If you’re a hotelier with a no-pets policy, but one of your guests shows up with a service animal, do you know what to do? How should you navigate this situation? What are your rights and the legal protections afforded to the animal and the guest?
As an educational speaker at hotel conferences and someone who receives inquiries about Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, I’ve noticed that many hoteliers are not aware of what counts as a service animal, let alone what to do when one shows up. To help avoid potential litigation, here are four things you should know about ADA service animals.
1. ADA service animals are protected by law.
Service animals are often used to help guide, alert or calm their disabled owners. The services they render are important, and their owners rely on them for medical or psychological needs. From a casual observer’s perspective, a service animal might just seem like a cute pet. But to the owner, it’s a world of difference.
The ADA protects service animals for this reason. So if you run a hotel, campground, bed-and-breakfast or other hospitality business, you are required by law to treat disabled guests with service animals as if they were any other guest.
You can only remove a service animal from your facilities in cases such as the following.
• The animal is out of control, and the owner does not take sufficient action to control it.
• The animal is making excessive and persistent noise that disrupts your business.
• The animal is not housebroken.
2. Service animals are not pets.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as one that “has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” However, keep in mind that a service animal does not need to be professionally trained or certified to count as a service animal.
When a place of business has a sign that says “No Pets Allowed,” that doesn’t include service animals because service animals are not pets. A pet is simply an animal that is cared for and played with. But a service animal is one that is trained for a specific purpose to aid a disabled owner.
Emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animals are not the same as service animals. Additionally, they are not protected by the ADA. However, state and local laws could have regulations for these animals, so consult your local legislature to learn more.
What Service Animals Are: trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability, dogs or miniature horses and protected by law.
What Service Animals Aren’t: pets, comfort animals, emotional support animals, therapy animals or companion animals.
3. You have to be careful what you ask.
Not everyone is comfortable with going into detail about their disabilities or medical conditions, nor are they required to do so. So if you ask a guest why they need a service animal, you might be putting them in an awkward position. This may even lead some to press charges on the grounds of discrimination.
Other questions to avoid include asking for proof or certification that the animal is a service animal. Currently, there is no official ADA documentation or certification concerning service animals. Some third-party organizations may provide such documents, but they are not affiliated with the ADA law.
There are questions you can ask the guest, such as how big the animal is, whether the animal is trained to conduct a service and what service that animal is trained to provide. Basically, you can ask about the animal itself.
Things You Can Ask: Is the animal trained to conduct a service? What service is the animal trained to provide? How big is the animal?
Things Not To Ask: What’s your disability? Can you prove this is a service animal? Can I see a service animal certification?
4. Miniature horses can be service animals.
Most people’s experience with service animals is with dogs. Imagine the surprise you might experience when a miniature horse walks into your establishment! Although very rare, there is a provision in the ADA regulations that includes miniature horses.
Just like service dogs, service horses are protected by the ADA, and they are trained to provide assistance to their owners. Some help with bending over and picking up objects, and some assist with pulling wheelchairs.
If your premises can accommodate a miniature horse, then it must be allowed to accompany its owner onto them. Here are some guidelines that indicate when a miniature horse can be accommodated, provided on the ADA FAQ.
• The miniature horse is housebroken.
• The miniature horse is under the owner’s control.
• The facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size and weight.
• The miniature horse’s presence will not compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for the safe operation of the facility
In general, these factors apply to any kind of service animal. Here’s a good rule of thumb I like to use: is the animal larger than a Saint Bernard? If so, then its size and weight might exceed reasonable expectations. The best practice is to try and accommodate the animal if you can.
Conclusion: Best Practices
Anywhere the guest can go, their service animal should also be able to go. If you don’t charge your guests for cleaning fees, you can’t make an exception for guests with service animals. That being said, you can certainly charge your guest for any damages caused by the animal, just like you would charge a guest if they damaged something themselves.
As with anything else, preparation is key since you never know when this kind of situation might arise. Writing ADA compliance into your company policies and agreements is a good step to take, but you should also make sure your staff is sufficiently trained on service animal protocol. It can be a costly mistake to get embroiled in preventable litigation due to a misunderstanding or lack of preparation.