People often ask, “Where can you take your dog?”
The answer: Pretty much anywhere I can go, with a couple of extremely rare exceptions.
Public access for Service Dogs is protected under a number of federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carriers Act. Individual states sometimes have more specific laws and provisions, too.
At the very least, under the ADA, any establishment that serves the public, including public transit, must allow service dogs. When I get on the train or airplane, so does my dog. If I stay at the Ritz Hotel, so does my dog. If I have dinner at a tiny mom and pop malt shop, so does my dog.
Well, she wouldn’t actually have dinner there, but we’ll address etiquette another time.
Pretty frequently, business owners and employees ask for ID. But what does it look like? Is it a card? Is it a rabies certificate? A tag? A vest? Is there even a standard? One thing’s for sure: you can buy it (whatever it is) online.
Actually, there’s no such thing, legally speaking. Under the law, Service Dogs are not required to wear any kind of identifying equipment, and their handlers don’t need a license, ID card, or any other kind of proof that they’re disabled and the dog is “certified”.
What makes a dog a Service Dog?
According to the ADA, “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Individual schools that train and place dogs can make requirements that their graduate dogs always wear a vest or tag in public, and the responsible ones (in my opinion) require periodic certification tests to ensure that teams are working safely together in the community. That, however, is all the prerogative of the organization and cannot be required by anyone else.
If an employee or business owner is concerned, he or she can ask two questions:
Is that a Service Dog?
How does your dog help you? (Up to three examples can be requested.)
It’s unacceptable for an individual to be questioned about the nature of his or her disability, and there are hefty penalties for businesses that repeatedly violate that regulation.
When can a Service Dog be excluded?
The circumstances under which a Service Dog can be removed or excluded are very rare. An example would be in an operating room, which is a sterile environment. Since the law requires that the dog is always under control, a handler can also be asked to remove his or her dog if it’s behaving inappropriately (barking, jumping, etc.) and he or she has been unable to gain control.
Another situation might be school. The law states that an individual must be able to handle a Service Dog safely, and businesses are not required to provide care or handling. When a child is too young or not physically capable of doing so independently, the school can refuse access. If you’re a parent considering taking on your child’s principal over this issue, make sure that it’s a safe situation and that you’re not asking the school to do anything outside the bounds of its responsibility.
What should I do if someone tries to deny me access?
There are countless stories of people with disabilities being denied public access with their Service Dogs, and unfortunately, they often don’t know their rights.
Most commonly, I hear, “Dogs aren’t allowed in here.” Here are a few things you can do to help avoid a nasty confrontation:
1. Keep cool. Be polite and friendly. If you get defensive, you’ve played into the idea that you’re doing something wrong, and the initiator is more likely to pursue removal of the dog. I usually say with a smile, “She’s a Service Dog and, under the ADA, she’s allowed to go wherever I go.” Most of the time, the conversation goes from tense to light hearted, the offender apologizes for the trouble, and I move on happily to consuming copious amounts of beef and fried potatoes (or something like that).
2. Don’t bother arguing beyond the initial question and answer with a server, sales associate, etc. It’s likely that he or she is simply unaware and is following procedures that are in place to prevent people from bringing pets into the business. Calmly ask to speak with a supervisor if the issue isn’t dropped.
3. Carry a copy of the part of the ADA that addresses Service Dogs. I have it saved as a .pdf on my iPhone and can pull it up at a moment’s notice. Usually, the word “law” makes people back off. Don’t forget to keep being friendly.
4. If the situation escalates, you may decide you don’t want to give the establishment your business, but don’t let it go at that. Leave with your dignity intact and write a letter to the owner; you can provide a copy of the ADA Business Brief on Service Animals. If they don’t relent, you can take legal action.
Conclusion: Use common sense.
If it’s an inherently dangerous situation for a dog to be in, or if the dog’s presence poses a serious threat to the environment, then it should be avoided. Otherwise, go about your business, living in harmony with all of the four-legged helpers out there!
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