A service animal, sometimes referred to as a service dog, is an animal that has been specially trained to assist an individual with a disability. Individuals who have vision impairments, individuals with mental illness, as well as individuals with physical injuries, all use service animals to assist them with specific tasks related to the disability.
Issues frequently arise as to whether an individual may bring their service animal to a place of public accommodation. Under a federal law known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a public accommodation is a private entity that owns, manages, or leases a place that is open to the public.
Examples of places of public accommodation include retail stores, parks, beauty salons, private schools, medical facilities, exercise clubs and supermarkets, just to name a few. Under the ADA, an entity covered by the ADA must permit service dogs to accompany individuals with disabilities in all areas that are open to members of the public.
What Rights Do Service Dog Owners Have?
An individual with a disability with a service dog has the right to bring the service dog to a public place, so that the dog, trained to assist the individual with certain tasks, may offer such assistance. For example, an individual may have the disability of chronic seizures. Their service dog has been specially trained to remind the individual to detect seizure onset, and then help the person remain safe during the seizure. This individual may bring the service dog with them to a public place so the service dog can perform the task of seizure onset detection and the task of keeping the individual safe.
Not all places of public accommodation permit entry of pets. If, however, an individual requires a reasonable accommodation to access the place of public accommodation, the establishment must permit the service animal to enter. If, for example, a vision-impaired individual cannot meaningfully access a place of public accommodation, and requires the assistance of the service dog to navigate the establishment, the individual is entitled to bring the service animal as a reasonable accommodation.
What is Considered a “Public Place”?
Under the ADA, a public place is a location where the general public is invited, or is permitted to enter or remain. Public places include hotels, restaurants, stationery stores, arts and crafts stores, and malls.
Public places also include sporting stadiums and other facilities that admit individuals upon their presenting a ticket or other admission document. Public places also include transportation services that serve the public, such as cabs, airplanes, and trains.
When Would a Service Animal Not Be Allowed?
Under the ADA, a service animal must be specifically trained to perform tasks for individuals with a disability. These tasks must be tasks that the individuals cannot perform by themselves. If the dog cannot perform these tasks, the dog is not considered a service animal under the ADA.
In certain instances, a place of public accommodation is not required to permit entry of a service animal. If a particular service animal engages in behavior that poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others, or has a history of engaging in such behavior, a public place owner may lawfully exclude the animal.
However, the owner must still permit the individual with a disability to enter. In addition, a place of accommodation may exclude a service animal if the service animal is not under the control of its handler. “Under control” means that the dog must be secured by a harness, leash, or tether while in the public place, unless leashing, harnessing or tethering the animal prevents the animal from performing its work.
If the individual’s disability cannot be accommodated if these devices are used, the individual must be capable of using voice, signal, or other means to maintain control over the animal. For example, an individual who uses a wheelchair may bring a service animal to a grocery store, to retrieve items the individual cannot reach. In such a case, the individual may use a long, retractable leash to allow the service animal to perform the trained task of item retrieval.
An owner of a public place may also refuse entry to a service animal as an accommodation, if the owner can show that admitting the animal would require the owner to modify policies, procedures or practices that would “fundamentally alter” the nature of what the public place offers to the public. Consider the example of a zoo where the animals on display are naturally antagonistic to dogs. A service animal’s presence in such a zoo, if it causes the zoo animals to behave aggressively or become agitated, can be prohibited. However, the service animal must be permitted access to other areas of the zoo where such other animals are not present.
Additionally, the ADA permits exclusion of a service animal that is out of control. If an animal is out of control and its handler does not take appropriate retraining action, the animal may be excluded.The ADA also permits exclusion of a service animal that is not housebroken.
When are Service Animals Allowed?
The ADA requires service animals to be allowed in any location where the public at large is allowed. If an area of a facility is closed to the public, the ADA does not require that the service animal be permitted entry. Frequently, the issue of whether employers and landlords must permit service animals arises. In such cases, the individual with a disability must demonstrate that they would experience “undue hardship” to receive permission to have the animal in the workplace or residence.
“Undue hardship” means that, without the assistance of the trained service animal, performing a job would be difficult or impossible. In the landlord-tenant setting, “undue hardship” means that it would be difficult or impossible for a tenant to maintain an adequate standard of health, life, and wellness, without the service animal present.
What Kind of Accommodations Am I Entitled To?
An individual who requires the assistance of a service animal to perform specific tasks is entitled to use of the service animal as a reasonable accommodation. This means that if a store or workplace or apartment does not permit pets to enter, they must modify their policies to permit entry of service animals whose trained assistance is required for an individual to perform specific tasks. Individuals with service animals are not entitled to any and all accommodations.
For example, in the workplace, an employer may refuse to allow a service animal who is not needed to perform tasks related to the employee’s disability. The tasks a service animal has been trained to perform must be those tasks for which an individual is entitled to the accommodation of the animal.
Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with Service Animal Issues?
If you require the assistance of a service animal in public places, a place of residence, or place of employment, you should contact a civil rights attorney or an employment lawyer.
An experienced civil rights attorney near you can assist you with ensuring your right to bring a service animal to an ADA-covered public place is not denied. An employment attorney near you can protect your right to have a service animal in the workplace as a reasonable accommodation.