329 | Ruff and Ready: ADA gives hotels a short leash when accommodating guests with service animals

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FURRY GUESTS: More than 48 million households in America have at least one dog, reports the American Veterinary Medical Association. That’s one out of every three households. Hotels that are pet friendly can attract a lot of bookings but it’s smart business to know how to accommodate both everyday fur babies and pets that qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hotel operators should keep an open mind and door as more travelers are bringing pets for comfort and reassurance, say experts

The American Veterinary Medical Association calculates that more than 48 million or 38 percent of households in America have a dog.

Millennials own the most dogs, reports Oakland Veterinary Referral Service in Michigan. This demographic of 20- to 40-year-olds also is the least hesitant to travel during the COVID-19 era.

Most of these dog owners regard their pet as a family member and they’re very likely to bring their dog along on a trip as the lodging industry recovers from the coronavirus crisis.

The second largest dog-owning demographic is baby boomers, who also are adding to the disabled population at a faster rate.

Agencies representing disabled Americans report approximately 200,000 dogs are trained and work as service animals. The dogs serve in a variety of ways, including aiding owners who are visually or hearing impaired and those who use a wheelchair or have other mobility challenges. They also provide aid to people with chronic health conditions, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Americans with Disabilities Act deems service animals as an extension of the person and the animal can go wherever its owner goes.

That means when a guest with a dog checks in at your hotel the pooch might be a trained service animal.

It can be difficult for hotel owners and operators to understand the difference between a bona fide service animal and a family pet. Many hoteliers have found themselves in legal trouble after denying business to a guest who claims the dog is a service animal.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that more and more people are claiming their dogs are emotional support animals. The website Pawsome Advice reports that in 2014 there were 2,400 emotional support animals in the U.S. In 2019, that number was 200,000.

Emotional support and therapy dogs are not the same as a service or assistance dog. The ADA covers one but not the other. Hoteliers can save themselves and their staff a lot of trouble by knowing the law and following ADA guidance.

RUFF AND READY: Americans love their pets. And tens of thousands of disabled people depend on their dogs to help them navigate and function in the outside world. In Episode 329 of Lodging Leaders podcast, we explore how the ADA defines a service animal and how a hotel is legally obligated to serve a guest who comes with a dog or any other animal.

Matthew Arnold, a lawyer with DPA Attorneys at Law in San Diego, specializes in ADA statutes and litigation.

He spends a lot of time clarifying for hotel businesses what is a service animal and what is not. If it’s not a dog or miniature horse, it’s not even close to being a service animal.

“You cannot come in with a service peacock,” he said.

If a guest does try to check in with a non-traditional pet, it’s probably an emotional support animal or some sort of therapy animal, which does not get the same ADA protections as a service animal, Arnold said.

Those protections include allowing the service dog to accompany the guest in all areas of the hotel, including dining rooms, the fitness area, the pool and other public spaces.

In fact, if the guest leaves the dog in the room while they go out, it is most likely not a service animal and the hotel can ask the guest to make sure the dog remains by their side throughout the visit.

Maintaining Control

Hotel staff might face a situation in which they decide to ask the dog owner to keep the animal away from certain areas. But Arnold said that’s a rare event and the reason needs to be specific.

The hotel also cannot tag a section of rooms as off-limit to guests with service animals. For example, a block of rooms on the third floor for guests allergic to dogs is prohibited. If a guest has a problem rooming next door to a guest with a service dog, the hotel needs to move the non-disabled guest, not the other way around.

“Unless here’s a very real reason why the service animal can’t be in a certain area then you have to allow them there,” Arnold said. “There are really not a lot of reasons you can have to deny them (access).”

Arnold said in some rare situations, hotel staff are legally allowed to ask a disabled guest to remove their service dog. Those include if the dog has demonstrated it’s a threat to other guests – it might bite or a horse might kick. “If the owner cannot get the dog under control or its exhibiting some sort of aggressive behavior, then you can ask them to take it back to the room or out of the public area.”

It’s not unheard of for a service dog to have a bathroom accident. And if the dog is barking incessantly it might be because it is alerting others that there’s a problem with its owner.

If the assistance dog does break its role, misbehaves or relieves itself in the lobby, it may not be a trained service animal, Arnold said. But asking the owner to demonstrate its services or show certification is against the law.

‘Take It Seriously’

Arnold advises hotel owners and operators to learn the ADA guidance on service animals and to continually train staff members on the do’s and don’ts. Turnover is high in the industry and the onus is on owners and operators to make sure staff members are familiar with the law or can easily access information when a situation arises.

It’s not a small thing and if not handled properly it can turn into a big problem for the business.

‘These cases are no joke,” Arnold said.

Anybody who thinks “the service animal issue is not that big of a deal” can quickly land in hot water.  “We’re seeing damages in the mid-five-figure range. We have some cases where they demand upwards of $50,000 for something that seems relatively inconsequential. So you have to take this seriously, like all ADA matters.”

