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Pets 101

Table for Two

Dining with your pet is becoming more and more mainstream. Just what are the rules?

By Kevin Aeh

In Europe, just about anything goes. You can shed all your clothing at the beach, light up a cigarette in public places, and dine with your doggie inside restaurants. Traveling in the U.S., however, is a different story. We Americans enact smoking bans and laws to cover it up at the beach, but the rules get tricky when it comes to dining with our pets.

Surprisingly, there are no federal laws that directly address having dogs in restaurants. According to Len Kain—who runs the website DogFriendly.com with his wife, Tara, in Pollock Pines, California—restaurant health laws originate at the state level. All 50 U.S. states have laws forbidding dogs, except service dogs, inside restaurants.

There are no laws preventing dogs from stores, shopping centers, and other public areas. It’s usually up to the private owners of those businesses to decide on their own pet policies. The Westfield North Bridge shopping center in downtown Chicago, for example, became more welcoming to pets in 2005. “We started to see a growing number of residents in the area bringing small pets,” says Amy Benson, marketing director of the shopping center, “So we decided to make the center pet-friendly to accommodate their needs.”

Located throughout the mall are pet comfort stations, which include water bowls and snacks for pets. Benson says she believes North Bridge is the only shopping center in Chicagoland that offers a true pet-friendly experience. It could be the start of a trend, though, especially as shop owners begin to realize that it is up to them to allow pets in their stores.

And even though laws for restaurants exist, it’s not necessarily an unhealthy thing to have pets inside the eateries. “Every source that we have spoken with on actual health risks says that they are nonexistent to minimal,” Kain says. In support of the lack of a significant health risk, Kain points to the fact that there have been no major disease outbreaks in American households with pets having access to both kitchens and dining areas. “This appears to be a case of government using a health code to create a policy that is not really about health, but their idea of what they want,” he says.

But if all 50 states forbid the presence of canines at restaurants, why do we see people dining with dogs at the outdoor seating areas all the time? Is this harmless activity really breaking the law?

The answer is that it has always been legal for dogs to be in outside cafes and patios in California, and many others are following suit.

In 2006, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed what has been affectionately referred to as the “doggie dining” bill, which says each county within the state can allow restaurants to permit dogs to dine outside with their guardians. The new law was originally proposed and pushed by the city of Orlando, after state health inspectors were fining dog-friendly restaurants there.

Other cities that have recently officially changed local laws to allow dogs at outdoor restaurants include Austin and Dallas and Alexandria, Virginia. There has even been a recent proposal in Washington state to allow dogs in bars, but Kain says no official decisions have been made.

According to Steve Dale, syndicated radio host and pet expert, restaurants in other cities can allow pets in outdoor seating areas because the rules aren’t a hundred percent clear. In many states, the health code says that animals are not allowed on the premises. “Animal” is clearly defined in many state codes to include vermin, birds, insects, and rodents, and it does not say that “dogs or pets” are not allowed. “If they’re preventing dogs from dining outdoors because of health reasons, then every outdoor dining area should be closed,” Dale says. “Birds and squirrels are always around, and people survive. We’ve managed to look through it.”

“Many locales will let you tie a dog to the outside of the railing surrounding an outdoor dining area and some have decided that seats on the public sidewalks are not defined as the premises since the restaurant owner does not control the traffic through this area,” Kain says. DogFriendly.com also reports that some local health departments simply allow dogs to be in outdoor dining areas as long as other diners are not complaining. “In my opinion the four-legged customers are better than the two-legged ones,” Dale says. “They’re never over served, and [some of them] have better manners.”

It’s a good idea to always ask restaurant managers if dogs are permitted on the premises. Kain says that he’s found most places to be very dog-friendly. “In our 15 years in traveling with dogs in over 30 states, we have successfully dined with our dogs throughout the country.”

Kevin Aeh, a writer for Time Out Chicago, grew up in Columbus, Ohio, sneaking bread under the dinner table to Ebony, his family’s Toy Poodle. If only he knew then that he could treat her to dinner at an outdoor cafe.

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