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Dealing with service animals

Dear Mary, I have a “no pet” policy in my store, and recently someone came in with a dog and claimed it was a service animal. It didn’t have a special vest and she didn’t have any paperwork to show that it was a service animal. If someone says their dog is a service animal, do I have to let them in?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the California Civil Code prohibit businesses from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA also requires businesses to allow service animals into their premises in whatever areas customers are normally allowed.

But what’s the difference between “Fluffy” and a service animal? The ADA’s most recently revised regulations define a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The animal’s work or tasks must be directly related to the individual’s disability.

The ADA and California law both allow for psychiatric service animals, but animals that merely provide “comfort,” “therapy,” or who are “emotional support animals” are not service animals. Misrepresenting yourself as an owner or trainer of a trained service animal is a misdemeanor under the California Penal Code.

Many individuals who are blind or have low vision use dogs to guide them and help with orientation. Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals use dogs to alert them to sounds. People who have epilepsy sometimes use dogs to warn them of an imminent seizure.

At the Veterans Home of California at Yountville, there is a transition center to care for recent combat veterans called the Pathway Home. Many of the warriors at the Pathway Home use service animals to assist them with activities of daily living as they re-enter civilian life.

Service animals must be harnessed, leashed or tethered, unless it would interfere with the animal’s service work, or if the individual’s disability prevents them from using such a device. If a person cannot use this kind of device, they must be able to control the animal through voice or signal commands, or other effective controls.

As a business, you may exclude a service animal for two reasons: 1) if the dog is out of control and the handler does not regain control of the animal; or 2) if the dog is not housebroken. If one of these factors applies and you exclude an animal, you must allow the individual to enter the business without the animal. The person with the service animal is liable for any damage that is done to your business because of the dog.

Often, service animals wear special collars or vests, and sometimes their owners carry identification papers. If you can’t tell that a dog is a service animal, you may ask if the animal is required because of a disability, and you may ask what task the animal has been trained to perform. You may not inquire about the individual’s disability, nor may you require proof of certification or medical documentation as a condition for entering your business.

If someone comes to your business with a service animal, the animal must be allowed to accompany the individual to all areas of your business where customers are normally allowed. You cannot segregate the individual with the service animal from other customers. You should train your staff appropriately about the inclusive service-animal admission laws.

Service animals are not pets, and you are required to allow the use of a service animal by a person with a disability. You don’t have to give up on your “no pets” policy; you just have to make an exception for service animals.

Mary Luros is a business law attorney with Hudson & Luros, LLP, in Napa, and can be reached at or 418-5118. The information provided here is not intended as legal advice, nor does it form an attorney-client relationship with the author. The author makes no representations as to the reliability or accuracy of the above information. In a perfect world we wouldn’t need disclaimers — or attorneys.

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