Veterans’ Service Dogs & the ADA in Public Accommodations

A number of our veterans have returned home with scars that are not just visible on the outside.  Service dogs are being trained to assist them with their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related challenges.  These service dogs are a great benefit to our veterans, but it’s a relatively new thing in society, and sometimes businesses and their staff don’t know what to make of it.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) addresses this and provides protections for our veterans in this context as well as guidance for businesses.  The first thing to know about all this is that the ADA provides rights for people with disabilities.  “Disability” is generally defined as physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of someone’s major life activities.  PTSD can constitute a disability within the meaning of the ADA, and the ADA makes allowance for “service animals” who help people with their disabilities.  Here, the animals are dogs.

A “service dog” is defined as a dog that is specifically and individually trained to do a task for an individual with a disability.  A dog whose sole purpose is to provide emotional support and comfort does not meet this definition for the ADA’s purposes.  The dog needs to have been individually and specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding calming a person with  (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.  So there has to be a sense of “fit” between what the dog is trained for and what it is doing.

The thing we see a lot now is veterans with PTSD-related service dogs at places that attorneys would call “public accommodations.”  Basically this means any business that holds itself open to the public, where the public can walk in and do business without any need for a private membership or anything like that.  We’re talking about restaurants, bars, shopping centers, etc.  The public accommodation is supposed to make its services available to a person with a disability, which basically means affording the disabled person the reasonable ability to participate in whatever’s going on there. The accommodation cannot deny the disabled person access, and cannot begrudgingly allow a level or degree of participation that is unequal to others.  This would constitute discrimination.  Discrimination can also be found in the creation of policies, practices, or screenings that would tend to leave out an individual with a disability, or failing or refusing to make a reasonable modification in policies, practices or procedures when the modification would allow the individual to equally enjoy what’s going on.

Business owners often don’t quite know what to make of this, but just because they should accommodate our veterans with PTSD-related service animals doesn’t mean that they’re legally prohibited from reasonably regulating what goes on in their establishments.  However, business owners should be aware that they have to operate within certain parameters here.  Businesses aren’t allowed to charge a special fee to allow a service animal into their establishment.  Owners of businesses, subject to the ADA, are permitted to inquire into the use of a service dog.  However, unless it is obvious what the disability is,  employees may ask only two questions: (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.  Staff cannot ask about the reason for the dog, the person’s disability, and cannot require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.  If the staff’s permissible questions reveal that the dog is not required because of a disability or that the dog has not been trained to perform a task that directly relates to a disability, staff may permissibly ask that the dog be excluded.  Similarly, the dog should be under control, and not “doing his business” in the business’ premises.  Just because the dog should be accommodated for doesn’t mean that the scene has to turn into a zoo.  And there are certain circumstances where a dog can be permissibly excluded if the entire purpose of the business would be frustrated by having to allow a dog into a particular area, like an operating room or some other sterile environment.

“After being paired with Captain for nearly four years and the training I received at K9s For Warriors, I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of when and where service dogs have access,” says Randy Dexter, director of the Alachua location of K9s For Warriors.  “In general, service dogs are allowed access to any public space like a store, restaurant, and hotel, among others. They are not allowed access to sterile environments like a surgery room or restaurant kitchen. They are not guaranteed access to private property like someone’s home or private golf course, unless the owners allow it. In the many years Captain and I have been together, he has pretty much been by my side everywhere we’ve been,” says Dexter.

The guiding light for the business and its staff, in my personal opinion, should be to have a policy and to make individualized, narrowly-tailored accommodations on a case-by-case basis when necessary.  If a disabled patron has a service dog and another patron is allergic to dogs, the business owner would probably be well-advised to place them in separate areas of the restaurant so that each can enjoy their experience.  The one thing a business should not do is to adopt a blanket “no animals under any circumstances” policy.  That’s what happened in one case that went to court, which resulted in some law being handed down that will guide our operations out in the world.  In this particular case, a brewery was giving tours.  A disabled patron wanted to bring his guide dog.  The brewery pointed to its “no animals” policy and refused to accommodate the patron.  The upshot of the court’s ruling was that no other existing law forced the brewery to take a stand with its “no animals” policy, and that allowing service animals would not cause an undue hardship on the business.  Therefore the brewery violated the ADA.

“No one should doubt what these dogs do for these veterans,” says Michelle Dunlap of Service Dogs for Patriots, a Gainesville-based nonprofit that connects veterans with trained service dogs.  She trains service dogs to perform a variety of tasks, including “grounding,” “blocking,” “covering,” all of which are particularized tasks that the dog performs to prevent or mitigate specific things.

Like many things, it’s a balancing test.  Businesses can’t be forced to adopt changes that fundamentally alter the nature of their business, but businesses making this claim should know that they’re likely to be on thin ice.  The bottom line here, in my personal opinion is this:

  • Veterans with PTSD-related service dogs have a right to the accompaniment of the dog in most businesses that hold themselves open to the public, as long as the dog is under control and is  generally being a good canine-citizen.  The veteran is not required to have proof of disability or proof that the dog was trained specifically to address a disability-related task, but carrying this documentation around with you might do a lot to defuse a situation with business staff who may not know the rules.
  • Businesses should generally accommodate disabled people with service dogs.  There are certain topics that staff can’t inquire about, but certain questions that are permissible in order to be satisfied that the use of the dog is genuine, and the businesses should train their staff on how to operate here.

This all is just one attorney’s take on the lay of the land with regard to a new and constantly developing intersection of law and life. Don’t rely on this blog post to govern your conduct out in the world!  It is no substitute for common sense, compassion, and just basically being a good person and getting along with others. That should be your guiding light, but it’s always helpful to have a general understanding of the laws, rules, and cases that shape what our rights are.

Scroll to top