Thursday, August 1, 2013

Successfully getting a job with a service dog

Now, I don't pretend to be an expert on interviewing or working with a service dog, but this is what worked for me.

Legally, I would be within my right to interview for a job without Owen and not say one word about needing accommodations until I had been hired for the job and received my contract.  There are service dog handlers who advocate this method, citing multiple instances where they have been denied for jobs allegedly because they brought their service dog to the interview. 

Personally, I did not feel like that was the road I wanted to go down.  I completely understand why some handlers would chose to go to an interview without their service dog, but I did not want to get a job if Owen and I as a team were not wanted.  I did not want to get hired and force a service dog on a principal who wanted nothing to do with one.  I was very up front in all of my interviews and today I have officially gotten word from human resources in my school district that I can bring Owen to work with me.

I had three in-person interviews, one skype interview, and one phone interview.  Ironically, the job I will be starting in a few weeks is at the school I phone interviewed with.  They offered me the job without every having seen Owen (or me!).

After two of the in-person interviews, I left knowing I would not get the job.  Whether it was a result of Owen being there or not, I don't know.  One principal was very iffy about Owen and not warm about him being there; the other interview was extremely impersonal from the very beginning.  The third in-person interview went well; I think I may have been able to get that job, but there was a lot of red tape I had to get through in order for their district to consider me for employment, and by the time I had jumped through all their hoops, I had already received a job offer in another district.

Even though I walked into all of my interviews with Owen by my side, an interviewer is not allowed to bring up the topic of disability.  I did not disclose to anybody when I was scheduling interviews that I was bringing a service dog along, so he was a bit of a surprise.  At the point in the interview when they would ask if I had any questions or wanted to add anything (and they all reach that point), I would bring up Owen and tell them a little bit about him.

What I chose to disclose was: I have a neurological condition, Owen is a mobility assist dog, he helps me by providing support when I walk to help me stay balanced as well as doing some other tasks to mitigate my disability.

I would then turn it around on them and ask if they had any questions about Owen or any thoughts about having a service dog on their school campus.  During the two in-person interviews that did not go as well, the principals did not really have anything to say at this point in time.  During the interview that went well, they had lots to say about Owen and how well trained he was - they talked about getting him a badge and how cool it would be to have a service dog on staff.  In this interview, they had all talked about being dog people, and at the end of the interview I took Owen's gear off and let him "say hi" to the people interviewing us.

I had a fourth in-person "interview" of sorts; I will be working a part-time job with an after-school social skills group for individuals with Autism in the area.  I'm still working on figuring out exactly what this job will look like, but people who work with the special needs population are always better about Owen than other people - at the social skills group they barely noticed him.  I'm optimistic about this job, and the extra income (no matter how small) will be a big help - not to mention this job will help me work towards my BCBA certification.

The skype interview went very well as well.  It was with the district that was making me jump through hoops, so had I pursued working in that district, I think I may have been a top contender for the job.  The conversation about Owen went the same way as it did during the phone interview.

When given the opportunity to ask my own questions, I simply stated that there was something I wanted to speak with them about that came up very easily when I meet people in person, but wouldn't come up unless I brought it up with them.  I described Owen (yellow, male Labrador) so that they would have a picture of him in their head and described what our gear set up looks like.  I explain that he is a very laid back dog who loves to work and ended by saying I would love to meet in person and have them see for themselves how Owen conducts himself.  I gave them the chance to ask questions about Owen if they wanted.

I was also open about being disabled during interviews; not necessarily the extent to which I am disabled, but how it affects me as a teacher.

When I met with my school principal in person we talked more about Owen and thoughts for how to integrate him successfully into the school environment.  We didn't come to any conclusions then, but it was a good first introduction to a service dog.  Owen (of course) was on his best behavior and was a good example of what a service dog should act like - mildly curious about his surroundings, but ignored the people and kids and stuff in the school.

