Q: At the business where I work, I have pleaded with my boss to allow me to bring my dog, arguing that it would make me a better employee. He’s generally sympathetic to the idea, but his hesitancy in actually approving my request triggers a question: Do workers have any legal right to have companion pets at work if it makes them more productive or mentally healthier?
A: Certainly, if you have an actual disability, federal law is on your side. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that an otherwise qualified employee with disabilities be given meaningful access to the same programs and services that other employees enjoy. In those circumstances where employees describe provision of an animal to be a “reasonable accommodation” for certain impairments, courts apply a balancing test, weighing the benefit of the assistance an animal might provide against the hardship a disruption might impose on others in the same workplace, including customers and co-workers.
Being a question of fact (that is, an issue that can be proven or disproven), a claim that having a dog ameliorates stress or allows one to better perform job duties must be supported by evidence that the dog has particular medically therapeutic qualities. In other words, just as in grade school, you will need a note from your doctor; further, the note must be specific—not just a vague endorsement of the dog’s effectiveness as an overall source of good feelings, but a solid diagnosis that the dog actually solves specific problems that need to be solved in order for you to do your work.
Like your boss, courts may pay lip service to the value of canine companionship but are ultimately quite reluctant to give legal significance to the observation that “dogs make people feel better,” since this point of view has no identifiable stopping point. The worry is that eventually every person who can make some sort of case for it (depression or low self-esteem, for example) would be entitled to bring the dog of their choice to work, without regard to job-related training or utility. Or worse, that there would be no logical reason to eventually deny accommodation for those who liked cats, fish, reptiles or birds better than dogs. For that reason, while one may find many more dogs in offices these days compared to even five years ago, it is doubtful that they will become a standard workplace phenomenon anytime soon. Another factor underlying courts’ anxiety is the odd (and quite modern) perception that overall, animals tend to subtract from human productivity much more than they contribute to it.
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If you are not disabled, the only other two likely ways to legally compel your boss to accept your dog’s daily attendance would be either a) a claim of discrimination based on your membership in a legally protected category, or b) proof that your written employment contract provides for it in some manner. Both present obstacles, the former because dog ownership is not yet a recognized state or federal constitutional right, and the latter because you most likely do not work for Enlightened Dog Owners of America, Inc., Work and Woof United or any of the similar imaginary companies that one might envision during a lunchbreak daydream.
Until you do, your best bet is to check out the Pet Sitters International website, petsit.com, particularly their “Take Your Dog to Work Day” Action Pack. That way, you can lay the groundwork with your boss for at least one dog-accompanied work day next year.