Service Animals

 A deep dive into the rules and regulations of service animals, what is really allowed?

An estimated 500,000 service dogs are aiding those with disabilities in the United States, but do we really know everything we can about service animals?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is defined as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” This means a dog must be trained to take certain actions when assistance is needed by the owner. This could be a service dog alerting their owner who has diabetes that their blood sugar is too high or low or a service dog detecting the onset of a seizure and keeping their owner safe. They are well-trained animals and separate from emotional support animals. Service animals consist of only dogs and miniature horses with exceptions.

Service animals seem to face a stigma now and again, usually resulting from owners putting fake “service dog” vests on their pets to appear they are real service animals and bringing them inside stores and restaurants, which is illegal in most cases. But here’s the thing, real service animals are not “pets.” So, what does that mean for the service animals who underwent over 18 months of training costing over $10,000 not to mention the owners who waited up to three years for their service animal just to be told they aren’t allowed in an ice cream parlor? It means we need to learn what really is and isn’t allowed.

First and most important, service animals are allowed to accompany an individual with disabilities in all areas of public accommodation with the person and their service animal entitled to full and equal accommodation. As long as the animal is under the control of the owner and does not create a direct threat to the safety or health of others, they cannot be prohibited from entry. If a situation like this arises, however, it is legal to require the animal to be escorted outside. Otherwise, denying or interfering with admittance or the rights of an individual with a disability is a second-degree misdemeanor.

Service animals are not required to be registered with any agency or organization, according to the ADA and Florida law. If an employee wants to determine if the animal is a service animal, they are only legally allowed to ask if the animal accompanying the individual is required due to a disability and what work or tasks the animal is trained to perform. Should they ask any other questions, they are in violation of the ADA.

Unfortunately, landlords. apartment managers, etc., who do not understand the law often refuse to allow service animals to live on their property. According to Florida statutes, service animals can be denied entrance their presence fundamentally changes the nature of the business or causes danger to those receiving services, like the sterile environment of an operating room, certain exhibits at zoos that could disrupt the environment of other animals or in a swimming pool. Note that these are very specific exclusions. They are made to be that way. A restaurant? They’re allowed. A kitchen and buffet? Allowed. Ice cream shop? Allowed.

Recently, a local woman was denied access to Cold Stone Creamery because of her service dog. Porsha Kennon went to visit the Beach Boulevard ice cream shop with her service dog and was told her dog wasn’t allowed in, but she kept going back. On Kennon’s third visit, the owner asked for her name and phone number even after Kennon advised the owner the dog was a service dog. Kennon feels it is everyone’s right to advocate and stand up for themselves; however, this has happened many times in the past ending in lawsuits.

In 2021 the U.S. attorney’s office settled a dispute between the ADA and Cedar Rapids Convenience Store after an allegation was made that the Iowa store denied service to an individual with disabilities due to their service dog. The company was made to adopt non-discrimination policies and train its employees on the ADA rights.

In Connecticut, Brookside Bar and Grill in Haddam was under fire for allegedly asking a patron to show identification for their service animal, even asking her to leave on another occasion. Identification is not required in many states nor can it be requested by anyone of a public entity. In Tennessee, a similar incident occurred at a hotel, resulting in the individual having to sleep in their car, humiliated and distressed.

It’s not just small businesses that suffer from not training staff properly and wind up facing discrimination charges. A Hobby Lobby store in Kansas allegedly fired a store clerk suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) among other impairments, after not allowing her service dog to accompany her at work. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the clerk was told the dog was a safety hazard and not allowed inside while she was working. Because she could not be accompanied by her service dog, she did not show up for her shift and was fired.

According to the ADA, employers are required to accommodate those with disabilities unless it would cause “undue hardship” on the employer, meaning significant difficulty or expense caused by the presence of a service animal. This is solely a case-by-case basis.

Service animals are trained to keep those with disabilities safe and able to function independently in day-to-day life. They are not merely pets they want to travel with or take shopping for comfort. We are taught not to disturb service animals or service animals in training when we see them out, so why should we disturb them by kicking them out when unnecessary—and potentially illegal. To those store owners who love to boast “all are welcome” at their place of business, make it so for service dogs too.

Also, you know what else is against the law in Florida? Representing an animal as a qualified service animal when it isn’t. This is also a second degree misdemeanor and can result in 30 hours of community service.

If you or someone you know has been discriminated against due to their disability or wishes to learn more, visit ADA.gov or call 800-514-0301.

About Molly Britt

Molly Britt is a multimedia journalist with Folio Weekly, as well as an account executive. As a Jax Beach local and University of North Florida graduate, she is familiar with all things Duval and Northeast Florida. She enjoys investigative journalism and interviews, using her platform to educate and inform the local community with her words. While at Folio, Britt has enjoyed interviews with the likes of Robby Takac of the Goo Goo Dolls and local small businesses such as Femme Fire Books.