After receiving notice that I had gotten the job (yay!), I found out who to contact in human resources about disability accommodations and sent him an email.  A week or so ago, I got the disability accommodation request form from him and filled it out.  I sent back the request form, the letter of support from my neurologist, and Owen's information from Heeling Allies.  I met this morning with my contact in HR about Owen.  He let me know that all of my paperwork was fine and that Owen is cleared to go into work with me; Owen and I are the first service dog team that has ever been hired by the district.  We are kind of like pioneers!  :)

It's nice that we are the first in that they don't have an expectations, good or bad, to place on us.  But it also puts pressure on me as a handler to make sure we succeed as a team.  There are 4000+ teachers in the district, and hundreds of new hires this year, but everybody we meet will remember us.  I am so fortunate that Owen is a great service dog, he does his job well with minimal distractions.  And he loves kids and loves getting to go to work.  He is easy going and very tolerable, he will be able to handle anything school throws at us.  It is my job to make sure Owen is always well turned-out, that he is well groomed and that our gear is clean.  I will likely get a small hand-held vacuum to keep at school so I can clean up stray hairs as needed.  I will have to stay on top of keeping him groomed so that if there are any dog allergies in my school, I can have as little impact on them as possible.

A big part of having a service dog is being a good steward and understanding the reasonable part of reasonable accommodations.  I'll talk more about that in another post though.

My plan now is to contact my principal and meet with her about making sure Owen and I have a smooth transition into school this fall.  I will work on getting my classroom set up so that Owen has his own space to stay, and I am going to get a baby gate so that if I ever had to go deal with something where Owen couldn't come (think aggressive behaviors), Owen would be safe.  I will get a water bowl to keep at school for Owen to have access to during the day, and a few good bones of course.  How I introduce Owen to the school will depend on what my principal thinks is best.

Wish us luck!  As crazy as it's going to be, I'm happy to start school with my best friend by my side. :)


  1. You were very articulate in how you expressed your challenges and triumphs in seeking employment with a service animal. I face a similar concern, but with its own set of issues I'd appreciate your opinion on. I am blind, but I have not had a guide dog in many years. This is because I have strokes, and one of my cats has proven to be able to predict such health crises within thirty minutes of their onset. We've worked together for nine years in this capacity. I devote most of my attention to her and do not have room in my life for a dog too. Little Miss stays at home, because I do primarily freelance jobs from my computer. However, I have been offered a two-month position out-of-state. I can make arrangements for my other pets, but I would need her to accompany me. I would not need her by my side every second of the day, but I would have to be able to "ask" her every two to three hours how I'm doing (during periods of high activity), for which she has very obvious signal responses. I do not worry about her manners, and she knows to "come" and other commands, but I've had too many people think I'm strange (and nuts) for having a service "cat." If you'd had Little Miss, what might you'd done the same or different during your hunt for employment? bookwormpov (at) gmail (dot) com

    1. That is so cool that your cat, Little Miss (I love that name!), can alert to strokes. Owen and I have a cat at home who (if I didn't have Owen) would be considered an ESA - there were times before I got Owen when the only reason I would leave the house and get groceries was because my cat needed food.

      The ADA, which is federal law, only recognizes service dogs and miniature horses (in rare circumstances). With the changes to the ADA in 2010 ( service animals has been redefined to only include dogs (or minis). Some state laws might offer you more flexibility; and in the case of disability laws, the one (state vs federal) that offers the PWD more freedom is the law that applies.

      I would start by researching state laws to see if they specify "service dogs" or "service animals".

      I would also be upfront with your new employer about what your cat does for you and how you could see a cat fitting into the workplace environment. For a good portion of the day, Owen sleeps on his bed behind my desk. I imagine a cat could do the same, in a large kennel if needed to be confined (or if you cat is as weird as mine is, leashed/tethered somewhere).

      The problem you are going to run into is that service cats aren't covered by the ADA, so you won't be able to say an employer MUST allow you the accommodation of having a service animal, but in my opinion it can't hurt to ask and see what they say. Good luck!