Service animals have been in the news a lot lately, mainly due to claims of house pets being inappropriately passed off as service animals.

There has been so much discord surrounding this topic that Colorado legislature is aiming to change the law. They recently introduced a bill that would criminalize the misrepresentation of pets as service animals.

Here’s what restaurant owners need to know about service animals, including the current regulations.

Current national regulations

The U.S. Department of Justice currently oversees national regulations regarding service animals, which are outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Beginning on March 15, 2011, the ADA limited the definition of service animals to “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The work or tasks they perform may include:

  • Guiding the blind
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Alerting and protecting individuals who are deaf or having a seizure
  • Reminding individuals to take prescribed medications
  • Acting as a calming force for those diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The ADA makes it clear that service animals are “working animals” and are not classified as pets. The task performed by the dog must also directly relate to the person’s disability.
Dogs acting primarily as emotional support for their owners do not qualify as service animals per the ADA guidelines.

Interestingly, the ADA recently added another separate provision regarding the use of miniature horses. A four-step assessment is used to determine whether the horse and its owner should receive the same accommodations as service dogs.

Title II and III entities

Throughout the ADA regulations, you see Title II and Title III entities mentioned frequently. This is important because these entities are the ones who must provide necessary accommodations per the ADA.

Title II entities include state and local governments. Title III entities is the category under which restaurants fall, specifically because they are deemed places of public accommodation. Hotels, shopping centers, and libraries fall under this category as well — roughly five million private establishments do too.

Title II and title III entities must allow service animals and their owners access to all public areas of the establishment. Failure to do so could result in violation of the ADA.

State and local regulations vary

To make matters more confusing, state and local laws may expand on the ADA’s limited definition of service animals. For example, Delaware defines a service dog as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability…”

You can see a listing of state regulations here or the attorney general’s office in your state can provide additional guidance as well.

Handle with care

It’s important that these situations are handled with care. You want to ensure that your employees understand the regulations so that no one’s rights are infringed upon.

If a patron with a service animal enters your restaurant, encourage your staff to simply ask, “Is the animal a service animal required because of a disability?” Never ask for documentation for the service animal or press the patron to reveal their disability.

What other questions do you have regarding service animals in your restaurant? Let me know in the comments below!


Carrie Luxem is the founder and President of Restaurant HR Group, a full-service HR group based in Chicago, IL. Carrie will be sharing her wisdom from over 15 years in restaurant human resources through guest-posts on the Homebase blog.

Want some HR help? Homebase and Restaurant HR Group have partnered to provide free HR resources for restaurants and retailers. You can find them here.

One Response to “Service Animals 101: The Regulations Restaurants Need to Know”

  1. Lyn Robertson

    Questions – was at a restaurant today and was told if owner or anyone else touched the service dog they had to go immediately and wash their hands. The same is the owner hand fed the dog any treats while in the restaurant. Is that true or false. Restaurant was a buffet. Owner said that is because then person is then going to touch serving spoons. I agree it might be a good thing to do BUT does the person have to wash their hands? Especially since there is no bathroom police making sure people who use the bathroom at a restaurant wash their hands before touching the serving spoons. We all know not everyone washes their hands after going to the bathroom even though they should.


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