Simple Rules For Service Animals In Restaurants — To Keep You Out Of Hot Water

Simple Rules For Service Animals In Restaurants -- To Keep You Out Of Hot Water

Have you had a guest enter your restaurant accompanied by a service animal? If you have a no-pets policy in your restaurant this could cause some concern. Understanding how to handle guests when guests are accompanied by a service animal can be tricky due to the laws that protect individuals with disabilities.

What is a service animal?

Within the ADA, service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. Examples of the tasks service animals perform are:

  • Guiding people who are blind
  • Alerting people who are deaf
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Alerting people and protecting a person who is having a seizure
  • Reminding a person with a mental illness to take prescribed medications
  • Calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack

Service animals are trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

The tasks a service animal has been trained to do are solely directed towards the person’s disability. As defined by the ADA, service animals are NOT pets, they are working animals.

Dogs who only provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. But some state or local governments have laws that allow people with emotional support animals to go into public places.

Pitbull service dog

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

Are Service Animals allowed in your restaurant?

According to the ADA, state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the general public must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities “in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.”

The additional requirement for service animals to be allowed in public places, especially restaurants, is that the service animal must be under control. Service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered unless the devices would interfere with the service animal’s duties. If a leash or harness does interfere, the individual must maintain full control of the animal through voice, signal, or other controls.

Identifying Service Animals vs. Pets

Determining if it is a service animal or just a pet can be difficult because of the laws regarding animals aiding those with disabilities. There are only certain questions you may ask your guest without violating disability laws and their privacy.

Luckily, most of the time, there will be an indicator that it is a service animal, such as a vest, leash, collar, or harness. In 2011, the Department of Justice implemented revised regulations regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and addressed service animals.

If you are unsure that the animal accompanied by the guest in your restaurant is a service animal or of the task the service animal may provide, you are only allowed to ask two questions:

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

If you ask anything more than these two questions regarding the animal it is a violation of the law. You may be in trouble for discrimination against the guest. This could potentially be grounds for a lawsuit.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

Avoiding Discrimination Against Guests With Service Animals

To prevent offending and discriminating against your guest, the following line of questions should be avoided completely when addressing a guest with a service animal:

  • Questions about the person’s disability
  • Asking to see medical documentation
  • Asking to see special identification or training documentation for the service animal
  • Asking that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work it’s assigned
Service dog

Can you ask a guest with a service animal to leave?

If your restaurant serves the general public, under normal circumstances you cannot ask an individual with a service animal to leave. Complaints from other guests, allergies or fear of dogs are not valid reasons under the ADA to deny access or refuse service to disabled individuals with service animals.

There are only two cases in which it is permitted to ask the individual to remove the service animal from the premises:

  1. If the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control the service animal
  2. If the dog is not housebroken (i.e. messes on the premises)

If you ask that the service animal be removed from the restaurant, you must also offer the disabled guest the opportunity to obtain services without the animal's presence.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

Additional ADA Rules Regarding Service Animals

To avoid running afoul of the law and being charged with discrimination against the disabled:

  • You cannot isolate the individual from other patrons
  • You cannot treat them less favorably than other patrons
  • You cannot charge fees that are not charged to other patrons without animals
  • You cannot forbid the service animal from accompanying their handler through salad bars or self-service food lines


Although it can be concerning if a guest brings an animal into the restaurant, it is important to follow the laws regarding approved service animals. Do not discriminate against individuals with a disability that require a service animal. Understanding what questions you can ask and what you cannot do will help you to avoid a discrimination lawsuit.

Service animals are not pets. They are trained to complete specific tasks for individuals with disabilities. To make our restaurants a welcome place for all guests we must treat disabled individuals with service animals with respect and dignity.

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