Pet dogs in city buildings pose a challenge for service dogs, trainers say

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- Man's best friend could soon become man's best co-worker for Madison city employees.

On Monday night, the city county liaison committee voted to allow city employees to bring their pet dogs to work in city offices by a vote of four to three.

According to Enis Ragland, Deputy Mayor of Administration and Finance, this idea was initially brought up about a year ago, with plans for implementation in a few weeks.

"The mayor asked me about a year go to introduce a policy change in the City County Building and also a policy change throughout the city to make it dog friendly," said Ragland.

Ragland said there are positives to having dogs in offices.

"Dogs tend to calm people, make people more friendly," he said. "It brings on collegiality, improves the work flow in offices and there are studies that show that, and they're just fun to have around, and it relaxes people."

A survey was then taken by over 500 city employees to gauge how they felt about allowing city employees to bring dogs to work at offices in the City County Building. Of the 529 who participated, 54.25% said they supported the proposal, 35.35% said they do not support the proposal, and 10.40% said they are indifferent.

The survey showed that of concerns people had about dogs in the CCB, the biggest concern was about distractions, followed by hygiene, safety, then noise. In the comments section of the survey, many people asked that allergies be considered.

Ragland said there will be strict rules for the dogs and the owners to ensure employees feel safe.

"Your dog would have to be spayed or neutered, it would have to have had its shots, it would have to be licensed, it would have to be well behaved, it would have to be free of fleas, things like that," he said. "They would not be allowed in areas like cafeterias or common conference rooms where people who might be allergic might come in contact with them."

Ragland also said owners would have to have insurance, and the dogs could not be left unattended. Because of how stringent the guidelines are, Ragland said he did not think a large number of dogs would be coming to work.

While having pet dogs in the office may be a perk for some, for others, it can be a challenge.

"My concern would be the lack of training or control or sometimes responsibility that people have with their general pet dogs," said Nicole Meadowcroft, president of Custom Canines Service Dog Academy. "They don't have the training and socialization that our service dogs do, so I worry about the safety of our service dogs and our clients out there working."

Custom Canines raises, trains and places service dogs with people with disabilities. While Meadowcroft said she knows the positive impact dogs can have on people, she said having dogs in city buildings could cause problems for those who use service dogs.

"The worst case scenario would be dogs fighting, somebody getting bit trying to break up a dog fight, so I question who is going to be responsible, who would carry the insurance," she said."If one of our service dogs gets attacked by another dog, that's a huge fine for that other pet owner, but also it could mean instant retirement and a loss of enhancement for someone with a disability."

Meadowcroft said there are lots of responsible dog owners and well trained pet dogs in Madison, but there could still be issues.

"It's kind of hard to take your pet dog and stick them in a cubicle and hope that it's well behaved and mentally stimulated throughout the day," she said.

Aaron Backer, Executive Director of Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs, said other dogs could be a distraction to service dogs.

"If there's a pet in a public place and a service dog in a public place, that pet can be distracting to them," said Backer. "They have to focus on their person all the time, if there's another dog there, that can be problematic for them. And again, most time nothing's going to happen, it's that outlier where a dog barks at a service dog or becomes aggressive with a service dog, that can be very hard for someone with a disability to handle that situation."

Ragland said managers will be able to not allow dogs in their offices if issues arise. He said this policy should be implemented in the coming weeks.

"The next step is to complete the drafting of an administrative procedure memorandum, which is the rules that city employees work by, managers work by," he said. "Once those are drafted we'll let the mayor's management team take a final look at them to see if there's any issues they may have with them. Then we'll implement them in this building and in all city facilities where it's feasible."