Most of us would agree that when dining in a nice restaurant or grocery shopping, that having a dog accompany another patron would be a distraction at best, and unsanitary at worst. Many stores and retail establishments have ‘no pets’ policies. However, a lot of us would also agree that a service dog, say, a dog that was aiding a blind person, should be allowed to accompany that person into whatever store or restaurant they wanted to go in. The law agrees.
So where do you draw the line? How do you know which is a service dog, and which is a pet?
The Americans with Disabilities Act has done its part to define these things. There is no registry of service animals, and not all service animals assist blind people. There are dogs that can sense when a seizure is about to occur, dogs that can alert diabetics to radical shifts in their blood sugar, and a host of other medical assistance that service animals can be trained to do.
So, since there is no registry, no card or license that can be produced, how can you ask someone if their dog is a pet or a service dog without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act [the “ADA]?
The ADA defines a service animal as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, and those tasks the dog has been trained to do are directly related to the person’s disability. You can’t ask someone what their disability is. You can, however, ask two questions: 1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? 2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? You cannot ask for the dog’s documentation, a demonstration of the dog’s service or abilities, or anything specific about the person’s disability.
As a general rule, emotional support animals are not qualified as service animals under the ADA. Like everything else, however, there can be a fine line which is easy to cross by accident. If a dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and to take specific action to alleviate the symptoms of that attack (or prevent it) then the dog is a service animal. However, if the dog or other animal merely provides comfort to a person who is anxious or otherwise depressed or in need of comfort, the dog is considered a ‘comfort animal’ and not a service dog.
Most service dogs are highly trained animals and extremely well behaved. People with disabilities who have service dogs are not simply handed a service dog and wished good luck – there is training for the disabled person as well. The disabled person learns how to read the dog’s cues and signals and generally has a close relationship with the dog. However, even if the dog is a legitimate service animal and would otherwise be allowed in an establishment, if the dog is not under control, the dog (and its owner) can be forced to leave. The ADA requires that service animals be under the control of the handler at all times. They must be harnessed, tethered, or leashed in public places unless those devices interfere with the service dog’s job, in which case the dog must be under voice or signal control. The dog also can’t bark inappropriately. This means that the dog can’t bark repeatedly, or bark in a library, museum, or theater, or other place where it would be a distraction to other patrons.
For more information, visit http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html
This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form. It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only. In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation. I have not done that here.