They’re Just Doing Their Job: Under the ADA, Businesses Cannot Prohibit Service Dogs

By Pamala Burch, Community Advocate


caitlin & diesel working service dogA best-selling author and wounded veteran is denied access to public transportation in New York City because his service dog is with him.

A prominent morning news anchor interviews a disabled toddler and her family about the child’s service dog. The anchor asks if the dog will be “allowed” to accompany the child when she starts school.

A woman in a wheelchair and her service dog are asked to leave a local grocery store. The store manager explains that the organization has a “no dogs” policy in its stores.

Behind each of these cases is an uninformed individual whose ignorance could lead to an illegal act. The news anchor displays lack of knowledge but has not yet violated the law. The bus driver and store manager may be uninformed on civil rights laws, but their actions are still illegal. Public transportation vehicles, schools, retail stores, and food service establishments are just a few of the places that cannot exclude a service dog under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

In a document called ADA Business Brief: Service Animals, the U.S. Department of Justice explains, “Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses and organizations that serve the public must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals into all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go. This federal law applies to all businesses open to the public, including restaurants, hotels, taxis and shuttles, grocery and department stores, hospitals and medical offices, theaters, health clubs, parks, and zoos.” The DOJ publication is very clear that service animals are working animals, specially trained to assist people with disabilities, and are not pets.

The ADA can impose a variety of penalties on violators, including money damages. A business is allowed to inquire whether an animal is a service animal and can ask what tasks the animal has been trained to perform. But the business cannot ask about the person’s disability or require special ID cards, papers, or documentation for the animal. Employees of the business cannot decide for themselves whether the person is disabled or whether the animal is actually trained as a service animal. They must allow the animal or face the potential consequences.

People who use service animals cannot be charged extra fees or treated less favorably than other customers. They cannot be isolated from other patrons of the business. Restaurants and businesses that sell or prepare food cannot exclude service animals from public areas. If state or local health codes prohibit animals, the business must make an exception for service animals. The Department of Justice notes that allergies and fear of animals are generally not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people with service animals.

Information was taken from the publication noted above, “ADA Business Brief: Service Animals”, published by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. The document can be viewed at, and can be printed from that site. The Department of Justice notes that duplication is encouraged.

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