Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Wisconsin’s equal rights law, people with disabilities have the right to be accompanied by their service animals in restaurants, hotels, stores, theaters, and other places that are open to the public. Read on to learn which public accommodations are covered, which animals qualify as service animals, and some rules you may need to follow with your service animal.
Wisconsin’s equal rights law gives people with disabilities the right to bring their service animals into all public accommodations, a term the law interprets broadly to include all places of business; all places of recreation; hotels and lodgings; taverns and restaurants; barbers, manicurists, cosmetologists, and other aestheticians; nursing homes; clinics and hospitals; cemeteries; and all other places that make goods, services, amusement, or other accommodations available, free or otherwise.
Under the ADA, the definition of public accommodations is equally comprehensive. However, religious entities, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques, are not considered public accommodations under the ADA. This is so even if the religious entity offers secular services, such as a day-care center that admits children whether or not they are members of or affiliated with the religious institution.
Private clubs (member-controlled nonprofit groups that are highly selective, charge substantial membership fees, and were not created in order to avoid compliance with civil rights laws) are also not covered by the ADA. However, if a private club makes facilities available to nonmembers, it is subject to the ADA’s public accommodation rules as to those facilities. Wisconsin law is similar: private, nonprofit clubs that serve only members and their invited guests or the club’s own guests are not covered.
Under the ADA, a service animal is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks or do work for the benefit of a person with a disability. The tasks or work the animal does must be directly related to the person’s disability. In some cases, a miniature horse may also qualify as a service animal. Examples of service animals that must be allowed into public accommodations under the ADA include:
Wisconsin’s equal rights law defines a service animal as a guide dog, signal dog, or other animal that is trained individually to perform tasks for someone with a disability, including the task of guiding a vision-impaired person, alerting a hearing-impaired person to intruders or sound, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items. Wisconsin's law does not address whether it covers service animals for people with psychiatric disabilities.
Neither the ADA nor Wisconsin’s equal rights law, however, covers what some people call “emotional support animals”: animals whose presence provides a sense of safety, companionship, and comfort to those with psychiatric or emotional conditions. Although these animals often have therapeutic benefits, they are not individually trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities.
Under the ADA and Wisconsin law, a public accommodation may not ask you questions about your disability or demand to see certification, identification, or other proof of your animal’s training or status. If it is not apparent what your service animal does, the establishment may ask you only whether it is a service animal, and what tasks it performs for you.
The ADA and Wisconsin law prohibit public accommodations from charging a special admission fee or requiring you to pay any other extra cost to have your service animal with you. However, you may have to pay for any damage your animal causes. Wisconsin law specifies that public accommodations must modify their policies and rules if necessary to make sure service animals don’t have to be separated from their handlers, to make sure service animals and their handlers can be in every part of the accommodation that is otherwise open to the public, and to make sure that service animals and their handlers are not separated or segregated from other patrons in the establishment.
The ADA allows a public accommodation to exclude your service animal if it poses a direct threat to health and safety (or example, if your dog is aggressively barking and snapping at other customers, the facility can kick the dog out). Your animal may also be excluded if it is not housebroken, or if it is out of control and you are unable or unwilling to effectively control it. Under Wisconsin law, your service animal need not be admitted if it would fundamentally change the nature of the accommodation or jeopardize its safe operation. You are still entitled to enter the public accommodation even if your service animal is not allowed in.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing accommodations against those who use service animals. You must be allowed full and equal access to all housing facilities, and may not be charged extra for having a service animal (although you may have to pay for damage your animal causes). If your lease or rental agreement includes a “no pets” provision, it does not apply to your service animal.
Pursuant to the federal Fair Housing Act, housing facilities must allow service dogs and emotional support animals, if necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the home. To fall under this provision, you must have a disability and you must have a disability-related need for the animal. In other words, the animal must work, perform tasks or services, or alleviate the emotional effects of your disability in order to qualify. (For more information, see the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s guidance on service animals.)
Wisconsin law prohibits housing discrimination against those with disabilities. Those who have impaired vision, hearing, or mobility must be allowed to be accompanied by their animals if they are specially trained to lead or otherwise assist them. (The law doesn’t reference other types of disabilities for which someone might use a service animal.) However, you may be required to provide the credentials of a recognized school that trained the animal for this purpose, and you must clean up after your animal and pay for any damage it causes.