A federal law, the Americans With Disabilities Act, guarantees people with service dogs access to public places—and requires those places to modify their practices to accommodate the dogs, if necessary.
"Public accommodation" means anywhere the public is invited or permitted—restaurants, stores, and theaters, for example. (28 C.F.R. § 36.104) It also includes, among other places:
Under the ADA, service dogs are also allowed on most forms of public transportation, including buses and trains. (A separate federal law covers assistance animals on planes.)
Surprisingly, people in charge of public accommodations still don't always know or respect the law. In 2004, for example, a California woman successfully sued a performing arts center after it turned away her and her service dog, a little poodle mix named Jazz. The dog had "yipped" twice before at previous performances—but only at intermission, and only when strangers had approached his owner's wheelchair. Once the dog's owner had assured Jazz everything was okay, the dog was quiet. No patrons had complained. But when the woman tried to attend a later performance, the manager not only refused to let her in with her dog, but called the police and threatened to have her arrested. (Lentini v. California Center for the Arts, 370 F.3d 837 (9th Cir. 2004).)
Similarly, even in the face of California's explicit law allowing service dogs in public places, a 16-year-old high school student had to sue her school district before it would allow her service dog to accompany her to school. The school had claimed that it was too inconvenient, and that the girl should ask other people, not her dog, to retrieve dropped objects for her and help her with other tasks. The court immediately ordered the school to let her bring the dog, and chastised the school for undermining the student's legal rights as well as her dignity and self-respect. (Sullivan, ex rel. Sullivan v. Vallejo City Unified School District, 731 F. Supp. 947 (E.D. Cal. 1990).)
The ADA requires places of public accommodation to modify their "policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a service animal" by a person with a disability. (42 U.S.C. § 12181; 28 C.F.R. § 36.302.)
The only restrictions allowed are those that are absolutely necessary. For example, in California, zoos are allowed to keep assistance dogs out of areas where zoo animals aren't separated from the public by a physical barrier, but the zoo must maintain free kennel facilities for the dogs. (Cal. Civ. Code § 54.7.)
Congress directed public accommodations to take these steps to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not separated from their service animals. Congress "intended that the broadest feasible access be provided to service animals in all places of public accommodation." In rare circumstances, places may not have to accommodate service dogs, if doing so would cause a fundamental change in the "nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, or accommodations offered or provided, or the safe operation of the public accommodation would be jeopardized." (28 C.F.R. § 36.301.) If you must be separated from your service dog for such a reason, you will be responsible for providing for the dog's supervision and care. (28 C.F.R. § 36.302(c).)
Service dogs do not have to wear special equipment or tags, and the law does not require you to carry any special ID. If you are denied access to a public place, you are perfectly within your rights to call the police. Still, many people are simply ignorant of the law, and if you want to educate them, you can show both identification for your dog and a copy of the federal regulations that allow you and your dog access to public places. Seeing the law in black and white almost always opens doors.
Once in a while, unfortunately, even documentation won't sway people who are ignorant of the law and determined not to learn. A man denied a room in a San Francisco hotel because he had a guide dog produced a copy of the California law prohibiting discrimination, but the manager still refused to allow him to check in. Both sides called the police, who not only arrested the manager for denying access to the disabled (a misdemeanor in California, as it is in many other states) but found the man and his dog a discounted room at a much posher downtown hotel. (San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 6, 1988.)
A good pamphlet to carry with you is Access Rights of People With Disabilities and Their Service Animals, published by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and available online. Although it contains some material specific to New York laws, it also covers the federal laws that apply everywhere and guarantee access to public places.
Many nonprofit organizations are dedicated to fostering the connection between people with disabilities and their dogs. Here are just a few:
Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society)