There’s understandably a lot of confusion over which kind of animal aides are allowed in restaurants. By law, emotional support animals are not permitted in restaurants or businesses because they don’t have the same level of training as service animals. The government defines an emotional support animal as an untrained companion of any species that provides solace to someone with a disability.
On the other hand, a service animal is allowed in all food venues. They’re trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability and limited to dogs and certain horses.
Here’s what to do when it comes to patrons with certified companions:
- Respect their right. It’s the right of diners to bring service animals into restaurants. The Americans with Disabilities Act overrides any local healthcare law that may ban animals on premise.
- Limit your questions. Staff and management can only ask whether the service animal is required because of a disability and inquire about the specific functions of the animal. They can’t ask questions about a patron’s disability—which isn’t always visible—nor demand them to demonstrate it or provide documentation. It is not the role of staff to determine whether the service animal is necessary.
- Seat them normally. Those with service animals can’t be seated separately from other diners, for instance in a private dining room. This is considered a form of discrimination.
- Clear a path. Service dogs must be able to move through the same walkways as customers, including buffets, salad bars and food lines.
- Ask the owner. Staff shouldn’t interact with the animal unless the owner gives their consent. Servers also don’t have to feed service animals, but if they’d like to provide a bowl of water, it’s best to check with the customer first.
- Take action if needed. Patrons are responsible for their service dogs, and restaurant workers don’t have the obligation to make sure these animals are behaving. In the rare instance that a service animal growls, barks or threatens customers or staff, management can ask for the service animal to be removed. However, the guest must still be accommodated, such as by offering food for takeout or asking them to return without the service animal.
Servers need to know how to handle the additional responsibility that comes with service animals to ensure both the customer and his or her companion are at ease. To better serve diners and their non-human helpers, operators can check their state’s official offices of health and human services, disabilities or public health for more information.
National Restaurant Association. Animals in Restaurants: What You Need to Know About ADA
Requirements, Restaurant Business Online, September 2019.
Szala, Andrew. Understanding ADA Guidelines for Service Dogs in Restaurants, Upserve Restaurant
Insider, September 2018.
Where Can I Take Emotional Support Animals? ESA Doctors.