Just in time for the summer dining season, the U.S. government has given its blessing to restaurants that want to allow pet dogs in their outdoor spaces.
But even though nearly half of states already allow canine dining outdoors, the issue is far from settled, with many diners and restaurants pushing back against the increasing presence of pooches.
Restaurants have been required to allow service dogs for decades. But it wasn’t until the mid-2000’s that a handful of states — including Florida and Illinois — began passing laws allowing dogs in outdoor dining spaces, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University. Twenty-three states now have such laws or regulations.
But the legal landscape is confusing. Michigan law doesn’t allow dogs in outdoor dining spaces, for example, but lets restaurants apply for a variance from their county health department.
So in 2020, the Conference for Food Protection — a group of food industry and health experts that advises the government — asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue guidance for states. It cited a 2012 risk assessment in Australia and New Zealand that found that the health risk to human diners from dogs was very low.
The FDA’s updated food code, issued late last year, says restaurants can have dogs in outdoor areas if they get approval from a local regulator. Restaurants should have signs saying dogs are welcome and should develop plans to handle dogs and their waste. They should ensure dogs remain properly restrained and provide separate food bowls so dogs don’t use plates or utensils meant for humans.
The new guidance comes as U.S. pet ownership is rising. Nearly 87 million U.S. households now have a pet, up from 85 million in 2019, according to the American Pet Products Association.
And experts say more people are looking for dining options that will accommodate their dogs. Yelp searches for businesses using the “dogs allowed” filter jumped 58% between the year ending May 1, 2021, and the year ending May 1, 2023. A total of 47,415 businesses now describe themselves as “dog friendly” on Yelp, the company says.
“Younger pet owners, Millennials and Generation Z, have incredibly strong bonds with their pets and they are willing to act upon that,” said Steven Feldman, president of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute. “They are more likely to frequent — and express a preference for — pet-friendly businesses.”
Monty Hobbs, the managing director of a digital marketing agency in Washington, can often be found at local restaurant patios with Mattox, his 5-year-old terrier and miniature schnauzer mix. Some waiters even bring Mattox bits of bacon.
Hobbs stresses that he doesn’t take Mattox everywhere. “He’s my dog. He’s not my child,” he said.
But Mattox is well-behaved, he said, so it’s nice to know they can drop in at a neighborhood bar if they’re out taking a walk.
At Zazie, a San Francisco bistro, diners get $10 off a bottle of wine on Mondays if they bring their dogs, who get treats donated by the pet store across the street.
“It’s great for business. People really enjoy bringing their dog out with them,” said Megan Cornelius, Zazie’s co-owner.
But other restaurants are saying no to Fido.
The Salty Dog Café in Hilton Head, South Carolina, allowed dogs on its patio when it first opened in 1987. But two years later, it banned them. Too many dogs were barking through meals, fighting, lying in walkways and stealing hot dogs from kids’ plates, says Tim Stearns, the Salty Dog’s chief operating officer.
If diners object, the Salty Dog points them to a separate dog-friendly deck where they can eat takeout food from the restaurant. But most diners seem to appreciate the policy.
“We are all dog lovers at Salty Dog, but we remain a restaurant for humans,” Stearns said.
The Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory in Key West, Florida, banned dogs because it didn’t want to be held responsible if a dog ate iguana droppings — which can make them violently ill — or tripped a child or an elderly diner. In at least one case, an unleashed dog at the restaurant killed a neighborhood cat.
Julie Denzin, who has worked as a restaurant server in Milwaukee for more than a decade, has watched dogs drool, fight, growl and relieve themselves on restaurant patios. Dogs have bitten her and knocked her over, causing her to spill scalding hot coffee. She has also encountered diners who are allergic to dogs or afraid of them.
Denzin doesn’t think dogs should be banned, but says restaurants should consider designating dog-friendly areas or specific hours when dogs are allowed.
“It’s not a matter of liking or disliking dogs,” she said. “The point is, regardless of what the owner might say — no matter how perfect and obedient they insist their dog is — there’s no way to ensure the safety and comfort of other guests.”
Maddie Speirs, a dog trainer with Pawsitive Futures Dog Training in St. Petersburg, Florida, said many people hire her with the goal of training their dogs to eat out at restaurants. Not every dog is cut out for that, she said; they need to be comfortable with noise and unsolicited interactions and able to be able to sit near food for long periods.
She urges owners to think about who benefits from restaurant visits: them or their dogs.
“If you think it’s for your dog, what exactly are they getting out of it?” she said. “It’s not as fun of a social interaction for dogs as it is for us.”