Service Animals, Small Business, and Other Public Accommodations

What law about services animals applies to my business?

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits private businesses, regardless of size, who provide goods or services from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. These private businesses include privately-owned, leased, or operated facilities and are known as public accommodations.  There are many different types of public accommodations.  A few include hotels, restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters, bowling alleys, dry cleaners, daycare centers, health spas, health care providers’ offices, and lawyers’ offices.

The goal of Title III of the ADA is to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to goods and services.  To achieve this, these public accommodations need make reasonable modifications to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities, including modifying a “no animals allowed” policy. Under Title III, these public accommodations must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities into their businesses.

How does Title III of the ADA define service animals?

Under Title III of the ADA, a service animal is a dog that has been individually trained to perform work or tasks that assist an individual with a disability. A few examples of tasks that service animals can perform are pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, and helping individuals with psychiatric or neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.

Under some circumstances, businesses must permit the use of miniature horses who have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability. An organization can consider whether the facility can accommodate the miniature horse based on the horse’s type, size, and weight. Read this FAQ for more information about miniature horses.

Small Business and the ADA Toolkit

The Great Plains ADA Center has created a Small Business and the ADA toolkit to share with businesses.  The toolkit is not limited to just service animals.  One of the articles, ADA Quick Guide: Service Dogs & Business, is a two-page resource which answers lots of questions about service animals, their handlers, and a public accommodation’s responsibilities.  See pages 12 and 13 of the toolkit for the service animal article.

How do you know if a service animal is really a service animal and not just a pet?

Sometimes it is obvious an animal is a service animal, depending on the handler’s disability and the function of the service animal.  For example, an individual who is blind and uses a service animal for navigation isn’t going to raise any questions.  Other times, it will be less apparent.  For example, a woman with diabetes may rely on a service animal trained to alert her to dangerous changes in her blood sugar level.  Just because a person doesn’t look like she has a disability doesn’t mean that her service animal is really a pet.

Emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title III of the ADA.

The ADA does not require business owners to permit these types of animals in their premises.  Read about the differences between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.

To help separate service animals from pets, a business may ask two questions when a person with an animal enters a place of public accommodation:

  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

These questions may not be asked if the need for the service animal is obvious. The individual cannot be asked about his or her disability. The individual cannot also be asked to show proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal.  Additionally, service animals must not be required to demonstrate the tasks they perform.

The service animal in my business was not wearing a vest.  Aren’t service animals required to wear a vest identifying them as service animals?

No, service animals aren’t required to wear a vest.  In fact, service animals aren’t required to wear any form of identification. To learn more about other common misunderstandings, read our Service Animal Misconceptions page.

Where can service animals go?

Individuals with disabilities accompanied by service animals must be allowed in all areas of a business where members of the public can go. An individual with a service animal may not be set apart from other customers.

I work at a grocery store. Am I required to allow a service animal in the shopping cart?

No. Typically, the service animal must stay on the floor.  There are some instances when the individual with a disability may carry the dog. An individual with diabetes may carry the service animal in a chest pack to allow the service animal to smell the individual’s breath to detect changes in glucose levels.

Does a “no pets” policy apply to service animals?An example of a door sign for a business that reads: NOTICE. No animals. Service animals welcome.

No. A business with a “no pets” policy may not deny entry to a person with a service animal. Service animals are working animals, not pets. So, although a “no pets” policy is legal, it does not allow a business to exclude service animals.

I operate a private taxicab and I don't want animals in my taxi. Am I violating the ADA if I refuse to pick up someone with a service animal?

Yes, this is a violation of the ADA. Private taxicab companies may not refuse to provide services to individuals with disabilities. Private taxicab companies are also prohibited from charging higher fares or fees for transporting individuals with disabilities and their service animals. A person traveling with a service animal cannot be denied access to transportation, even if there is a “no pets” policy; cannot be forced to sit in a particular spot; and does not have to provide advance notice that he or she will be traveling with a service animal.

When is it okay to exclude a service animal?

Businesses may exclude a service animal from the premises if the animal is not housebroken or if the animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it. Uncontrolled barking, growling at other customers, jumping on other people, or running away from the owner are examples of unacceptable behavior. Before excluding the service animal, staff should ask the handler to get control of the animal.  If the service animal is still out of control, staff may ask the handler to remove the service animal. Service animals behaving aggressively may be removed immediately. If a service animal is removed from the premises, the individual with a disability must still have the opportunity to re-enter the business without the service animal.

There are some instances where the presence of service animals can change the fundamental nature of a business or be dangerous for people who are receiving services from a public accommodation.  However, this restriction is applied under very specific circumstances.

  • This does not mean service animals can be excluded from restaurants or other places where people eat. In a restaurant, a service animal must be allowed to accompany the person with a disability in all areas that are open to other patrons.
  • In a medical office, there may be certain areas where having a service animal could jeopardize safety, like the sterile environment of an operating room or an intensive care unit. Service animals should still be allowed in all other areas, like waiting rooms, exam rooms, and cafeterias.
  • If allowing service animals into a facility will change or interfere with the fundamental nature of the business, service animals can be restricted.  An example of this is restricting service animal access to some exhibits of a zoo, especially where the service animal will be viewed as a predator or as prey by the animal in the exhibit.  In this case, a zoo is still required to allow the service animal in other areas of the zoo.
  • The ADA does not override public health rules prohibiting dogs in swimming pools. But, gyms, fitness centers, hotels, or other entities operating a swimming pool must allow the service animal on the pool deck and in other areas where the public is allowed to go.

Who is responsible for the service animal’s care and supervision?

The individual with the service animal is always responsible for its care and supervision. The business is not responsible for the care or supervision, including providing food, water, or a special location for the service animal.

Service Animals in Retail Infographic

Region 2 of the ADA National Network, the Northeast ADA Center, has created an infographic called “Service Animals in Retail”.  It’s available on their Facebook page.

In addition to care and supervision of the service animal, what other responsibilities does the individual with a disability have?

First, the individual with a disability must maintain control of the service animal at all times.  The service animal must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents the use of these devices. Individuals who cannot use such devices must maintain control of the animal through voice commands, signals, or other effective methods.

Second, the individual with a disability must follow local vaccination and registration requirements for all animals, though businesses generally may not ask for documentation or proof.

Finally, the individual with a disability must keep the service animal clean and healthy.

An individual with a disability and their service animal came into my business.  One of my employees asked to pet it.  Is that okay?

Service animals are working; they are not pets.  Advise employees and staff to leave service animals alone.  This includes not petting them, talking to them, or even whistling at them.  Treats should also not be offered.  This is to avoid distracting service animals from their important tasks.

My business requires pet deposits. Do those fees apply to service animals, too?

No. A business cannot ask or require an individual with a disability to pay a surcharge of any kind.  But, if you normally charge individuals for the damage they cause, an individual with a disability may be charged for damage caused by his or her service animal.

Service Animals and Small Business Videos

The Rocky Mountain ADA Center has created several videos about service animals.  They are short videos that answer specific service animal questions.  There are two that address specific questions small businesses may have.

  • Service Animals and the ADA: Fees
  • Service Animals and the ADA: Restaurants

Service Animal Resource Hub Main Page