Recognizing that more people are traveling with their pets, many hotels have become pet friendly. But it still benefits the hotel staff to know ADA regulations that govern service animals.

In some cases, hotels charge a pet fee. But under the ADA, guests with service animals are not required to pay the fee.

In any case, fee or no fee, hotels that are pet friendly may see a spike in revenue by simply being open to the trend and accommodating all guests who check in with their pets.

PET ACCOMMODATING: Hotel Nyack in Nyack, N.Y., caters to guests’ dogs with special in-room menus and accommodations. Real Hospitality Group manages the hotel and it has learned the fiscal value of being pet friendly by creating programming that attracts people who travel with their pets. Real Hospitality’s hotel charge pet fees. ADA specialists say it’s important that employees know when to waive the charge for guests with ADA-sanctioned service animals.

New Pet Owner

Jasmine Simon-Wallace is regional director of sales and marketing at Real Hospitality Group. She worked from her home in New York City during the 2020 pandemic year and joined the ranks of new pet owners.

During the Zoom interview with Lodging Leaders Simon-Wallace held Bella, her teacup Morkie, on her lap. A Morkie is half Maltese and half Yorkie.

She said many of the hotels in Real Hospitality’s management portfolio were not pet friendly. But the pandemic changed that.

“That was one of our many strategies where we had to pivot and say, ‘It really would behoove us to become pet friendly’ because we did see that a lot of people were rescuing dogs and adopting dogs because they knew that they’d be home a lot more.

“So we wanted to be flexible and realizing that if people are going to stay at a hotel, they might have some challenges with boarding and so forth.”

PANDEMIC PUPPY: Jasmine Simon-Wallace, regional director of sales and marketing for Real Hospitality Group in New York City, held Bella, a teacup Morkie, during a June 18 remote interview with Lodging Leaders. A Morkie is a mix between a Maltese and a Yorkie. Like many people homebound during the pandemic, Simon-Wallace decided she had time to assimilate a pet into her household. Bella is now part of the family and goes just about everywhere with Simon-Wallace, who said having a pet has helped her advise hotels in Real Hospitality Group’s management portfolio how to accommodate guests with pets to generate revenue.

Along with welcoming guests with animals and therefore increasing occupancy, Real Hospitality looked for ways to generate revenue from the trend.

Simon-Wallace helps Real Hospitality Group’s hotels come up with ways to cater to the canine guests and their owners.

Its Hotel Nyack in New York’s Hudson River Valley welcomes dogs by placing water bowls in the lobby. Its front desk hands out doggie treats. And it sponsors “Yappy Hour,” when guests and others with dogs can visit the lounge and share a drink while their dogs play together.

The hotel also has created a doggy menu that’s available in its restaurant as well as room service.

Just a few years ago, hotels and restaurants allowing dogs was not considered the norm. But even before the pandemic hotels becoming more accommodating and serving guests with pets. It’s happening more today as the industry emerges from the coronavirus crisis.

Making room for four-legged guests has taught Real Hospitality managers and staff that most pet-owning guests are responsible and their dogs are well-heeled.

“We had to shift our mindset because, naturally, if you have a pet you know what your pet is like, what their behavior is like,” Simon-Wallace said. “If they’re a well-trained dog, if they’re yappy, if they’re not potty trained and have lots of accidents, well you’re not going to want to bring your dog if it’s like that.”

The Two Questions

For hotels that charge a pet fee, like those under Real Hospitality’s management, it’s important that hotel staff know the questions they can ask to determine if the guest’s pet is a service animal and the fee should be waived.

Arnold with DPA Attorneys at Law shares the two questions allowed under ADA law:

  • Is this a service animal trained to perform tasks related to a disability?
  • What tasks does that animal perform?

“These questions actually can give a lot of information and let you know with a service animal what tasks it can perform. Let’s say the guests can’t really answer that question. Then you may be able to treat the stay under the pet policy instead of a service-animal policy.”

It is illegal for a hotel employee to demand to see certification or to ask the owner to demonstrate how the dog or miniature horse offers assistance.

Arnold says in most cases, hoteliers should err on the side of caution and just accept the guest’s word that the dog is a service animal.

In November 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it had reached a settlement with two hotels after disabled military veterans were denied accommodations because they could not prove their dogs were support animals. The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division investigated the Deerfield Inn & Suites in Gadsden, Alabama, and the Holiday Inn Express in Hampton, Virginia, in separate cases. The hotels agreed to implement pet policies that adhere to ADA guidelines and train management and staff on ADA regulations that govern service animals. They also agreed to pay damages to the military veterans, one of whom had to sleep in her car after being denied accommodations.

Alabama and several other states now have laws that financially penalize customers who falsely claim their dogs are service animals.

