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How do Pet-Free Hotels Draw the Line Between Service Animals and Pets?

by Aoife O’Riordan

Mar 1, 2023

© Damedeeso | Dreamstime.com

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Everyone agrees travelers with service animals should enjoy the same access and amenities on airlines and in hotels as every other guest. After all, having a service animal is a legal and fair right according to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, and no hotel can refuse service to guests with service animals. While all hotels are required to permit access to service animals accompanying guests, many hotels remain pet-free, meaning guests without a service animal are not allowed to bring pets with them. This doesn’t mean guests don’t try, however.

Pet-friendly hotels are allowed to charge a pet fee, but pet-free hotels cannot charge an extra fee for a service animal accompanying a guest. The ADA states hotel staff have the right to ask guests with a pet two questions (unless evident the service dog is performing a task for a guest with a disability, such as guiding a person who blind or has low vision):

  • Is your dog a service animal?
  • What task(s) does your service dog provide?

While hotel staff are allowed to ask these questions, there seems to be an awkward buffer that other hospitality and travel sectors, like airlines, don’t face. For instance, hotels cannot ask guests with an animal or service animal personal questions about the guest’s condition or the dog’s certification.

On the other hand, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines are permitted to determine if an animal is a service animal by asking an individual with a disability if the animal is required to accompany the passenger because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. The airline can also look for physical indicators, like the presence of a harness or vest, as well as if the animal is leashed or otherwise tethered. Airlines may also require a DOT form attesting to the animal’s behavior, health and training, as well as a form attesting the animal can either not relieve itself or can relieve itself in a sanitary manner on flights lasting eight hours or longer.

Meanwhile, hotels with a pet-free policy see a growing number of guests claim accompanying dogs are service animals, even with no proof or documentation. And because hotels cannot exactly ask for certification of a dog’s work as a service animal, guests can easily claim their dog to be a service animal when, in reality, the dog is merely a pet.

One guest, Doré Meyers, recently stayed at an upscale, 4-star hotel in Austin, Texas, where the hotel’s pet policy allows pets weighing up to 25 pounds for a one-time fee of $150. This guest noted a fellow hotel guest brought his dogs to a shared space, in which the dogs barked occasionally and ate table scraps. When another guest asked the concierge if the dogs could be removed, the concierge said the guest claimed his dogs were service animals.

“No one seemed to question the fact that service animals don’t bark at random and don’t sit on furniture. This guest had paid a pet fee to have the dogs with them in the room, so since it is illegal to charge an extra fee for a legitimate service animal, these were clearly pets,” Meyers said.

In this instance, the manager got involved, stating the hotel was legally unable to demand proof the dogs were actual service animals. This sticky situation isn’t a one-off occurrence. A forum on servicedogcertifications.org sees hotel staff chime in on different times they encountered similar situations. Hotel staff cannot make certification a requirement for verifying a service dog. This leads to cases of service animal fraud.

Some states, like California and Texas, passed laws making it illegal to falsely claim entitlement of an accompanying service animal. In some states, it’s also illegal to falsely misrepresent a pet or animal as a service animal, such as putting a service dog vest on a pet. Not only are such false claims damaging to those with disabilities and real service dogs, but these claims also put hotels in a tough spot, as they cannot outright challenge a guest on a claim.

So, if hotel staff can’t directly ask for proof of certification of a guest’s service dog, there are a few things staff can do to help the hotel and other guests avoid issues with a falsely claimed service dog. Real service dogs are focused, disciplined and exhibit non-reactive behavior. Service dogs are not easily distracted. When asking a guest what tasks a service dog performs, look for specific examples, not generalized statements that don’t actually answer the question.

In the same forum on ADA guidelines with hotels and service animals, one user (hotel manager) wrote in recalling a time two guests said their pet wasn’t a service animal but rather an emotional support animal. This raises another question: Are service animals and emotional support animals the same under ADA guidelines? In short, no. Emotional support animals are not trained for specific tasks or duties to aid a person with a disability. This means pet-free hotels are not required to allow emotional support animals as they are with service dogs.

Do you travel with a service animal? Have you encountered issues staying in hotels with your service animal? Have you experienced a guest falsely claim a pet to be a service dog? What are some ways you think hotels can appropriately gauge a service animal from a pet? Tell us your thoughts. Email us at [email protected]. Please include your full name and location.


FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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