Q. I have been seeing an increasing number of people who take their dogs everywhere: cafes, restaurants, flights, bookstores, libraries. At first I thought only service dogs were allowed in these types of situations, but most of the dogs have nothing that identifies them as service animals, and some of them look too small to be of any help to the owners! Is this legal in California?

A. As with many other legal questions, the answer to this question is “it depends.” The laws and regulations regarding dogs in public places vary based on many factors, including federal and state laws and regulations, local ordinances, the businesses’ policies, and the dogs (and owners!) themselves.

If the dog is indeed a service or assistance animal, then the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California Civil Code Section 54.2 guarantees disabled owners and their dogs access to public places such as restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and libraries. Contrary to popular belief, service dogs are not required to wear any identifying equipment or tags, nor are their owners required to carry documentation of their status. In the same vein, owners or employees of public places are prohibited from inquiring about the owner’s disability or the dog’s training. If the dog’s purpose is not obvious, they are allowed to ask a) if the animal is required because of a disability and b) what tasks it is trained to perform. (28 C.F.R. § 36.302.) A public accommodation’s requirement to accept service animals is enforced by the Department of Justice. For information on this issue, go to http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm.

It’s not unheard of for people to take advantage of the above laws by claiming their dogs as service animals. Many businesses prefer to avoid confrontations or legal issues that might come with an inquiry and will look the other way if the occasional Yorkshire terrier or teacup Chihuahua accompanies its owner into the establishment; some businesses may be dog-friendly. If the dog is not a service animal, then other state laws and regulations, as well as local ordinances, come into play. For example, many state health codes have laws that prohibit animals from being in food service establishments due to possible contamination and public hygiene, and local ordinances have the authority to restrict animals from such places even if state law does not. It’s best to check both the state code and your local county and city codes for any such prohibitions. You can find these resources at your local public law library or on the Internet. To find the law library nearest you, go to www.publiclawlibrary.org.

In other places, like theaters, malls, or small businesses, the issue is often dependent on the company’s policy or the owner’s personal preference. Before you visit an establishment, contact the owner to ask if they allow dogs (on a leash, of course). Websites like www.dogfriendly.com allow dog owners to scout out places that accept dogs, although keep in mind that some jurisdictions have enacted breed-specific laws. For more information on this topic and other dog-law issues, we suggest Every Dog’s Legal Guide: A Must-Have Book For Your Owner, published by Nolo Press. If you live in California, another helpful resource is Nolo’s Guide to California Law, specifically the chapter on dogs (pg. 171).

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email sacpress@saclaw.org. If your question is selected your answer will appear in next Thursday’s column. Even if your question isn’t selected, though, I will still respond within two weeks.

Coral Henning, Director
@coralh & @saclawlibrarian