Service dogs perform tasks that are directly related to a person's disability.By John Mullen

May 2, 2019 – Orange Beach, AL (OBA®) – Want to bring the puppy to the restaurant? Legally in Baldwin County, that’s really not possible unless it is a bona fide service that helps a patron with a disability. A proliferation of “comfort animals” has muddied the waters on animals in restaurants of late.

Kip Kaiser, the Public Health Environmental Supervisor and Inspector with Baldwin County, said there are very few dogs that should be allowed in.

“There’s no such thing as a pet-friendly food establishment,” Kaiser said. “It does not exist by our regulations. If a restaurant presents themselves as a pet-friendly establishment it’s a false statement they are giving to the customers.”

Service dogs perform tasks that are directly related to a person's disability.Several websites trying to guide people to pet-friendly restaurants and hotels are giving out bad information, Kaiser said. One, bringfido.com, says there are 25 pet-friendly restaurants in Orange Beach alone.

“It’s basically telling people misinformation,” Kaiser said. “It actually shows all the restaurants in the United States where you can bring your pets. I’ve had to contact different establishments and let them know that not only is their restaurant on there but it shows pictures of animals in the dining areas and how accommodating some of these places can be bringing them water and bringing them treats. We’ve had to educate some of these restaurant owners to let them know what they are doing is not right.”

And it’s not just dining areas or just indoor dining areas that are off-limits to all but service animals.

“The specific wording is live animals cannot be on the premises,” Kaiser said. “That’s the entire area or piece of land that establishment owns. That includes indoor and outdoor dining.”

Pet owners are taking to websites with much misinformation, certifications and even official-looking garb for pets to wear.

“A comfort animal is basically not a service animal,” Kaiser said. “A lot of people are taking advantage of those things by going online and buying vests and badges, and all kinds of stuff for their pets and presenting it as a service animal. That’s illegal, obviously. There’s a lot of issues with the animals.”

Graham Sisson, Executive Director of the Governor’s Office On Disabilities, says there are no official certifications from any government agencies.

“Under the ADA there’s no documentation or certification,” Sisson said. “If they say ‘I’ve got certification’ then that’s something they bought off the internet. The same with emotional support animals. They buy something off the internet or they get the vest they bought off the internet that’s not sanctioned by the law or any governmental entity that enforces the law.”

Restaurant owners can also get bad marks on a health inspection if there are pets on the property that are not service animals.

“If we go to the establishment and see there’s a dog in the dining area whether it be inside or outside, we approach the (restaurant) owner and ask their policy,” Kaiser said. “If they say they accommodate pets then we need to have that open discussion about how it’s in the regulations that no live animals are supposed to be on the property. If they are allowing pets and willingly tell you that then it is a four-point deduction and a critical violation.

“They have to tell the customer they have to take the animal back to the car or home and then come back to the restaurant.”

With a service dog, inspectors are allowed to ask certain questions to determine if that animal is truly there because of a person’s disability.

“There’re two things we can ask if we do see an animal inside or outside of a dining area,” Kaiser said. “The first thing is we can approach the person and say is this a service animal. The second thing we can ask what task does the animal perform for your disability. We have to be very careful about that because we don’t ask the disability, we just ask what the dog does.”

Kaiser said the dogs are not required to wear any type of vest or badge and the owner is not required to carry around certification that it is indeed a service animal. And, he said, untrained animals brought in under the guise of a service dog can sometimes cause other problems.

“There are somethings legally that can prevent somebody who’s trying to pass off a pet as a service animal,” he said. “If that dog is disruptive if it’s not under the control of the owner if it's aggressive it’s a huge liability. It could bite somebody else, it could bite a child.

“It’s very confusing but I’ve seen a lot of things out there online and dealing with the public. But there’re not restaurants, there’re not grocery stores, there’s no convenience stores or bars that are pet-friendly.”

Sisson said there is already a law making it a misdemeanor to claim you have a service or emotional support animal to avoid paying a pet deposit in a home or apartment. The current legislature is considering a second law making any fraudulent claims about service animals a misdemeanor.