September is National Service Dog Month!  As we celebrate and commemorate these incredible animals and their teams this month, it is important to think beyond the fluffy-tailed cuteness to have a discussion regarding some of the everyday realities that service animal teams experience, and how this impacts your alcoholic beverage business.

What Do Service Animals Do?

Service animals are trained to do work and provide tasks for the benefit of persons with disabilities.  One of the uniquities with service animals is that they provide tasks only for their handler—the person with a disability for whom the animal has been trained to assist.  The heightened training and task specialization is what sets service animals apart from other types of assistance animals, like comfort, therapy, and emotional support animals.

Bailey Service Dog

The types of tasks that service animals can perform is just as diverse as the types of disabilities that exist—tasks can be related to any number of physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, and mental disabilities.  For this reason, it may not be readily apparent why a person has a service animal because that service animal handler may have what is often referred to as a non-apparent or “invisible” disability.  Due to disability stereotyping, as a result of historic and pervasive societal discrimination (particularly in pop culture and entertainment portrayals of the disability community), improper assumptions and judgments are often made towards service animal teams, particularly teams with non-apparent disabilities.

Are Service Animals Protected Under a Law?

Service animal access rights are protected under federal and NC-state law, however access barriers and discrimination are an unfortunate reality for many service animal teams.  Examples of access barriers and discrimination include excluding service animal teams from a public facility, seating service animal teams in unfavorable and/or segregated areas, treating service animal teams less favorably than others, and charging improper fees to service animal teams.  Service animal etiquette issues can arise that disrupt the use of a service animal or is otherwise inappropriate behavior, including persons directly engaging with the animal without consent (including speaking to and touching the animal), offering food to the animal, and directing conversational topics and questions about the animal and/or the handler’s disability status.  Many do not know this, but it is a criminal act under North Carolina law to willfully taunt, tease, harass, delay, obstruct, or attempt to delay or obstruct a service animal while it is “working.”

Justice Scales

It is also illegal under North Carolina law to “fake” a service animal or service animal in training.  While “fake“ service animals are a serious problem, attempts from the general public to police and enforce service animal law can cause emotional distress and place unnecessary burdens on service animal teams.  For example, a well-intentioned person’s attempt to address and document a “fake” service animal can

lead to the harassment and non-consensual obtainment and publication of photos and videos of a service animal team.  Law enforcement may also be called upon to intervene in extreme cases.

How do I Avoid Risks with Service Animals?

To avoid any risk associated with service animal-related issues, it is extremely important to familiarize your business and employees with service animal law and etiquette.  Additionally, if you are a manager and/or owner of a bar, restaurant, winery, brewery, and/or distillery, intentional experience-building for service animal teams can have a lasting impact and build a returning customer base within the disability community.  Your business can and likely will be visited by service animal teams—why not do everything you can to protect your business and create a positive experience for your customers with disabilities at the same time?

For this National Service Dog Month, consider taking some time to learn more about service animals and help make your business a welcoming environment for service animal teams!

This article has been published for informational purposes only and is not legal advice.  Service animal law and etiquette is a broad topic that this article does not cover in detail.  If you have any questions relating to this article or would like service animal-related legal advice, please contact Elizabeth Savage, Associate Attorney with the Beer Law Center.

Brooks Savage

About the Author: Elizabeth “Brooks” Savage practices alcoholic beverage law with the Beer Law Center, a division of Matheson & Associates, PLLC.  She co-chairs the NCBA YLD Diversity & Inclusion Committee, is a member of the disability and LGBTQ+ communities, and enjoys visiting local breweries, wineries, and distilleries with her service animal, Bailey.