Health & Fitness

Service dogs allowed in stores, restaurants. Fake service animals, however, can land you in jail.

A shopper and her dog on the checkout line Jan. 1 at Target on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach.
A shopper and her dog on the checkout line Jan. 1 at Target on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach.

These days, it’s not unusual to see shoppers and diners with their leashed service dogs in stores and restaurants. The animals are trained to provide their human handlers with all kinds of emotional and medical support, including letting them know when their blood sugar has dropped or if they’re about to have a seizure.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees a blind, deaf, or physically disabled person the legal right to be accompanied by a service animal in all areas open to the general public,” according to Service Dogs for America, a North Dakota nonprofit since 1992. “Service animal means any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including but not limited to guiding individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair or fetching items.”

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a disabled child whose service dog was denied access into her school. The court ruled that the family of Ehlena Fry can sue her former school for denying access to her service animal, a goldendoodle named Wonder.

Non-service dogs are not covered by the federal act. And two years ago, Florida passed a law declaring the use of fake service animals a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

That leaves Florida restaurant and store owners with the uncomfortable task of asking customers whether their dogs are trained service animals.

“The health code says that any restaurant employee who comes into contact with a service animal must immediately wash their hands,” said Marc A. Marra, a litigation attorney in the Fort Lauderdale office of Kelley Kronenberg. “The business cannot inquire as to the nature or extent of the person’s disability, or ask for papers to prove the animal is a service animal. However, the business can ask if the animal is a service animal required because of a disability and what work or tasks the animal has been trained to perform.”

A service animal, according to the state of Florida, is any animal trained to provide assistance to a disabled person. The person in charge of a service animal is required by state law to keep it under control. A restaurant can only remove a service animal if it is aggressive towards other patrons or if it has had an accident, said business attorney Michelle Suarez, a partner at Odroniec Suarez in Fort Lauderdale.

Mario Padrino, who owns five Padrino’s Cuban Cuisine restaurants across Florida, recently asked Marra for legal advice regarding service animals in the restaurants.

“There are some people out there that take advantage of the service animal rule. Sometimes I see dogs on top of the table in booths whereas service dogs are usually under the table. I didn’t know what to do about this problem until I got legal advice from Marc,” Padrino said. “I recommend everyone who owns a restaurant and is curious as to what you can and can’t do with dogs in the restaurant to seek legal assistance. Service dogs in restaurants is a very current issue facing many owners and it’s important to know right from wrong.”

Said Marra: “If a person chooses to lie to the restaurant about their dog being a service animal, they do so at their own risk.”

Padrino and other business and restaurant owners are hesitant to ask customers whether their dogs are indeed service animals.

“If a team member is unsure if an animal is a service animal, the team member is instructed to ask the guest. If the guest answers yes, there is no further action,” Target spokeswoman Kristy Welker told the Miami Herald. “Per ADA law, dogs should be harnessed, leashed or tethered while in public places unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the person’s disability prevents use of these devices. For animals in a cart, team members can ask the guest to place a bag underneath it.”

Target does not permit non-service dogs in its stores, Welker said.

“If a guest tells a team member that their dog isn’t a service dog, the team member should tell the guest that Target’s policy is only to accommodate service animals in our stores, so the guests would be asked to leave,” she said.