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National Restaurant Association - What you need to know about service animals

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What you need to know about service animals

Train your employees to understand the needs of guests with service animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act says businesses must admit service animals anywhere their owners go. But business operators and their employees sometimes don’t know exactly what the law stipulates, says Marian Vessels, director of the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center, which provides information and training on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We’re still getting lots of complaints about not allowing animals where food is being served,” says Vessels.

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

What kind of animals must I allow in my restaurant?

The law applies only to dogs and miniature horses that are specifically trained to respond to the needs of a person with a disability. For example, someone can’t bring a boa constrictor to a restaurant and say it makes him or her feel more comfortable, Vessels says. The law covers only service animals individually trained to do specific tasks. It doesn’t cover animals that provide emotional support, comfort, well-being or companionship.

What are some of the actions service animals provide?


Dogs perform different tasks for individuals with disabilities

“We’re all familiar with guide dogs for blind people,” Vessels notes. But service animals can be trained to provide many other functions, she says. For example, a service animal can alert its handler to an oncoming epilepsy seizure. Other dogs perform specific tasks for individuals with psychiatric disabilities, such as disrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. Those animals can remind their handlers to take medicine, separate them from their environments or conduct safety searches or room checks for people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

For people who need mobility assistance, a service animal can provide stability, pull a wheelchair or pick things off the floor. The functions are unique to each handler and his or her service animal, Vessels says.

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

Many operators are concerned about allowing service animals in their establishments, but you can’t prevent a service animal and its handler from entering, Vessels says. Some worry the animal will misbehave or bother other guests. But well-trained service animals are better behaved than most pets, she says. They won’t beg for food at the table or make an impact at the restaurant. According to the ADA, you must allow the service animal to go anywhere the customer goes, including the restroom.

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

No. Feeding the animal is the owner’s responsibility.

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

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, but some state laws do. Check with your regional ADA center to find out about training animal requirements in your state.

You can’t ask for documentation of service animals, and your guests don’t need to show licenses or tags. While some guests might voluntarily offer to show you a license, you can’t demand proof.

What should I say to the guest with a service animal?

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 can’t say, “You don’t look like you have disability” or ask what the disability is. The guest might say, “My service animal pulls me, opens doors and fetches things off floor.” He or she never has to state what the disability is. Otherwise, it’s a violation of civil rights.

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

You should never touch or distract a service animal, Vessels says. “You don’t want to take the animal away from what it’s supposed to be doing, so don’t engage them in any way. They need to take care of the handler’s needs.”

What if one of my guests is allergic to or afraid of the animal?

You can’t deny entrance to people with service animals. But you can seat them away from a person who is allergic to the animal.

Does the animal have to be on a leash?

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. The dog recognizes when its handler’s blood sugar is out of balance and is trained to react. However, a guide animal must always be under the control of its handler by a voice or physical signal. The law says service animals must have a harness or leash unless the handler can’t use the leash because of the disability or the leash would interfere with the animal’s ability to perform tasks.

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.

What if the animal isn’t housebroken?

All service animals must be housebroken and trained to control their needs until the handler signals the time and place for them to go. You shouldn’t worry whether the animal will soil the carpet, Vessel says.

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 a 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, Vessels says. “They’re much better suited for pulling a wheelchair than a dog of the same size or weight.”

This article’s information does not constitute legal advice. Members can reference the National Restaurant Association’s Legal Problem Solver for more information about service animals and federal and state legal requirements. Additional information about service animals and other Americans With Disabilities Act requirements is available in the NRA’s ADA Toolkit.

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