Be aware of and train your employees to understand the needs of customers with service animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says businesses must admit customers with disabilities and their service animals anywhere other customers are allowed to go.

Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions on service animals:

What if my local healthcare law prohibits animals on the premises?

To the extent any state or local law prohibits what the ADA permits, such as restricting persons with disabilities from bringing their service dogs into the restaurant areas customers are allowed to access, you should follow the ADA requirements. In areas where customers are not allowed (e.g., the kitchen), complying with your local healthcare law would not conflict with the ADA. Some state or local laws also define a “service dog” more narrowly than the ADA (e.g., only “seeing eye” or guide dogs”), and exclude other types of service animals. Again, you should generally follow the federal law or you may be violating the ADA, but check with your legal counsel if any such conflict exists.

What kind of animals must I allow in my restaurant?

The ADA applies only to service animals, which is defined and limited to dogs and some miniature horses that are specifically trained to respond to the needs of the customer with a disability. A service animal is not a pet. For example, someone can’t bring a boa constrictor or a cat, or even a dog for that matter, to a restaurant simply because it makes him or her feel more comfortable. The law covers only service animals individually trained to do specific tasks to assist the customer with his or her disability. It doesn’t cover animals that provide emotional support, comfort, well-being or companionship.

What are some of the actions service animals provide?

Service animals are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric or mental disability. Examples of tasks a service animal might perform include:

  • Assisting with navigation or stability and balance;
  • Alerting to sounds or allergens;
  • Pulling wheelchairs, carrying or retrieving items;
  • Seizure assistance;
  • Interrupting impulsive or destructive behavior; etc.

Service animal functions differ and are unique to the disabled customer.

What do I do if someone enters my establishment with a service animal? Can I keep it away from other guests?

Restaurants that serve the general public must allow customers with disabilities and their service animals into their restaurants to be served like other customers. Generally, service animals must be harnessed, leashed or tethered, unless such devices interfere with the animal’s work or the customer’s disability. In such a case, the disabled customer must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal or other effective controls. You may ask the customer with a disability to remove the service animal if (1) it is out of control and the customer does not take effective control of it, or (2) it is not housebroken. However, if you need to take such action, you must offer the customer the opportunity to obtain the services without the animal.

As to keeping the animal away from other guests, you certainly do not have to sit the customer and his or her service animal next to other guests at the same table if another customer objects. Generally, however, customers with service animals cannot be isolated from other customers (e.g., separate room), treated less favorably or charged fees not charged to other customers without animals. If another customer objects to the animal or perhaps is allergic or afraid of animals, try to accommodate that customer by moving the customer and his or her party to a different location.

Do I have to provide care, or food or water for the animal?

You are not required to provide care or food or water to the animal. These matters are the owner’s responsibility.

How do I know it’s really a service animal? Can I demand some sort of proof?

You cannot ask about the nature or extent of the customer’s disability, and you may not demand proof that the animal is certified. Service animals aren’t required to wears vests, collars, backpacks or other identifying features. The ADA doesn’t require you to admit animals in training, which often wear special vests. Check with your regional ADA center to find out about training animal requirements in your state.

What can I ask the customer?

If it is not readily apparent that the service animal (dog, for example) is a service animal for the customer, there are only two questions you can ask about the service animal: “Is the animal a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What tasks is the animal trained to perform?” You cannot say, “You don’t look like you have disability” or ask what the disability is. The customer does not have to state what the disability is. To inquire may be a violation of the ADA.

Can my employees or other guests pet or feed the animal?

You, your staff or other customers should never touch or distract a service animal. You don’t want to distract the animal from what it’s supposed to be doing. Service animals need to take care of the disabled customer’s needs.

Does the animal have to be on a leash?

No. However, as also mentioned previously, most service animals are on a tether, leash or harness. But some might not be because of the nature of their tasks. For example, a guest with diabetes might keep an alert dog closer to his or her chest to recognize when its handler’s blood sugar is out of balance, and is trained to react. Regardless, as also stated, a guide animal must always be under the control of its handler, e.g., by a voice or physical signal.

What if the service animal is bothering other patrons?

If the animal is out of control, wandering around or barking at other guests, you can ask the handler to remove the service animal. But you can’t prevent the handler from coming back without the animal.

I have a small operation. How am I going to fit a miniature horse?

Foodservice operators must reasonably modify their policies to accommodate use of service animals, including any qualified miniature horse as a service animal. To assess whether it’s reasonable for you to accommodate a miniature horse, you must consider:

  • The type, size and weight of the miniature horse.
  • Whether the handler has control of the miniature horse.
  • Whether the miniature horse is housebroken.
  • Whether the miniature horse’s presence would compromise legitimate safety concerns. If safety concerns exit, you must consider measures to mitigate or eliminate the risk before excluding the miniature horse for safety reasons.

These horses generally are 24 to 34 inches in height and weigh 70 to 100 pounds. They’re not much different in size from a large dog, but they’re sturdier much better suited for pulling a wheelchair than a dog of the same size or weight.”

Do I have to permit a service dog to be brought into my restaurant by someone who is not disabled, such as a dog handler doing it for training purposes?

No. The ADA covers “persons with disabilities,” and not animals brought in for training purposes, since the handler is not a disabled person under the ADA, and the dog, even though it may otherwise be qualified as a “service animal,” is not trained to mitigate any disability of the person seeking admittance.

This article’s information does not constitute legal advice. Members can reference the U.S. DOJ’s informational site and the Association’s Legal Problem Solver for more information about service animals as well as federal and state legal requirements.