What is a service animal?
A service animal is an animal that provides assistance to individuals with a disability. The most common type of service animal is an assistance dog (eg guide dogs for blind individuals, hearing dogs for deaf individuals). Assistance dogs carry out a variety of practical tasks for people as well as supporting their independence and confidence.
Can an assistance dog be taken to work?
Employees who require an assistance dog should generally be allowed to bring their dog into the workplace with them. Employers may need to make adjustments around the workplace to ensure that it is suitable for the assistance dog. They may also need to allow flexibility so that the employee can care for the dog while at work.
Failing to accommodate an assistance dog may be a breach of the Equality Act 2010 and amount to unlawful discrimination.
Do business owners need to allow access to individuals with assistance dogs?
Business owners should typically allow individuals and their assistance dogs access to their business. People with disabilities rely on their assistance dogs to assist them with everyday tasks and would find it hard to manage without them.
Failing to allow access to individuals with an assistance dog may be a breach of the Equality Act 2010 and amount to unlawful discrimination, except for in very exceptional circumstances (eg certain hospital wards).
What if the business sells food?
Generally, while the presence of animals is not prohibited in premises that sell foods, certain hygiene requirements (especially those having to do with food safety standards) must be adhered to.
Food businesses are expected to take the presence of animals into account where it is pertinent to food safety. This would particularly be the case in any room, such as a kitchen, where food was being handled openly. Businesses are responsible for ensuring their food safety management procedures identify and control risks to food hygiene, such as having adequate procedures in place to prevent animals from having access to places where food is prepared, handled and/or stored.
As assistance dogs are highly trained, have regular veterinary treatments and are tested on a regular basis to make sure they don’t present a health risk, there is no conflict with food hygiene laws and they should be allowed access to such food businesses.
What about if someone is or may be allergic?
Refusing access because someone may be allergic to the assistance dog is likely to amount to unlawful disability discrimination. Under the Equality Act 2010, service providers are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their business policies in order to accommodate disabled people. This includes amending any ‘no dog’ or ‘no pet’ policies to allow access for assistance dogs.
If an identified person has an allergy to dogs, then the service provider (or employer) should take reasonable steps to make sure that that person has minimal (or no contact) with the dog. However, reasonable steps are unlikely to include banning all assistance dogs from the premises.
Can access be denied to assistance dogs for cultural or religious reasons?
Access should not be denied to individuals with assistance animals because of cultural or religious beliefs. Doing so can amount to unlawful discrimination.
Practical things to consider
Customer-facing businesses may consider displaying a sign by their entrance (eg on the door) saying that assistance dogs are welcome. Relevant staff should also be made aware that access must be allowed to assistance dogs.
What about emotional support animals?
An emotional support animal is an animal that provides comfort and minimises negative symptoms to a person with an emotional or psychological condition. For an animal to be classed as an emotional support animal (ESA), a licensed doctor or other licensed mental health professional needs to assess whether the animal is needed for health reasons, and provide an ESA letter to prove this qualification.
ESAs do not currently have the same legal rights as assistance dogs. This means that anyone with an ESA may still be refused access to a business, where assistance dogs are welcome.
Similarly, employers do not have to (but may choose to) accommodate employees with ESAs.