Doggie Dining – Making Sense of the Confusion

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People who travel with their dogs and take them around town have probably dined at an outdoor restaurant, coffee shop, or fast-food restaurant with their pooch. While U.S. state health codes usually ban pet dogs from the inside seating areas of restaurants, there is often the question of whether or not dogs are allowed in outdoor dining areas.

DogFriendly.com has investigated this situation, including Federal, state, and local laws, and whether or not it is legal to dine outside at a restaurant with a dog.

Restaurant Health Laws & Codes

Restaurant health laws, whether administrative or statute, originate at the state level. There are no Federal laws that apply to the issue of dogs in restaurants with the exception of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that restaurants allow service and guide dogs in indoor and outdoor dining areas.

The only other major Federal contribution to the restaurant health codes is a recommendation by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called the FDA Food Code. This code is updated every four years. It is very important to note that this code is not a law but a recommendation. It is similar to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendation, not a requirement, that the general public gets annual flu shots.

No food establishment can be fined or punished based on the FDA Food Code recommendation. No Federal law makes it illegal to bring a pet animal to the outdoor or indoor areas of a restaurant. The FDA Food Code is important to this discussion because many states have included parts of the code in their health code laws. 

The state laws actually govern the operation of food establishments in a state. While many state codes include or incorporate the FDA Food Code, every state can and often does make its own modifications to the FDA Food Code to match its pre-existing statutes.

Each state may have different laws at the state level and different implementations of the inspection process. For example in the state of Florida, all local inspections are done by health inspectors employed by the state. 

In most other states, health inspectors are employed at the local level, by the city or county. Some states, such as California, require that the local governments use the state food establishment laws as written by the state. Other states may allow local governments to strengthen the laws. Most states allow for a local government or health department to issue a variance. A variance is usually requested by a restaurant to their local health department and can be used to exempt a restaurant from any part of the health code.

For example, if a health code does not allow customers to enter a restaurant kitchen, a variance could be issued to a restaurant that has customer bathrooms accessible only by a customer walking through the kitchen. Similarly, a variance can be used to allow dogs in outdoor (or even indoor)  restaurant seating areas. In order to get a variance approved, it typically requires that some additional steps be taken by the restaurant to prevent whatever harm the code is designed to prevent.

For example, to allow dogs in outdoor seating areas, a local health department may require that servers wash their hands after serving a table with a dog if they touched or patted the dog. In addition to variances issued to individual restaurants, a sort of global or standardized variance can be issued by a city or county.

This has been done to allow dogs in outdoor restaurants in Alexandria, VA in 2004. This can also be accomplished by passing a local ordinance as was done by Austin, TX in 2006. Most states have a general variance process that is allowed. Therefore, most cities or counties could allow dogs in outdoor dining areas by issuing a variance or passing a city ordinance – regardless of the state dog policy and without legislation at the state level.

What Do State Laws Actually Say?

We have looked at three states with different legal structures for their restaurant health codes. These states are California, Washington, and Florida. Other state codes may be similar to one of these models but chances are they will be different in some ways.

For people who wish to dine at an outdoor restaurant with their dog, California is perhaps the most dog-friendly state in the country with regard to dogs at outdoor dining establishments. The state has been pet-friendly in this manner for at least the past 20 years.  According to Susan Strong, a representative of the California Department of Health Services (CDHS), Food and Drug Branch, “(pet) dogs are allowed throughout California at any outdoor dining areas unless they have to walk through the inside of a restaurant to get to the outdoor seats.”

It does not matter if food is served outside or taken out by the customer, or if the seats are located on a patio, sidewalk, or in a fenced area as long as there is access through an outside gate or opening. The California law is set by statute which was last updated in 1986. In addition, the California statute forbids counties or cities from making these codes stricter.

Of course, it is still the prerogative of a restaurant owner to choose whether or not to allow dogs in their outdoor seating area, but the choice lies with the owner, not the city or county. Notwithstanding the state law, even in California, restaurants will sometimes cite local health codes in not allowing dogs in their outdoor seating areas.

In some cases, the restaurant owner may be trying to shift the “blame” so that customers with dogs in tow will not be upset with the restaurant. In other cases, the local health inspector may be misapplying with the interpretation of the California statute.

