Sunday, July 14, 2013


That wasn’t the question that I was asked. I was asked, “What should my business policy be on service dogs?” but I can read between the lines. What she meant was: “what should I do if the dog poops or bites?” But, as long as we’re using nice terms like “policy” I will start there:

While you should train your staff on the laws around service animals, you don’t need to post a policy or make any effort to inform your customers of a policy. In fact, you should avoid anything that treats any one customer (abled or disabled) differently from other customers.  
If a customer comes in your place of business with an animal (where animals are not normally allowed) and it is not obvious that the animal is a service animal you may ask whether or not the animal is a service animal. But,
  • You do NOT ask for any credentials.   
  • You do NOT ask for a demonstration of the animal’s work/abilities.  
  • You do NOT ask for any information about the nature of the person’s disability.  Sometimes people with a legitimate need for a service animal will not appear disabled.  For example, a person may have a dog who’s sole purpose is to alert other people when his master is having a seizure.  If necessary, you may ask what tasks the animal performs, but this is tricky because you do not want to appear to be asking about the nature of the person’s disability and, in most cases, your policy should just be to assume the animal is needed to perform some task and it is none of your business why.
  • You do NOT require a person to sign any promise to supervise or care for their animal.
  • You do NOT require a person to sign any document regarding their liability in anticipation that their animal may injure people or property.
  • You do NOT require that owners of service animals pay any advance cleaning fee or security deposit  or other similar fee that customers without service animals are not required to pay.
Now, let’s get down to it. What if the dog poop or bites?
You treat people with service animals the same as any other customer. If the service dog soils the floor and you have an established policy in place that if any customer (or their child) soils the floor they must pay a fee for you to clean it up then you may apply this policy. Although owners of service animals are supposed to clean up after their animals, you may not have a clean up fee policy that only applies to service dogs.

If a service animal harms someone (like a dog bite) you treat it the same as if any of your customers (or their children) did the same. If the situation calls for it, you hold them liable, you call the police, etc. The idea is that you are not treating any customer differently than any other.

In general, a safe policy is to treat the customer as if their animal were not there at all. You are not required to offer any care or supervision for the animal and you should assume that the owner has that responsibility under control. If the animal is causing a problem or you believe that the animal is not being cared for, you should first ask the owner to care for and/or supervise their animal. If they refuse and the problem that the animal is causing is one that would normally require a customer to be removed from the premises, you may require them to remove the animal from the premises. Once the animal is removed you must allow the human customer to stay, unless they too are violating established policies.

It may be helpful for you to think of the service dogs as kids. You don’t require parents to sign additional waivers, pay security deposits, or sit in different sections than your other customers (I know right now you are thinking that these are all great ideas, but trust me, they are bad ideas) so don’t require these things of service animals. If you own a movie theater treat a barking service dog with the same policy you have for crying babies. If you own a restaurant allow the animals to go wherever the kids go (except, of course, there is no age restrictions for animals) so if you don’t let customers in the kitchen you don’t have to let the service animal in the kitchen.

Also, you may notice that I’ve been using the term “animal” instead of “dog”— that is because under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act miniature horses count! Check out these adorable miniature horses, for example, from The Guide Horse Foundation

Although the federal law only cover dogs and miniature horses your state, county or city may have even broader definitions of service animals. So, if someone comes in with an official looking monkey make sure to check your local regulations before denying them access.
For further research here is the most recent ADA briefing and their FAQ.


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