When it comes to explaining why Laura Culver takes her dog everywhere, the 45-year-old makes no bones about it: "I take Lily everywhere because I can." Culver is one of those dog owners who take their pets to beaches, to restaurant patios and even into clothing stores. In the Tampa Bay area, nowhere is this trend more prevalent than in Hyde Park Village. The upscale South Tampa plaza has a reputation for being dog-friendly. It's common to see dogs on leashes, in wagons or handbags and occasionally in strollers as their owners browse Anthropologie or slurp a smoothie outside Indigo Coffee. The area's Downtown Dogs canine boutique is a natural hot spot; the owner and many employees bring their dogs to work, as do several other Hyde Park merchants.
"I like having her with me. She's my friend. She's my buddy," Culver, manager of Kit's Well-Heeled & Well-Dressed in Hyde Park, said of Lily, a chow-Australian shepherd.
According to pet expert Charlotte Reed, author of The Miss Fido Manners Complete Book Of Dog Etiquette: The Definitive Guide to Manners for Pets and Their People, we take our pets on errands for the same reason we call a friend when we're out shopping.
"Your dog can't tell you you look great in that outfit, but you have some companionship," said Reed, of New York City, who owns four English toy spaniels and two cats. Like Culver, she has no children.
For Tampa resident Faizal Enu, taking a pet out in public is the responsible thing to do. Enu and his girlfriend have a chihuahua named Ella.
"Both of us work a lot of hours, and if you're taking the responsibility of having an animal, you have the responsibility of spending time with that animal. You can't just leave her at home," said Enu, 39, a personal trainer.
Still, Enu admits to pushing the limits. Recently, he and his girlfriend stopped by Sweetbay Supermarket near Hyde Park to pick up some last-minute items for a Gasparilla party. Ella was with them. Rather than have one person wait outside with Ella, the couple smuggled the 4-pound dog into the store in Enu's girlfriend's purse.
"No one saw her," Enu said. "She wasn't going to do anything, except for inside the purse."
At Hyde Park Village, merchants provide dog treats and water bowls. This makes customers happy, said Reed, the author. And happy customers spend money.
A few store clerks confessed that they'd prefer to keep their stores dog-free, but Reed said the peer pressure is probably too strong.
"Each individual store has their own policies," said Susan Martin, Hyde Park's general manager. "The village as a whole has always been very pet-friendly. I don't know if there's an official written policy, per se, but I think people feel comfortable bringing their dogs here because they know that they can."
Outside Hyde Park Village, many stores prohibit all nonservice animals, but these policies can be difficult to enforce.
At Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg, shoppers occasionally bring small dogs in carriers. Security guards ask them to leave.
Tampa's International Plaza also bans nonservice dogs.
"If someone says it's a service dog, we take their word for it," spokeswoman Nina Mahoney said in an e-mail.
WestShore Plaza, also in Tampa, is a bit more liberal. The mall welcomes dogs at special pet-friendly events, including photo ops with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Year-round, pets are welcome at Just Dogs Gourmet and several photo studios in the mall. If staffers see a dog in the building, they assume that it's going to one of these stores, or that it's a service dog.
"We have not had any complaints. . . . I don't see (dogs) in excess, either," said spokeswoman Kristy Genna. The most common four-legged visitors are small dogs in strollers, and the photo studios try to book animal appointments during nonpeak hours, Genna said.
For some businesses, one or two canines aren't a problem. It's groups of dogs that cause trouble.
The Moon Under Water restaurant on Beach Drive NE in St. Petersburg once welcomed dogs on its patio. So when the city began issuing doggie dining permits in 2006, owner and manager Mark Logan wanted his eatery to be the first to complete the paperwork. It was. But when the St. Petersburg Times published an article about Moon Under Water's official dog-friendly status, dog owners began bringing their pets to the restaurant in droves.
"It just got overwhelming," Logan said. Customers complained about dogs barking and defecating. An Australian shepherd bit a server, bringing to light Logan's biggest concern.
"What if a customer got bit by a dog that's on my property?" wondered Logan, who never takes his Havanese, Mooky, to restaurants. "Who's liable? Is it the dog owner or is it the establishment?"
A few months after getting the doggie dining permit, Moon Under Water banned all dogs. Logan is happy to recommend dog-friendly restaurants, including others along Beach Drive, which is dotted with water bowls for dogs. Then again, some customers comment on restaurant review blogs that Moon Under Water should reinstate the dog-friendly policy.
"I've been toying with bringing it back, not bringing it back," Logan said.
So what's next? In an age when peanut butter is banned from many school cafeterias, how much longer will dogs be welcome in places like Hyde Park Village?
Martin said she has never gotten a complaint from a customer or merchant. Lately, the area has attracted an occasional cat on a leash or bird on someone's shoulder. During one of Hyde Park's annual Halloween Pet Masquerades, one boy even carried around a hedgehog.
Dalia Colón can be reached at email@example.com.