An example of this, that we have seen over the years, is the Santa Barbara branch office of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department which has continuously told restaurants and the public that dogs are not allowed in any outdoor seating areas. Meanwhile, the Santa Maria branch office of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department says that dogs are allowed at outdoor tables.

Compared to California, the State of Washington has an entirely different set of statutes with regard to dogs at outdoor restaurants. According to Janet Anderberg of the Washington Department of Health, “Animals are not allowed on the premises of a food establishment”. The premises is defined as the area that is controlled by the restaurant owner, including an outside dining area, regardless of whether food is served there or not.

This code is the wording that is contained in the FDA Food Code that many states have incorporated parts of. When incorporating the FDA Food Code, states often modify it to be consistent with their pre-existing state statutes. However, even though Washington’s state health code does not allow animals on the premises of a food establishment, this does not automatically preclude dogs in outdoor seating areas throughout the state.

In Washington, the state allows the county health departments to issue variances if they are willing to do so. Also, tables that are not controlled by the restaurant directly, such as those in a shopping center that is cleaned by mall janitors or an area on a sidewalk beyond a restaurant’s railing may not be defined as the premises by local health inspectors.

In the absence of any variances, generally, the only way for people with dogs to dine outdoors with their dog in the State of Washington is to get the food to go or carry out, and take it with them to a public bench on a sidewalk, a picnic table in a park, or somewhere off of the premises of the restaurant.

Florida has made news this year since it passed a statute in May 2006, allowing cities and counties to permit dogs in outdoor seating areas despite the state ban on animals on the premises. Florida’s State Code has similar wording to Washington’s State Code in that “Animals are not allowed on the Premises of a Food Establishment”.

In most states, no state law would be needed for local governments to allow pets because local health departments could issue a variance to the code, as was done in  Alexandria and Austin. However, Florida, unlike most states, employs state health inspectors instead of local inspectors.

There was no such thing as a variance in the health code in Florida that local governments could use to allow pets in outdoor dining areas. By passing its statute in May of 2006, Florida gave its cities and counties the equivalent of variances specifically in regard to dogs at outdoor restaurants.

This new law was originally proposed and pushed by the city of Orlando when the state health inspector that oversees their district began penalizing restaurants for allowing dogs at outdoor seats. While Orlando restaurants were being fined, most of the rest of the state’s dog-friendly outdoor restaurants were not fined. Although this law doesn’t, by itself, allow dogs at outdoor restaurants throughout Florida, the action sets a positive tone toward permitting dogs.

As for other cities, Chicago Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. is currently in the process of introducing a city ordinance to make it legal for dogs to dine at outdoor restaurants in the nation’s third-largest city. In addition, the State of Illinois is looking into changing its regulations to allow dogs at outdoor tables.  According to Alderman Burnett, the proposed codes may be modeled after the California health code.

If a state doesn’t allow animals on the premises of a restaurant, why do we see restaurants with dogs in the outdoor seats all the time, and is it really breaking the law? In most cities throughout the country, there are dog-friendly outdoor restaurants. Some restaurants allow dogs in their outdoor seating areas and others feature doggie menus and water bowls for canine customers.

Why Can Dogs Dine Outside?

There are a number of potential reasons for this. First of all, in states like California and some Florida cities, and in cities similar to Alexandria and Austin, dogs dining with their people at outdoor restaurants is legal. Also, in many states, the Health Code says that “Animals are not allowed on the premises.” It does not say that “Dogs or Pets” are not allowed.

The animal is clearly defined in many state codes to include “vermin, birds, insects, and rodents”. Unless a restaurant has enclosed their outdoor seating area with netting or screens, they would be in violation of this code, even if no dog was ever permitted on the premises. If the intention of such a code was to not allow animals including pets, birds, rodents, and insects, then restaurants would need to shut down all non-screened outdoor seating. But this does not seem to be the intention of the code.

So some cities and counties minimize the enforcement of this section of their code. In addition, different cities have different definitions of the premises. 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.

Also, some local health inspectors allow dogs only outside of the last row of tables and define the end of the premises at the last table. Another reason for finding dogs at outdoor dining areas could be because while it may technically not be allowed, most city or county health departments could issue variances, thus making it allowed. Some local health departments may have chosen to “issue” these variances by simply allowing the behavior unless they get too many complaints from other diners who do not want dogs at outdoor restaurants. 

