Is That REALLY a Service Animal?

Is That REALLY a Service Animal?

Are you ready to RRRUUMMMBLE? In this corner, we have a “No Pets Allowed” policy. And, in this corner, we have a patron with a service animal. Who wins? The answer is important because a number of laws protect individuals with disabilities, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. To avoid costly violations, businesses (and their employees!) need to know how to deal with service animals.

Title III of the ADA generally prohibits disability discrimination by public accommodations. ADA regulations issued by the Department of Justice generally require public accommodations to modify policies, practices or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability. [Modifications that conflict with legitimate safety requirements or fundamentally alter the nature of goods or services provided to the public are not required.]

The ADA broadly defines public accommodation to include a wide-range of private entities that conduct operations affecting commerce. So, there’s a good chance that this requirement applies to your business.

What is a Service Animal?

A service animal is defined as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability, such as:

  • Assisting individuals who are blind or deaf;
  • Providing physical support or stability to individuals with mobility disabilities; and
  • Helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities.

Dogs that provide emotional support, well-being, comfort or companionship are not considered service animals because they are not individually trained to perform a specific job or task. Other species of animals, whether wild, domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition.

Fun Fact: In some cases, a public accommodation may be required to let an individual with a disability use a trained miniature horse. Seriously.

What can you ask someone with a Service Animal?

If it’s obvious that an animal is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, you’re generally not allowed to ask anything. This would be the case if a dog is observed guiding someone who is blind or pulling someone’s wheelchair. If it’s not obvious, then you’re allowed to ask two, and only two, specific questions.

  • Is the animal required because of a disability? (But, you cannot ask about the nature or extent of a person’s disability.)
  • What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

You cannot require or request proof that a dog has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal, which doesn’t really matter because anyone can buy certification and registration documents online. It also doesn’t matter because these documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and are not recognized by the DOJ as proof that a dog is a service animal.

A growing number of states have actually passed laws in response to people lying about service animals. For example, in 2015, Florida made it a crime to knowingly and willfully misrepresent yourself as being qualified to use a service animal

Here are a few other things worth knowing about service animals.

  • Service animals don’t need to be professionally trained.
  • Service animals that are not housebroken or out of control can be asked to leave.
  • Any breed of dog can be a service animal.
  • Restaurants and bars are not required to permit service animals on chairs or tables.
  • State-specific laws, which can vary significantly, may also govern the use of service dogs in public accommodations.

Things can go very wrong very fast when service animals are not handled properly. They often require a delicate touch. Businesses that don’t know or follow the law governing service animals face potentially devastating reputational and financial harm.

Please contact us if you would like more information about insurance designed to protect your business…just in case.

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