I dine out regularly with a close friend who has a service dog, so my ears perked up when I recently overheard a conversation in which someone who seemed to be a restaurant manager was questioning whether service dogs are allowed in restaurants, whether only animals with proof of certification were allowed, and the like. This person seemed like a jerk, and I wasn’t confident enough in all the details to butt in, so — even though my impulse was to defend service animal users — I stayed out of that exchange. Next time I will interrupt, since now I am well informed. At a minimum, I will suggest that folks Google “service dog restaurant” and go to the #1 search result, the ADA FAQ document that answers all these questions and more.
If you’re wondering, “Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed…. [D]ocumentation generally may not be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal.” Also, “no pets” policies don’t apply because service animals are NOT pets per the ADA; and if there are local codes against animals on premises, they get preempted by federal ADA protections.
Also, remember not to assume that what you see isn’t a service animal if it doesn’t fit your preconceived notions of what it should look like. “Guide dogs are one type of service animal, used by some individuals who are blind. This is the type of service animal with which most people are familiar. But there are service animals that assist persons with other kinds of disabilities in their day-to-day activities.” Service animals come in all shapes and sizes and provide a wide range of assistance to their human companions.
Lastly, keep in mind that it’s rude and intrusive to ask someone why they have a service animal. To quote one service dog user, “no matter how POLITELY you ask a question about a disability or an assistive animal or device, you are unintentionally requiring someone to either disclose personal information OR explain why they don’t want to respond. Ask someone you know WELL who uses a wheelchair, or a service dog, or has a ‘hidden/invisible disability’ about how many times we have to become ‘spokespeople’ when we are in public! Many curious people are POLITE, but they don’t understand the situation they put us in.” You wouldn’t ask a complete stranger what it’s like to be a woman, or a senior citizen, or a redhead … so don’t ask why someone has a service animal. To put it bluntly, it’s none of your business, and asking politely doesn’t entitle you to be nosy. It’s good to be curious, but that’s what the internet is for!