Service Animals and the Law
Animals provide their human counterparts with many things: unconditional love, companionship, protection, and laughter. Six in ten Americans have pets, but a federal law known as the “Americans with Disabilities Act” (ADA) does not characterize a “service animal” as a pet.
“Service animals” are working animals that are trained to perform specific tasks for their owners. What kinds of tasks can a service animal do? The possibilities are endless. Service animals include miniature horses and seeing-eye dogs for the blind, alert-dogs for the deaf and hearing impaired, monkeys to retrieve and put away objects for the physically disabled, and large horses to transport the physically disabled. There are also service animals that are trained to assist individuals with seizures, autism, and various psychological disorders. (To read about personal perspectives and the legal implications associated with owning various exotic animals as service animals, see this interesting New York Times story.)
With the advent of the internet as our primary source of news information, the public is more aware of how service animals help people with disabilities. However, many of these stories may invite a mix of emotions in the hearts of business owners. One article featured a story about a blind woman riding a horse inside a Target store. Another article was about a pot bellied pig on a plane. Despite the uniqueness of horses and pigs as service animals, the vast majority of service animals are dogs. There have been—and continue to be—numerous news reports and lawsuits about service dogs who are denied access to restaurants and schools. It is important to understand what federal law says about service animals.
As a general rule, service animals must be permitted to accompany their owners wherever the public is invited, including supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, libraries, hospitals, and parks. Even if there is a “no pet” policy and a “No Pets” sign, the law generally requires that an exception be made for service animals.
The ADA does not mandate specific types of service animals. There is no ADA provision requiring that service animals be “certified.” Nor does the ADA require that the animal wear a vest signifying that it is a trained service animal. Indeed, federal law does not require that owners provide any proof that the dog, monkey, pig, or horse has been trained as a service animal. Furthermore, while business owners may inquire what tasks the animal has been trained to do, asking questions about the owner’s disability is not permitted.
In limited circumstances, business owners may remove, or ask the owner to remove, the service animal from the establishment. For example, if a service dog barks repeatedly at customers or if a service monkey displays aggressive behavior at other patrons, such service animals may generally be removed without legal ramifications. Additionally, if a service animal causes some physical damage in the establishment, business owners may bill the animal’s owner for these damages. See the Department of Justice’s brief and Frequently Asked Questions for additional information about service animals.
Ordinarily, well trained service animals should not cause any problems for businesses or patrons alike. It has been said that permitting service animals into business establishments is part of the cost of doing business. But business owners are encouraged to think more positively: permitting these service animals may generate more revenue and gain the respect of other customers and members of the disability community.