Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, U.S. businesses that serve the public are generally required to let service dogs go anywhere on the premises that customers are typically allowed, with few exceptions. Failure to comply could cost your company serious cash: The Justice Department fines businesses up to $55,000 for a first offense.
Here’s what you and your employees need to know to comply with the ADA and to ensure that your small business doesn’t alienate clients with service dogs.
- Service dogs perform varied tasks. Many people benefit from the support of service dogs, not just those who are blind. “A lot of individuals with invisible disabilities can improve their quality of life and health through a service dog,” says Sue Kindred, owner and chief navigator of ServiceDog411.com, which advises businesses and individuals on service dogs. “These include post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, seizures, and some forms of autism.” For instance, she says, someone with PTSD may have a service dog that can disrupt negative thoughts and prevent crowding around the person, since crowding could trigger their stress. Although you may not legally ask someone why they have a service dog (because that would violate his or her privacy), you may ask what tasks the dog is trained to do.
- Customers with service dogs may not be segregated. Businesses may not charge customers a surcharge or seat them away from everyone else because they’re accompanied by a service dog. This is not only illegal, but also poor customer service. The dogs are usually trained to sit or lie quietly in as little space as possible at their handlers’ feet. In an ideal scenario, Kindred says, patrons leaving a restaurant would walk past the dog and think, “Gosh, he was so well-behaved I had no idea there was a dog in the restaurant this whole time.”
- Service dogs are there to do a job. Dogs can be cute, cuddly creatures, but it’s disrespectful to the handler to touch or talk to the dog. Always ask before petting an animal. “You don’t know what the dog is doing for that person,” Kindred notes. “Your job is not to distract the dog. If somebody were to walk in with a cane and you said, ‘Can I pet your cane? Can I look at it?’ it would be inappropriate.”
- Service dogs must be well-behaved and well-groomed. Handlers are responsible for making sure their service dog remains under their control while in public, so concerns about disrupting other customers are not a valid reason for denying access. Nor, according to ADA, are concerns about allergies. Most service dogs are trained to relieve themselves on command and on any surface, so it’s unlikely they will leave a “mess” in your place of business, Kindred adds. If the dog misbehaves and the handler does not take action
, you or your employees may ask to have the service dog removed. (Legally, you must offer to complete the transaction without the service dog present. A customer cannot be denied service because of their dog.)
- State laws regarding dog identification vary. There’s no national certification for service dogs, so some customers may claim to have service animals in order to bring their pets with them. Kindred says it can be difficult to tell a pet from a pro
, because not all service dogs wear a vest or are required to have paper documentation; some of these guidelines are state-specific. A customer with a legitimate service dog will likely be well-versed in explaining what the dog is trained to do (“he detects my seizures” or “she mitigates my disability”). If someone doesn’t have a good answer to that question, Kindred says, they could be bluffing. “In many cases, the person who is trying to pass off their family companion dog as a service dog will not have invested the time and training to ensure that the dog is as well-behaved as a service dog needs to be in public,” Kindred says. “They just think it would be really cool to be able to take their dog everywhere. In that case, the business owner will have to rely on his rights to ask the person and dog to leave if the dog is not well-behaved or well-groomed. If the dog is well behaved and acts appropriately, then the business owner must accommodate the request [provided the person explains what the dog is trained to do for that person].”