Question: I own a small business and many customers want to bring animals into my store with them while they shop. I know that I have to allow service animals, but how can I tell if an animal is a service animal? Also, is there any harm in allowing customers to bring non-service animals into my business?
Answer: Under federal and California law, people with disabilities have a legal right to bring a service animal into a private business if it is under the handler’s care and control, is housebroken and does not pose a direct threat to other people or property. A service animal is legally defined as a dog or miniature horse that is individually trained to perform work or tasks for a person with a disability.
Service dogs can be of any breed or size, and can be trained to perform a variety of tasks. Examples of some tasks service dogs perform include, but are not limited to, guiding a handler with a vision impairment, alerting a handler with a hearing impairment, picking up or fetching items for a handler with a mobility impairment, alerting a handler to early signs of a panic attack or seizure, and removing a handler who is disoriented from a dangerous situation. If it is not readily apparent that an animal is a service animal, you may ask the following two questions to make that determination: (1) “Is the animal a service animal required because of a disability?” and (2) “What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?” If the person states that the animal is required because of a disability and can describe the work or task that the animal has been trained to perform, the animal must be allowed access to the business. Further inquiry or questions about the nature of the person’s disability are prohibited.
There is no certification or official registry for service animals, nor does the law distinguish between professionally and personally trained animals. Most service animals receive up to two years of training at special training centers before being placed with their handlers, at an average cost of over $40,000 per animal. The waiting time for a service dog can be two years or more.
The importance of service animals in allowing disabled individuals access to businesses and activities cannot be overstated. There are risks to the general public of allowing an untrained and unpredictable non-service animal into a business. But there is an additional consideration affecting individuals with disabilities. The danger in allowing non-service animals in places like shops and restaurants is that untrained animals such as pets, emotional support, or comfort animals can become aggressive and frightened in the presence of a service animal, and can intimidate or harm service animals and handlers. In some cases, pets have injured service animals, resulting in devastating losses to the disabled individual. It is also reported that some disabled individuals are reluctant to frequent businesses that allow all animals to enter because of fear of harm to their service animal. This results in disabled individuals being denied equal access to public places. While it may be tempting to allow non-service animals into your business to avoid potential liability for denying access to a service animal, doing so risks harming legitimate service animals that have been specially trained to perform life-saving and life enhancing tasks for their handlers.
For more information visit cci.org/stopfraud