Service dogs and the restaurant industry

Dec. 1, 2008
I meet the legal definition of a disabled person as described by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I'm a past business owner. For my disability I employ the help of a service dog named Beau.
It is amazing the number of ADA violations Beau and I have faced in various establishments that could have resulted in fines and violations. Restaurant operators can avoid litigation, or even worse, a criminal citation, by educating their employees about how to treat customers with service dogs.
On one occasion in the years that Beau and I have been together, we required a police escort into a retail establishment. It wasn't because the establishment's policy did not welcome service dogs, but because the employee was not properly educated. You can imagine the poor public image the business created for itself as I stood outside in the cold in a skirt and high heels, speaking with the police.  
Service dogs and the law
Federal law guarantees the right for service dogs to enter all places where customers are allowed and sets the recourse for a handler who is denied access. Some state laws make denying access a criminal matter, making compliance even more important. Check your state's laws in order to be certain of the penalties.
There are several issues for a restaurant owner or manager when it comes to service dogs. One of the biggest concerns about having a dog on premises is that of dog hair. Unfortunately, there is no way around the dog hair issue, and it is simply a problem that must be dealt with. It is unlawful to charge the handler of a service dog a cleaning fee, and to attempt to charge such a fee would almost certainly lead to legal action. The law that governs food preparations standards makes exceptions for service dogs, and operators won't face ramifications for allowing a service dog into their establishment where food is prepared. 
Occasionally other customers are upset about the presence of a service dog. They may complain about allergies, cleanliness or an overall fear of dogs. None of these is sufficient reason to ask someone with a service dog to leave the property. However, there are simple ways to approach the problem. If seating is the issue, seat the complaining party away from the service dog and handler. Any other concerns should be addressed with an explanation of the law and the right of the handler and their dog to be on the premises. For the most part, in my experience, these situations are few and far between and most people are more curious than complaining.
Identifying a service dog
Working dogs assist people with a variety of conditions, not just those who are blind or in wheelchairs, including those who might not appear to have a disability. Dogs assist the deaf, people with epilepsy, autism, multiple sclerosis and a variety of other disabling conditions. This makes distinguishing between a service dog and a pet a real challenge. Identifying a service dog is a sensitive subject, but it is important to impress upon your employees that a person with a dog be approached in a respectful matter.
If the dog is wearing an identifying vest, then no questions need to be asked. If a person claims, however, that their dog is a working dog and they have no identifying gear, the employee can only ask the following three questions:
  • Is your dog a service dog? 
  • Do you have a disability? 
  • What tasks does your dog perform to help you with your disability? 
It is illegal to ask for any kind of paper identification proving that a dog is a service dog, because no state or federal body certifies dogs as service dogs. Asking more questions, including asking about the nature of the person's disability, can be used to prove discrimination. 
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Consequences of denying access 
The consequences of denying access are broad and largely dependent on how the individual chooses to handle the situation. There is a chance that the handler would simply walk away from the situation, choose never to visit your establishment again and tell their friends about what occurred.
There is also a chance that a verbal confrontation could occur between the staff member and the handler. That could be damaging in itself, but a handler willing to stand up for their rights is likely to call local media outlets to report the discrimination.
Another possibility is that the handler would report the ADA violation to the authorities, which could result in an expensive and time-consuming investigation and fines. Depending on the state where your business is located, additional penalties could be a possibility as well. Being ADA compliant is extremely important!
It can be easy to make a committed and regular customer of a disabled person and his or her service dog. For the most part, service dog teams tend to be creatures of habit, dining where they are treated with the most respect. By being kind, courteous, considerate of special seating needs or even offering a bowl of water, you can easily turn a handler, their friends and family into regular customers.

Topics: Operations Management

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