I was out having a beer with a friend last night, one that also works in the hospitality industry, and we were talking about various parts of the business. Which brought up an old and familiar rant, that I realized I hadn’t discussed on here yet. That being the issue of “Service Animals” in the hotel business and the infuriating laws around them. They become an issue for me at my hotel because, like many properties out there, we’re not “pet friendly”. However, every hotel and restaurant, regardless of their “pet policy” is required to grant service animals access to any location that a normal guest is allowed to go. I don’t begrudge anyone the legitimate use of a service animal. I really don’t. I recognize that many people have a legitimate and purposeful need for them in order to function in the world. I don’t just mean dogs for the sight impaired or wheelchair bound. Animals (of various species) can be trained to provide all kinds of useful services to those with impairments. That really is a great thing, and I gladly welcome legitimate service animals in training or servicing those in need of their assistance. What I, and many in my industry, take issue with is the over restrictiveness of the federal laws that apply to service animals. They tie our hands, and because they’re federal laws, it doesn’t matter what statutes the States or local municipalities put in place unless they only put further restrictions in place. They can’t make anything less restrictive on the local or state levels.
What do I mean by over restrictiveness?
If someone comes in to my hotel with an animal and proclaims it to be a pet, I can refuse to allow the animal to stay with us. That usually means the guest has to leave too. Service animals are a game changer though. If a guest proclaims their animal to be a “service animal” and not a pet then things get tricky real quick. By law, we’re prohibited from asking the person what their disability is (at least directly) or proof that they have this disability. We can’t ask if the animal has been specially trained. We can’t ask for a special permit, medical documentation, license or anything. All of this in fear that it might end up being discriminatory to those with disabilities. Ultimately, there is no required special license, training, or certification process for service animals. Many of them, at least the legitimate ones, do have special training and certification, but not all. They’re not even required to wear those little bibs that many of them wear, that’s entirely optional and at the discretion of the owner. The one and only question we’re allowed to ask is “What service does the animal provide?” However, the owner can say just about whatever they want, and since we can’t ask for any kind of proof that they have this condition or that the animal helps with it in any way, very often it’s a useless question to ask. It’s apparently a crime to present yourself as needing a service animal fraudulently, but that’s nearly impossible to detect given the restrictions placed on us and local law enforcement officers. We’re not allowed to charge a special cleaning deposit, and we’re only allowed to charge for additional cleaning if the dog makes a mess in the room or actually damages something. We can only ask the animal to leave if it’s barking, growling, or causing some other disturbance that isn’t part of their normal duties. These are all things that a legitimate service animal, I mean one that has been trained properly, won’t cause issues with. But we have to wait for the fakes to actually make a problem before we can do anything about them.
I want to reiterate, that I don’t have a problem with legitimate service animals and the people who need them. However, I think the laws as written leave the doors wide open for abusers. It’s easier to fraudulently present an animal as a service animal then it is to get a medical marijuana card, and I’ve seen enough people with them that don’t need them to know that that’s pretty fraking easy! Because if anyone ever refused you entrance to an establishment, all you’d have to really do is call the cops and or threaten to sue and someone will cave and let you in. In fact the only way you’d get caught is if someone called you bluff, because in a law suit is the only time that the person would have to provide any kind of proof that they’re animal is a service animal that they’re in need of service from, but then a faker is never going to actually sue anyways! But loosing that bet and actually getting sued by someone with a legitimate need, that’s a big enough risk that most business won’t or can’t afford to take the gamble.
And I’ve heard the arguments as to why a certification process by its very nature would be discriminatory to the handicapped. That it would make service animals more expensive and would discriminate against those that are both poor and impaired. And that not every service animal actually needs to be trained. The ones that help those with PTSD and other mental or emotional conditions are often totally without training. I really don’t know what to say to that, except that we require handicapped people and people with diseases to provide proof of their disabilities all the time. We have a permitting process in place for handicap parking placards, it’s widely abused, but it exists. We require those in need of medical marijuana to get a special permit from a doctor. Maybe the dog doesn’t need special training, certification, or a permit. But why is it discriminatory to require that those that want to bring a service animal with them around the country have some kind of permit for themselves? It would probably be a pretty widely abused system too, but I bet it would have some kind of impact on the fakers out there. And I’ve also heard the argument of, what happens when someone forgets their card or paperwork at home and then they can’t check in at your hotel with their legitimate service animal? My answer is that this is the 21st Century people! The information age! People with a certified need for a service animal would probably have a physical card or documentation, but they could also have digital credentials. A national website that a business or individual could visit, punch in some ID number into and it would provide a digital copy of that person’s documentation. Even a 1800 number that the person could call 24 hours and have credentials faxed or emailed out from. There are so many possible solutions to this issue other than the head in the sand approach that we’ve taken because when the law was written, we didn’t have these options. And ultimately, I would think this would be even better for those with a legitimate need for a service animal. The credentials don’t need to state the disability, parking placards don’t divulge any confidential information. It just says that a neutral but official 3rd party has issued these credentials and we can have a reasonable belief that this person is on the level. It would eliminate the suspicion and the endless conversations and arguments that people with legitimate service animals probably encounter on a regular basis. Like any system, it could probably be abused by those that are clever or determined enough, but is that really a reason not to try?
I’ll admit that I only see one side of this issue. I haven’t lived in the shoes of those that need a service animal. And if anyone reading this thinks I’m way off the mark here, or that I’m being a discriminatory bastard, that’s truly not my intent. I’d love to have feedback from those with a different perspective then mine. Maybe I’m missing a side to the issue that my plan or my point of view doesn’t cover. And this is written mostly from my own personal experience in the business, my schooling, and research I’ve had to do as a manager in this industry. If I’m wrong on the law, please let me know. If my plan seems unfair, or would discriminate against those in need, I’d love to hear some outside points of view. And obviously, this is just one lonely blog among many on the internet, likely to change next to nothing, but I haven’t seen this conversation taking place in many other places on the internet. So, why not here?