Doggie Dining – Making sense of the confusion

Toby at a dog-friendly restaurant in Orlando, FloridaThis popular article was previously posted in’s July 2006 Newsletter:


– 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 these variances through an ordinance or simply through the health department. Variances can be allowed for 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.

Best States for Outdoor Dog-Friendly Restaurants:
1. California
2. Florida

Best Cities in Other States for Outdoor Dog-Friendly Restaurants because of local ordinances or variances:
1. Austin, TX
2. Alexandria, VA


Doggie Dining – Making sense of the confusion

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 at outdoor dining areas. 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, 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 American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that restaurants allow service and guide dogs at 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 of Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendation, not a requirement, that the general public get 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 into 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 into 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.

So what do the 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 regards 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 at 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 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 at 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 regards 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 are 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 at 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 towards 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 their 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 at 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 at their outdoor seating areas and others feature doggie menus and water bowls for canine customers. 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. 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.

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 in traveling with dogs and dining at an 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.

11 Responses to “Doggie Dining – Making sense of the confusion”

  1. Alejandro says:

    Thanks for finally talking about > Doggie Dining – Making sense of the confusion

  2. Autumn says:

    I love my little dog and would eat out more often if I could take him with me. Just moved to Akron, Ohio from chandler,AZ and kind find any outdoor restaurant patios for doggies. I feel like moving back to AZ for the wonderful places to eat out with my dog. Restaurants are losing out on a big population of dog lovers whose little friends beg to go.

  3. Chris says:

    Anybody who says “I love dogs”, then talks about how they stink and bite is obviously not being truthful. It’s a cultural taboo in America for people to say they hate dogs, so they come up with excuses.

    In Europe, of course, dogs can eat inside of many restaurants, and nobody is much bothered about it. Cafes are no problem at all. The dogs there are no better-behaved than here (worse-behaved, in some instances). If a dog misbehaves, he and his people have to leave.

    It’s not always practical to leave the dog at home, and anyway why should I have to give up spending time with my buddy in order to eat out, or go on vacation? Why can’t restaurants decide for themselves whether the allow dogs, and if people don’t want to eat near dogs, they can eat somewhere else? It’s a nonsensical rule, and the notion that you pass laws based on the personal preferences of a minority of people (ie, dog-haters) is crazy. Most people are perfectly happy to eat near a well-behaved dog, and if the dog misbehaves, then the management can ask his people to take him out–same as when people with no dog misbehave.

    If service dogs don’t create a health hazard, neither do regular dogs. It’s the same exact thing.

    Anyway, I respect everyone’s opinion, but let’s at least be honest. If being near a well-behaved dog at a restaurant bothers you, you don’t like dogs. Period. And even a badly-behaved dog is easier to be around than a lot of humans who get to go right on eating near you, whether you like them or not.

    It’ll take a while, but we’ll eventually be a civilized country, like France, Italy, Germany, etc.

  4. Machine says:

    One guest wants to bring their pet to dinner – 30 guest siting next to them get the unwanted pleasure -I love dogs but when I go out to eat i dont expect to dine with YOUR dog. Dogs stink, Bite, are not always as tame as you believe them to be. What is up with tying your dog to the outside rail of a restaurant patio. not cool in my eyes – that dog could get hurt in many ways.- could attack or be attacked by someone else walking their dog past yours – Will you then SUe the restaurant that you tied your dog to. Is your dog also 100% pottytrained. Take your dog to the Park and bring subway for a picnic.

  5. Dog mama says:

    I have a problem with babies sitting with full diapers in a cart where i am expected to put my food. But for some reason this is not considered a health code violation. Yet having a little dog totally confined in a bag in a grocery cart is???? The only health risk there is to the dog!

  6. nvcy says:

    So dogs are dogs, babies are humans……how can people compare the two?? What about people (not dogs) that have allergies? Should they be exposed to dogs, etc. in a restaurant? Also, we say two dogs get into a fight at an outdoor restuarant, how is that right. Come on people keep your dogs in your very big nice yards…..Also, dogs in grocery stores, in the seat that babies sit in? Use common sense, this is not right…..

  7. Gwen says:

    I am desperately trying to find when any of these laws were put into place. FDA, local, state etc. If there is no
    Federal law why can’t these state laws be overturned? How can a pet dog be a health code violation, when there is no disease a human can contract from a dog. On the other hand children carry many diseases and are often responsible for outbreaks of flu, stomach viruses and colds in
    Schools, churches and Grocery stores. Is there someone that can point me in direction of obtaining exact date of these state codes? They need to be changed and that is what Bills are for.

  8. Teresa says:

    Come to Danville, Ca. Very friendly town! You can walk downtown and there are bowls of water and doggie treats outside for your special friends. Plus we have doggie night in the summer! No pooch is left out!

  9. Gracie says:

    Thank you for the great article. Santa Barbara used to be a very dog friendly town until someone complained to the board of health about someone dining with their dog at an outdoor cafe. After this the whole town shut down to having your pooch come along.

    Visit Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley for great places to go with your dog! Some of my favorite spots are the Corner Shop Coffee in Los Olivos, the Maverick Saloon, Panino and Patrick’s Side Street Cafe. All have areas where you can sit outside with your dog. I have two Australian Shepherds that go everywhere with me so finding dog friendly places is always a treat.

  10. We went to an outdoor Irish pub on King Street twice – first time a gracious welcome by a waitress, served us drinks etc… and she greeted our 2 dogs…

    Because of the first experience we went back 2 days later…different waitress and she cited local laws and claimed she would be fine if we don’t follow..we have to put the 2 dogs beyond the we sat out threre with them too….you can tell this waitress wasn’t a pet person…and naturally she did not get much tips.

  11. A. HALIM says:

    A. HALIM…

    Your post regarding dog health sound interesting,but i think i need to search for more resources about this ….

Leave a Reply