Here’s a hypothetical, yet realistic situation: a customer enters your place of business accompanied by a dog and you have a no-pets policy. Do you turn them away? If you make the wrong decision, you could unintentionally break the law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – the 1990 US legislation that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities – includes rules that apply to how organizations should respond if the dog in question is a service animal. Here’s a quick guide to help answer some basic questions about when you do (and don’t) have to let the dog into your store.

Does My Small Business Have to Comply with the ADA?

Since the ADA was signed into law, we have seen changes in many different arenas, including employment, accessibility, and economic self-sufficiency for people living with disabilities. The law can be complicated, and compliance can be challenging—sometimes especially so for small businesses.

To help you decide whether or not your business must comply, use the standard straight from the law:

“The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.”

The wording is intentionally broad, in order to protect people when looking for a job, going to a public place like a movie or a restaurant, or taking a ride in a taxi.

What is a Service Animal?

The US Department of Justice (DOJ), the agency charged with enforcing the ADA, defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” As of March 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA (however, special rules apply to miniature horses that work as service animals.) The DOJ also states that, under the ADA, “…organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.”

An emotional support, therapy, or comfort, a companion animal is not a service animal. Businesses are only required to allow service animals and can deny entrance to the other animals. (You can’t deny entrance to the person with the disability, just to the support or comfort animal.) The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ explains, regarding support and comfort animals: “Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

But what about dogs that are trained to calm a person who is having an anxiety attack?

“If the dog is trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen the impact, that would qualify as a service animal,” the DOJ dictates. “However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”

How Can I Tell if an Animal is a Service Animal or Not?

Sometimes it’s obvious, like a seeing-eye dog that is guiding a person with a visual disability. But how can you tell if a dog is helping a person avoid anxiety attacks?

The ADA is very specific about the questions that businesses may ask regarding a dog that a person wants to accompany them into the business. This is meant to balance the business concerns with the privacy concerns of the individual. Business staff are allowed to ask only the following two questions:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

That’s it. There are no certification requirements. No papers or licenses that a business can ask to see. If the person says that the dog is a service animal and can articulate a task that the dog is trained to perform, then the business must allow the dog to accompany the person.

The DOJ warns that there are individuals and organizations that sell certification or registration documents online. The agency is very clear on the irrelevance of these documents: “These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.”

Do Other Laws or Exceptions Apply?

To complicate matters for businesses attempting to comply with the law, the ADA isn’t the only law that deals with service animals. The Fair Housing Act deals with renter’s rights and the Air Carrier Access Act also addresses the rights of people with disabilities, and by extension, service animals. States and some municipalities have also enacted legislation that might go beyond the rights granted by federal law.

However, certain exceptions might allow you to deny a service animal entrance. For example, the ADA accepts that, if a service animal would “fundamentally alter the nature of the service or program,” you are within your rights to not allow the animal into your business.

The best course of action if a business owner is concerned or confused? Ask for help. Know which laws affect your business and educate yourself and your team.

Leigh Raper has a degree in English Literature from the University of Miami and a JD from Pepperdine University School of Law. She received her MFA at the UCR-Palm Desert program for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. She writes fiction and blogs about pop culture, as well as items from the world of labor and employment law. Leigh also writes for AvvoStories, brought to you by Avvo, the leading online legal marketplace connecting consumers and lawyers. Avvo’s free Q&A forum with more than 9 million questions and answers, along with on-demand legal services that provide professional counsel for a fixed cost, make legal faster and easier.