Must I Allow Service Dogs at Work for Undisclosed Disabilities?

Recently management has had discussions about allowing employee’s dogs on premises while they are working. Our insurance agent stated that our liability policy prohibits animals from being on premises.  As management notified employees about not bringing their dogs to work, some employees are stating their dogs are “service/support dogs.”  

I tried looking up the requirements for an animal to be registered as such, but do not see a registry in Colorado or any governing board.  Is there employee/employer law regarding service animals?  If so, are the animals required to be leashed, trained, etc.?  

One issue that several employees brought up was that a manager has his dog at work and the dog farts continuously and really smells foul, such that employees do not want to enter the area where the dog is. Another employee in a different location has had his tiny Chihuahua on premises, while he works, for five years without any complaints.  

What say you, o great employer counsel?

Thank you in advance!

Firstly, federal law only recognizes dogs as service animals. Colorado law may be more relaxed, but until one of your employees requests the presence of a service monkey, cat, or guinea pig, we will assume that the only animal we have to consider is the dog.

There are official service-dog-training programs, but a dog does not necessarily have to be graduated from such a program in order to accompany an employee to work. In your case, it doesn’t sound like any employee making this request has an obvious disability, like blindness, so I’m assuming they want the dogs as “emotional support animals,” which can be a legitimate basis under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

However, you have the right to send any employee claiming they need a service dog at work for emotional support to a doctor to complete paperwork indicating whether they have a disability and what accommodation would assist them with it. In the event the doctor does, in fact, state that the employee has an emotional issue that could be helped by a dog at work, there might still be other potential means of accommodating the emotional issue other than allowing the dog to come to work. For example, through medication. In other words, if there are multiple ways to assist the employee with a physical or mental disability, then the employer picks the solution they find most palatable. The employee does not get to choose.

Let’s say the employee’s doctor identifies a service dog as the only way to adequately accommodate the employee’s disability. In that case, you can still get a second opinion from the physician of your choice, as long as you pay for it.

If every doctor agrees the employee must be allowed to have this dog in the workplace, the matter can still be evaluated in terms of whether it causes an undue hardship. In your case, your insurer has told you that animals can’t be on the premises. How much would it cost to alter that? If it’s a lot, then you may be able to reject the request on that basis.

Now, that’s the legal analysis, but the practical approach may be different. How many people are we talking about? Would they be satisfied with bringing their dogs in on a rotating basis? The fact that someone has already characterized the animal as a “service dog” means you should probably have a further discussion with them on what they meant. Call your MSEC representative to discuss the matter further.

Send your questions to cgraves@msec.org. Please tell us if you would prefer your identity not be mentioned in our answer.