Close up view of trained assistant dog.Golden retriver.

Service animals date back more than 100 years when the first school for service dogs opened following World War I as German Shepherds trained to run messages and act as guides were repurposed to serve veterans. But as a restaurant owner, you still may be confused as to how to best serve these animals in your restaurant, especially since today, service animals are not limited to being dogs alone. Rather, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as “as a dog that has been individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.”

As a restaurant owner, here are some key points to note when it comes to accommodating service animals in your establishment.

Young girl playing with small pig in village studio

Follow Federal Guidelines

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are expressly distinguished from pets by the function they serve. You may instantly think of the seeing eye dog guiding a handler through traffic, but service animals assist with a wide variety activities of daily living, such as retrieving medications or alerting the hearing impaired to emergencies when they arise. The ADA recognizes all breeds of dogs and even exempts handlers from municipal breed restrictions.

Understand Your State’s Rules

While the ADA, a federal mandate, trumps any state regulation, it’s important to know of state-specific rules before opening your doors since each state has different rules regarding service animals and how they may be employed. In Rhode Island, dogs and sometimes miniature horses qualify as service animals. Texas takes a strict approach, threatening a misdemeanor for any animal functioning as a service animal that is not clearly marked and trained.

german shepard on duty

server giving guest food

You can control the conversation and change the way guest communication is handled with proper staff training.

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Know the Difference Between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

Recently, some have taken umbrage with emotional support animals, defined by the government as an untrained companion of any species that provides solace to someone with a disability, such as anxiety or depression. Service animals must be trained in the performance of a task, and while many benefit from a reduction of anxiety provided by emotional service animals, that reduction doesn’t fall under the ADA’s guidelines as a task. Further, the ADA does allow for service animals, also known as psychiatric dogs since that is the only species covered, to assist with individuals with panic attacks and post-traumatic stress, but their function is not to provide comfort as much as it is to recognize the signs and symptoms of a panic attack ahead of time, or to assist in the navigation and avoidance of triggers.

Service animals are there to provide additional accessibility. Click To Tweet

Some states may also allow for mixed support of emotional support animals. California, for example, extends protection to workplaces and housing, but draws the line at public spaces. It’s worth checking your state’s official offices of health and human services, disabilities or public health to find out which types of service animals are allowed in restaurants in your state.

Dog food over a wooden board served very chic way.

What Restaurant Staff Should Know about Service Animals

Running an accessible establishment is more than making your place dog-friendly. Make sure you follow the ADA’s guidelines to promote an inclusive atmosphere:  

  • The care and liability of the service animal is the sole responsibility of the handler themselves and restaurants have no obligation to the respective service animal. If the service animal barks, growls or poses a direct threat to your customers or staff you may ask for the service animal to be removed. However, this cannot be based on prior experience or your own personal assumptions of animal behavior.  That being said, service animals are trained to remain calm in crowds and focus on their trained tasks.
  • When a service animal comes into your establishment, it’s acceptable to inquire whether the animal is indeed a necessary service animal if it is not plainly marked and what the specific function the service animal performs. That’s it. Your staff cannot judge whether or not the animal is necessary, nor can they ask the customer to furnish documentation, perform the task or inquire about the customer’s disability. Certification paperwork is not required and there’s a cottage industry of websites, which charge money for unneeded paper certifications.
  • Service animals are there to provide additional accessibility.  This means they must be allowed to move through any public space your customers usually have access to including salad bars, buffets, and food service lines.
  • Your staff should not pat or engage with the service animal unless given the express permission from the customer themselves. This is especially true of working dogs, who are particularly cute and petable.

The bottom line is while a service animal is out in public with its handler, it is on the clock. Your establishment is under no obligation to feed or water the service animal during their visit, however, if you have the means and the desire to offer a bowl of water, first check with the handler to ensure this gesture would be welcome.

What have your experiences been with service animals in your restaurant? Share here.

Written by   |  

Andrew Szala is an Army veteran, writer and consummate lover of all things food. He’s worked in local restaurants up and down the east coast and eaten with locals all over the world. Nowadays, he can be found all along the East Bay of Rhode Island with his wife, son, daughter, and bulldog.

  • Todd Smith

    Some current research is in order.
    The definition of ‘service animal’ was changed by the US Department of Justice in 2011. Under current regulations, only dogs are considered ‘service animals’ for purposes of public venue access. There is also a provision for miniature horses on a case by case basis.
    Individual state laws may allow for other animals, but the ADA definition is dogs only.
    The other points in the article are well written and accurate.
    For reference to the ADA definition:
    http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html

    • Andrew Szala

      I know I responded to you on Facebook but in case you hadn’t seen it yet, I wanted to thank you again for your comment and compliment! We’ve updated the piece to reflect the wording on the July 2015 update. You seem very knowledgable on the subject of Service Animals and I’d like to invite you to share any of your personal experiences/best practices in terms of service animals in restaurants on our community thread: https://upserve.com/restaurant-insider/community/topic/dog-friendly-restaurant-policies/