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ADA’s Rules Governing Service Animals: Everything Businesses Need to Know

Service Dogs Q&A

We are familar with it; we want to do right by it; but we all could use some more infomation and clarification. It’s the American with Disabilities Act or ADA’s rules for governing service dogs. 

Lake Champlain Chamber’s Erin Bombard spoke with attorney Jules Torti about ADA’s rules for governing service dogsTheir conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Erin Bombard: Hi, Jules! Thank you so much for joining us and sharing your expertise. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your background and role enforcing ADA.

Jules Torti: Absolutely. So thank you for having me. I think this is an area where people with disabilities want businesses to get it right. And businesses want to get it right. So I’m happy we can chat about the ways we can make that happen. I am an attorney with the United States attorney’s office for the district of Vermont. I work here in Burlington as a civil rights program coordinator. In that capacity, I help the federal government enforce civil rights law here in Vermont.

Let’s start with the basics. How does ADA define what a service animal is?

A service animal is a dog who is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. As a fun fact, occasionally a miniature of horse can qualify as a service animal, but the vast majority of service animals we see are dogs.

Does that mean a disability could be a physical or psychological disability? What actually is that defined under ADA?

Yeah. So a disability can be either psychiatric or physical to qualify for having a service animal. A service animal might be trained, for example, to alert to when someone with a seizure disorder is going to have a seizure and keep them safe during the seizure. That would be an example of a physical disability where someone would want a service dog.  A veteran with PTSD let’s say, who has trouble going into areas that might be crowded with a lot of unknown would be a psychiatric example. People might have a service animal who’s trained to go into a store, make sure that everything is okay, come back and let the person with a disability know that. So those are examples of disabilities that prompt people to get service animals that can be either psychiatric or physical.

So I know we mentioned a lot about service dogs, but are there other animals that count under ADA?

It’s really just dogs or in some unique circumstances, miniature horses. So if you see a ferret or a cat, it is absolutely not a service animal under the ADA. There are also, you know, a definition that we just went over, which is a dog that’s trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability. Dogs or animals that don’t qualify are sometimes those referred to as companion animals or emotional support animals. These are dogs that give a person maybe comfort, but aren’t specifically trained to perform tasks related to that person’s disability. So emotional support animals, even if they’re dogs, do not qualify under the ADA as service animals.

Are there limits to breeds for dogs or is it any breed that could qualify?

There’s no breed limit, and in fact, businesses and other entity organizations aren’t allowed to restrict by breed. Any dog that is trained to perform tasks on behalf of an individual with a disability qualifies.

So I know we’ve all seen service animals walking around with their little vests. Do service animals have to wear the vest or a special harness  indicating that they’re a service animal.

No, a service animal doesn’t have to wear anything in particular. You know, you can buy those vests on online retailers. They don’t frankly mean anything one way or the other under the ADA. Although it’s also important that you don’t see an animal with a vest and say, “Oh, that’s a fake” because some people with disabilities choose to buy those vests and put them on their animal for a lot of reasons like so people don’t touch the dog, don’t interact or don’t think it’s a pet. So a vest doesn’t mean anything one way or the other, and it’s not required. And in fact it can’t be required. So a business can’t make a rule saying you have to have your dog wear a vest, or we don’t count it as a service animal.

Are there special trainings or certificates that individuals have to go through?

Individuals with disabilities have the right to self-train their service animals. There’s no certification or training course that is required for an animal to be a service animal. That means that if you see a certificate or some sort of training stamp of approval, they aren’t required under the ADA. Businesses cannot require that a handler of a service animal produce any sort of certificate. There’s not a standard certification of these. And just like the service vest that you can buy online, you can actually buy certifications online saying that your dog is a service animal. So those things don’t mean anything one way or another, but importantly for businesses, they can’t be required.

What is actually required of a person with a disability who is accompanied by a service animal?

The rules for businesses are fairly straightforward. Businesses can ask two questions. When they see someone come into their business with an animal who may be a service animal, they can ask if that dog is a service animal required because of a disability, and they can ask what tasks or work has that animal been trained to perform. That’s it. So those are the two questions that businesses are allowed to ask. If someone says, “No, it is not a service animal”, that’s not a service animal. If someone says, “Well, actually the animal hasn’t been trained to form perform any tasks”, then again that’s not a service animal. But if the person answers, yes, it’s a service animal and explains what tasks it has been a been trained to perform, then the dog qualifies as a service animal, and they should be admitted to the business. 

Are there any other questions that individuals shouldn’t ask. Do you have some examples of things that really shouldn’t be brought up?

