Here’s an interesting one: A customer walks into your business with a service dog. Is that okay with you?
Why not, right? First of all, dogs are awesome. Besides that, it seems like dogs are everywhere nowadays, and service dogs are growing in number. When traveling, I’ve had a dog as a nearby seatmate on numerous flights, and I often see people walking around town with service companions. And yet this is not just about service dogs. It’s also not uncommon to be greeted by a dog when I visit a client. Some companies—like Amazon—openly allow their employees to bring their dogs to work.
Dogs are more and more welcome everywhere, right?
Well, not exactly. One business in Colorado turned away a customer because he had what he claimed to be a service dog with him—and didn’t have the paperwork to prove it.
“She [the dog] helps me with my conditions,” the customer, a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, told the local television station, NBC Channel 11. “It’s just an important relationship.” So what was the problem?
The problem was that the business served food—and customers were complaining to management about the dog’s presence—so the owner took action. Unfortunately, state law in Colorado wasn’t exactly on her side. The law states that service dogs are allowed in restaurants (but, even though their manners are likely better than those of many people I’ve seen eating out, they’re still not allowed to actually sit at the table).
The problem was the lack of paperwork.
The owner contended that there was no indication that the dog was a service dog. But here the rules were not on her side either. Colorado regulations only require the owner to ask and rely on the customer’s response. “There’s no documentation required; it does not need to be present with the service animal,” a state official said in the television report. It is, however, a crime in Colorado if someone misrepresents an animal as a service animal.
Business owners in the state do have some recourse. If any animal, regardless of its status, acts aggressively or attacks someone, the animal and its owner can be asked to leave. This was not the case here. Bottom line: The customer was within his rights.
What are the specific laws around service animals?
Let’s clear up some confusion. First off, there’s a big difference between service dogs and emotional support animals—which may also be referred to as therapy or comfort animals—when it comes to the law.
Service dogs are trained to help with specific tasks directly related to a disability—whether it’s a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Say you’re visually impaired. Your guide dog would have to be trained as your ultimate travel tool, helping you cross the street and get you where you want to go—safely. Or maybe you’re a vet who suffers from PTSD and your service dog would be trained to make sure all the lights are on and sniff out a room to make sure you’re safe from danger.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, also known as the ADA, a service animal has the right to accompany their owner into any establishment, even if there is a “no pet policy.” Service animals are not pets. Yet, although you may have a disability, a doctor’s note does not a service animal make—your pup has to be trained to help you with all the things you can’t do because of your disability.
On the flipside, emotional support, therapy, or comfort animals don’t require training: Their presence is a psychological benefit to their owners and is not covered under federal law. Fluffy the Cat—or any other animal providing emotional support—can’t be considered a service animal.
You’ve also probably heard the stories about fake service animals with documentation you can easily buy on the internet, or animals wreaking havoc in a shop. Fact: Federal law does not require certification or registration to prove the dog is a service animal. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice is familiar with the fake documents sold online: “There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.”
If you’re a business owner, you might think you have the right to ask for paperwork.
Business owners can ask only two questions: whether the owner is disabled, and what tasks the dog has been trained to perform. However, if the disability is pretty obvious, you can’t ask. For example, if a dog is guiding someone who is blind (or has impaired vision), you can’t ask the two questions. You also can’t ask Fido to prove his skills or grill the owner about the nature of their disability. And you definitely can’t issue them a surcharge for walking into your store.
What rights do you have as a small business owner?
The individual handler is completely responsible for the behavior of their service animal and any attacks the animal makes. If their service dog wreaks havoc—out-of-control barking, jumping on people, running away, growling, etc.—and the owner doesn’t control the animal, you as the business owner have the right to deny access to any animal that disrupts your business or poses a direct threat to the health and safety of people in your place of business.
What if the service dog damages property? If your establishment normally charges people for the damages they cause, you can charge the owner of the service animal for any damages that occur as a result of the animal’s being in your shop.
What if people are allergic to or afraid of dogs? Sorry, no dice. You as the business owner have to accommodate the service dog with ample space for the dog and patrons who may have allergies or phobias.
I’m a dog owner and don’t mind seeing dogs on planes and at clients’ offices. In fact, I think it’s fun, and it makes me smile. But I get that some people don’t like this—they may have fears, allergies, or just prefer not to be around animals while they travel, eat, work, or shop. In the end, dogs are dogs.
Even Amazon requires its employees to get permission from both managers and their teammates in their immediate work area in order to be allowed to bring their dogs to work. The company also requires vaccinations and has its own set of etiquette rules for both dogs and owners that require the owner…sorry, the dog…to be housebroken, well behaved, social, and healthy.
Should you allow dogs in your small business?
When it comes to your customers, you need to be familiar with your state’s laws, particularly as they apply to service dogs. Most I’ve found are similar to Colorado’s. And know that while state laws may be slightly different, all states have to comply with federal laws. To find out the specifics of state laws, head over to your state website and search for rules under the ADA. Or you can Google “service dog laws in [your state].”
For your employees, it’s all about the workplace, but know that bringing Fido into the office is different from someone who requires the presence of a service dog, which has to be accommodated under the law.
If we’re talking about pets, have a conversation with your employees and set rules for your business, modifying them when appropriate. It’s not fair to make anyone feel uncomfortable at their job, so ask first. Do a test period. Come up with a policy similar to Amazon’s. And always reserve the right, as the business owner, to override your policy if you feel there are safety or happiness concerns.
But, if all goes well, then sure—let ’em in. There’s no better way to bring a little happiness into your office than to introduce a friendly dog.
Originally published on sba.thehartford.com/business-management on April 6, 2018. By Gene Marks. Updated on July 22, 2020