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Service Dogs in Public Spaces and Questions That May Be Asked


More and more people with disabilities choose a service animal not only to fulfill their everyday tasks but because of the emotional support that a service animal can provide. Dogs can be trained professionally or individually to perform specific tasks for the benefit of their handler with a disability be it physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental. One of the most important topics for people with disabilities is how they and their dog partners are being treated in public spaces and what questions they may be asked by business owners.

Does an Emotional Support Animal have the same rights in public spaces as a service dog?

First, we need to make clear the difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal, as owners of emotional support animals can not require access for them to public spaces.

Emotional support animals are not specifically trained for anything. ESA qualifications are based on the owner needing the animal for comfort. Since the animal isn’t trained for specific tasks, they can still be turned away from public places (i.e. restaurants, shopping centers, hotels, etc). However, once people find out that your animal is an Emotional Support Animal, they are much more likely to allow your pet to stay.

Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks and are essentially allowed to go anywhere their handlers go. It is very important to mention that a service animal should be trained to perform a task, directly related to his/her owner’s disability, whether trained professionally or individually at home.

What questions may a business ask a service dog’s handler?

As service dogs often attract attention and people may want to know more about the dog or their handler, people with disabilities should be familiar with the questions they may be asked when entering a public entity. According to the general rules of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), these questions are:

1. Is the service dog required because of a disability;

2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

What questions may not a business ask a service dog’s handler?

Business owners may not ask these questions if it is obvious what the need of a service dog is. i.e.: when the service dog is pulling a wheelchair or guiding a blind person.

Owners of service dogs may not be asked about the nature or the level of their disability.

They may not be required to show proof that the service dog has been trained, certified or licensed as a service animal. The owner of a service dog is not required to put a vest or tag on the animal so that he/she can be identified as a service animal. A service dog may not be required to demonstrate its ability to fulfill a task or work.

Do the regulations for service dogs apply to service dogs in training as well?

ADA does not specifically address service animals in-training. In the US, some states grant them full access as if they were full-fledged service dogs, some specifically mention that they’re welcome only with the permission of the business owner, and others don’t mention them at all. Federal law does not mention service dogs in training, so state law should always be checked.

In which cases service dogs may be required to leave a public space or fees may have been charged?

Dog handlers should be aware of the fact that they are responsible for the supervision and the behavior of their animals. If a service dog is not well-behaved (if he/she barks, causes damages or is a direct threat to the safety and the health of others) the handler and the dog may be asked to leave. There are some examples listed by the US Department of Justice in regard to the prohibition of service dogs. They are not allowed in specific areas of a dorm at boarding school, reserved for students with allergies to dogs, however the dogs should not be restricted from the rest of the entity. The presence of service dogs may be also prohibited in some areas of the zoo in that the animal that has been exhibited is a natural prey or a natural predator of dogs and the presence of a dog may become disturbing.

No additional fees may be charged for service animals. However, if the service animal causes damages, the owner may be required to pay for them, if the charge for the same type of damages is a part of their policy or regular practice for non-disabled clients.

ADA regulations vs local regulations and “no pets” policy

In case that an entity does operate a “no pets” policy, it is important to know that this is irrelevant for service dogs. The presence of service animals should be allowed, as they are not considered “pets”. According to ADA this policy should be modified so that people with service animals can have access to the public entities.

It may occur a situation in that a local or state regulation conflicts with an ADA regulation, i.e.: according to a health department, the presence only of guide dogs may be allowed. In this case, the prohibition of service animals of different type is considered a violation of ADA rules, which have greater protection for people with disabilities and have priority over the local regulations.

However, we have to mention that if a city requires all dogs to be vaccinated, registered or licensed, these regulations apply as well as to the service dogs.

What if a handler needs two service dogs

Some people that have two different disabilities may use two service dogs, as each of them performs a different task, i.e.: seizure/ allergy/ diabetic alert dog and a dog whose task is to guide the owner in case of visual/ motor impairment. However, if the conditions do not allow the presence of both dogs (i.e. the entity is too small and/or crowded) the handler may be asked to leave one of the dogs outside.

Although people with service dogs have undisputed rights when entering public premises, business is not required to provide care or food or supervision for service animals.

We would recommend an open conversation with the business owner, as people tend to be more understanding when they are familiar with the situation and the needs of their customers.