Dogs have been providing humans with companionship and comfort for centuries, but they have also begun to fill specific, diverse roles related to neurological and physical disabilities. There are about a hundred service dogs in Alberta alone, so it’s possible that you’ll encounter one of them in your workplace. Whether this makes you joyful or nervous, it’s important to educate yourself on the different types of service dogs, and proper etiquette when interacting with a service dog team.
Types of Service Dogs
You may picture a guide dog when you think of service animals, but the range of disabilities dogs can assist with has expanded dramatically in recent years, as has the variety of breeds that can be trained. You’re as likely to see a poodle as a retriever, and the list of suitable breeds continues to grow. In 2017, you’ll meet service dogs that are trained to do any number of tasks, from easing anxiety, to alerting handlers of seizures, to detecting changes in blood sugar for those with diabetes. Here is just a small sample of the jobs service dogs can perform:
- Hearing dogs can alert deaf and hard of hearing handlers of important sounds such as doorbells and fire alarms.
- Mobility assistance dogs are taught to retrieve dropped objects, brace handlers who may have balance difficulties, and even pull wheelchairs up ramps.
- Diabetic alert dogs are able to sense changes in blood sugar levels far sooner than their handlers, allowing them to address the situation before it becomes dangerous.
- Seizure alert dogs are sensitive to oncoming seizures, and can help their handlers find a safe place and fetch medication.
- Psychiatric service dogs work with handlers who live with conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression. They provide a general sense of safety, but are also trained to perform specific tasks like redirecting obsessive, harmful habits, or warning the handler when they begin to dissociate.
- Allergy detection dogs will be on guard for allergens that may harm their handlers.
The first thing to remember is that, while accommodating a service dog team may seem a little scary at first, it’s a relatively easy and rewarding process. In Canada, employers are legally obligated to allow service dogs to accompany their handlers just about everywhere, so education and preparation are essential.
When you meet a service dog team, always address the handler directly. Never approach the dog or acknowledge it without first acknowledging the handler. In fact, it’s generally unacceptable to touch, speak to, or feed the dog lest you distract it from its important work. The best course of action is to ignore the dog completely, as difficult as that may seem. If it helps, consider the dog an assistance device so that you’re less tempted to interact with it while it’s on duty. (Yes, a sleeping dog is still a working dog.)
Avoid making assumptions. If the handler’s disability is not visible, or the dog is not wearing a recognizable indicator such as a harness or vest, refrain from questioning it. Trust that your employer has done their due diligence in ensuring the service dog team is within its rights to be there. Not everyone is receptive to discussing or even disclosing their disabilities, so keep courtesy and respect in mind, always.
Finally, be proactive about disclosing any allergies or phobias you may experience. Dog handlers and employers can address environmental issues, but only if you inform them. Service animals tend to be easy to accommodate. They are highly-trained and well-mannered—so much so that you may even forget they’re there at all. Still, their presence can cause workplace issues, which must be solved as quickly as possible.
Employers must honour Albertan law and allow service dogs into their workplaces, provided they were trained at an accredited school and the employee has a bona fide disability. There are various strategies for educating other employees and dealing with potential problems, so research and consultation with the handler are vital for a smooth, successful transition.
While service dogs can usually be relied upon to behave themselves, handlers are ultimately and solely responsible for their conduct and should be expected to respond readily to behavioural issues as soon as they arise. Employers must balance the needs of their other employees with the rights afforded to all service dog teams. There may be some bumpy spots in the road, but once properly settled, a service dog can be a beneficial addition to any workplace.
Earlier this year, I found a story about a home improvement retailer who hired a service dog user with a brain injury. This is terrific! This is corporate responsibility. This is true representation of the broader community which this retailer serves. This is hiring people with unique skills and talents to fill a role that a company sees as valuable. I took to Facebook and thanked whoever hired this man for giving him a position that he clearly desired, wishing more hiring managers and companies did the same.
I’m on the job hunt, too, and it got me to thinking. Did this company hire this man – will a company hire me? – only because it is the law to do so? Will they do so because it is the socially conscious “in thing” to do so? Or will they hire people with disabilities because they realize that we’re a huge untapped market for them? Disability not only touches those living with blindness, who are deaf, who use wheelchairs, and/or who have brain injuries (sometimes in combination), but those with invisible disabilities as well. This doesn’t even address our friends, families, and others who care about us. A Canadian organization recently launched the We Belong App. The app allows consumers to search by location for companies and organizations that hire inclusively (primarily people with developmental disabilities), giving them the opportunity to show financially that it pays to do so.
Meaningful employment is something that’s very important to me. I want to be hired at a position with a company that views me as an asset, not a liability. Unfortunately, the latter appears to be the prevailing thinking among people who’ve met me for interviews. I don’t make constant eye contact, I imply that it’s important to use words to communicate… and yet I have years of experience behind me, so that should count for something. Do I want a job? You bet your last dollar. But I want a job with a company or organization that views me as the asset that I am, with unique insights, skills, and talents to bring to the table. Things may have to be done differently, but change is a part of life; many accommodations for people with disabilities end up benefiting entire workplaces, and it’s not often realized until after the disabled employee moves on to other opportunities (personal or professional).
For those who don’t hire us because of your preconceived notions of our capabilities – not because you truly had more qualified applicants – please know that you’ve broken human rights legislation. The law is only one piece in a mosaic that fits together to include people with disabilities in society, in the classroom, in the workplace. It takes inclusive thinkers – who are unfortunately not frequently in HR – to understand that we’re more than the eyes or ears or hands or legs or brain that doesn’t work as expected. If you want to be progressive, inclusive, and innovative, hire people with unique skills, talents and insights who just happen to be disabled. Your business will benefit as much if not more than the employee you hire, because we do have friends and families and others who care about us… and they reward truly inclusive and empowering workplaces with their positive words to their friends and families and coworkers… and their consumer dollars. The bottom dollar is a motivator for many; I’d like to use some of mine to support employers who don’t discriminate. but that can only happen once pretty words on a page start becoming action, once HR managers, CEOs, and office managers view people with disabilities as unique resources and assets to business and commerce.
Oh, and if you are one of those progressive, inclusive, innovative HR managers, CEOs, or office managers, drop me a line; I’d be happy to meet you.
Here at DECSA, we recently came upon a great resource from the City of Edmonton – a chart detailing steps one can take when faced with housing problems. The chart includes information on seniors fleeing abuse, women fleeing abuse, addictions recovery, and more. The chart can be viewed below (click on it to enlarge), and click here to download the chart.