service animals in restaurantsUnder the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) service animals can enter establishments that other animals can’t. But what about the rights and responsibilities of restaurant owners and other customers when it comes to service animals in restaurants? Here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) and answers about this topic.

Am I required to allow animals in my restaurant?

The ADA says restaurants must admit dogs and miniature horses that are “specially trained” to respond to or assist with a disabled person’s needs. A disability can be physical (e.g., visual impairment or a condition such as epilepsy). It can also be sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or otherwise mental in nature. However, the ADA doesn’t mandate that your establishment welcome emotional support and comfort animals or therapy dogs. Unlike service animals in restaurants and elsewhere, these dogs and other creatures may lack special training.

What types of actions are service animals specially trained to perform?

Service animals can be trained to handle a wide range of tasks. For example, some have been taught to alert their handlers to an imminent epileptic seizure. Others can perform tasks like guiding a visually impaired individual around public places, pulling a wheelchair, or retrieving dropped items.

Some service animals have learned to assist individuals with psychiatric disabilities by performing such tasks as preventing them from engaging in impulsive or disruptive behaviors. Certain service animals have been taught to separate their handlers from potentially harmful environments or conditions. For example, service animals in restaurants might lead a visually impaired away from a puddle on the floor. Or, they can perform safety or room checks for persons with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to ensure the absence of loud noises or other triggers.

How can I determine if an animal is actually a service animal?

Service animals aren’t required to wear anything that identifies them as such, and it’s against the law for business owners to ask for documentation that an animal is a service animal. Additionally, your guests don’t need to show a license or any proof that an animal isn’t really just a pet.

However, there are some questions you can ask handlers. For example, you can inquire whether a service animal is required because of a disability and what tasks it’s trained to perform. You are not permitted, however, to ask guests to disclose their specific disabilities.

Should food and water be offered for service animals in restaurants?

It isn’t necessary. Guests are responsible for providing food and water for their service animal.

Are service animals housebroken?

All service animals must be housebroken in order to be permitted in public places.

Should service animals wear restraints?

Most service animals are on a tether, leash, or harness. Some may not be restrained because of the nature of what they are trained to do, but few, if any, service animals would be brought into restaurants unrestrained.

What about other guests who are afraid of or allergic to animals?

The best course of action is to seat these guests as far away as possible from service animals.

As a responsible restaurant owner or manager with a desire to build your business, you can’t afford to alienate guests. Knowing the rules about service animals in restaurants will help do the trick— and ensure that your reputation is one of sensitivity to all guests’ needs.