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Hamilton’s Mayor Fred Eisenberger made news this week  when he asserted that he would have his dog (Dash) certified as a service animal in the face of a new no-pets rule at Hamilton City Hall. Though Mayor Eisenberger seems to have walked back this claim a little and is entitled to his medical privacy, it begs a question: when can you take your pet to work? When is a dog a guide dog? What are your rights if you need a service animal?

GUIDE DOGS AND SERVICE ANIMALS IN PUBLIC PLACES 

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to refuse some one access to a public space because they’re accompanied by a guide dog or other service animal. Generally, its enough if person’s guide dog or service animal is “readily identifiable” as a service animal providing disability-related support or the person provides a letter from a nurse or doctor confirming that the animal is required for disability-related reasons. These rules don’t apply to places which aren’t “public” or where other laws prohibit animals (for example, if safety regulations ban dogs).

Similarly, the Blind Persons’ Rights Act makes it illegal to refuse some one services, access to public places or accommodation because they are accompanied by a guide dog. This Act also regulates the certification of certain guide dogs.

GUIDE DOGS AND SERVICE ANIMALS ARE A FORM OF DISABILITY ACCOMMODATION

Many businesses and other employers may have a blanket no-pets-at-work policy for their employees. However, Ontario law requires them to make exceptions in some cases even if the workplace isn’t “public”.

For example, the Ontario Human Rights Code makes it illegal to discriminate against employees (or job applicants) based on disability. The right not to be discriminated against because of your disability includes the right to have your disability-related needs reasonably accommodated to the point of undue hardship. This is called the “duty to accommodate”.

Guide dogs and other service animals are one type of accommodation that may be helpful or necessary for some people with disabilities. While many people may be accustomed to seeing a guide dog assisting a blind person, service animals support people with a broad range of disabilities. Service dogs, for example, support deaf people, respond to seizures or symptoms of diabetes, and retrieve objects, open and close doors. Other dogs may act as “emotional support animals” or “therapy dogs” or in similar capacities.

Likewise, service animals may take many forms. Recent news stories have made jokes about people claiming that animals other than dogs as service animals, but there is no legal restriction on service animal species. Instead, whether a particular animal actually is a service animal will depend on their human’s needs, the animal’s abilities or training, and the opinion of a health professional

To-date, relatively few Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario cases have dealt with the rights of workers to take their guide dog or other service animal to work. As in other disability accommodation matters, though, some one seeking to attend work with their guide dog or service animal may be asked to provide reasonable information supporting their request. Guide dog or service animal requests would also need to be weighed against the competing rights of other employees in some cases, such as where a co-worker has a serious allergy or where the animal posed a health and safety risk.

TAKE YOUR DOG TO WORK DAY

At the same time, “pet-friendly” workplaces are on the rise. Employers may permit or even encourage their employees to attend work with their dogs simply to boost morale.

For some employees, this is a great job perk. For others, it’s a concern. Just as employers need to accommodate employees who need to bring a dog to work for disability-related reasons, they need to accommodate employees whose disabilities prevent them from working next to a pet.

Although people rarely think of allergies or phobias as disabilities, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal recognizes these conditions alongside other physical or psychological disabilities. Particularly if an employer wants to start opening their door to animals who aren’t guide dogs or service animals, they need to consider how allergies, phobias and other human rights or safety issues will be addressed. (Notably, an allergy-based human rights complaint based on Mayor Eisenberger’s dog’s presence at City Hall was dismissed last year )

Of course, in some workplaces, animals are inescapable. Different considerations apply for workers at animal shelters, veterinary clinics or doggie daycares than in an office or industrial environment. And, for those of us with persnickety cats, you may just find us snuggling our furry friends on a work-from-home day.

Each case is different. If you believe that your rights to attend work or receive services while accompanied by a guide dog or service animal have been illegally violated, we strongly encourage you to seek legal advice.

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