DISCOUNTED DOG CARE: Wyndham Hotels & Resorts in January announced a special program with Rover, a national network of dog sitters and walkers. Guests with dogs staying in any pet-friendly Wyndham-branded hotel can receive discounted services from Rover during their visit. LaQuinta by Wyndham has long accommodated guests with pets as the promotional photo from Wyndham depicts. Other Wyndham brands marketed as pet friendly include Super8, Baymont and Howard Johnson.

‘Clear Answers’

Nanette Odell is founder and CEO of Life Quest Training & Consulting, which advises businesses, including hotels, on how to design buildings and shape their customer-service policies to accommodate customers with disabilities.

Odell broadens the scenario where the hotel employee might ask a guest with a dog the two questions allowed by law but it gets them nowhere.

When a hotel employee asks if the animal is required because of a disability the guest might claim the employee has no right to ask that because the guest does not have to disclose their disability. “But you’re not asking what is your disability, you’re simply saying, ‘Is this a service animal required because of a disability?’ And the answer is yes or no.”

Sometimes, a guest might misrepresent their pet as a service animal, Odell said. “And so the second question is probably even more important.

“The second question is ‘What specific service or task is your dog trained to perform?’ Again, some people will argue, ‘You can’t ask me that.’ But the Department of Justice says you can.”

If a guest answers the second question by disclosing their disability, that is not an acceptable response, Odell said. For example, if a guest says they’re diabetic “that’s actually not an answer. The answer would be, ‘My dog is trained to alert me when my blood sugar gets too high or too low.” In other disability cases, a dog might be trained to alert its owner that a seizure is imminent and the person needs to move to safe space. Or the dog alerts the owner before an anxiety attack.

“Those are very clear answers,” Odell said. “But the problem is that in some cases a person truly could say, ‘My service dog alerts me when my medical condition requires my attention.’ And that’s technically a legitimate answer. They don’t have to get specific because as soon as I say, ‘My dog alerts me if my blood sugar gets too high or too low or a seizure’s coming on or a panic attack,’ I have now disclosed my disability and I don’t have to do that.

“An answer could technically be as vague as, ‘My service dog alerts me when my medical condition has changed and I need to address it,’ or something to that effect. It’s not as much information as you may want, but the truth is, is that is a legitimate answer.”

Odell notes that a service dog can perform functions in response to its owner’s needs.

For example, there are dogs trained to alert deaf owners to noise that signals something such as car keys falling on the floor or someone calling after them.

In many cases the owner’s disability is apparent. For example, a guide dog for someone who is blind or a service animal for an owner who uses a wheelchair.

The size or breed of the dog does not matter but it can tempt a hotel employee to question the guest beyond what is allowed under the ADA.

“Where it gets really, really sticky is when you see the little dog in the carrier or under the person’s arm or in their purse or not even on a leash,” Odell said. “There’s no ‘apparent disability’ so you really don’t know if this is a service dog or a pet. You can ask those two questions and then listen for (the guest’s) response. If a person says it’s an emotional support dog, this is where it gets sticky because technically an emotional support dog is not considered a service dog.”

But Odell often contends if the emotional support animal has not been trained but can still assist its owner it’s up to the hotel owner, operator or employee to decide whether it’s worth the argument.

Odell said hotels that charge a pet fee may more often run into this situation. Like Arnold, she advises hotel employees to give the guest the benefit of the doubt. It is not worth it to argue and face a lawsuit.

Odell likes to tell the “$10 lawsuit story.”

“Years ago, I was contacted by a hotel owner and an attorney representing them about a situation where the hotel did have a policy allowing pets but it was a $10 fee. A person came in and said, ‘But this is my service animal.’ And the hotelier said, ‘It’s $10.’ The guest said, ‘There should be no charge for a service animal’ but the hotelier said, ‘No, it’s $10.’ The hotelier ended up getting sued over a $10 fee because he didn’t know the right questions to ask.”

Odell advises hotel owners and operators make sure ADA guidelines and those two all-important questions are visible to employees. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have these two questions right behind the customer-service counter. Have these questions and have some really basic tips right there behind the counter so anybody that’s behind there, whether they’re answering the phone or they’re checking in a guest, they know what questions they can ask and what they cannot ask.”

Like Simon-Wallace and Real Hospitality have done, Odell advises hotels to think of the business case for welcoming pets and removing the friction for guests checking in with their dogs.

“We need to remember that, overall, people with disabilities make up the fastest-growing minority population,” she said.

The disabled guest often travels with friends or family. “Take a look at a person with a disability and then their circle of influence. That multiplies the potential financial impact on a hotel or business.”

And, she said, it’s wise to remember what a difficult year it’s been for many people. Hotels frequently encounter customers who are in some state of mental-health distress.

“We need to keep in mind there are a lot of people out there who are still extremely anxious,” she said. “They may have found that their dog responds to them and they need to have their dog with them. We’re home with our animals so much more now, so to now venture out and go, ‘OK, I’m going to try to travel. I can’t travel without my dog.’ I think we just really need to understand that we are in an unprecedented time and showing compassion and mercy and flexibility is more important now than ever.”

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