Recently, a guest came into our restaurant with a lap dog. When asked about it, she responded that it was a service animal. She had no documentation to prove it. I let it go because the dog was behaving, but isn’t there some sort of paperwork or vest?
– Fine Dining Restaurant Owner, Massachusetts
While its hard to know and harder to prove, your guest may have been one of an increasing number of pet-lovers who take advantage of the strength of the ADA legislation to falsely claim that their pets are service animals. Unfortunately, there's very little you can do about that, even with a posted no pets policy.
Most restaurateurs are familiar with service dogs for people with visual impairments. Increasingly, dogs are assisting people with hearing impairments, seizure disorders, mobility impairments and other challenges.
You raise an important question—how do you distinguish a pet from a service dog? Is there some sort of license for service animals? From an ADA perspective, unless the dog was being disruptive or threatening, the guest was well within her rights and she is also right that, while some states and municipalities furnish paperwork, none is required.
The US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division explains, “The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.
And, in terms of proof: “Some, but not all, service animals wear special collars and harnesses. Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers. If you are not certain that an animal is a service animal, you may ask the person who has the animal if it is a service animal required because of a disability. However, an individual who is going to a restaurant…is not likely to be carrying documentation of his or her medical condition or disability. Therefore, such documentation generally may not be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal. Although a number of states have programs to certify service animals, you may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability.”
Finally, it is important to know that the ADA trumps municipal health code if you have an instance of another guest or a health inspector questioning the sanitation of allowing service dogs in your dining room.
My advice is to train your entire staff to be aware of the law. That way you can keep regular guests of all abilities and spend more time in the restaurant rather than with lawyers.