Assistance dogs may not work directly for you, but do a loyal service to their human owners – and enable many workers with a disability to attend the workplace. The dog may not be your direct employee, but they will be on your premises.
The charity Guide Dogs estimate it costs £50,000 to support and train an assistance dog from birth to retirement, something the charity funds willingly, but assistance dogs make great employees who only ask for food, love and training. They enable their disabled owners to have more independence and often enables them to work and hold down a job just as capably as any other employee – sometimes more so.
One employee who owes more than his employment to his guide dog, Tom, is Dr. Mike Townsend, who was on his way to a meeting in London on 7 July 2005 – the day of the London bombings. Mike had just left the Tavistock hotel. Whilst he normally used a concierge to help him, that day was quiet so he was about to use a crossing with Tom when the dog pulled him violently in another direction. As they left, Tom heard a sudden roaring noise from behind him. Mike told the BBC:
“People rushed past me towards that site but my guide dog Tom, very professionally trained, just carried on walking forward as if nothing had happened.”
Tom calmly pulled Mike off their normal route and they arrived at the office 10 minutes later to be told that a bus had been blown up directly outside the hotel, leaving his colleagues stuck inside fearing another attack. The brave guide dog also helped calm distressed people in the office, who took comfort from stroking and rubbing him.
Mike said: “The true extent of the miracle that had happened to me, thanks to my dog Tom, came to me a few days later. I found out that an American woman, who had been escorted to the crossing by the concierge, had been blown up by the bomb on the bus and killed just minutes after I had stood there waiting for the lights.”
Tom had shown a commitment to his ‘job’ of helping Mike to a whole new level – and made sure Tom did his job safely that day under the most demanding of conditions.
Disabled people have important rights under the Equality Act 2010, or Disability Discrimination Act in Northern Ireland. The Equality Act 2010 consolidates and replaces previous discrimination legislation including the Disability Discrimination Act in England, Wales and Scotland, and the Equality Act and DDA in Northern Ireland. It is unlawful for employers to discriminate against disabled people in their employment or when applying for a job.
Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments and provide auxiliary aids so that a disabled person is not at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with persons who are not disabled. It is an employer’s duty is to make reasonable adjustment when a disabled person applies for a job or an existing employee becomes disabled. This would, therefore, extend to making reasonable adjustments to enable a disabled worker to bring an assistance dog to work.
What type of disability would involve an assistance dog?
When people think of assistance dogs, the most obvious candidate is a guide dog for a blind worker, although many workers with other conditions can benefit from service dogs, including, for example:
- Hearing dogs for deaf workers
- Seizure alert dogs for workers with NEAD or Epilepsy
- Disabled assistance dogs for a wide range of physical disabilities
There are many charities in the UK providing assistance dogs, but because the cost of training is prohibitive, there are far less dogs available than workers who need them.
What do employers need to know about having a dog at work?
You should barely notice an assistance dog is there, since it will have been trained to lie quietly while its owner is working, however you may need to make reasonable adjustments such as providing a safe place for the dog to lie, a place for a water bowl etc. The tasks the dog will do for their owner will depend on the nature of the disability, for example, seizure dogs are trained to alert their owner and in some cases co-workers ahead of a seizure but would not be required to assist the worker in performing day to day tasks – steps to support a worker with a dog will therefore vary and should be discussed on a case-by-case basis.
I have a food business, so isn’t a dog on the premises unhygienic?
Guide dogs and other assistance dogs are exempt from the rules that prevent other dogs from accessing food premises and other areas where food is served including restaurants in employment premises. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the Royal Environmental Health Institute Scotland have confirmed that guide dogs and other assistance dogs should be allowed entry to restaurants, food shops and other food premises as their very special training means that they are unlikely to be a risk to hygiene in these premises.
I’ve never had a dog in work before, what should I do and how should my staff behave towards the dog?
A service dog coming into the workplace is often a new experience for HR, line managers and other staff. When a dog owner first comes to work with his or her assistance dog, most people are a little uncertain about what they should or shouldn’t do.
The organisation who trained the dog is likely to offer guidance. Guidedogs.org.uk offer the following advice for employers (this advice is specifically for dogs trained by them, but the principles would generally apply to most assistance dogs):
How should I behave towards the dog?
The important thing to remember is that a guide dog is a working animal, not an ordinary pet. It expects to work with its owner and knows that when it’s wearing the harness, it is on duty. When the dog is working it needs to concentrate on the job in hand (or paw!), so it’s very important that you don’t distract it by touching, feeding or talking to it. When the dog’s harness is off, it should behave like a well-trained pet dog.
Where will the dog stay during the day?
When it’s not working, the guide dog should rest quietly and undisturbed. The owner will provide a dog bed or blanket which should be placed in a draught-free position close to their desk or workbench. If the owner’s work space is unsuitable for a dog, for example because of industrial machinery, Guide Dogs may be able to help with providing a kennel and run.
Can I talk to the dog?
Like all dogs, guide dogs enjoy attention, and unless it’s on duty the answer will often be “yes” – but please always ask the owner first! It’s important not to overwhelm or overexcite the dog, particularly when it’s settling in to the work environment, so please don’t be offended if the owner asks you not to talk to the dog.
Can I feed the dog? Definitely not!
All guide dogs are fed a carefully balanced diet and extras or titbits will affect their health and the way they work. We also recommend you keep your own food – sandwiches for example – well out of temptation’s way!
Can I play with the dog?
A guide dog has been trained to lie quietly where it’s placed, so it’s a great help if you don’t encourage it to run around in the workplace. It may have some toys to play with but they should not be noisy ones, and the dog won’t be allowed to chase them around the work area.
When does the dog go out?
For the first few weeks, the owner may need to take the dog out for five minutes to relieve itself three or four times a day. Once the dog has settled in and is used to the routine, one or two longer breaks will normally be enough.
Where does the dog relieve itself?
The guide dog owner, together with their employer and a Guide Dogs instructor, will identify the most suitable place nearby, which may be on the premises or off-site. The guide dog owner will take the dog to the relief area. Arrangements will also have been made for the disposal of waste and cleaning the area, but support from the company or individuals is always much appreciated.
Who looks after the dog?
Caring for the dog is the owner’s responsibility. The dog is taken to the vet for a health check every six months and is routinely wormed and vaccinated. The owner grooms the dog regularly to keep it clean and to try to reduce the number of hairs it leaves on the carpet. The dog is fed at home, and it is the owner’s responsibility to ensure that water is available at work.
What happens if the dog misbehaves?
Applying appropriate discipline is part of a guide dog owner’s responsibility. There is no reason for you to put up with disruption caused by the dog misbehaving. If problems do occur, please discuss them with the owner, who will be keen to make sure that his or her dog isn’t a nuisance.
The Guide Dogs for the blind team offer help, support and advice for for employers whose staff have a Guide Dog (go to www.guidedogs.org.uk/nearyou), and most other organisations will also offer support for dogs they have trained. It’s always easier for them to deal with things sooner rather than later, so please don’t let matters get out of hand before saying something.
Overall, having an assistance dog can enable disabled workers to undertake the most demanding of roles and apart from legal rules preventing discrimination anyway, employers have nothing to fear from employing a disabled worker with an assistance dog.
Glenwynne Egan was in her thirties when she became registered blind, but assistance dog George enabled her to go to college and complete a degree in information technology – subsequently building a successful career in web accessibility.
“Having a guide dog has helped me reach my working potential,” she says. “One of the single biggest challenges for someone with sight loss, is having the confidence to try again. Guide dogs give you that.”