COMMERCE CITY, CO—Service dogs are working animals, not pets. They are individually trained to perform tasks for a person with disabilities. As an industry focused on providing a high level of comfort, it is imperative that hoteliers are well versed and—more so, compliant—in the standards outlined in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), including permitting proper access to hotels. The stakes are high. A failure to comply with ADA guidelines can pose a risk to the brand’s reputation, as well as costly penalties, civil rights issues, negative feedback on travel websites and more.
“Larger chains overall seem to have adequate training concerning service dogs. There doesn’t seem to be consistent training in the smaller hotels in the industry. The playing field is growing larger, and with it, the opportunity for more widespread problems and challenges,” said Cathy Burds, founder of Positive Impact 2, a nonprofit that advocates for trauma victims, and offers ADA training and a resource guide for businesses.
More people own service animals to treat an expanding array of disabilities, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, there’s been a rise of people exploiting the service animal policy and bringing non-service pets to public venues, noted Burds.
“This, in turn, leads to passage of more local and state laws about fake service animals, which will cause confusion and stir the pot. And, legitimate service animal owners who are refused lawful entry are speaking up publicly and fighting back more often, further raising awareness,” said Burds. “While there are reported incidents of problems at individual hotels—and likely will be for a long time—I haven’t experienced being turned away or challenged at a hotel. I own a service dog named Justice, who helps me with a hearing deficiency and PTSD resulting from being the victim of childhood incest. While Justice is legit as a service animal for multiple conditions, I’ve still been denied access in many public establishments or offered seating away from others—both ADA violations that can lead to steep fines for business owners.”
According to Burds, hoteliers wishing to properly accommodate a guest during their stay only need to ask two questions: Is the service animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
“No patron can be refused as long as the dog is non-disruptive and acts consistent with a trained animal. This holds true even if there’s a suspicion that the dog is not a legitimate service dog,” she said. “No service vest, identifying insignia or certificates are required. Although, many private enterprises manufacture them.”
In addition, hotel staff can proactively prepare for guests with service animals by providing information on designated areas for relief. In terms of accommodations, Burds explained that certain considerations also must be made.
“Animal-friendly rooms may provide a buffer for those with allergies and the like. However, if the animal owner doesn’t want an animal-friendly room or none is available, they cannot be refused a room,” she said. “And, no, putting a handler that is not a smoker in a smoking room to segregate the animal from others would be unacceptable as a form of accommodation.”
Overall, Burds has found the major players to be reasonably well informed about the ADA and service animals, but she’s quick to point out that ongoing diligence will be required to stay up to speed.
“New local and state laws may conflict with the ADA and this may require a refresher course. New definitions of disabilities can mean some additional education is needed. For example, PTSD is now an ADA-protected disability. Given that it can be less visible than a hearing or sight impairment, it’s important for hotel personnel to get educated,” she said. “One forward-thinking hotel chain, Hilton, has pleasantly surprised me by asking if I would like a room closer to the ground level to facilitate my dog’s trips outside. This type of positive and progressive policy encourages a spirit of collaboration instead of contention.”
Burds offers tips for hoteliers seeking to learn accessible customer service practices to enhance the guest experience for all individuals:
Go pro: Hire professional trainers to teach ADA compliance to staff once a year upon hire and a recurring training for team members on staff for more than a year.
Spread awareness: Post a service animal policy statement in one or more conspicuous places as a learning and reinforcement tool both for staff and guests.
Go behind the scenes: Learn more about service animal training. Trainers spend many hours with their service animals to make sure everyone is safe and the handler’s well-being is addressed.
Know the cost: Owners who deny service dogs entry can be hit with as much as a $55,000 fine from ADA authorities.