Many restaurants do not allow pets. However, the law requires that accommodations be made for service animals. Everyone is familiar with seeing eye dogs. But sometimes it isn’t so easy to tell the difference between a service animal and pets. The following are 5 things every restauranteur should know about service animals.
Q1. What is a service animal?
A1. A service animal is defined as an animal that has been trained to perform specific tasks for someone with a disability. For example, a seeing eye dog accompanying a blind person. Generally, only dogs (any breed) or miniature horses may qualify as service animals. Other animals such as monkeys, cats and snakes probably aren’t service animals.
Q2. Are emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals considered service animals?
A2. Maybe. If the animal’s mere presence provides the restaurant patron with comfort, emotional support or therapy, then the animal is not a service animal and no special accommodation needs to be made for such patron (side note: the law may be different for disabled restaurant employees).
However, if the animal has been trained to perform a specific task when needed, then it is a service animal. For example:
- A person with depression may have an animal that is trained to remind him to take his medication.
- A person who has epilepsy may have an animal that is trained to detect a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.
- A person who suffers from anxiety attacks may have an animal that is trained to sense an attack and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact.
Q3. What can restaurant staff do to confirm whether an animal is a service animal?
A3. Staff may ask two questions, and only two questions: (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? That’s it. Staff cannot request any documentation for the animal, require that the animal demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability. Contrary to popular belief, service animals are not required to be certified or wear a vest or tags identifying them as service animals.
If, based on the client’s responses, restaurant staff is still unsure whether the animal is in fact a service animal, the safest bet is to treat the animal as a service animal. If the customer is a repeat customer, then restaurant staff should note the customer’s responses for further discussion with management and legal counsel.
Under Florida law, it is a second degree misdemeanor to lie about using a service animal.
Q4. What accommodations must a restaurant make for service animals?
A4. Service animals must be allowed to accompany their owners anywhere that customers are generally allowed to go, including restrooms. The restaurant does not need to provide seating, food or drink for service animals.
A restaurant may not charge any fees or deposits to accommodate service animals, even if the restaurant normally charges such fees or deposits for pets. However, an owner of a service animal can be held liable for damages caused by his or her service animal.
Q5. When can service animals be excluded from a restaurant?
A5. A service animal may be excluded if it is out of control, disruptive (i.e., barking excessively), poses a threat to others or if it is not housebroken. The service animal must also be leashed or tethered unless these devices interfere with the service animal's work or the person's disability prevents use of these devices. If a service animal is out of control and the owner does not take effective action to control it, staff may request that the animal be removed from the restaurant.
Allergies and fear of animals by other customers are not valid reasons for excluding service animals. The restaurant may attempt to relocate the affected customers but cannot, for example, force the owner of the service animal to eat at an outside table if he or she does not wish to do so.
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