Shoppers question rising number of dogs taken into South Florida grocery stores

Emotional support animals not protected in stores under ADA

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Take a walk through a South Florida grocery store, and shoppers will likely notice a common theme --dogs accompanying owners while they do their food shopping. 

But whether their dog is on a leash or in the cart, many of those shoppers are breaking the law. 

"It's not sanitary," Miami Beach resident Amy Auerbach said. "I see them all over. I love dogs, but they don't belong there."

When Local 10 News visited several stores, it found dozens of dogs of all sizes. Some walked along and smelled the food, while others were held over prepared food counters. 

Auerbach said it's a health concern.

"A dog can jump all over the food, and we don't know what they're doing to it -- hair or waste," Auerbach said.  

Shopper Alesya Harkusha told Local 10 News investigative reporter Amy Viteri that she is a dog lover and doesn't personally mind the dogs in stores, but admitted that it could be unhygienic.

"If they (don't) behave -- you know, like attacking or eating everything or licking or peeing," Harkusha said. 

There are clear health and hygiene reasons for why animals are not allowed near the food people eat, but not all shoppers mind the dogs.

"Yes, it's unsanitary, don't get me wrong," one shopper said. "But I don't see a big problem with it." 

According to Florida law, not only is it a problem, it's also illegal, unless the dog is a trained service animal. The law came as a surprise to many shoppers, even though most stores have clear signs saying no pets allowed. 

Some people were confused about what a service animal even is. 

"The thing is, I have permission," one shopper told Viteri, then showed her a doctor's note indicating her chihuahua is an emotional support animal.

Disability rights attorney Matthew Dietz said that's not the same thing as a service animal. 

"Only service animals are allowed under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)," Dietz explained. "The dog has to be individually trained to assist a person with a disability." 

Dog owner Florence Elbaz told Viteri she knew it was not legal to take her dog into the Publix in Miami Beach, but said she put the dog in her bag.

"(If) someone tells me not to do it, I won't do it," Elbaz said. "But they haven't enforced it."

But shoppers like Deborah Fischer wish someone would say something. 

"It's just like an affront to what we went through," Fischer said. 

Fischer was referring to her trained service dog named Sorenson. Fischer has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. She relies on her service dog for help with everyday tasks like grocery shopping. 

"I drop 100 things a day because my hands aren't that good," Fischer explained. "He can pick up credit cards, he can pick up coins."

She said one of the big problems with people bringing their pets into stores is it can distract trained dogs like Sorenson from doing their job effectively. She has also worried that the amount of dogs in stores now could affect how people view legitimate service dogs. 

"I don't want to get to the point where people are going to be questioning him and not allowing him in stores, and I'm going to run into a problem," Fischer said. 

Legally, store employees can only ask if a dog is a service animal required because of a disability and what task it's trained to perform. 

"But they usually don't because they don't want to get into a confrontation," Dietz said. 

Store employees had little to say when Local 10 asked them about the issue. The Fresh Market had no comment on the dogs in their stores.

"Under ADA regulations, service animals are permitted in our stores," Publix spokeswoman Nicole Krauss said in a statement. "However, service animals will not be permitted to ride in our shopping carts due to food safety and sanitation concerns. The policy change has been implemented based on guidance issued by the Department of Justice."

A representative for Whole Foods said, "Whole Foods Market adheres to all state and local laws, as well as ADA guidelines pertaining to service animals in our stores."

"I think they should enforce the rules," Fischer said, adding that she wished shoppers would be a little more sensitive.  

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees grocery stores. Spokesman Aaron Keller said in an email that the agency would investigate a complaint.  

"If there is an animal in the food prep area, and we were notified, we would send an inspector to check and the store could potentially be cited," he said.