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Updated: March 22, 2024

Maine businesses may be barking up the wrong tree when dealing with service animals

Courtesy / Easton, a service dog, guides Jim Kutsch, a Damariscotta resident who is blind.
What do I do when a customer brings in a 'service animal'?
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Maybe you've heard the wild tails, er, tales.

To enter restaurants, hotels or other businesses normally off-limits to Fido and Mrs. Whiskers, some pet parents wink, nod and claim their companions are "service animals."

A menagerie of dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, hamsters and other species — sometimes with official-looking insignia on a harness or collar — have gained unlikely access this way over recent years. Same for "emotional support animals."

It seems all creatures, great and small, have become a medical or psychological essential, equipped with a VIP badge.

But the result has been growing confusion about who is a legitimate service animal, and thus needs to go pretty much anywhere a disabled person goes.

A Maine nonprofit, Pine Tree Guide Dog Users, says the misunderstandings can be costly.

Businesses find themselves in a double-bind. They can let anyone with an animal inside the doors and risk potential disruption, broken merchandise and urine-stained floors. Or turn away potential customers with disabilities, and risk potential backlash.

Some people who have disabilities end up illegally barred. Some animals end up stressed and misbehaving, because they're in unfamiliar places and aren't prepared to handle them.

"We're noticing that more and more people bring non-service animals into [a business] and claim that they are service animals," said Jim Kutsch, a resident of Damariscotta who is blind and is a member of Pine Tree Guide Dog Users. "That creates a higher probability of behavior issues. That's causing our members to be hassled more.

"People with disabilities require goods and services just like everyone else. When someone is unfairly turned away because of a service animal, businesses not only face possible legal consequences but also risk loss of future sales. It's also not unusual for family, friends and others who hear about the incident to take their business elsewhere."

The group has recently produced a flyer to show Maine businesspeople and frontline employees what they need to know when a service animal comes in.

The publication, which is free and can be downloaded here, points out that service animals are not required to wear a vest or carry identification.

Imposter syndrome

While an animal can't tell you it's legit and a human may fib, there are ways to recognize who's for real.

Service animals — by definition under Maine law, sorry cat-lovers — are dogs. They are trained to be calm and generally behave well in public, according to Pine Tree Guide Dog Users.

Courtesy / PTGDU
Mainers, including Winthrop resident Jim King, rely on guide dogs to navigate stores and other businesses every day.

While the dogs come in varying sizes and breeds, the common distinction of service animals is that they perform very specific functions. And that's what cashiers, restaurant servers and workers in countless other industries should understand, the group says.

The flyer sums up what businesses can do if they have doubts about a dog.

"When it's not obvious what service the dog provides, staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform."

Asking other questions, such as about the nature of the disability or about the dog's training, is legally forbidden.

Suspicious minds

Emotional support animals and pets don't necessarily have the training or skill to behave as a true service animal would. However, that doesn't stop owners from trying to pass them off as one.

A February 2023 study by University of Utah researchers found that 60% of people with an emotional support dog had claimed it was a service animal at least once in order to get into no-pet public places. Nearly 20% said they misrepresented their dog frequently or almost always.

It's hard to say how often this deception happens in Maine. But the problem was significant enough in 2015 that the state passed legislation clarifying the criteria of a service animal — and doubling the fine for misrepresenting one, from $500 to $1,000.

No wonder some people are skeptical, or even suspicious.

Findings released last month from a national survey of 1,000 U.S. adults showed 55.4% believe pet owners abuse service animal policies. The results were published on a travel website,

Genuine service animals also come under fire.

Ginger Kutsch, who is blind and helped found PTGDU in 1997, is married to Jim Kutsch. She told Mainebiz, "Just last summer my niece and I went shopping in Camden. When we entered one of the stores, the shopkeeper hurried over to make it clear that my guide dog wasn't welcome. Apparently, a dog identified as a 'service animal' had recently been in the shop and urinated on the carpet.

"I think most people never consider what it might be like to have a disability, or how passing their pets off as service animals can harm others.

"We all love our dogs, but for those of us who rely on service animals to live independent lives, it's pretty disheartening when we're either turned away or not welcome because of what other dogs have done in the past."

Courtesy /
Ginger and Jim Kutsch, of Pine Tree Guide Dog Users, are shown with their respective guide dogs, Willa and Easton.

Not coincidentally, discrimination over the use of service animals was on the rise at the time Maine enacted its new service animal rules. The number of such complaints received by the Maine Human Rights Commission increased from seven in 2012 to 37 in 2015. More recent data was not immediately available.

Legal maze

The rules around animal access are complex.

Federal and state laws require that places of public accommodation allow the use of service animals by individuals with disabilities. The rules apply to dozens of settings that are open to the public, including stores, restaurants, hotels, theaters, schools, hospitals and municipal offices.

Broader laws apply to housing, however. They ensure that apartments and other dwelling places are open to people who rely on any type of animal for help, including emotional support, related to a disability.

As they're described by Maine housing law, "assistance animals" don't have to be trained for specific functions. As long as an animal is found to be necessary because of a person's physical or mental disability, the two of them can't be denied a place to live because of pet restrictions. 

For a while, a similar law allowed airline passengers to board flights with emotional support animals, though that rule was rolled back in 2021.

Photo / Jim Neuger
Roo, a 10-year-old cockatiel that lives with Mainebiz Senior Writer Renee Cordes, is a pet — not an emotional support animal and also not a service animal.

The legal niceties are lost on many workers. In an unscientific sampling by Mainebiz at a dozen downtown Portland businesses, not a single employee knew what could and couldn't be asked of a patron with a service animal.

Businesspeople also need to understand what they can do when an animal behaves, well, as animals sometimes do.

If a service animal urinates inside a store, for example, employees can require the dog to leave.

"Allowing the person to retain the use of the service animal is always the safer choice," said Ginger Kutsch. "But businesses need to understand that they don’t have to tolerate that type of behavior and know what steps they can take to resolve the problem."

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