A growing trend in California has pet owners purchasing “service animal” vests for pets that clearly aren’t service animals, and then bring them into restaurants and other establishments. A 2015 UC Davis study found “a prevalence of misuse and misunderstanding of regulations and legislation on assistance dogs in California.” Because service animals are legally protected, many business owners feel their hands are tied, but you can act to protect both your business and the individuals who rely on service animals to perform essential, life-saving tasks.
What is a service animal?
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is a dog or miniature horse that’s individually trained to perform work or tasks for a person with a disability. A key word is “trained.” A service animal need not be trained professionally or undergo any specific training certification process. However, animals who naturally aid a person with a disability because they are cuddly or comforting aren’t considered trained and don’t qualify as service animals.
This is the key distinction; there are true service animals, and there are other types of assistance animals — such as emotional support or “comfort animals” and therapy animals. These “other types” don’t have access rights in the private business context under the ADA.
Service animals can be trained to provide a broad range of diverse functions for individuals with both physical and mental disabilities. Some common tasks performed by service animals today include, but are not limited to:
- Guiding a handler with vision impairment
- Alerting a handler with hearing impairment
- Picking up, fetching, or carrying items
- Alerting a handler to low blood pressure, or the onset of a panic attack or seizure
- Providing safety checks for those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
For these reasons, it’s critical to not assume that a dog is a fraudulent service animal.
Use these two magical questions
If a person claims their animal is a service animal, you should first ask the only two ADA-permitted questions you are allowed:
- Is the animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
Making these inquiries in their entirety forces the person who may be fraudulently representing that their pet is a service animal to affirmatively state that they need the animal due to a disability and to precisely describe what task that animal is trained to perform. While some pet owners will take their deceptions to the ends of the earth, most either won’t go this far or won’t be prepared to describe the task their pet has allegedly been trained to perform.
Do service animals have limitations?
Legitimate service animals are also subject to limitations. Their access rights are conditional and not absolute: The animal must be housebroken, non-threatening and under the handler’s care and control. Therefore, if the animal becomes aggressive and begins to threaten the health and safety of other patrons (or other service animals), you can demand that the animal leave.
If you take this approach, which you are well within your rights to do, please keep in mind that you must still permit the animal’s handler to obtain the services or goods that person needs without the animal’s presence. For example, if the animal is asked to leave a restaurant because it isn’t housebroken, you should offer to either let the patron stay without the animal or take the food to go.
As always, if you have any questions or need assistance, please contact JorgensenHR at (661) 600-2070, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.joregensenhr.com. Our mission is to provide the Best HR solutions for your business.