Service Animals In Public Places — When Must They Be Accommodated?

In an earlier post I wrote about the rules for service animals on airplanes.  But what about service animals in public or commercial places, like restaurants and stores?  Under what circumstances must a business allow service animals inside to avoid a business practices claim?

This issue is governed by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).  Businesses must follow rules that the United States Department of Justice issues about ADA compliance.  The DOJ has responsibility for implementing the provisions of the ADA.  Generally, businesses must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.

The starting question is — What is a service animal?  The DOJ now only recognizes dogs and miniature horses as service animals.  Usually, a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilitiesService dogs are working animals, not pets.  The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.  Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

The requirements for service animals in public or commercial establishments have been broadly written to allow flexibility for all the various situations that may arise with service animals.  A one-size-fits-all approach would not work and would be impossible to apply to different types of establishments and different types of disabilities.  The only real constant is the fact that, under federal law, most service animals will be dogs.

The ADA requires state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally to allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.  A service animal must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices.  In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.

A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.  Establishments that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.  People with disabilities who use service animals cannot be isolated from other patrons, treated less favorably than other patrons, or charged fees that are not charged to other patrons without animals. In addition, if a business requires a deposit or fee to be paid by patrons with pets, it must waive the charge for service animals.

When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.  Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.

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