We know you love your pet dog.  But unless you’re headed to the outdoor patio of a restaurant that allows dogs there, please leave your pet at home.

Restaurants operate under strict rules from the NM Department of Health.  Those rules prohibit animals in areas where food is prepared, and – unless the establishment has chosen to allow dogs in an outdoor patio – in all areas where food is served.

There is one important exception to this rule.   A person with a disability generally has the right to bring a legitimate service animal into a restaurant or any other business establishment that is open to the public.

What makes a dog a legitimate service animal?  The dog must be trained to perform one or more specific tasks or functions for a person with a disability.  Service dogs perform a wide variety of tasks for their handlers, including guiding a person with a mobility impairment, retrieving dropped items that a person can’t reach, alerting an individual to an impending seizure or a dangerous blood sugar level, or other specific work. Because service animals provide this needed assistance to an individual with a disability, it is important not to distract, disturb, or interfere with them.

This service animal exception does not apply to emotional support, comfort, or therapy animals of any species, or to household pets. They do not perform specific tasks for a person with a disability.   Some businesses may establish “pet-friendly” policies that allow patrons to enter with their pet dog or comfort animal, but restaurants don’t have that option for their dining rooms because of the state health rules.

A restaurant host or manager encountering a customer with a dog needs to determine whether it is a legitimate service animal, and may ask two questions toward that end: Is the dog needed by the customer because the person has a disability?  And what task(s) or function(s) has the dog been trained to perform for the individual?

This screening process is not foolproof.  Unfortunately, some people falsely claim that their pet dog is a service animal in order to keep it with them in a restaurant, or to bring it into a business that is not pet friendly.  This is a recipe for trouble for two reasons.

First, it poses a danger to a legitimate service animal that may be present.  A pet dog that becomes aggressive in the presence of another dog may injure a service animal, temporarily or permanently rendering it incapable of further service to the individual with a disability.  Even a friendly pet can distract a service dog from its work.

Second, it puts the pet owner in legal and financial jeopardy.  Under NM law, it is a crime to present your pet dog as a service animal if it is not.  The penalty is up to a year in jail, up to a $1,000 fine, or both.  And if your pet dog harms a service animal, you may be liable for damages.  Replacement of a highly trained service animal could cost $50,000 or more.

New Mexico has a lively restaurant scene.  We encourage you to take advantage of it responsibly.  Unless your dog is a legitimate service animal, keep it on a leash in a designated patio or leave it at home.