The Service Dog at Outback Steakhouse

I see more confusion with laws covering service animals than almost anything else.  Most surprising is when attorneys are dispensing incorrect information (this article is replete with incorrect information).  Business owners who conduct their own research (even on reputable sites) or consult with their attorney still get conflicting advice.  So, what is the law on service animals for businesses?

First, businesses contemplating their rights and responsibilities regarding service animals are under the coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Businesses are “places of public accommodation” under the ADA and include restaurants, hotels, stores, medical offices, theaters, schools, recreation facilities…  If you are thinking about your friend with an emotional support rabbit in her apartment, or the woman who took her emotional support pig on the airplane with her (true story.  Pig defecated in the aisle and caused passengers to get sick), then this post does not apply to you.  The rabbit in the apartment and the pig on the plane are both under coverage of different federal laws.

Second, the only species that businesses are required by the ADA to accommodate are dogs and miniature horses.  Yes, miniature horses are about the size of large dogs, easily trained, and typically have more than double the working life (24 years) than a dog (10 years).

Third, a service animal should be almost invisible to patrons, completely attune to its handler.  A dog running around, decked out in overly-obvious service dog vests, running up to others, is likely not a service dog.  The yellow lab I saw at O’Hana at Disney World that was covered in service dog vest and patches, and had his front paws up on the table while looking at its person and begging for food—not a trained service dog.  The large Great Dane sitting in a booth at Outback Steakhouse, eating off a plate?  Service dog or not, the restaurant was not required to permit the dog to eat at the table and off of a plate.  In these instances, businesses can ask the handler to remove the animal.

Myths about service dogs:

  • They must be registered or certified. (No.)
  • They must have “papers.” (No.)
  • They must wear identifying vests, or other garb. (No.)
  • They must be formally trained.  (No.)
  • They can be made to wait outside while their handler eats or shops inside. (No.)
  • They cannot go into hospitals. (They can go to into hospitals, including staying in the hospital room, accompanying to medical testing.  They can be refused into “sterile’ areas such as operating rooms and burn units.)
  • They cannot go into food prep areas. (If the public can go there, a service dog can go there.  The kitchen, where customers can’t go?  Then no.  The kitchen, like at Buca di Beppo that has a table for dining that is situated basically in the kitchen?  Then a service dog can go to that table.)
  • They can’t be pit bulls. (They can be, and they are.)
  • They aren’t permitted somewhere if someone has allergies or fear of dogs.  (Not true.  The Department of Justice specifically states that allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons to exclude.)

With very, very few exceptions, a service animal can go wherever its handler or the public goes.  A service animal is not a pet and is, under the law, no different than other medical equipment such as a wheelchair or oxygen tank.  Federal law such as the ADA trumps state law and local codes, including health codes, zoning laws, city codes, breed ban legislation, and other state and local laws.

Contact me with any questions at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

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