Service Animals in the Workplace

Author: Gina Hall | October 11, 2016

Pets make for great office mascots, greeting visitors at the door, spreading joy, and providing a calming influence. However, although an office dog might be the perfect employee—works for chow, doesn’t complain, never takes your parking space—some buildings don’t allow pets. Service animals, luckily, are a different story.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says privately owned business which serve the public—restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxis, theaters and stadiums, for instance—are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities, which include those that require a service animal. So what are the laws that apply to keeping a service animal in the office—or from preventing an animal from entering?

Here are some answers to commonly asked questions.

Definition of a Service Animal

First of all, a definition of a service animal is in order. According to the ADA, a service animal is “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.” Note that if this definition is met, a license or certification by a state or local government is NOT required.

“Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself.” Some examples include guide dogs for the blind, but also animals that alert the hearing-impaired or that assist mobility-impaired individuals.

Identifying Service Animals

How can you tell if an animal is actually a service animal and not just a pet? You might not be able to tell at all. Some wear special identifiable harnesses or vests, some have licensing or paperwork, and some don’t.

“If you are not certain that an animal is a service animal, you may ask … if it is a service animal required because of a disability.” The ADA points out, however, that people don’t often carry around paperwork regarding their medical conditions. “Therefore, such documentation generally may NOT be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal.”

As a result, “You may NOT insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability.”

What if a Service Animal Comes to Your Establishment?

Suppose you have a clearly posted “No pets” sign. Do you still have to allow a service animal into your place of business? The answer is YES. The ADA requires you to modify your “no pets” policy to allow the use of a service animal by a person with a disability. This applies not only to guide dogs but to ALL service animals. The federally enacted ADA takes priority over local or state laws or regulations.


If a service animal barks or growls at other people or its behavior is out of control and poses a direct threat to the safety of others, the animal MAY be kept outside (while the disabled person may NOT). The ADA points out, however, that “You may NOT make assumptions” about how an animal is LIKELY to act based on your past experience with animals; each situation must be considered individually.

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