By: Brendan Whitted, Esq.

Picture the following scenario: You’re working the host stand at a busy restaurant, ushering guests to their seats. Suddenly, a guest enters the restaurant with a dog on a leash. You know that your restaurant does not allow people to bring pets into the restaurant. You politely explain to the guest that they may not bring their pet in with them while they dine. The guest explains that the dog is not a pet but is instead a service animal.

What do you say? Must you let them bring the dog in? This article explores these questions and other considerations involving service animals in the restaurant setting.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

In 1990, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA for short.[1] This landmark legislation was designed to address and remedy discrimination against people with disabilities.[2] In September of 2010, the Disability Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice published revised final regulations in the Federal Register, implementing the ADA for new issues and situations to which the ADA applies.[3] One of these new issues was the use of service animals in places of business.

What Is a “Service Animal”?

Under the ADA, service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.[4] These tasks include things such as alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure and alerting people who are deaf.[5] The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.[6] Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.[7]

Are Service Animals Allowed in Restaurants?

Under the ADA, a restaurant generally must allow a guest with a disability to bring their service animal into all areas of the restaurant where the public is normally allowed to go.[8] Additionally, the staff cannot seat the guest who has a service animal in an area separate from other patrons or otherwise treat the guest less favorably than other patrons.[9] The federal law supersedes state and local laws. So even if state or local health codes prohibit the animal’s presence, the animal must be permitted to enter the restaurant.[10]

What are the Responsibilities of the Guest?

There are certain conditions that apply when a guest enters with a service animal. Under the ADA, the service animal’s handler must maintain control of the animal, and the animal must be on a harness, leash or other tether.[11] However, if a disability prevents the handler from using a harness, leash or other tether or if such restraint would interfere with the service animal’s safe, effective performance of work or tasks, then the animal’s handler must maintain control of the service animal through other effective means, such as voice control or signals.[12]

Additionally, a restaurant may ask an individual with a disability to remove a service animal from the premises if (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or (2) the dog is not housebroken.[13] If the guest must remove the service animal for one of these reasons, the restaurant must give the guest the opportunity to obtain its goods, services, and accommodations without the animal’s presence.[14]

How Do You Verify the Service Animal?

If a guest brings an animal into the restaurant, but the animal’s role as a service animal is not apparent upon first glance, the staff must be very careful how they approach the subject. Staff may ask two questions, both of which are about the animal: (1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?[15]

Staff cannot require a person with a service animal to produce documents, such as medical documentation or proof that the animal has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal.[16] Staff also cannot ask about the nature of the person’s disability or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.[17]

Additional Considerations

Here are a few more things to keep in mind:

  • Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals.[18]
  • Guests who bring service animals into a restaurant cannot be charged fees that are not charged to other patrons without animals.[19]
  • Staff are not required to provide care or food for a service animal.[20]

The ADA has literally opened the doors of public establishments to millions of Americans. A basic understanding of how the ADA works helps you not only to comply with the law, but also to provide guests with disabilities an experience that is both courteous and dignified. 

Brendan is an attorney with the Seitz Law Firm, LLC, located in Cleveland, Ohio. He has experience in matters related to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Additionally, Brendan focuses his practice on Business Law, Data Privacy and Cybersecurity, and General Contractual matters.


[1] The ADA is codified at 42 U.S. Code § 12101, et seq.

[2] 42 U.S. Code § 12101(b)

[3] Service Animals, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Civil Rights Division, https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.pdf

[4] Id., at 1.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id., at 2.

[9] Id., at 3.

[10] Id.

[11] Id., at 2.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id., at 3.

[20] Id.

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