimed made the bird unhappy) and the cage was kept clean.

ADA requires animals to be under the control of the handler.  In cases where the handler is unable to hold a tether because its use would interfere with the effective performance of work, the service animal must be under the handler’s control by some other means, such as voice control.  The service animal must also be housebroken.  The animal must also be vaccinated in accordance with state and local laws.

While emotional support animals aren’t covered under the Public Accommodations Section of the ADA, if the support animal performs any tasks that help, such as reminding an individual to take medication or calming a person down during an onset of anxiety, this could be considered a reasonable accommodation under the Employment Section of the ADA.

Approval/ Denial of Request

Once the accommodation request has been approved by the employer, both employer and employee should discuss the possibilities and logistics of the accommodation.  The employer should also make a timely good faith effort to find a suitable effective solution.  If an employer chooses to deny a request for reasonable accommodation, it should provide a written explanation for the denial and/or suggest an alternative accommodation.  The employer has the final discretion regarding the most effective accommodations that satisfy the employee’s and employer’s needs, and the employer is NOT obligated to adhere to the employee’s preference.  While the interactive process is not required in Texas, it may be a good idea to engage in the process.  The law clearly states that damages cannot be awarded in a complaint involving reasonable accommodation, “if the employer demonstrates good-faith efforts, in consultation with the otherwise-qualified individual with a disability who has informed the employer that accommodation is needed, to identify and make a reasonable workplace accommodation that would provide the individual with an equally effective opportunity and would not cause an undue hardship on the operation of the business.

Final Considerations

Overall, if a service animal or ESA is not disruptive and having it in the workplace is not problematic from a logistical standpoint, an employer may want to consider allowing the animal especially given that what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” or “undue hardship” in the context of animals is still a somewhat amorphous subject.  Employers need to carefully analyze whether the requested accommodation is reasonable and will adequately alleviate the effects of the employee’s disability on his/her ability to work.  An accommodation is only reasonable if it is effective and proportional to the costs.  If the service animal is injured or killed on a jobsite, while the employee has primary responsibility for the care and control of the service animal that would not preclude the possibility of the employee looking to the employer (or another party) if the animal were injured or killed due to negligence.  If the service animal injures a customer, while the employee has primary responsibility for the care and control of the service animal that would preclude the possibility of a customer looking to the employee or employer if the animal were to injure a customer due to negligence.

As with all issues, it is wise to consult your legal counsel regarding issues specific to your business and human resource concerns.


Call Now