This past week I wrote an article for PAII’s May Newsletter with some information that the US Justice Department has put out on commonly asked questions about service animals. I wanted to elaborate a bit on the article, and delve a bit deeper into the issues and potential issues surrounding ADA compliance and how it pertains to B&Bs. We are puppy raisers for Fidelco Guide Dogs and this is a topic that hits close to home for me in that regard and not just pertaining to the hospitality industry.
PAII and myself directly, frequently gets questions about service animals, unfortunately many times pertaining to guests and potential guests abusing the law. The prevalence of places online where you can buy fake service dog vests (and fake documentation) is unfortunately growing, and on many of the lodging Facebook forums we see questions and complaints from innkeepers about guests bringing “service dogs” that clearly were not.
Innkeepers are being overly cautious about this and rightly so, because A. in this sue happy society we live in, they don’t want to get sued, and B. heaven forbid they make an error and it hits the news. An inn’s reputation can get ruined online in very short order, and in some cases could cause them to go out of business.
In some cases Innkeepers don’t know specifically what questions they are legally allowed to ask:
From the ADA: In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions:
(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
(2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
If Innkeepers think about specifically asking the second question, many times it will actually help them weed out the legitimate service dogs from the fakes. Apparently most of the people using the fake vests are not actually familiar with the laws. **and note where it says (not obvious that the dog is a service animal) think about that, obvious would be a blind person or someone in a wheelchair, so the “non-obvious” pretty much covers any dog including ones wearing vests (legitimate or not).
I have a B&B I work with in New England who is pet friendly, but not all of their rooms are. Every few months they will get someone bringing a “fake” service dog and reserving a room in one of the non-petfriendly relegated rooms. The innkeeper I think has a very nice way of asking (when definitely in doubt and he tries to do his best to believe everyone is truthful, but a dog for example not paying attention to it’s handler and not settling easily is generally a pretty clear indication of it not being a service dog) “In accordance with ADA regulations I am allowed to ask you two questions about your service animal, my deepest apologies for asking, but we had an issue recently where guests came saying they had a service dog and it bit another guest’s dog, “and then asks both questions. He also has a copy of the ADA regulations in hand when he says it. He told me that its an easy way to tell, as people “faking” having a service dog generally don’t have a quick and easy answer for “what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”
I think with a bit of foresight an innkeeper could come up with additional ways of being “prepared” for having to deal with potential issues. It may be helpful as well to watch some of the videos available on Youtube (of which there are hundreds) demonstrating what actual service dogs and how they are interact with their handlers looks like and what some of them have been trained to do.
Another tip off is guests coming with documentation in hand that certifies their dog as being a service dog. By law documentation is not required, nor is it regulated by the Government. Sadly there are sites out there that will provide certificates and vests with no proof required of any disability (in this case think of the saying, “thou dost protest too much”) Don’t use this as 100% proof though that it’s a fake service dog, some people with disabilities have gone that route after having had to deal with too many issues and questions, but the ones that I know (and there are not many of them) actually have documentation directly from a registered service dog training facility and will volunteer if pressed vs the pet dog owner who cheerfully waves around their fake “documentation”.
If you read through what I’ve highlighted in the “Frequently Asked Questions” document, you will also find some other things that are tip offs, a dog must not be left in the room, etc. etc. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8NhdxswriMUTlRMaXBob3c5SFk/view?usp=sharing. What can B&Bs do to protect themselves? If you have a guest saying they have a service dog and are going to leave them in the room, you can bring up that under ADA law it must accompany them.
A case in point regarding reputation management (and this was a B&B making a mistake but with a legitimate service dog), a few weeks ago a Bed and Breakfast in North Carolina made the news after a woman with a service dog was made to leave the B&B. They were extremely lucky in that it only made one news channel, and negative comments were only put on their Facebook page (which has been taken down). The news channels original article only made mention of the B&B by name in the actual video clip. It since has added the name of the B&B, but only after the major search engines spidered the article, so it doesn’t look like it’s effecting the inn’s SEO. The inn does have two Facebook “places” pages which I don’t think they are aware of, those come up on page two of Google search and have negative reviews pertaining to the issue. (They have been sent an email to make them aware of this.)
In many cases, issues such as this could hit the more mainstream news and can snowball causing internet trolls to leave many negative comments on Tripadvisor, Yelp and other review sites, and can cause permanent reputation damage to a B&B.
In this particular case the service animal was a Yorkie, which is not a dog most people think of when it comes to service dogs. Even though it was wearing a service dog vest, enough questions must have been raised in the innkeeper’s minds about whether it was a real service dog. The innkeepers did apologize but it was handled very badly.
An issue may come up as well about service dogs in training, the laws regarding in training dogs vary from State to State, and there are some additional statutes per state that an innkeeper may want to brush up on for their own individual states, although all are bound under National ADA statutes. A good reference state by state can be found at http://servicedogcentral.org/content/node/58. Keep in mind miniature horses are also legitimate service animals under the ADA, but I have yet to encounter a B&B having to accommodate one.
With more and more legitimate service dogs entering the general population in use for people with PTSD and individuals with other medical issues (like diabetes) that a dog is trained to help with, it’s more and more important that innkeepers know what is a legitimate service dog, and be able to accommodate and interact with people that require them as well as being able to protect their own business and other guests against damage as well as harm.
As of now, 18 states have laws that make it a crime to fraudulently represent that a person has the right to be accompanied by a service animal. A list can be found here http://kdvr.com/2016/04/11/law-to-make-it-a-misdemeanor-to-misrepresent-pets-as-service-animals-fails/ I would also highly recommend reading http://pleasedontpetme.com/pets.php as well as checking out some of the other links off this site, some very valuable education for innkeepers to be aware of in the links regarding service dog behavior, business rights, service dog and handler etiquette and more.