Absolutely. So businesses shouldn’t ask people to get into details of their disability. They shouldn’t ask for medical documentation. We touched on this earlier, but they shouldn’t ask for a certification or for the animal to be wearing a vest or dressed in a certain way. Those are all things that businesses should steer clear of.

Is there anything that businesses could potentially kick a service animal off the premises for and what are the circumstances where something like that would be allowed?

I’m glad you asked that because I think there’s this big misperception that, “Oh no, if we admit this animal, we’re stuck with this animal no matter how the animal behaves”.  And that’s not true. There are circumstances where businesses can ask that the animal leave. And there are, just like there were two questions, two circumstances where businesses can ask that a service animal leave. When the animal is not house broken: if your carpet is being soiled that is grounds to ask the animal to leave. Or when the animal is out of control and the handler is not able to get the animal under control. It’s important here to know that out of control doesn’t mean like the dog barks once and then the handler is able to quiet it down. It would be like out-of-control barking in a place where that was inappropriate like a theater or a library. If you’re at a restaurant and the animal is interfering with the other customers in a way that is severe, the business could ask that the animal leave and see if the person is okay receiving a service without the animal. And if that’s not the case, both the animal and the human would have to leave. But it’s important that businesses try to accommodate as much as possible. So in this case it would be asking the dog to leave and still offering the services to the person with a disability.

So I know you mentioned animals not being house broken. So say the dog has an accident on facilities. Are businesses able to charge for any cleaning fees or other fees that might be associated with what happened when the dog was on the premises?

This is a great question too. It comes up a lot with hotels. So if a hotel, for example, or I guess any sort of business that has dogs or animals on a regular basis, has like a blanket policy where if a dog, cat or an animal comes into the business space they charge just a regular fee for that presence, know that is not permitted to be applied to a service dog. They’re not considered pets in the same way those other animals are. So routine fees are not permitted for service dogs. However, if there is damage that is not just routinely charged to pets, the business can charge the person with a disability, the handler of the service animal, in the same way they would charge somebody else who had an animal that caused specific damage. So yeah, in the circumstance that you talked about, if an animal soiled the carpet and repairs were necessary, then yes, they could. They could charge that to the person with a disability.  As we talk about times when businesses could exclude animals or charge fees, I do want to underscore service animals generally are very, very well behaved and this stuff is rare. I just think it’s so important that businesses know that these things are possibilities or these things are options so that they understand how to navigate difficult situations. And so that they aren’t deterred from wanting to admit service dogs like they’re required to do because they just think they have no ability to handle situations as they arise. The ADA does allow for flexibility.

Could businesses restrict an animal in their facilities? Like if there’s a certain room that they don’t want animals in, are they able to restrict where a service dog can be within their premises?

Not generally. The ADA requires that people with disabilities who are accompanied by service dogs be able to go into any space that the general public is allowed to go in. That’s the kind of the general role under the ADA. And I think the reasoning here is kind of obvious, right? We want people with disabilities to be able to have equal access to the goods and services that businesses provide. So if you’re a restaurant with a salad bar and people without disabilities can go up to the salad bar and get some sort of self-service food, the dog is permitted to go. A service dog is permitted to go there with their handler, so their handler can access a salad bar. You know, on the other hand, if you have like kitchen in the back were members of the public are not generally permitted, then a person with a disability with a service dog also would not be permitted there. There are some really unique exceptions like if you operate zoo and there are a bunch of predators around, you know, perhaps service animals can be excluded from like the bear section of the zoo. The bears might mistake the service dog for lunch, and that might be disruptive to the operation of the zoo and kind of change the nature of the operations. So there are some really unique circumstances. And if folks have unique businesses and unique questions like that, there are plenty of lawyers in and around the Lake Champlain region who they can consult with questions like that. But if you’re a store, a restaurant, or a more route business of which there are many types, generally the service dogs should be allowed to go everywhere where other folks without service dogs are permitted to go

Jules, you provided a really, really thorough overlook of ADA and service dogs. To kind of wrap things up, can you remind us that the two questions that businesses should be asking when they see a patron enter with the service dog?

Absolutely. First, they should ask or can ask is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? And second, if the answer is yes, businesses are permitted to ask what work or tasks the dog has been trained to perform? And that’s it. I could see businesses having those two questions put on a card by a reception stand or a place where employees would be able to see them and glance at them if they’re confronted with a dog and not sure what to ask the person who’s accompanied by their dog, or just doing some training with their staff on those two questions. But if businesses stick with those two questions, you’re really in a safe zone in terms of your own liability. And it goes a long way towards respecting the rights of people with disabilities.