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Dining al fresco with your puppydog. Yay or Nay?

September 20, 2019

The business of eating – or in this case, dining - is more than just parking yourself in front of a plate and consuming stuff. The appearance of the food and the immediate surroundings; the attitude of a server; the noise level and pleasant (or unpleasant) odors can all influence taste and overall satisfaction. My email box is daily proof of that: I regularly receive commentary from people complimenting - or complaining about - everything from sloppily presented plates to dirty floors to an overly perfumed server.

A person’s mood can also affect the dining experience. Restaurant and food writers agree that one’s perception of a restaurant can be subconsciously skewed one way or another by that person’s comfort level, attitude or temperament at the moment. No wonder the current controversy over dogs in outdoor dining areas is so emotionally charged. As a dog lover myself, I know firsthand how affection for one’s canine companion can come close to that felt for a child. So when science, food safety and liability clash with the strong feelings we have for our pets, there’s bound to be some fireworks.

There’s no question that dogs should not be a part of indoor restaurant dining - other than the single and necessary exception of trained and licensed service dogs such as seeing-eye dogs. Those laws are hard and fast, and with good reason. As much as we love ‘em, it’s a fact that dogs can transmit certain viral and bacterial diseases to humans through infected saliva, aerosols (coughing/sneezing), contaminated excrement and/or direct contact. Viruses such as rabies and norovirus, along with bacterial contagions including salmonella, brucella, campylobacter, leptospira, staphylococcus and even antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus … just to name a few … are common infections that can be easily transmitted to humans by dogs. This risk is substantially increased in an enclosed space.

All the people I know take good care of their dogs. They maintain their health and make sure their pets are socialized so as to be calm around strangers - be they human or canid. So the prospect of sharing an outdoor dining area with my neighbors’ canines doesn’t immediately bring to mind thoughts of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or an unexpected leap onto the table. But what about the dogs we don’t know? There’s no guarantee that everyone exercises the care needed to ensure that their dogs are people- and animal-friendly. This point was brought home to me during a recent radio broadcast when a local friend who is totally blind called in to express concern that a dining area teeming with animals could create distractions for her guide dog that could be dangerous to her safety. Trained or not, dogs are still dogs, and there’s always potential for unpredictable behavior in the presence of other dogs.

Be that as it may, the Delaware Health and Social Services’ Office of Food Protection’s informally relaxed attitude regarding outdoor dining areas suggests that things might be a bit different out on a patio or deck. Unless there is tableside food preparation, or a cooking/bar area where food is routinely handled, the general feeling was that dogs - well-behaved dogs, that is - could be present with reduced risk of cross-contamination. But science is science, and emotions are emotions. So when the food safety inspectors recently revisited the laws regarding Fido, Maggie or Fuzzy’s presence on the patio or deck, there was considerable pushback.

So, what to do? We love our puppydogs, and it’s certainly fun to take them with us when we go out for an al fresco treat. But (I’ll say it again) science is science, and love them as we might, even outdoors there’s still a small but inescapable risk of disease transmission.

In the midst of all the passionate outcry, a local politician has proposed a solution that seems to make sense. It’s very simple: Let the restaurant owners decide if pets will be allowed in their outdoor dining areas. Since most restaurants in Delaware are inspected on average only twice a year, we have no choice on those other 363 days but to trust the restaurateur to maintain the mandated levels of food safety to ensure a pathogen-free dining experience. I’m familiar with most of our local restaurants, and have been in all their kitchens. And I will tell you that the great majority could be inspected an hour from now and pass with flying colors. And why not? Restaurants, especially local restaurants, live and die on their reputation. It is in their moral - and financial - interest to maintain food sanitation so as not to poison their customers. Just one or two provable incidents can easily put a restaurant out of business.

So, if this proposal is adopted, restaurateurs will have every right to request that you restrict little Gabby, Butchie or Clancy to the outside of the perimeter fence around their decks or patios. Others might be willing to allow the dogs to accompany you – with the obvious caveat that the dog knows how to behave. The local legislator’s idea takes the regulatory and liability pressure off the Office of Food Protection inspectors and places it squarely on the owner of the restaurant. And it makes sense: If we are willing to trust the restaurant to handle our food properly when the inspectors aren’t looking, then perhaps that trust can be extended to individual situations where a pet might – or might not - be welcome in an outdoor dining venue.

Last weekend I enjoyed lunch in a Massachusetts town known to be (legally) dog-friendly for outdoor dining. A prominently displayed sign summed it up nicely while keeping everybody happy, including the health inspector, the restaurant owner and Fluffy’s mommy and/or daddy.

It read like this: “We are a pet-friendly patio. We ask that you be aware of a few requests. Please make sure your pet is on a leash and controlled at all times. If your pet is overly aggressive, you will be asked to settle up and leave, for the safety of our guests, our staff and other pets. If your dog is thirsty, dog bowls are available. Just ask!”

Given all the circumstances, I think I can live with that.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

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