The Proper Etiquette

In general, when dining at an outdoor restaurant with your dog, you can and should always ask the restaurant manager or employee if dogs are allowed. The restaurant staff is typically required to know their local health codes. Even if it is legal, the restaurant’s policy could be that dogs are not permitted.

In our 15 years of traveling with dogs and dining at outdoor restaurants in over 30 states, we have successfully dined with our dogs throughout the country. Out of all of the restaurants where we ordered food inside (with the dog remaining outside) and then carried it out ourselves to the outdoor tables, we were never told that we could not have our dog outside. At restaurants where food was served outside, as long as we asked ahead of time, we never had a problem dining with our pooch.

There were some restaurants that did not allow dogs outside. Sometimes employees cited local or state codes, and some even incorrectly cited a Federal law. And some told us that it is their individual restaurant policy to not allow dogs at their outdoor restaurant. So when wondering where you can bring your dogs, the best thing is to always check ahead with a restaurant and ask if dogs are allowed outside.

Want to Open an Indoor, Dog-Friendly “Restaurant”?

Hey, wait a minute. We know that in Europe dogs can go inside restaurants but this is not allowed in North America. So what’s the deal? True, you can’t have an indoor dog-friendly restaurant in the U.S. or Canada, but, depending on where you are located there might be some options that can be considered. Please check with your local health department before trying these ideas.

Get a Variance

You can apply for a variance (exception) through your local health inspector to open an indoor restaurant that allows dogs. This will very likely not be granted unless you make significant design changes to a normal restaurant to separate the dogs from the food preparation and serving areas. Even so, many local health departments may not likely allow this.

An example of an idea to make it plausible to the health department would be a separate eating area from the kitchen area (with only a window to pass food through, similar to a fast-food drive-thru window). In this respect, it is more like having two separate businesses, side by side – a club for dogs and a take-out restaurant next door.

Be Well-Designed

Have a well-designed outdoor restaurant for year-round comfort. If your city or state allows dogs in outdoor seating areas you may be able to set up a covered, and partially, to a nearly fully enclosed patio with décor, heaters, cooling, and whatever else you want in the way of comfort and ambiance. You will not be able to fully enclose the patio and it will need to have a fully closing door between it and the main restaurant or serving area in order to still be considered outdoors.

Open a Bar or Coffee and Drink Cafe

Bars that do not serve food except for pre-packaged snacks like pretzels and potato chips, in many cases, can allow dogs inside in many places. Depending on where you are located, this may be an option. But beware, sometimes it doesn’t take much in the way of munchies to qualify as a restaurant.

Open a Dog Club

Many Health Codes do not apply to private clubs where people pay dues for a monthly or annual membership. If you only allow members and not the public at large, you may be outside of the jurisdiction of the food establishment health codes of some areas. You may want to have another purpose for your clubs, such as a TV room with Satellite TV, music or dog training, or play areas.

Use a Delivery Only Food Menu

You design a hall with seats and tables, ambiance and maybe entertainment like music or TVs. You do not have a kitchen but have the menus of a nearby restaurant or multiple restaurants. Your customers order food from the menu to be delivered from the nearby restaurant to-go food or bring the food themselves. You can probably serve drinks and may be able to serve packaged snacks yourself.

Fast Facts

  • There are no Federal laws prohibiting dogs at restaurants. The FDA Food Code is a recommendation, not a law.
  • Federal Law requires restaurants to allow service dogs for the handicapped both inside and outside.
  • State laws govern the restaurant health codes. Not the Federal Government. Many States incorporate parts of the FDA Food Code into their laws.
  • If a state doesn’t allow dogs at outdoor restaurants then cities or counties in most states may allow it locally by issuing a variance (exception) to the state code.
  • Cities may implement variances through an ordinance or simply through the health department. Variances can be allowed in all restaurants or individually.
  • Even if allowed by law the final decision is up to the restaurant owner who may choose to allow or not allow dogs.
  • The best states for outdoor dog-friendly restaurants are California and Florida.
  • The best cities in other states for outdoor, dog-friendly restaurants because of the local ordinances or variances are Austin, Texas, and Alexandria, Virginia.
Vinny
Author: Vinny

I'm a 2-year-old french bulldog named Vinny and I'm the admin of DogFriendly.com.

Vinny
Author: Vinny

I'm a 2-year-old french bulldog named Vinny and I'm the admin of DogFriendly.com.

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