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Who Let the Dogs In? Feds Rewrite the Rules on Service Animals

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law

You’ve heard the expression “the world’s going to the dogs.” Well, that just became truer than ever. The U.S. Department of Justice recently revised the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rules on when service animals are allowed in shops, restaurants and other public-access buildings. The regulations recognize the use of service animals in dealing with mental health issues. Services animals are usually trained dogs but in some narrow cases they can even be miniature ponies.

Now hold your horses: The DOJ has clarified that service animals that provide help for psychiatric impairments are covered under the ADA.

Case in Point: The new DOJ regulations, which took effect this spring, say service dogs allowed in public-access building must be, “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with disability,” not just provide “emotional support.” The rules go on to say the work performed by the animal, “must be directly related to the handler´s disability. Examples include … helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.”

Joan Esnayra, Ph.D., a geneticist at the National Academy of Science, was diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, including bipolar depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When she worked at the academy, she told her employer about her mental disabilities and the need for her psychiatric service dog.
The dog helped her identify changes in her mood before she even recognized them herself. She said this helped her forecast manic episodes so she could change her medications and take other steps to prevent the onset of full-blown mania.

Dr. Esnaya went on to become the founder and president of the Psychiatric Service  Dog Society. She estimates that there are currently about 10,000 psychiatric service dogs (PSD) and their handlers. And experts say service animals will be helpful to returning military veterans and members of the general population who suffer from PTSD.

3 Lessons Learned…Without Going to Court

Service animals are not for emotional comfort but rather they must “perform tasks” or “do work” for the individual with a disability.

1. Sit. Sit on your biases. You can’t see mental illness like you can a physical disability. Don’t come from a place of thinking the employee is faking it. You could end up in the ADA dog house.

2. Stay. Stay consistent. A disability, is a disability, is a disability. Consider all reasonable accommodations and seek legal counsel for guidance in this litigious dog-eat-dog world.

3. Roll over. There’s a new law in town. You will have to review your policies on breaks and time off as the handler/employee will have to take the service animal outside to go to the bathroom and to the vet. Don’t let this become a dog and pony show.

Note: The new regulations do not yet apply to employees bringing service animals into the workplace (Title I), only to people bringing dogs in to public-access buildings. But experts says the DOJ may make the regulations applicable to workplaces, too.

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