Assistance dogs aren’t pets; they’re working animals that assist people with disabilities in specific ways that improve their quality of life and ability to perform daily tasks. People who benefit from them are guaranteed certain rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Among these is the right to bring a service dog just about anywhere the public is permitted, including into places of business in most circumstances.
Businesses that don’t comply may be fined up to $55,000 for the first infraction and up to $100,000 for a subsequent offense. To prevent misunderstandings and violations of the law, here are 5 important things business owners and employees—and the public—need to know about assistance dogs and the rights of those who partner with them:
1. Assistance dogs perform all sorts of tasks for all sorts of people.
While “seeing-eye dogs” for the blind are the most familiar type of service dog, people with a wide variety of disabilities benefit from an assistance dog. Dogs aid individuals with impaired hearing, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), epilepsy and other causes of seizures, brain injuries, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, missing limbs, and other physical disabilities. These animals help people safely navigate their environment, pull wheelchairs, provide physical and emotional support, alert people to oncoming seizures, detect life-threatening allergens, and much more.
2. Individuals with service dogs may not be treated differently.
A business cannot in any way deliver different products, services, or prices because of an assistance dog. Not only is it bad customer service, it’s against the law. For example, customers using a service dog can’t be segregated or isolated, barred entry to public areas, made to pay extra fees or surcharges, or kept waiting longer than other customers. Barring a disability-related emergency, assistance dogs are trained to remain calm, quiet, and in as small a space as possible at their owner’s feet.
3. Assistance dogs are working.
Again, these aren’t pets. Though they may be furry and cute, they’re performing duties and may be monitoring their owner for oncoming seizures or other potentially serious circumstances or events. Service dogs must remain alert and attentive, so talking to them, petting them, or otherwise distracting them is disrespectful and may put someone in danger. Always ask before interacting with the dog.
4. Service dogs are required to behave appropriately and be well groomed.
As mentioned, assistance dogs are trained to be unobtrusive in public. They’re also trained to go to the bathroom on command. Furthermore, owners are responsible for keeping their dogs clean and presentable. Legally, a business can’t turn away a service dog for fear it will be disruptive or leave a mess. Also, under the ADA, dog allergies are not a valid reason for refusing service. If an assistance dog does misbehave, the business may request that it leave, but the owner must be given the option to complete any transactions without the dog present.
5. The definition of an assistance dog varies by state.
There isn’t a legally established national definition or certification of assistance dogs, so look into how your state defines a service dog to prevent misunderstandings or infractions. Also, people have been known to pass off pets as assistance dogs. Customers with legitimate assistance dogs can generally speak in specific details about the tasks the dog performs. And while there’s always an unpredictable element with any animal, a dog that doesn’t appear highly trained to be well-behaved is unlikely to be a true service dog.
It’s safest to assume that anyone claiming they have an assistance dog is telling the truth, provided they can explain exactly what the dog does, and always remember number 1 from this list. And if there are behavioral problems, the business has the right to ask the dog to be removed regardless.