Business owners in the U.S. are free to ban pet animals from their establishments. Whether they own a restaurant, hotel, apartment complex, taxi cab, cafe, office building, or a shoe store, the law allows them the right to bar the entry of any critter they choose.
That is, unless it’s a service animal.
A service animal is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” And with very specific exceptions, service animals are allowed anywhere a customer is.
Here’s a brief guide to what you and your business need to know about service animals.
What are service animals?
A service animal must be “trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.” And although some animals which are not dogs can be used as service animals, the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended in 2010 to read “Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition.”
In other words, the ADA only applies to canines. This doesn’t mean that other animals cannot be used to aid disabled individuals. Rather, it means those animals — like helper monkeys who assist those with mobility impairments — legally do not fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In these cases, know that you can’t bar these animals from your place of business. This could open you up to discrimination claims. The legal issues around non-canine service animals are less concrete and often fall under state or local statutes.
What other sorts of service animals are there?
While monkeys and miniature horses have been used as service animals, the list hardly stops there. In California and other localities, creatures used in “animal-assisted therapy” may qualify. The idea of this sort of therapy is that a certain, single animal — not a group, breed, or genus of animal — can aid in a person’s well-being. One famous story from San Francisco involved a man with a so-called service iguana being part of his approved therapy.
The thing to keep in mind is that only dogs — and in certain, specific cases, miniature horses — are federally classifiable as service animals. Check your local and municipal statutes for a full list, since more liberal definitions at a state or local level can take precedence over the ADA in this case. If you’re unsure, contact a business lawyer for guidance.
Which disabled persons most often own service animals?
Although the blind make up a majority of service animal owners, there are many other disabilities which qualify. Persons with autism, Parkinson’s, or any other mobility impairment qualify.
How can you tell if an animal is indeed a service animal and not just someone’s pet?
Dogs generally have a vest, harness, or collar that notes their status as a service animal. If none of these are present, you are legally allowed to ask the owner is the dog is in fact a service animal. The owner may have paperwork to this effect.
That said, if the owner claims the dog is a service animal and has no documentation, you’re not legally allowed to bar the person from your store simply because you don’t believe them. Doing so will open you up to discrimination suits and other legal problems.
Can you forbid a service animal from entering your place of business?
Put simply: no. If you have a stated “No Pets” policy, you must amend it to allow service animals’ entry. Remember: they are not pets under the law.
Furthermore, you can not charge a cleaning fee or an additional fee of any kind to any owner of a service animal. A costumer with such an animal is to be allowed admittance to any area you allow other patrons.
What if the dog is barking or biting other customers?
Firstly, this is exceedingly rare. Service animals go through rigorous training and generally are adept at ignoring distractions.
But, if a service dog does create havoc or danger in your place of business, legally you may ask the owner to remove the animal. The owner must be allowed back in without the animal if they are capable. Two examples? A dog biting another customer or barking repeatedly in a movie theater.
If you have any questions about your legal obligations as a business owner, check the Americans with Disabilities Act Home Page or consult with a lawyer. In the end, the more people you let through your doors, the more customers you’re serving. When in doubt, let someone in.
Failing to do so can come back and bite you.