What do you do when you aren’t sure if someone is allowed to have a service animal in your business? Are there any laws about your restaurant accommodating service animals? It can be difficult to understand the laws surrounding service animals and the requirements to you as a business owner. Central has created a quick guide on the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it applies to operating your food service establishment.

Know the Laws About Service Animals

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was established in 1990. It is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals based on disability. This law applies across all industries and companies in the United States, including the food service industry. ADA features several sections on specific protections provided, but we will be discussing the Service Animals provision. Learn these laws to limit your liability as well as continue serving a valuable segment of customers.

What Is In This Provision?

This section of the ADA guarantees the right to bring a service dog with them into any facility. The law even applies to facilities with a “no pets” policy. This provision was introduced in 2010 and made into effect in 2011. A detail to remember is that the guarantee does not protect the same right to bring an animal whose sole purpose is to provide emotional support or comfort. Emotional support animals are only protected in the case of the Fair Housing and Air Carrier Access Acts. Therefore, you are not required to accommodate an animal who only performs the task of emotional support/comfort.

What Is a Service Animal?

The ADA defines a service animal below. It’s important to note that miniature horses are also included in this provision with some exceptions.

“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities”. – ADA 2019 Revised Requirements, Service Animals

These dogs (and miniature horses) can often help individuals with things like seeing, picking up dropped items, reminding their person to take a medication, calming a person experiencing an anxiety attack, and more. The task for which the dog is trained must be directly related to the individual’s disability. These animals gain a certification from various organizations stating that they are a service animal for a person with a disability.

 

Where are Service Animals Allowed?

Service animals are allowed to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go. This quote from ADA.gov further explains some example situations.

For example, in a hospital it would be inappropriate to exclude a service animal from areas such as patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms. However, it may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or burn units where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment”. – ADA 2010 Revised Requirements, Service Animals

Making the Exception for Health Codes

You might wonder why service animals can enter food establishments in spite of the local and state health codes. Rules regarding animals are in place for businesses that serve food due to the risks regarding a sanitary environment for food consumption. Generally, health codes will prohibit non-service animals in a restaurant environment due to some of these factors:

  • Liability – A business owner is responsible for an animal’s actions when on the premises, especially if an animal injures a customer or staff member.
  • Sanitation – While an animal would never be allowed in a food prep area, animal accidents could occur in the dining area which would need to be addressed immediately for cleanliness.
  • Concern About Disease – Some health codes state concern regarding animals carrying disease that could pass to customers. This risk is low due to pet vaccination and the chance of contact with bodily fluids between animals and people.

Service animals are permitted in your foodservice establishment regardless of these or other concerns. They are the exception because they perform a valuable and sometimes life-saving service for people with disabilities. While these are valid concerns, it is still essential that you comply with the ADA and accommodate service animals in your business. 

How to Address Animal Issues in Your Business

There may be issues that arise in your restaurant that cause you to question a service animal’s legitimacy. By law, you are only allowed to ask customers certain questions about the service dog. In fact, according to the ADA, you are only allowed to ask two questions to verify the animal’s status. The questions are:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

What Can’t I Ask?

Apart from these questions, you are not allowed to ask a customer any more details. It would be inappropriate to ask your customer any of the following:

  1. What is your disability?
  2. Ask the patron to provide medical documentation of their disability
  3. Request special identification or documentation for their dog
  4. Ask the dog to demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task

What Aren’t Reasons to Ask an Animal to Leave?

It might be challenging to accommodate a service dog into your restaurant or business. However, you are not able to ask a patron to remove their animal from the premises without just reason. You cannot remove a service animal for purposes other than outlined in the Provision. As a business owner, you are required to allow a diner into your restaurant when accompanied by a service dog. There are certain occasions in which you are allowed to ask an animal to be removed, however, you must understand when this is not okay. Invalid reasons for removal include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Yours or a customer’s allergies of dogs
  • State and local health codes (these do not apply to service animals)
  • Your fear or dislike of dogs
  • Fear or dislike of dogs by other customers

You also may not isolate people with disabilities using service animals in your establishment. For example, you cannot separate them from other patrons. It is also not permitted to charge a customer with a service dog additional fees that others are not assigned.

Accommodating Service Animals

Concern about the local and state health codes are understandable when told that you must accommodate a service animal in your business. However, it’s essential to remember that these codes do not apply to the use of service animals and you must still comply. We will discuss how your business and a customer with a service animal should do to comply with this provision.

How Should My Customer Comply?

Even though you are responsible for admitting the service animal into your business, the owner is responsible for the animal’s actions while occupying your facility. According to the ADA, a service animal should comply with two rules.

  • First, a service animal should be housebroken. They should not have any accidents while in your business. If a dog is not housebroken, you are allowed to ask the owner to remove it from your site.
  • Second, a dog should also be in control by its handler. If a service dog is out of control and the owner is not able to regain control of it, you are allowed to ask them to take the animal away. Should you need to ask a patron to remove their animal, you must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain your goods or services without the animal’s presence.

How Should My Staff Comply?

There might be some concerns from your staff that come up about accommodating a service animal. The Provision outlines the expectations of you and your business employees on accommodating a service animal. Some general points to consider are:

  • Your staff is not expected to provide care or food for a service animal.
  • Staff should treat the patron with disabilities and their service animal the same as any other customer. 
  • If a customer requests not to be seated near a service animal, you should accommodate both groups by assigning them (if possible) to different locations within your facility.
  • Should an animal have an accident while in your facility, staff should handle the same as if any other bodily accident had occurred. They are then permitted to ask the patron to remove the animal from your business.

Final Considerations

To summarize, it is the law that you allow service animals into your facility regardless of your feelings or policies about animals. A service animal is any dog (or miniature horse) that is trained to perform a specific task for a person with disabilities. As mentioned earlier, you are allowed to ask if the animal is required because of a disability and inquire what task they can perform. You are not, however, allowed to request any additional information regarding their disability or require any documentation of any kind. Additionally, emotional support animals are not covered by the Service Animals Provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so you are not required to allow them inside of your business.

If you have any additional questions regarding the laws surrounding service animals, visit the Service Animals Provision on the ADA.gov website. You can also find additional information on the Americans with Disabilities Act by visiting the ADA website.

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