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Public Impact

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Stories that feature our work amongst our communities in New York, the US, and the world, and invitations to join the change we're making to the world of work.

Service Animals in Business

A dog licks its owner's face

“Can a cat be a service animal?”

“Why are service dogs allowed in restaurants?”

“Is a spa required to let customers bring therapy snakes?”

For business owners and employees who want to create a positive experience for all customers, there is a lot of confusion over questions like those above. In 2021, service animals were the fourth most common topic asked about by people contacting the Northeast ADA Center for assistance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Northeast ADA Center is now addressing this confusion with a new website and an upcoming webinar:

  • The website, Service Animals in Public Spaces, is aimed at small- and medium-sized businesses that want to understand how staff should interact with service animals: what to do if they aren’t sure whether to let the animal inside, what to do if the animal is disruptive, and whether it’s OK to pet a service dog. 
  • Chris Sweet, a technical assistance specialist at the Northeast ADA Center and author of the new website, will give a free webinar about service animals at 1 p.m. EST on July 27.  It will introduce the website and focus on the differences between service animals and other types of helper animals. 

The Northeast ADA Center is one of 10 regional ADA centers located throughout the U.S. The center is housed in the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, in the ILR School at Cornell University.

What’s a Service Animal?

The only type of assistance animal with a legal definition under the Americans with Disabilities Act is the service animal. This definition says that the animal must be a dog (with one exception – the miniature horse). The definition also stipulates that the animal must be trained to perform a task for a person with a disability. 

Service animals might look like pets, but they are much more than that to the people who they assist. Service animals can warn of an impending seizure. They can open doors. They can provide stability to someone who is unsteady on their feet. They can help a person who is blind navigate in an unfamiliar place. The list goes on and on. Without a service animal, a person with a disability might be unable to live alone, travel to work independently, or dine out with friends. 

A goal of the Americans with Disabilities Act is to improve the ability of people with disabilities to participate in community life. Regulations based on the act say that public places – including restaurants, libraries and medical clinics – must allow service animals inside, even if there is a “no pets” policy. Other animals, such as cats and snakes, are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. This infographic from the Northeast ADA Center sums up the differences.

Regulations from the Americans with Disabilities Act also describe what questions a business can ask a person to determine whether their pet is a true service animal. There is also guidance about what a business can do if a service animal is misbehaving. 

More about Service Animals

This webinar is your chance to learn about service animals in business from an expert. Chris will focus on the differences between service animals and other types of animals, and on typical questions and scenarios that arise when customers want to bring helper animals into public spaces. You can register today with this sign-up form.

The Northeast ADA Center has also published a blog post by Chris about common questions that businesses ask about service dogs.