Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that service dogs are registered animals.
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For more than two years, Wallis Brozman and her service dog, Mork, developed a close bond as he helped her navigate her world.
Brozman, who uses a manual wheelchair, has for 15 years benefited from the help of service dogs like Mork − named for the classic 1970s sitcom “Mork & Mindy” − to get around, retrieve small items, open doors and do other daily tasks that would otherwise prove difficult. And as a communications and advocacy coordinator for Canine Companions, Brozman brought along Mork, a golden retriever and Labrador mix, as she traveled the country to do education and advocacy work for service animals.
But Brozman’s time with the pooch became marred by a series of dog attacks on Mork that eventually led to his being taken out of service altogether.
The attacks − in restaurants, supermarkets and retail stores − became so pervasive that an otherwise highly trained animal became frightened and vigilant of the next threatening dog whenever they were in public. The final straw came in 2018 when Brozman said Mork became fearful of a retired service dog she kept as a pet.
It’s because of Brozman and Mork’s encounters with other pets in public places that she wasn’t surprised to learn that Publix, a supermarket chain based in Florida, had been posting signage reminding patrons of its no-pets policy.
“It’s a huge issue for service dog users,” said Brozman, who is awaiting her next service dog. “We’re seeing this on a daily basis.”
Most grocery stores prohibit pets
Publix is not alone in its policy of prohibiting all dogs and other pets with the exception of service animals from entering its stores.
A search of the policies of major grocery chains reveals that most (if not all) do not allow dog owners to bring their pets into their stores unless they are trained service animals, a policy that aligns with guidelines spelled out by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
There are no exceptions for emotional support animals.
A spokesperson for Giant Eagle affirmed that it had such a policy in a statement to USA TODAY that cited food health and safety requirements as the reason.
A spokeswoman for Canine Companions, a nonprofit agency that trains and provides assistance dogs, voiced the organization’s support for the policy of Publix and other like-minded grocers.
The) policy “increases inclusion and access for those individuals who rely on trained service dogs to navigate independently,” Jeanine Konopelski, vice president of marketing and advocacy, said in a statement to USA TODAY. “Poorly trained dogs in places where pets are not permitted can interfere with working service dogs, even posing a safety risk to the service dog team. Enforcing policies, like the new Publix policy, is critical to serving people with disabilities equitably.”
USA TODAY reached out to several other grocery chains, including Publix, for comment and had not heard back as of late Tuesday. But Konopelski said that often, larger corporations are unwilling or hesitant to enforce no-pet policies within businesses for fear of legal action.
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What is the difference between a service animal and an emotional support pet?
Service animals can be dogs of any breed and any size that are trained to perform a task related to their handlers’ disabilities, according to the ADA.
Contrary to common perception, they are not required to wear a vest or other form of identification indicating they are a service animal.
Emotional support dogs, on the other hand, exist to provide exactly what their name suggests: comfort and companionship but nothing more. However, emotional support dogs are generally prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to help to ease patients’ anxiety, depression and certain phobias, according to the American Kennel Club.
“Behaviors such as cuddling on cue, although comforting, do not qualify (as a service dog,)” the Kennel Club says. “The tasks need to be specifically trained to mitigate a particular disability, not something instinctive the dog would do anyway.”
Service dogs can serve in a variety of roles for people who have many kinds of disabilities, according to the ADA.
For instance, a person who uses a wheelchair may have a dog that is trained to retrieve objects for them, while a person with depression may have a dog that is trained to perform a task to remind them to take their medication.
Other examples include a person with post-traumatic stress disorder whose service animal is trained to lick their hand to alert them to an oncoming panic attack. A person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure, then help the person remain safe during the seizure.
Service animals are generally permitted under ADA law to be with their person, even in places that don’t otherwise allow pets. Though businesses are not permitted to ask patrons for documentation proving their animals are registered service animals, they can ask about the work or tasks they are trained to do, according to the ADA.
‘Most pet dogs are happier not being in a stressful environment’
Mork, who is now 9 years old, lives with the volunteer puppy raiser who cared for him during his first 18 months of life and is working as a certified Canine Companions therapy dog.
It may be a happy ending to an otherwise sad story, but Brozman lamented that it had to happen at all.
She also recognizes that she’s far from the only person who relies on service animals who has experienced the frustration of owners bringing dogs and other pets into public places where they shouldn’t be.
In fact, a Canine Companions survey last year found that instances of untrained pets in public places where pets are not allowed has increased over the years, which makes it more difficult for people with disabilities and their service dogs to navigate in their communities.
The study surveyed 1,500 service dog users, 58% of whom responded that they had encountered poorly trained dogs in grocery stores, according to Canine Companions. Almost all of those who responded, 93%, said they had encountered poorly trained dogs in public places where pets were not permitted.
Brozman understands the instinct to bring our furry friends wherever we go in public but emphasized that it’s not only in her best interest, but the pets’ best interest as well, that they be left at home.
“We all love our dogs; we all get emotional benefit from being with our dogs,” Brozman said. “But the reality is, most pet dogs are happier not being in a stressful environment, including public places like supermarkets.”
Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at [email protected].