Service Animals

Service Animals

Q:  What laws apply to my business?

A:  Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, theaters, concert halls and sports facilities, may not discriminate against individuals with disabilities.  These laws require businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals into whatever areas customers are generally allowed.  Violations may lead to money damages and penalties.

Q:  What is a service animal?

A:  Under both the ADA and the WLAD, a service animal is any dog or miniature horse 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.

A service animal must perform work or tasks directly related to the handler’s disability.  Most people are familiar with seeing-eye dogs that assist the blind.  Service animals may also alert deaf individuals of the presence of people or sounds, pull a wheelchair, assist during a seizure, alert individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieve items such as medicine or a telephone, provide physical balance or support to those with impaired mobility, and help those with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.

An animal that merely provides emotional support, well-being, comfort, companionship, or protection by being present is not a service animal.

Q:  How can I tell if an animal is really a service animal and not just a pet?

A:  In Washington, the legal requirements for service animals to be specially identified is the same as the ADA. Some, but not all, service animals wear special collars and harnesses. Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers.  If you are not certain that an animal is a service animal, you may ask the person who has the animal if it is a service animal required because of a disability.  You may ask what tasks the service animal is trained to perform, but you may not require special ID cards for the service animal, or ask about the person’s disability.  An individual who is going to a restaurant is not likely to be carrying documentation of his or her medical condition or disability.  Therefore, such documentation generally may not be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal. You may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability.

Q:  Can animals other than dogs be service animals?

A:  The definition of “service animal” under the ADA and WLAD excludes all species other than dogs.  However, recent amendments to both laws require business owners to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse, if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability.

Q:  What must I do when an individual with a service animal comes to my business?

A:  The service animal must be permitted to accompany the individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go.  An individual with a service animal may not be segregated from other customers.

In determining whether reasonable modifications can be made to accommodate a miniature horse, a business may consider the type, size, and weight of the miniature horse and whether the facility can accommodate these features; whether the handler has sufficient control of the miniature horse; whether the miniature horse is housebroken; and whether the miniature horse’s presence in a specific facility compromises legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation.

Q:  I have always had a clearly posted “no pets” policy at my establishment.  Must I still allow service animals in?

A:  Yes.  A service animal is not a pet.  The ADA and WLAD require you to modify your “no pets” policy to allow the use of a service animal by a person with a disability.  This does not mean you must abandon your “no pets” policy altogether but simply that you must make an exception to your general rule for service animals.

Q:  My county health department has told me that only a seeing eye or guide dog has to be admitted.  If I follow those regulations, am I violating the ADA and WLAD?

A:  Yes, if you refuse to admit any other type of service animal on the basis of local health department regulations or other state or local laws.  The ADA provides greater protection for individuals with disabilities and so it takes priority over the local or state laws or regulations.  Furthermore, there is no evidence that healthy, vaccinated, well-trained service animals are any greater threat to public health and safety than members of the general public.

Q:  Can I charge a maintenance fee for customers who bring service animals into my business?

A:  No.  Neither a deposit nor a surcharge may be imposed on an individual with a disability as a condition to allowing a service animal to accompany the individual with a disability, even if deposits are routinely required for pets.  However, a business may charge its customers with disabilities for damage caused by a service animal, so long as it is the regular practice of the business to charge non-disabled customers for the same types of damages.  For example, a hotel can charge a guest with a disability for the cost of repairing or cleaning furniture damaged by a service animal if it is the hotel’s policy to charge when non-disabled guests cause such damage.

Q:  Am I responsible for the animal while the person with a disability in my business?

A:  No.  The care or supervision of a service animal is solely the responsibility of the person it accompanies in your business.  You are not required to provide care or food for the animal.

Q:  What if a service animal barks or growls at other people, or otherwise acts out of control?

A:  You may exclude any animal, including a service animal, from your facility when that animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.  For example, any service animal that displays vicious behavior towards other quests or customers may be excluded.  You may not, however, make assumptions about how a particular animal is likely to behave based on your past experience with other animals.  Each situation must be considered individually.  Additionally, you should give the individual whose service animal was excluded the option of continuing to enjoy your establishment without his or her service animal present.

Q:  Can I exclude an animal that doesn’t really seem dangerous but is disruptive to my business?

A:  You may exclude such an animal under very limited circumstances.  Specifically, a business is not required to accommodate a service animal when doing so would result in a fundamental alteration to the nature of the business.  Generally, this is not likely to occur in restaurants, hotels, retail, stores, theaters, concert halls and sports facilities.  But when it does, for example, when a dog barks during a movie, the animal may be excluded.

Q:  Can I refuse service to a person with a service animal if my employee or other customers are afraid of animals or have animal-specific allergies?

A:  No.  Allergies and fear of animals are generally not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people with service animals.

Q:  May I exclude a service animal in training or a person who does not have a disability but says that his or her animal is a trained service animal?

A:  Yes.  The WLAD and ADA do not address animals that are not trained. While you may choose to accommodate these animals, you are not legally obligated to do so.  Additionally, the WLAD and ADA protect the rights of individuals with disabilities, and do not apply to non-disabled individuals, even if they happen to be accompanied by trained service animals.

Q:  What if I have more questions?

A:  If you have further questions about service animals or other requirements of the ADA and WLAD, call:

  • S. Department of Justice’s ADA Information Line
    • 800.514.0301 (voice)
    • 800.514.0383 (TTY)
  • Washington State Human Rights Commission
    • 800.233.3247 (voice)
    • 800.300.7525 (TTY)

Rev. 12/08/11


This article is an excerpt from the Handbook for Excellent Restaurant Operations (HERO), published by the Washington Hospitality Association.  Want a hard copy of the whole manual?  It’s one of the many benefits of becoming a member!  Find out more about joining the Washington Hospitality Association here.

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Categories: HERO