A new service dog at the office? It’s everybody’s job to make it work.
Steve waited until he got home to look inside an envelope a coworker handed him on her last day before retirement. She’d cried when she said goodbye to Steve and his service dog, Mohawk, he recalled as he opened it. Inside, he found a card with a picture of two floppy-eared puppies snuggled next to each other.
Having each other is having it all, it read.
The coworker had also written her own message: This reminded me of you and Mohawk.
Steve was both surprised and touched. They’d worked together for years, exchanging emails and talking regularly. Yet he never realized the positive changes she’d seen in him since a service dog came into his life.
Steve couldn’t wait to share this with us at Leashes of Valor (LOV). For him, it was further confirmation Mohawk was doing the job we’d trained him for. For us, it was evidence of a successful transition of a Veteran and his service dog into the workplace.
Since co-founding Leashes of Valor on a 20-acre farm in Virginia in 2017, we’ve been on a mission to provide service dogs to every post-9/11 Veteran who needs one to help ease the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Steve is one of more than a dozen LOV graduates living fuller lives with the help of a highly trained service canine.
More and more of our nation’s Veterans who carry the invisible wounds of war are turning to service dogs for healing, and for good reason. These dogs can not only reduce symptoms of PTSD by 80%, but 40% of Veterans report being able to cut back on their medications.
As these Veterans enter government jobs and the civilian workforce, many have made wonderful accommodations with their employers. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples is the disabled Air Force Veteran whose service dog got her own red and blue store vest when they went to work at Lowes.
We’ve witnessed our own share of feel-good stories, like the Warrior who works in medical sales and sometimes has to go into sterile environments where his service dog isn’t allowed. He made an arrangement with the front desk staff to watch the dog during these times, and the staff sometimes argues over who gets to do it. One of our Leashes of Valor graduates interviewed for a job as a safety officer at a shooting range. He showed up with the dog and a plan – keep the canine crated in the soundproof safety officer booth for those times when he has to go out on the firing range. The accommodation works for everyone.
Not every workplace is accepting. One of our Veterans required to drive a company vehicle isn’t allowed to bring his dog because of what the company claims is a liability issue. Another received a lateral reassignment because one of the leaders is uncomfortable with the service dog’s impact. And another still gets emails asking for more accommodation letters. His department loves the dog. But he’s in a human resources quagmire — the issue is still unsolved. He worries about keeping his job.
Our Veterans are protected under the American with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination in recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay and other privileges of employment. Employers can’t ask questions about an applicant’s disability before making a job offer, and employers have to make reasonable accommodations (unless it results in undue hardship). But defining reasonable is where mediation and negotiation come into play. One person’s definition isn’t necessarily someone else’s. I think most of us can agree it isn’t reasonable to require a small business to install an $18,000 elevator to accommodate a person in a wheelchair. But it is reasonable to ask them to install a wheelchair ramp.
It’s also important to note that one disability doesn’t trump another. For example, you can’t refuse to hire someone with a service dog because another employee has a dog allergy. A reasonable accommodation might be a shift change, a HEPA filter or some other logistical action. And there are limits. You can’t be a chef and expect to have a service dog in the kitchen. As a restaurant owner, that’s an unreasonable expectation. But if there’s a back office where the dog can be crated while you’re cooking – that’s reasonable.
Employees with service dogs have an important role to play, too. Service dogs should have as little impact as possible on the work environment and job performance. Dogs shouldn’t be a disturbance. They should always be clean and groomed. Ideally, the dog’s handler should plan ahead of time to help respond to legitimate questions and concerns. We tell our Veterans that they might be the first person with a service dog someone has ever met. They need to be a good steward of the industry and remain professional. It starts with education. People are naturally curious. Everything is a teachable moment. Handlers need to have a certain amount of humility to teach their employer how to set them up for success.
When service dogs and their handlers receive a warm welcome into the workplace, it shows inclusion. It shows that disabilities are respected and not discriminated against. Even Veterans who don’t have a service dog appreciate their workplace as a safe environment where someone can have an issue and come to work and not be judged.
Acceptance has a ripple effect. Thankfully, most of the time, our Veterans with service dogs have positive experiences in the workplace. Everybody loves a dog in the office. Just as we saw with Steve and Mohawk, the person with the service dog becomes more approachable. That changes office interaction in a positive way. But when the opposite happens, Veterans who rely on service dogs may feel they have to choose between economic stability or mental health.
That’s not a choice anyone should be forced to make.