Pets in businesses a hairy issue

Katie Smith
Katie Smith

Everyone loves their furry, four-legged friends. But enjoying your pet doesn’t give it the rite of passage into a business.

Pets in public spaces have become a polarizing issue with the increasing use of service animals and emotional support pets, confusing business owners about what’s allowed, what’s not and the potential liabilities involved. Even more confusing, no training standards or national certification requirements for service animals exist. Fortunately, there are some ways to safeguard your business from an investigation or lawsuit over pets in your establishment.

A service animal is one trained to perform a task for its owner. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) only allows only dogs and miniature horses as service animals. These animals, and those in training, are allowed entry with the owner to all areas of a business where members of the public can go. This includes restaurants and designated areas within medical centers.

Service animals aren’t pets. They’re working animals. They can be trained to tell with one sniff whether someone with diabetes is having trouble with blood sugar or if a child with a life-threatening allergy is about to bite into something dangerous. Service animals can be trained to pull wheelchairs, anticipate a trigger of a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder or remind their elderly owners to take medication.

Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed or tethered unless these devices interfere with the animal’s work or an individual’s disability prevents the use of such equipment. In any case, an individual requiring a service animal must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal or other control methods.

If the animal is disruptive, aggressive or not housebroken, a business may request the animal to be put outside, but still offer services to the person. If you do ask for an animal to leave, make sure you and your staff document the incident. Having appropriate documentation to look back on should the individual file an ADA discrimination complaint can help protect your business from  legal consequences.

However, a true service dog will have the utmost of manners and should cause no problems regarding waste, loud barking or any other disturbance. Unless their owner is experiencing problems, a service dog will seem invisible.

In Colorado, it’s unlawful for someone to misrepresent his or her pet as a service animal. Moreover, doing so can earn owners fines of $50 to $500. Service animals are the only protected animals permitted in businesses that would otherwise not allow animals.

Pets, assistance companions and emotional support animals aren’t individually trained to perform a task or service for a person with a disability. These animals aren’t protected and may be denied entry by businesses.  Anyone can go online and buy a service dog vest for his or her pet. Having a vest doesn’t translate to someone’s pet being a trained and protected service animal.

It’s the responsibility of businesses to make sure if an animal enters, it’s rightfully allowed to do so. Again, individuals requiring a service animal don’t need to show documentation. But there are two questions you can ask about the animal brought into your business:

Is this a service animal?

What tasks is this animal trained to perform?

Keep in mind, there are additional allowances for animals on properties dependent on the type of institution. Pets are never allowed in grocery stores or restaurants. However,  pet food or hardware stores may allow pets to enter their premises.

If you have additional questions about service animals and what’s expected of your business, call the ADA Information Line at (800) 514-0301 or visit the ADA business connection at