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Understanding Service Animals and the Guests They Support

Service Animals and the Guests

A large portion of guests live with a disability and rely on a service animal. Is your business equipped to take care of them?

There are currently around 500,000 service dogs assisting people with disabilities in the United States. There are also currently about 220,000 registered emotional support animals, an increase of over 800% from 2014.

With such a dramatic surge, service dogs and emotional support animals are now an increasingly popular topic of conversation. As a business owner, it is important to understand the laws and etiquette surrounding service animals, both to protect the dignity of disabled people and to shield yourself from potential lawsuits.

What are service dogs and emotional support animals, and what’s the difference?

Service dogs are highly specialized animals used to assist people with a number of disabilities, including blindness, autism, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), diabetes, mobility issues, and more. They are trained, often for several years, to provide assistance with specific everyday tasks. Emotional support animals are prescribed by mental health practitioners as animals that improve the psychological well-being of people with mental illnesses. They do not execute specific tasks; rather, their presence supports their owners emotionally.

Service dogs have public access rights, meaning they are legally allowed into all businesses as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Emotional support animals, however, do not have any public access rights; the only right they have is being allowed in housing that is normally not pet-friendly. An emotional support animal has no legal right to enter a private business or public space.

It’s important to note that an Emotional Support Animal is not the same thing as a Psychiatric Service Animal. A support animal does not have public access rights, whereas a service animal does. For example, a service dog that is specifically trained to predict a panic attack and mitigate its severity is allowed in a business, but a support animal who is used to help with anxiety (not through any specific training, just by providing emotional comfort) is not. While this distinction can be a little complicated, it is important to understand when determining who a business is allowed to refuse entry.


There are an increasing number of people in the United States using fake service dogs or intentionally misrepresenting their support animals as service animals so they can take them along in public places, and people have started to take note of this. Since 2016, over 150 laws have been enacted across the country to help combat this problem. Fake service dogs are often poorly trained and cause problems in businesses, such as barking, biting, or making messes. These fake service dogs only make access more difficult for legitimate service dog owners, who are legally entitled to access to businesses with their animals under the ADA. As more and more business owners become aware of the possibility of fake service dogs, they are more likely to interrogate or harass legitimate service dog handlers, which is a violation of the ADA and highly degrading. As a business owner, it can be difficult to know the rules for interacting with service animals and what kinds of animals are legally allowed in your establishment.

Interacting with a service animal and their handler

When interacting with someone with a service animal, you are limited in the questions you can ask. Questions you can ask:

  • Is this animal a service animal required because of a disability?
  • What duties does your animal perform?

That’s it. If you ask further questions, you may be subject to lawsuits, fines, penalties, or other legal action, as this is considered discrimination against a disabled person.

Questions you cannot ask:

  • What disability the person has that necessitates a service animal
  • You cannot ask for any sort of documentation, certifications, or other proof of the animal’s validity as a service animal. Although many do wear them, service dogs are not required to wear vests or display signage, nor are their handlers required to carry any sort of certifications or documentation.

Unruly animals?

You cannot refuse service to a service dog and its handler because your establishment is not pet-friendly. The only circumstances under which you can ask a service animal to leave are if it is causing a disturbance, such as barking at patrons, acting aggressively, or using the bathroom indoors. Most service dogs, however, have undergone years of rigorous training and tend to be exceptionally well-behaved. Poor behavior is often a sign that the animal is not a legitimate service dog.

Service dogs are an important tool for helping many disabled people live full and independent lives. As a business owner, it is important to treat all disabled people with respect, both morally and legally. Refusing entry to a service dog or berating their owner with invasive questions could land you in a world of trouble, costing you money in legal fees and fines and the business of future disabled patrons.