HR Hotline: Is Your Dog Really a Service Animal?

HR & Safety

Q: Several customers have shopped in our store accompanied by a purported service animal. We have a general no pets policy. What are our legal obligations with respect to these animals?

May we request proof that the pet is a service animal, or do we have to accept their word? And is the rule different for employees who need service animals?

A: The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. 

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Title I of the ADA governs the employment context and is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, such as your business.

The U.S. Department of Justice enforces this aspect of the law. 

A place of “public accommodation” is a facility operated by a private entity, whose operations affect commerce, and which falls within at least one of the following 12 categories:

  • Most places of lodging, like inns, hotels, and motels
  • Restaurants and bars
  • Theaters and concert halls
  • Auditoriums and convention centers
  • Sales and rental establishments, such as grocery stores and shopping centers
  • Service establishments, such as laundromats, dry cleaners, and lawyers’ offices
  • Transportation terminals
  • Museums and libraries
  • Parks and zoos
  • Education facilities
  • Social services like daycares and homeless shelters
  • Places of exercise or recreation, like gymnasiums and health spas

If your business is a retail establishment open to the public, it is a public accommodation subject to Title III of the ADA. 

So what is your legal obligation to allow service animals under that law?

Legal Obligations

Public accommodations must make reasonable modifications to their policies and procedures, when the modifications would be necessary to make goods and services accessible to disabled customers. 

The only exception to this rule applies when the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of those goods and services. 

With respect to your store and its no pets policy, the ADA requires that you modify that policy by allowing service animals, in order to make your facility and your goods and services available to people with disabilities. 

With respect to your store and its no pets policy, the ADA requires that you modify that policy by allowing service animals. 

So what qualifies as a “service animal”? 

Only dogs can be service animals, and they must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” 

Common examples include dogs that guide people who are blind, or alert deaf individuals to the presence of sounds, or who calm a person with post traumatic stress disorder.

Notably, “emotional support animals” are not service animals and need not be permitted in public accommodations.


While the law requires only that you allow working service animals, and not pets, into your establishment, it does not give business owners much discretion to determine the legitimacy of the dog’s purported “services.” 

For example, you may not ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation for the person or any training certification for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform any task. 

You may, however, ask two specific questions if its services are not obvious: 

  1. Is your dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What task has the dog been trained to perform? 

The task that a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. 

Service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless the person’s disability prevents their use. 

Change of Circumstance

A business owner may ask a customer to remove his service animal from the premises only 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. 

If either of these circumstances arise, staff must offer the disabled person the opportunity to shop without the help of the animal. 

You may charge a customer for damage caused by a service animal if you would normally charge other customers for damage that they cause.

You may charge a customer for damage caused by a service animal if you would normally charge other customers for damage that they cause.

In the employment context, Title I of the ADA does not specifically address the issue of service animals. 

However, the law requires employers make reasonable accommodations for their disabled employees, and service animals will often fit that bill. 

HR problems or issues? Email or call CBIA’s Diane Mokriski at the HR Hotline (860.244.1900) | @HRHotline. The HR Hotline is a free service for CBIA member companies.


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